Donald Healey: The Triumph and War Years

Donald Healey adjusts the carburettor on Leveretts car so as to give maximum performance at high altitudes. Originally published in the booklet ‘Gloria In Exelsis’, 1934.
Warwickshire County Record Office reference CR4804/4/4

Triumph worked on developing a truly competitive sports cars and at one stage took an Alfa Romeo apart to see why it was a successful design. Healey also went to Milan to meet Alfa Romeo’s chief engineer (who was pleased that his design was inspiring another car). After testing at the Brooklands race course the Triumph Dolomite was unveiled to the press at the 1934 Motor Show.

Monte Carlo exploits

Healey drove the prototype in the 1935 Monte Carlo rally, but did not complete the event as the car was hit by train at a level crossing during the night. A Dolomite finished eighth in the 1936 Monte Carlo rally (the best British performance). Despite this the car was discontinued as Triumph was not doing well and the Dolomite was a high-end, costly car.

Healey was Technical Director for Triumph from 1934 to 1939 and was responsible for designing all the company’s cars. He created the Triumph Southern Cross and then the Triumph Dolomite 8 straight-eight sports car in 1935 following his class win, and 3rd overall, in the 1934 Monte Carlo Rally in a Triumph Gloria of his own design. However the company went into liquidation because of its financial problems. The company was sold by the receiver to Thomas Ward of Sheffield, who appointed Healey as General Manager.

Once the Second World War started Healey stayed as Works Manager of the factory, making carburettors for aero engines. Later in the war he worked with the Humber Car Company on military vehicles. At Humber he met Ben Bowden (chief body draughtsman) and Achille ‘Sammy’ Sampietro (chassis designer) and they discussed building sports cars together after the war.

A post-war return to the Midlands

During the war the family was evacuated to Cornwall and his son Geoff studied engineering at Camborne School of Mines. But the family returned to the Midlands and Geoff Healey joined Coventry engineering company Cornercroft as an apprentice. Geoff joined the Army after qualifying as an engineer and was posted to the Middle East (becoming a Captain). Brian (‘Bic’) stayed at school until 17 and joined the Royal Navy, spending a lot of time on the hazardous Russian convoys. John went to Southampton University (learning to fly with the university air squadron) and joined the RAF (later moving to its Physical Training Section for training as a PE instructor but was invalided out of the service with back problems).

Donald Healey took on a commission in the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve and was a part-time officer in Air Training Corps (eventually being promoted to Squadron Leader and in charge of the Warwickshire Wing). On VE (Victory in Europe) Day he was on duty at a local RAF station and during the celebrations tried to drive his Sunbeam-Talbot up the Officers’ Mess steps.

Building his own car

The plans to build a sports car with Bowden and Sampietro then started. They were still with Humber but worked at weekends on their new venture. Healey left Humber and managed to find a location to build the prototype chassis – rented space at Benford Ltd’s cement mixers business in Cape Road, Warwick. They used cement-mixer tools to help build the chassis, got assistance from Geoff Healey when he was on leave from the Army, and had tracings drawn by Women’s Auxiliary Air Force girls stationed nearby. The company later moved into a larger workshop in a former RAF hanger on the site.

The previous article looked at Healey’s rallying career, whilst the next focuses on the start of the Healey Motor Company.

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.

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