At various times during the manufacture of the cars called Austin-Healey, both big and little ones, the factory’ made available removable fiberglass hardtops for most models. There probably aren’t rarer original options available today that can dramatically change the looks of your favorite model the way one of these hardtops can. What was a roadster or sport convertible before attaching a hardtop becomes a real Grand Tourismo after. Having seen pictures in books of various hardtops, you may be interested in how you can identify an original one that was supplied by the factory from an aftermarket manufacturer’s one. Further, before you fork over many hundreds of dollars for an original, you probably would like some reasonable assurance that it will fit your car. And, maybe a note or two about what a hardtop can do to your car may change your mind on this subject. Well, you’ve come to the right place. I’m going to discuss the three types of original tops, how to identify them, and share some of the problems fitting them with you. Let’s start at the beginning.
No factory hardtop was ever offered for the four cylinder big Healeys. I would guess that the folding windscreen layout may have had something to do with the decision. Or perhaps there just was no demand at the time for such, or the factory was just too busy meeting the basic demand for the cars. In any case, there arc a few examples of aftermarket hardtops, so if anyone tries to tell you it’s a factory original, just smile!
After the introduction of the six-cylinder big Healeys in 1956, a factory hard top was advertised as available. The copy of the factory literature, publication number 1561, that I have has a hand written name and date on the top of it of September 12, 1959. (I was fifteen years old on that day!) This would have been about the time the 3000 models were introduced and well after the cessation of production in March, 1959 of the 100-Six models. As it turns out, these hardtops fit all of the 100-Six and 3000 model roadsters through the end of the Mark II, tri-carb, production. However, there is a catch. While the literature piece doesn’t say so, there were two models of this hardtop. One to fit four seat cats and one to fit two seat cars. What were the differences? Read on.
The four seat roadster hardtop sits on the rear shroud’s aluminum trim. Thus, it doesn’t touch or mar any of the paint work. That is not the case with the two seat roadster hardtops. They were designed to “float” above the paintwork by being held off it by four dense foam rubber blocks which deteriorate with time. These blocks make contact with the car at the pillar post and again slightly aft, with all four pieces riding on the edge of the rear shroud’s aluminum trim piece. Then the lower edge of the top continues out over the paintwork on the rear shroud where a two piece rubber seal just sits on top of the paint. Why the different mounting techniques?
While the two different tops look almost identical and have very similar fittings, the fiberglass shell and rear deck sealing mechanisms and hardware are different. The two seater top must “nestle” into the curve of the rear shroud’s fender line to form a good weather seal. The four seater top is much straighter in this area because it seals around the aluminum trim strip attached to the edge of the rear shroud. Remember, the rear of a four seater has those “occasional seats” taking up the space where you find aluminum shroud and a spare tire on a two seater!
Well, this “floating” type mount on the two seater hardtops causes a lot of abrasion of the paint and aluminum on the rear shroud that is simply not possible to stop if the car is driven at all. Maybe that’s why you never sec one on really concourse two seat cars? One technique I’ve see that works great is to by down a piece of tape in a matching color (black on black works best) on the rear shroud where the edge of the top rests. So all the abrading and chaffing takes place on the tape, not on the paint. Then the tape can be replaced every so often without having to re-paint the car to keep the rear shroud looking “fresh”when the hardtop docs come off.
What are the differences between these two tops? For starters, the aluminum trim around the rear bottom of the fiberglass shell is different as are the scaling rubbers. Also the plates through which the tear clamps secure the top to the shroud are different. On the four-seater tops, these plates are much shorter then those on the two seater tops. The two-seater top plates must extend from the edge of the hard top, out over the rear shroud, and then finally, extending far enough, allow the hold down clamps (called hooks) to secure the top to the rear shroud. These two-seater style plates measure approximately 3 1/4″ in length. The four seater plates are less than 2” in length. Also, the hooks are different to suit the two different models. The remainder of the clamping hardware, both front and rear, is the same. The rear quarter headliner fillers are slightly different to fill in the area to match the contour of the appropriate vehicle. The large metal headliner frames, however, arc all the same. And, as I’ve said, die fiberglass shell itself, is slightly different in the rear of the top to mate properly with the appropriate car’s body. Finally, if this isn’t enough, the backlights (read windshield here in the states) is different. Why? You guessed it!
The two-seater backlight must extend down into the shroud and fender curve contour to fill the opening. So, yes, the backlight glazing rubber does need to be just a bit longer on the bottom for the two seater tops.
OK. Is that enough differences to convince you to shop those swap meets and ads carefully before you buy a hard top for your six cylinder roadster? And remember, spare parts arc virtually non-existent for these tops. Anything missing would have to be made by hand. And then you would need a pattern. One more bit of advice. These tops are now on the order of 30 years old or older and if the fiberglass is cracked or deteriorated, major reconstructive surgery may be necessary. So beware of basket case tops if you’re on a budget!
I said I would discuss three models of tops. So far we’ve only talked about two. The third type of factory hardtop is the very rare one that could be fined to the sport convertibles. This top has been commonly called the “BJS top” yet it fits all BJ7’s quite nicely. That’s the good news. According to Geoff Healey, whose recent passing we in the Healey world all mourn, is quoted as saying he believed that fewer than 200 of these tops were ever made. There simply was no demand for them because the BJ7/BJ8 convertible tops were so good at sealing and were very easy to put up and down. Well, that wasn’t the only reason. In order to fit the hardtop, you must remove the soft top and its mechanism completely from the car. Then the hard top rigidly affixes to the soft top mounts. There goes your convertible! And after all, isn’t that why you bought an Austin-Healey in the first place? For, these reasons, this is the rarest of options for the Austin-Healeys. Prices of two grand and up have been turned down for a clean example of this top. Seriously!
The roadster tops all had two aluminum stiffening bars in the backlight. The BJS top does not. So the BJ8 top looks, and is, much more fragile and has a much more “bubble” type look. Cracked fiberglass seems to be the rule on the BJ8 tops as they tend to flex a lot more than the roadster tops. One very distinguishing feature of the BJ8 top is its small, beautifully colored, cloisonne emblem affixed externally to both sides of the top in the rear quarter area. This emblem has the brass Austin-Healey wings with the red Austin-Healey script surmounting a shield with the British Union Jack in dark blue, brass, and red in the top field of the shield and the words, in brass, saying “Donald Healey Motor CoLtd Warwick England” in the light blue lower field of the shield. Yes, there is no space between Co and Ltd! All of these BJS tops were commissioned by the company and then offered as options for the cars. The example I have came from a garage wall in England near Cheltenham via a very devious and circuitous route I only discuss after several pints of the best English ale.
Well, as rare as these BJS tops are, you can imagine that demand for them in recent years has been very keen. So keen in fact that approximately 100 more were made in recent years that, at first glance, cannot be distinguished from the originals. If you could park an original and a replica side by side, however, you would notice very slight detail differences in the aluminum trim pieces and fasteners. But the best giveaway is that beautifully colorful cloisonne badge. On original models the badge has a pronounced curvature to it. All modern badges of this pattern arc flat as they come from a key-fob! No kidding! I have a couple of these key-fobs just in case anyone ever steals the originals off the car! In all other details, the badges are identical once you remove the loop that attaches the badge to the fob’s leather. On the replicas, you can just make out where this loop was removed.
To clamp down the front of the BJS hardtop, two specially made turn-buckles are used to effect a semi-permanent mount rather than the normal clamps that hold both roadster hardtops and two-seater soft tops to the front windscreen. Again, the BJ8 tops just were not designed to be taken off in a hurry! A good number of the factory rally cars used these tops. And the BJ8 tops fitted to these race cars had an air scoop molded into the top to help with cockpit ventilation. If you trip over one of these BJ8 tops with an air scoop, you may have a real rarity! I solved the cockpit ventilation problem on our BJS by installing air conditioning. That’s why it’s called “Cold Duck”! But that’s another story. ‘Till next time…
by Ron Phillips.