Donald Healey on Healey, Pt. II

(This year we celebrate the 100th anniversary of the birth of Donald Mitchell Healey, and as such, we would like to present an interview with him which Paul Chudecki undertook in 1986, and which gives an insight into the man responsible for those magnificent machines. Paul traveled down to Perranporth, Cornwall, to interview Donald just before his 88th birthday on July 3. Here is part two!—Ed.)

Talking of failures brought us onto the subject of the Jensen-Healey, very much a good car that could have been. “The Jensen-Healey was a terrible experience. The chassis was good, the fastest one we ever made on the Dunlop Wheel Circuit. Bill Towns designed the body, which looked like a bad Triumph. But it wasn’t a bad car. When it started life, it was built entirely around the Vauxhall engine and components to be sold as a cheap sports car. But that was not glamorous enough for Qvale.

“The whole package, rear axle, engine, and gearbox cost £250, but Qvale went to BMW and Ford and eventually paid over £700 to Chapman just for the engine—without guarantee. Can you think of a more quick route for going bust?” You could appreciate from Healey’s voice just how frustrating it must be for a designer to see his whole concept turned upside down, beyond his control.

“Qvale was selling a lot of Healeys in the States and he wanted something to replace the Big Healey. It was not the Jensen brothers’ fault; the company was run by numerous managing directors—unfortunately I was a director for one year.” As already mentioned, Austin-Healey history has been adequately covered in the past, including the competition entries and successes in such famous events as the Mille Miglia, Le Mans, Sebring, Nassau, the Targa Florio, and the Alpine and RAC Rallies. Drivers included the likes of Stirling Moss, Tommy Wisdom, Peter Collins, and Paddy Hopkirk. “All of them were wonderful boys, though the cars were butchered by the competitions department, so I wasn’t so proud.”

It is often forgotten how many records the Healeys managed, often with Donald himself at the wheel, such as when he broke through 200 mph barrier in a streamliner 100/6 at Utah in 1956. “Those records were the best publicity you could have in America. At Sebring we never won, but we were always there and the Americans look upon Sebring as more prestigious than Le Mans. The important thing was that they kept on seeing Healeys—and buying them!”

The 100S with the Westlake fourport head was the first Healey however, to take records. Indeed, it ultimately took well in excess of 50 records. “We had 140 bhp from the 100S engine thanks to Westlake. He did 180 mph in that car and also ran 24 hours at 143 mph. The chassis was the same as the Healey and there were no efficients. I think the blown version did 192 mph. Carroll (Shelby) and myself in the streamliner 100/6 used the wind tunnel because there had been several accidents with the front end lifting.” Healey is, in fact, quite blasé about that 200-mph run. “It was quite ordinary—nothing in it. Just drive down that damned line for 17 miles. The trick was NOT to correct if you went off line!

“Records were great for the American market, but they don’t believe them unless they’re on their home ground. The Streamliner’s engine was by Morris Engines and the wind tunnel results estimated maybe 200 mph as possible, but we got to 240 mph before the engine broke, so we settled for 203. It made me a member of the 200 dub—there were only five members in those days, one being Moss!”

So, of all the Big Healeys, which is Donald Healey’s personal favorite? As is often the case with so many things, he considers the original to be the finest. “The best Healey was the 100, though the most financially successful was the Frogeye. Len Lord said make the cheapest car you can, and we used Morris Minor bits. He dropped pop-up headlights—they only cost £1—and stuck lights on the bonnet and everyone laughed! It looked like a frog and became the Frogeye here, Bugeye in the States. They actually sold fewer Spridgets than Bugeyes. I think that one mistake the English make is that they get out of a market in order to go upprice and then come unstuck.

“The 100 was the best because it was balanced properly with front to rear weight. The engine was far enough back, despite being an old taxicab engine, and it had a horrible gearbox, a three-speed one. I think what made it such a success was the folding windshield. I said to Gerry (Coker), ‘Why does this windshield have to go forwards?’ He made one go the other way! It was a very fine piece of modernized sports car design, visually, and the standard would do close to 110 mph.

“In fact, we pulled three out of our showrooms in the States and did over 110 mph for 24 hours, and they were genuinely straight out of the showrooms! The drivers were Mort Morris Goodull, Capt. George Eyston, Roy Jackson-Moore, film star Jackie Cooper, Bill Spear, John Gordon Bennett, and of course myself. The 100 was well engineered. The one mistake was that it was not practical for anything except parading down the boulevard, because I told Geoffrey (one of Healey’s sons—Ed.) to keep it down on the ground.”

But why does Donald Healey think that his cars have such a cult following today? “Because of its good looks, people genuinely think it’s the finest-looking car built—they’ve gone crackers in America!”‘

Although the Austin-Healey 100 is the best Healey in Donald Healey’s eyes, it’s the 4 1/2-liter works Invicta that he rates as the car that had given him the most pleasure. “Driving that car on the Monte Carlo and Alpine Rally, the goers used to refer to me as the greatest rally driver and all that nonsense. Prince Ranler even gave me a medal for doing so many rallies, but I also won a lot of hillclimbs which were not publicized.”

One event, however, that attracted much publicity at the time was when Healey was imprisoned for hitting a train with the Invicta—and he stayed there until the damage to the train had been paid for! “It was a lovely prison with reasonable food and even telephones. Another time I clouted a Swiss postal wagon, which in the 1930s had the right of road anyway. I went straight to jail! I forget the name of the place, but it was William Tell’s home town. I had no passenger and couldn’t speak any German, then Frau von Stuck (mother of Porsche works driver Hans Stuck) came along and got me out of jail!

“The Invicta was pleasurable but hard work; it had a cone clutch needing Lord knows how many pounds of foot pressure, and also a damned great outside gear lever. When I had my hip replaced many years later, the surgeon asked me if I’d ever been a truck driver, because the bone looked like a jagged tooth gearwheel. I replied that the truck was an Invicta!”

If Donald Healey was in the business of producing modern motor cars today, he has some sound ideas. “One car would be very fast with old-fashioned suspension, because we’d make it for the American glamour boys; also because of their good quality roads. Also purely for a money-making sum, about 550,000. Otherwise I would make a car like the Ferrari Dino, mid-engined but not practical and with wonderful firm roadholding. I would love to have made a sports car again, but after Stokes, BMC was sunk and they haven’t had a good design department since.”

Competition was, of course, an integral part of Healey motoring. With all its rules, regulations, and multi-thousand pound machines, what does Donald Healey think of today’s racers?

“Well, of course, Le Mans has completely lost its appeal. When they changed the regulations and allowed non-production cars it completely lost its appeal for me. I used to put in cars similar to those we sold and be in the first 10. Now the first 10 are all Porsches. The saddest thing ever was the Le Mans crash of 1955—too fast, too light. You know, the Mercedes of Levegh went right over Macklin’s (Lance Macklin in a Healey 100S) head!

“I don’t know how you’d do it, or where to draw the line, but I’d change the regulations; the same with rallying. Long-distance racing is a great medium for launching a car in. Never go to win, but be there at the finish—that was the success of the Big Healey.”

And that was the success of Donald Mitchell Healey. Like his cars, he was a survivor, making a lasting impression on the marque, and in so doing, giving immense pleasure to enthusiasts the world over. For all of us, the passion remains!

(This article first appeared in Sporting Cars International and is used with permission.—Ed.)

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