A 30-year quest for the perfect time machine
By Ken Smith
Michael Grant is in charge of product management at Moss Motors, and he lusted after a Big Healey for the longest time. Seeing him drive into the Moss parking lot recently after his daily 45-mile commute from the Santa Ynez Valley, we decided to ask Michael about his car and what it means to him. We sometimes take Michael for granted (no pun intended!) and are delighted to recount his Healey story here.
In 1966, I went on a trip with my dad. We wound up in Alaska, but that’s not part of this story. On the way, we went to visit an uncle who lived in Van Nuys, near Los Angeles. Driving through L.A., I saw a Big Healey for the first time, at least for the first time I can remember. I thought it was one of the neatest cars I had ever seen, and since that day I have always thought that someday, if I were lucky, I’d own a car like that. I was 12 years old at the time.
I was happy enough to have a VW during my time at college, moving on to Fiats in a moment of madness. The Healey remained in the back of my mind. After school, work took me to Texas, and there I met Scott Aurandt, a certifiable Healey enthusiast. Scotty is well known in Healey circles, and I met a number of similarly enthusiastic people at the Texas Healey Roundup.
Scotty and I went to Conclave in 1984 in Snowshoe, West Virginia. We drove a big limo towing a huge trailer loaded down with tri-carb parts, which we dropped off in Wisconsin. Then it was off to Ohio to pick up Scotty’s 100-6, which I drove from Ohio to West Virginia. That trip, with the last leg at night in the rain, has evolved with the telling to be a trial of epic proportions. In truth, it was your basic Healey adventure—starting with the fuel pump overheating. (No trouble: flip open the access panel, grab the knockoff hammer by the head, reach around back of the driver’s seat, and rap the pump with the wooden handle.) Later in the day I wrapped a rag around the pump and kept it wet with a jumbo Pepsi bottle, which I refilled from hoses along the way. It was hot enough during the day that I even poured some of the water on my feet too!
As we got closer to our destination, the sun went down and we had one of those tremendous Eastern thunder and lightning rainstorms. While the fuel pump was happy, I was getting seriously wet. Up went as much of the top as we could find, minus the side curtains and most of the rear window. The temperature dropped and I quickly forgot how hot my feet had been at 1:00 pm. There was no heater, but pulling the loose gearbox cover back a quarter inch made the cockpit warm enough. The wipers didn’t work, and I alternated between wiping the windshield and sticking my head out the side. Like I said, it was just your basic Healey adventure!
In 1986 I came to work for Moss and became a regular at the California Healey Week, the annual club outing of the Austin-Healey Association. I joined the Association and was treated well by the members, who no doubt felt sorry for the guy who always showed up in some other brand of car. I always enjoyed the bench-racing sessions and listening to the members relate their own experiences. I also managed to drive a fair sample of cars, and they were all much more civilized and less entertaining than Scotty’s 100-6.
In 1995 I started looking for a car, specifically a BRG BJ8. I could not afford a restored car, and the deal I made with my wife meant that I had to find a driver, a car in good enough shape that it wouldn’t have to be taken apart. With a good deal of help from members of the Association, I learned what to look for, and what to avoid. I even talked some of them into coming with me to look at cars. In the process I learned quite a bit. When I heard that one of the cars in the club was coming up for sale, I was in the right place at the right time and became the third owner of a 1966 BRG BJ8, a car that had spent most of its life in the California desert. With no rust to speak of, I highly recommend that as a great place to keep a British car.
I’ve managed to work on the car without taking it apart very much. I’ve rebuilt the passenger’s door and the window mechanism and will get around to the driver’s door any day now. I’ve done normal maintenance: replacing radiator hoses, the fan belt, and the usual tune-up stuff. I drive the car and am interested in logical improvements. The car has a spin-on oil filter, a Texas cooler fan, the Bilstein tube-shock conversion, spline-drive Mini-Lite wheels, and Yokahama A321 tires that stick really well. They don’t make those tires anymore and I will miss them when they’re gone.
The car is a blast to drive, and when the weather is nice, I really like driving the car to work, a 45-mile spin through the hills that separate Santa Barbara from the inland valley where I live. The top is still in the box it came in, and I will get around to putting it on. But right now I just want to drive the car!
People often ask me if I worry about being stranded by the Healey (or any British car), and frankly I’ve never been stuck on the side of the road with the Healey. Keep on top of it with regular maintenance, and it’s as reliable as any car I’ve owned. Actually, I did have a cracked rotor that interrupted the photo shoot for this article—but that’s it.
Why a Healey, you may ask? Aside from stunningly good lines, it’s a machine I’m very comfortable with. My automotive technology knowledge is stuck in 1973. If my Civic won’t start, I’m not sure where to begin. That’s why I have a AAA card. I keep a small toolkit in the boot of the Healey, and a few spares. No matter what happens, I’m pretty sure I can deal with it. Besides, the British car really needs me, and I get the feeling the Civic would hiss if I came near it with a wrench!
The Healey is special, in the way many classic sportscars are. You can tell, because when you drive down a street, you get a thumbs-up or a wave from young and old alike. The kids don’t know what it is, they just know a cool car when they see one. The older folks are perhaps reminded of something else, and it makes them smile. That’s what I mean: you just don’t get that driving a Nissan or a Honda—fine cars that they are, they just don’t engender the same reaction.