The men who helped build a legend
By Leonard Emanuelson
Your mother was right—hanging out with the right people will breed success. That sage advice holds true for automobiles too. Number 106 rolled off the Austin-Healey assembly line in 1957 as a standard 100-6 production car. Except for numerous chance encounters with passionate Austin-Healey racers, it could have led a mundane day-to-day existence sloshing through the British countryside. However, much greater glory was in store for #106, from beating the best sportscars in the world on famous racetracks such as Watkins Glen, Mid-Ohio, Road Atlanta, and Laguna Seca, to being honored at concours from Santa Barbara to Meadowbrook.
Douglas Benham of Middlesex, England, purchased #106 new and owned it for a brief three months. The chance encounter that would change everything was the purchase by British racers Nick Howell and John Chatham from Cornwall, U.K. Their transformation of #106 turned it into the fastest and most famous Works Rally style Austin-Healey in America. Nick Howell and John Chatham had owned and raced real factory Works Rally cars, so they knew in exacting detail what modifications were required. When A-H team manager John Gott was forced to shut down the Austin-Healey Competition Department, Nick and John purchased the inventory and used some of those pieces to convert #106 to a full-spec rally car. Nick was a personal friend of Donald Healey, and the transformation was so authentic that the car was given a Works data plate (MJG 582) by Geoff Healey.
If Nick Howell and John Chatham are credited with sending #106 to “finishing school,” Phil Coombs and Dan Pendergraft are responsible for broadening the car’s experiences with a trip to the U.S. In 1984, Phil traveled to the U.K. to locate a works car and bring it back to the States to race. He found and purchased #56FAC, an authentic works racer. However, while making arrangements to ship his newfound treasure back to the U.S., he learned of another Healey for sale. He consulted fellow vintage racer and friend Dan Pendergraft about purchasing #106. Dan agreed, so Phil brought two significant Big Healeys (plus an MGA) back to the U.S., and the nucleus of the Wild West Racing Team was formed.
Joined by a few friends with Shelby GT350s, Corvettes, and a Cobra, they attended vintage races from Watkins Glen to Laguna Seca. As current #106 owner Jim Gregg states, “Dan Pendergraft is really the person responsible for the esteem #106 holds in Healey history and vintage racing in particular. Dan’s gentlemanly character and sheer love of the car and the sport made #106 the envy of racers and fans wherever he raced.”
In 1989 Dan was preparing for the 1990 Healey Challenge. Number 106 was a little rough from the years of racing, so he sought the services of Tom and Kaye Kouvacs’ restoration shop in Cedarburg, Wisconsin. Tom is one of the most knowledgeable persons regarding the restoration and racing of Austin-Healeys. His shop, Fourentune, not only performed the pristine restoration, it maintained the car during the 1990 Healey Challenge. By 1998 Dan had owned and raced #106 for almost 10 years. He came to the conclusion that he had raced every road course he had wanted to race and won the races he set out to win—there was nothing left to conquer with the car. Dan fondly describes this time as “the most fun I’ve ever had driving a race car.”
In 1998, #106 was in Tom’s shop when its future next owner walked in. Mary Jane Gralton was looking for a racing Healey for her husband Jim’s 50th birthday. The plan was to ship the car to France for the DMH Memorial Race at Le Mans in 1998. Mary Jane purchased the car and presented it to her husband at a surprise 50th birthday party. Before the car was shipped to France, Tom Kouvacs returned #106 to FIA specification, which included replacing the Panasports with wire wheels, installing BJ8 brake calipers in place of the larger Jag brakes, and replacing the electronic ignition with conventional points.
Unfortunately, the DMH race was cancelled, and Jim Gralton died of cancer in December 1998. The now notorious #106 was for sale again.
Vintage racer Tom Hidell learned that the car was available. He and partner Neil Estes raced #106 out of the Hidell/Estes Vintage Racing camp from ’99 to ’02. They raced at virtually all of the prestigious East Coast events and won first place at Watkins Glen in June 1999. (Number 106 still holds the Watkins Glen modern-course lap record for an Austin-Healey of 2:19, set by Dan Pendergraft in 1990.)
By the end of 2002, Tom and Neil decided to pass on the legacy to new blood. Every time #106 was sold to a new owner, the possibility existed that the car could languish in a museum, or, even worse, a private collection, never again to consume another hydrocarbon. Tom Hidell made sure that current owner, Jim Gregg, a real estate developer from Carmel, California, would provide a proper home for #106.
Jim’s involvement with Austin-Healeys is best told in his own words: “My love affair with Austin-Healeys started in 1956 when I drove a friend’s 100. I will never forget the feeling I had driving his car. My next experience was in ’59 and ’60 when my best friend was racing a Bugeye on the West Coast. I went to most of the races with him and served as his lone pit crew. I got some track time but never actually raced. In 1975 I bought my first Austin-Healey, a 1966 3000. This was my weekend pleasure. In 1986 I purchased a 1967 3000 that was totally original with only 62,000 miles. Over the following years I could not forget my experience with the 100 and the excitement of those days with my friend racing his Bugeye. I decided to look for a Factory 100 M and hopefully start vintage racing.
“After several years of searching, I bought one and sent the car to my good friend Dave Nock of British Car in Stockton, California, for race prep. After months of work on the car and talking with people involved with vintage racing, I decided to find a car that was truly built to race. In September of 2002 I heard that #106 was for sale. I called Dave Nock and asked if he knew about the car. Dave had just seen the car at the Lake Tahoe Open Roads event and said, ‘If you want a real race car, go look at #106—there’s not a better big Healey to be found.”
“So off to Atlanta I went, and, seeing #106, it was love at first sight…it exceeded my expectations of finding the car that would launch my dream of vintage racing. I brought #106 back to California, its original U.S. home, and on the way across the country, I stopped in New Mexico and spent some time with Dan Pendergraft. It was important to me to meet the man who made this car famous, and connect with the passion he had for it. It was a great reunion. My first race was in May at the VARA/Moss Motors British Extravaganza in Buttonwillow, and I am looking forward to continuing to realize a long-awaited dream of vintage racing a big Healey.”
Since its humble beginnings in Middlesex, England, in the spring of 1957, #106 has amassed more awards and race wins than virtually any other Austin-Healey in existence. Just goes to show what hangin’ around with the right people can do for you!