Donald Healey: The Early Years

Photograph of the garage set up by Donald Healey in Perranporth next to his father's general store. 1930s.
Warwickshire County Record Office reference CR4804/4/34

Donald Healey may be associated with the car company that bears his name, and that was based in Warwick, but his early life started in the south of the country.

An early interest

Donald Mitchell Healey was born in Perranporth, Cornwall in July 1898 and from an early age showed an interest in engineering and transport (cars and aeroplanes). He studied engineering at Newquay College and after writing to aircraft constructors got an encouraging letter from Sopwith. His father John (who ran the village stores and was also interested in transport) said he could leave school early and become a pupil at Sopwith’s factory at Kingston-upon-Thames. He became an apprentice in the tool room, where he learnt to use machine tools. After almost a year he transferred to Brooklands, where Sopwith and other companies built and tested aircraft. He worked on the Sopwith Wright, Scout, Pup, and Camel.

Healey often travelled from Kingston to Brooklands as a passenger in a Daimler lorry carrying aircraft parts to the flight sheds. The driver would let him take over the driving on quiet roads and he also had his first flight as a passenger in a biplane. He was working on interruptor gear to allow a machine gun to be fired through a rotating propeller.

The Royal Flying Corps

He continued his engineering studies at Kingston Technical College and then volunteered for the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) in 1916 before the end of his apprenticeship, joining as an air mechanic. His first flight in uniform was in May 1916 (with an instructor) and his first solo flight came a month later. He passed the test for his Wings in June 1916 and was granted an aviators certificate by the Royal Aero Club. While building up his flying time he had to make an emergency landing at Doncaster race course and stalled the plane, crashing into the grandstand. After sick leave he was posted to a Home Defence Squadron shooting down Zeppelins, and then to several flying schools as an instructor. He was then sent to France, flying night bombers.

Healey suffered from vertigo due to inner-ear trouble, and his flying career ended after having to make a forced landing close behind Allied lines (and not remembering anything about the incident). He was invalided out of the RFC in November 1917 and spent the rest of the First World War checking aircraft components for the Air Ministry’s Aeronautical Inspection Department. After the war he was in charge of inspection at a Plymouth factory making wings for Avro aeroplanes.

He then returned to Cornwall and took a correspondence course in automobile engineering. He also developed his interest in radios and electronics and got a licence to transmit radio signals – at one stage he transmitted a concert by local artists 200 yards from his father’s house to the local village hall. He started manufacturing radio receivers and made a few hundred of them, using the name Perranporth. With his brother Hugh he formed the Perranporth Radio Company, making crystal radio sets. They had an idea to transmit from an aeroplane, and during a flight Healey claimed that he had the distinction of being the first man in the county, or possibly the country, to talk to the ground from an aircraft (speaking to his father and his wife Ivy).

His first garage

But his main interest was becoming an automobile engineer and he opened his first garage in Perranporth in 1920 (in his father’s old stores premises next to his shop). His tool room experience with Sopwith came in handy as spare parts were hard to come by so most things had to be made. The business also involved chauffeur driven car hire – often taking holiday makers sight-seeing. The success of the firm meant that he could turn his interest to motor sport and he used the garage to prepare cars for competition.

The next article looks at Healey’s rallying career, and a move to Warwickshire.

The ‘Warwick Healey Motor Company’ material was purchased by Warwickshire County Record Office from the Healey family in June 2016 and includes items from different branches of the family. Subsequent donations were made by the family and others, including former Donald Healey Motor Company employees, individuals, and Healey enthusiasts.