By Bob Melka
In the spring of 1971, I was a young Naval Officer recently back from a year in Vietnam. Assigned as a counter-insurgency instructor in Coronado, California, I routinely met with a few friends for lunch at the Officers’ Club bar. Discussion one day turned to sports cars, and I recounted my long-standing regard for Austin-Healeys. That afternoon on a whim, I scanned the San Diego Union classifieds, noting a 1960 Healey 3000 listed for $500. A phone call uncovered a sailor, his wife great with child, in need of a sensible car to accommodate an expanding wife and impending family. That evening, a buddy and I inspected the Healey. Aside from tired second and fourth gear synchros, the Healey was essentially sound—a strong, tight, solid runner. I wrote a check and drove it home. I reasoned I could enjoy it through the summer, sell it in the fall for $450, and have fifty bucks worth of fun in the duration.
As one might expect of an 11-year-old used car, there was evidence of deferred maintenance and need of some minor sorting. Worn hinge pins allowed both doors to sag when opened. It was in serious need of tires. The horn/turn-signal switch wires sprouted like colorful weeds from the steering column. And, naturally, Lucas gremlins haunted the electrical system.
A tire shop shod all four corners in handsome new retreads for fifty bucks. That night, I scrubbed and tuned the wire wheels, masked the sidewalls, and administered a wholly acceptable rattle-can retouch. A test lamp and some emery cloth sorted the electrical problems. I scrounged parts the old fashion way, locating a horn switch and stator tube at a distant junkyard. Spotting a clapped-out hulk slumped in the corner of a Pacific Beach gas station, “For Sale” scrawled on the windscreen, I stopped, worked both doors, and was pleased to find nice solid hinges. I offered the station owner ten dollars to swap door hinges, borrowed his tools, and remounted my droopy doors to factory gaps. Compound buffing, some Turtle Wax, an oil change and fluid top-off readied the Healey for our first road trip.
My girlfriend and I packed the Healey for a weekend in Baja, Mexico. We cruised the coastal highway to a beachside trailer park in Ensenada where one of her friends kept an Airstream. Life was good, and the Healey ran and handled like a champ, with the slight exception of a subtle, intermittent knock.
My daily driver was a Volvo P-1800, and everyone knew “Bob has an extra car.” Two friends visiting from Hawaii shoehorned themselves and their wives into the Healey for a weekend at Disneyland. It performed without issue, but my friend, a Navy pilot, commented about the almost-imperceptible knock. The sound was evident only between 2000-3000 RPM under light load.
I lent it to Doc White, another Navy buddy, for a month when his Ferrari 275 GTB ate a valve and needed a replacement engine from Italy. San Diego lacked a Ferrari dealership in 1971, but Midway International Garage was a factory-authorized shop for Maserati and Ferrari. Repairs finally completed, Doc and I took the Healey to collect his GTB. When the Ferrari business concluded, I asked Sal, the shop’s very Italian owner, what he thought might be causing my Healey’s weird knock. Sal popped the bonnet and leaned over the engine, deftly massaging the throttle linkage.
“You gotta bad-a bearing,” he reported matter-of-factly.
I asked him about the cost to replace the bearing. I may as well have asked to borrow his daughter for a weekend in Vegas. His back stiffened, his brows furled, and he curtly shot back, “I don’t-a replace a bearing. I will rebuild-a this engine.”
“But it runs good except for the knock,” I said.
“No, no. I make it run like a fine-a watch,” he whispered sotto voce.
“How much we talking about, Sal?” I asked.
He led me to his cluttered office. Along one wall were shelves of manuals and ringed binders. He pulled out several thick catalogs and, licking his thumb, he paged through them, laying open specific sections in each. He drew me closer, pointing to a series of identical Healey engine components, all showing wide variances in pricing.
“There are parts… and there are parts,” he proclaimed with profound reverence. Pressing his fingertips to his thumb with a kiss, he added, “I use only the finest. Cost?” he shrugged, “I don’t know. We’ll see.”
In that defining moment, I determined the car was a keeper. I handed the key to Sal and turned him loose.
Sal called me several weeks later. Before presenting me the bill, he walked me into one of his bays where the Healey stood poised and polished. Sal casually sidled up alongside the driver door, rattled the gear lever, and with his right middle finger, barely touched the starter button. The Healey sprang to life and rumbled smoothly at 700 rpm.
“This engine I blueprint,” he noted with obvious pride. He advised me on proper break-in protocol, with instructions to drive it normally and come back for an oil change and re-torque at 500 miles. We retired to his office and settled up. $1,010.43 in 1972 was a chunk of change to a Navy Lieutenant earning about $15K annually.
Now committed, I figured the car, originally white, needed to be red. My dad was an executive with DuPont’s automotive refinish division, and he asked his San Diego sales rep to recommend a shop and provide them with materials. A week and $206 later, the Healey sported a spectacular red Centauri acrylic enamel finish.
Alex, a neighbor on the beach, had a vintage Derrington steering wheel adorning the door of his kitchen fridge. The wheel was quite handsome, laminated in light African Obeche wood and dark mahogany. Having gotten into the racing scene after college, Alex campaigned a Formula V for a while and had crewed for a season with Team Lotus. I took the wheel off the door and was admiring it as Alex recounted how it had lain amid some clutter in Colin Chapman’s office. One day Alex happened to be examining it, and upon observing his interest, Mr. Chapman, nice guy that he was, gave it to him. This thing in my hand had suddenly become a sainted relic! Alex, sensing my enchantment, suggested it would look good on the Healey and gave it to me outright. Fitment required cutting the banjo spokes, machining of the alloy hub, and some delicate surgery on the switchgear. But the Derrington made a statement, particularly in light of its cherished provenance.
My release from naval service and three job transfers later, the Healey and I settled in Charlotte, North Carolina. I moved into a suburban house with a garage. That was the good news. The bad news was there were no singles bars, pubs, or nightspots to meet girls. In 1976 North Carolina, liquor was not sold for on-premises consumption. As my new barber said, bars were where truckers and pipe-fitters go after work. When I asked him how one met women, he said “at parties.” How somebody who knew nobody got invited to parties was another question entirely, and one for which my barber had no answers.
Coming out of K-Mart one Saturday, I met a young couple examining my car. Turned out they owned a Bugeye and insisted that I come to the next Beer & Pizza night of the Carolina Healey Club. This became my gateway to a social life. Wives had single girlfriends and here I was, this new single guy from California with a nice brick house and a cool sports car. My initiation was winning first place in a gymkhana, earning me a trophy and a great deal of undeserved recognition and respect. I had kept current the registration and vanity plate (SMOOCH) from California, a birthday gift from my San Diego girlfriend. My new friends thought that was especially cool. Before long, the Healey and I were cutting a fairly wide swath around Charlotte’s singles scene, eventually landing us on the front page of The Charlotte Observer’s Living section. The next summer, the Carolinas Healey Club hosted Conclave at the elegant Biltmore Estate in Asheville, North Carolina, where I had the honor of meeting the special guest, Donald Healey himself.
The Healey served nobly over the next 40 years, requiring only routine upkeep, a front-end refresh, and the annual California renewal fee to keep my SMOOCH plate legal—even though I now reside in Atlanta. The car shares my garage with a Morgan. Several years ago, I had the Morgan at a monthly Cars & Coffee. As I wedged myself into the RHD cockpit to leave, I noted a slight, somewhat rumpled fellow in a squash cap, standing nearby in observance. The Morgan fired right up, settling into a rhythmic idle, whereupon he said to me in a discernable British dialect, “It could stand a valve adjustment.” He handed me a card, which read, Philip Middleton, English Car Specialist.
Philip, a UK-licensed engineer, provides service to a wide clientele of English car owners. From Aston Martin to Wolesley, if it’s English, he knows it and can fix it. He brings his tools in a Range Rover and works at the client’s location, thereby avoiding significant overhead.
He wrenched on the Morgan valves for about twenty minutes, lit the engine, and fiddled a bit with the Weber. Having finished, he glanced over at my Healey, noting casually, almost as an aside, “Your swaybar mounting plates are reversed.”
“Huh? How can you tell?” I asked. He got me down on my knees and told me to look at the triangular mounts. He said that the angle of the sway bar was a dead giveaway. The “foreign car shop” that rebuilt my front end back in the eighties got the right and left sides upside-down and reversed. With a name like Autohaus, I should have known.
Philip told me that in this configuration, the swaybar was serving no purpose whatsoever. He cautioned me on the need for temporary bolt placement during the removal process to maintain spring compression; also suggesting I replace the rubber bushings with polyurethane as long as it was disassembled. Needless to say, the handling improved immensely. Holding the Derrington lightly in my hands, I could actually feel the pavement!
From the day I bought the car, second and fourth gear synchros were a bit tired. I could ease it into fourth or double-clutch down to second with nary a sound; nonetheless, when others drove it, I had to wince a lot. To extract this forty-year thorn, I decided to turn it over to Philip. A car buddy and I removed the interior, pulled out the gearbox, and Philip came by to collect it. I was expecting the Range Rover. Instead, he pulled up in a Mini Cooper with the passenger seat back lowered and a large, flattened cardboard box covering both cushions. We wrestled the gearbox, complete with overdrive, into the front seat. Sensing my dismay, he said, “Why not? It probably weighs less than my wife, and she rides there quite handily.”
He brought it back the following week, rebuilt and beautifully refinished in Healey green. As long as we were in there, Philip suggested replacing the clutch. The entire installation took him under an hour. My contribution was some muscle and maneuvering the jack handle as Philip guided the assembly home.
In all, the Healey has endured six long-distance moves, seven assorted English and Italian stable mates, four girlfriends, a thirty-eight year marriage, two kids, and grandbaby twins. Over the years, it has undergone three re-sprays, an interior replacement, new hydraulics, re-plated brightwork, rebuilt suspension, new carbs, numerous exhaust systems, two clutches, several brake replacements, the gearbox, new chrome wheels, a dozen tires, a new radiator, and multiple Lucas exorcisms.
And four decades later, Sal’s engine still runs “like a fine-a watch.” It starts at the merest touch of the button, with a smooth, rumbling idle that continues to stir my soul.