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The Big Healeys

The Big Healeys

An article by Rob Ransom

2009 saw the anniversary of the introduction in June 1959 of what has become regarded as the archetypal hairy-chested British sports car, the Austin-Healey 3000. In this article Rob looks at the history of its development.

To understand why the ‘Big Healey’ is so fondly regarded by owners and motoring enthusiasts of all ages we have to look back at the history of its development which begins with the introduction of what was at the time the Healey 100 at the 1952 London Motor Show, an event that has gone down in Healey folklore, and also to look at its creator, Donald Healey.

AH 100

Donald Healey (almost universally known as DMH) was known as a rally driver pre WWII having successfully competed in many rallies including the Monte Carlo Rally which he won in 1931. He had worked for Triumph developing the straight-eight Dolomite and for Humbers during the war on military vehicles.

Through the war years he held a dream of building a roadster to directly compete with the pre-war 2-litre BMW 328 and in 1946 he set up the Donald Healey Motor Company introducing in 1948 what was then fastest production car in the world.

The business was going well but success to Donald was in volume manufacture and he set off for the States in December 1949 on an export or die visit to further promote the marque across the Atlantic. A chance encounter on the Queen Mary with the president of the Nash Kelvinator Corporation resulted in a commission, funded by Nash, to develop a sporting car for the US market based on the Healey chassis but with Nash’s 3.8 litre six-cylinder engine. This Donald in his inimitable style did in double quick time and the Nash-Healey was born - for export only. He admitted later that this deal was the turning point for his company, enabling him to develop the car that would be known as the Healey Hundred or, following the Motor Show of 1952, the Austin-Healey 100.

Through his many visits to North America he had identified a market for a sports car to fill the gap between the XK Jaguars and the near-obsolete MG T series and so he started work on a prototype in secret at his home to avoid problems with Nash, with whom he was planning to become a competitor, or Morris, from whom he obtained Riley engines at that time. He had discussions with Leonard Lord, head of Austin Motors, who agreed to supply A90 engines and transmissions for the new car.

The result was a stunning two-seat sports car, the Healey Hundred, the designation referring to 100 horsepower and to the 100mph+ that it achieved in road tests. The target was to announce the new car at the 1952 London Motor Show and legend has it that Donald although regarding the car as a ‘winner’ was unhappy with the front grille, an elongated version of the by now familiar Healey shield, such that he insisted that the car was shown with its front up against the wall at the back of the stand.

In his autobiography Donald says of its reception ‘From the moment the show opened it was a sensation - we didn’t know how to keep people away from it’. Leonard Lord was delighted with the car and its effect on the public such that he proposed a deal to DMH whereby Austin took over manufacture paying DMH a royalty. The logic being that whereas Healey could produce 20 cars a week at best Austin could produce 200 at a price £100 below DMH’s anticipated selling price. Overnight the car became the Austin-Healey Hundred with badging to match and turned its face to the admiring crowd.

Donald was always one to see the benefit to sales of motorsport following the ‘race on Sunday, sell on Monday’ ethos, with first the 100M incorporating modifications that had been adopted on cars entering the famous Le Mans 24-hour race, then the 100S ‘Sebring’ model raced by Stirling Moss and Lance Macklin. The latter was involved in the terrible crash at Le Mans in 1955 when a Mercedes catapulted over the rear of the 100S to scythe through the crowd killing over 80 spectators. DMH also generated much publicity when he took a 100 and later a 100/6 to Bonneville Salt Flats where he topped 200mph in a specially prepared car.

In these early days the focus was on racing but with the introduction in 1956 of the six-cylinder 100/6 BMC realised that they had a rugged, powerful rally competitor and adopted the Healey as the core of what was to become one of the most successful rally teams ever.

The 100/ 6 had been introduced as a necessity as the 4-cylinder engine was to be phased out and the opportunity was taken to modify the chassis to allow for the introduction of 2+2 seating alongside a two-seater. This with the heavier ‘six’ resulted in very little if any improvement in performance and a less nimble car, but the engine did give a smoothness not found in the 4. Head modifications resulted in raising the power from 102hp to 117  but the performance still did not satisfy what had become an increasingly discerning sporting fraternity until the engine was enlarged to 2912 cc from the original 2639cc. Enter the 3000.

The 3 litre engine gave more power and more torque, achieving 124hp in its original form and 150 in its final incarnation as the powerplant of the 1967 MkIII. The 3000 also adopted disc brakes on the front wheels, a modification developed from the 100S and rally experience. It was an immediate success, much of which was based upon its sporting achievements.

The BMC teams of 3000s managed by Marcus Chambers and Peter Browning carried all before them in rally after rally including the Monte Carlo, the Alpine, Liege-Rome-Liege and many others driven by the kings of the sport - the Morley Brothers, Jack Sears, Pat Moss, John Gott, Paddy Hopkirk, Timo Makinen and the rallying reverend, Rupert Jones. The Americans could not get enough of the cars despite the low ground clearance and cockpit heat, which, as any passenger will tell you, can be unbearable.

In later years the 3000 gradually metamorphosed from sports car to grand tourer as wind-up windows, a ‘proper’ convertible hood, greater ground clearance and even a wooden dash that could accommodate a radio were introduced.


The 3000 finally died in 1968 a victim of American emissions and crash legislation but in the 9 years of its production more than 43,000 cars were produced with over 90% going to the States.

Does the 3000 deserve its reputation? It is a beautiful car and one that can be driven on modern roads at modern speeds, not bad for a 50-year-old car; think how impressive it must have been in 1959. It has a competition pedigree that few other cars can challenge and the sight and sound of a rally-prepared 3000 storming the alpine passes Webers chattering and exhaust bellowing is one of the most evocative motoring images of any era and so I think the answer is emphatically, yes, but then I may be biased!