There she is looking her best in her carmine red and black attire, gleaming in the hot sun. I can hardly take my eyes off her. No, she isn’t some fine looking lady; she’s my Austin-Healey 100M. It has taken only 20 years, moves through several states and a sorely depleted savings account, but at last she is back to her glorious self, and I’m at the wheel.
Let me wander back to 1963 when I had my first Healey, purchased out of a barn in West Brookfield, Massachusetts. I paid a tidy sum for her but she was worth it. After getting the hay off her and giving her a good dusting, I backed out of the barn and to the center of town I went. It never occurred to me that I needed to check the oil, try the brakes or any other such to do’s. All I knew was that I was low on gas.
I pulled up to the first station I could find and said, “Fill her up.” I was so proud driving this British racing green sports car with the top down and thinking I was just about the coolest gal in town. There I sat waiting for the young man to fill the tank so I could be off to show her to the world. As he paced around the car several times I got a sinking feeling in the pit of stomach. Was there a problem?
Finally he spoke and said, “Lady, where is the gas tank in this car?” Well, shucks, I didn’t know. I could feel myself reddening as I groped for answers and finally admitted I had no clue, but I was sure that there was one somewhere. To my delight and chagrin a young man with a know-it-all air about him and driving a shiny Triumph TR-6 pulled up. I began to babble on about how I didn’t know where the gas tank was, my car was brand new to me, etc., etc. He simply asked me for the keys, opened the boot and there it was. He said nothing and just waited patiently for the young man to fill the tank so that he could have the undivided attention of the station attendant. I drove home and vowed that I would never tell anyone how terribly un-cool I was.
As life and time would have it, I found myself pregnant with a husband who thought raising a child in a third floor apartment was no big deal. I then decided that I needed to get together enough money for a down-payment on a house. I knew then that the toys of life had to go, so I sold my horse and my beloved car.
As fate would have it, the house and the husband were soon gone, too, divorce being the catalyst. Depressed, I was sure I’d never have another horse in my life, and certainty not another husband. I did, however, long for another Healey.
Without the slightest hint or word of warning, along came my best friend-and-husband in the guise of my flight instructor named Doug. I never received my pilot’s license, but I did get a lifelong friend and soul mate. In the beginning, we rented apartments and furniture. Aviation was unkind to pilots in the1980s, so my husband turned to the wonderful world of concrete. While working in Miami at a concrete plant, Doug discovered two Healey’s in a junkyard nearby. He never said anything to me until he bought them, had them garaged in a storage yard and then invited me to choose which one I wanted. He had told me many times that someday there would be another Healey in my life, and he kept his promise. We traded one Healey for a complete overhaul of the engine of the Healey 100 I chose to keep. In my mind this was the reincarnation of “my” Healey.
It was during an extended road trip in 2002 when we decided to make 2003 the year of restoring the Healey. Being a true New Englander and thrifty as I like to say (actually I am ‘cheap’), I wanted to get some idea of what it would cost to restore the Healey and what I could sell it for if I ever needed to get out from under. After much surfing the net we found a restoration shop sitting right in our backyard—Albuquerque. How lucky we were. And the saga of the Healey restoration began.
With all the identifying numbers I could find on the Healey, I had gone online to heritage.org.uk and completed their Production Record Trace Certificate. Eventually a large envelope from the British Motor Industries Heritage Trust arrived in our big gaudy mailbox. I quickly opened and scanned the certificate. At the very end it read: “As this car was fitted with … we can confirm that it is a genuine factory-built Austin-Healey 100 ‘M’ (or ‘Le Mans’) Model.” I didn’t know what that meant, but I did think it must be something good. The certificate also said that our Healey came off the line September 6, 1955, which we were to discover meant that it was probably the 2nd or 3rd 100-M produced. Doug and I chatted all the way into town and wondered how this would effect the restoration. We were soon to find out what it meant.
When we arrived at the garage I said nothing except the usual hello, handed the envelope to the restorer who, like us, didn’t see the very top that clearly stated Austin-Healey 100 ‘M’ and he began reading the certificate. Now you need to know that this professional is very low key and doesn’t show a lot of enthusiasm. When he got to the end he simply said, “(expletive)” and looked to his buddy and said, “You need to read this.” He too responded with the same word, only with more enthusiasm. Their reactions confirmed our suspicions that this was a very special Healey.
Off the Healey went to be restored. And, off my imagination went to a time in the spring of the near future when I would be behind the wheel of my Healey and returning to my ‘cool’ status. Was I ever in for a surprise.
The months past and there were many hurdles. There were times when I was ready to call it quits. It seemed that I had turned into a money machine and the Healey was still in pieces, but now with three homes. The engine and parts of the interior were in Albuquerque, the body was at another body shop, and the refurbished instruments and part of the seats were sitting in our garage in a place of honor: on top of the freezer—this being a safe and secure place to ensure they didn’t get thrown away in the frenzy of one of my clean the garage days.
One of the best days of my life is Friday, October 10, 2003. I am waiting for my eyes to clear of the tears I cannot hold back. My body won’t stop shaking. I am behind the wheel of my Healey. I am only to drive it from the body shop to the restorer/mechanic and there is not a part of me that is not trembling. I am pleased to know that my first real turn is a right hand turn, which will take me two blocks to the gas station to fill her up. This time I am confident that I know where the fuel tank is located. I am feeling so important with the top down and actually driving her but this feeling is quickly halted as I take a look at my husband who is driving in front of me with his four-way flashers blinking. As I/we arrive at the station I simply tell him I do not need him to light the way. Our trip to the shop is uneventful with one exception: An older lady in her very dignified Lincoln Continental rolls her window down and says: “You sure look as though your are enjoying your little red wagon!”
“Indeed, I am,” I reply.
On that day I had driven her long enough to give her a name. I decided that she is “Agatha A Healey.”
Since that day in 2003, Agatha and I have had so many adventures, most of which are in her journal. It is quite probable that she is the oldest surviving factory certified 100M as indeed her numbers indicate she was the second “M” and to date there is no record of the first. She has many awards, which while ego gratifying is simply frosting on the cake. Most importantly she and I just tool the countryside. Agatha is my garage buddy. She is my friend and I will drive her until nature says I no longer can. Don’t get me wrong there will always be times when I get frustrated over a problem with her that sometimes seems like it can’t be diagnosed, but that frustration always ends when the starter button is pushed and she comes to life. Her distinctive engine purr coaxes us out of the garage for yet another adventure.
And yes, she still takes my breath away.
I am grateful to my husband who kept a promise to me and now again to my husband who has finally decided that he is capable of maintaining her with the help of some very good and knowledgeable friends and the use of the lift in his garagemajal—which, incidentally, doubles very nicely as a dining table.
By Judy Wrobel