Early Healeys Donald’s Top Trumps. Healeys existed before Austin got involved, and they shone in the Mille Miglia. John Simister samples three restored machines. Photography Tim Andrew. Mille Miglia Healeys. The three 1948 Mille Miglia cars reunited.
Uncharted waters ahead. Except by a few intrepid explorers, that is. The Healey story starts with the 100-Four, right? That’s what most people think, assuming there was no Healey life before the Austin connection. Then they dimly remember something about a Healey Silverstone, a racy thing with cycle wings and a stack of trophies.
But unless you’re more than a certain age, and it seems I just about am, there’s another world of Healeys that may well have passed you by. For company founder Donald Healey, though, they were his most completely inhouse designs of all, and the ones over whose creation he had the most control.
To promote them effectively, while having a jolly good time in the process, he entered these early Healeys in many motor races, most notably the Mille Miglia. And now the three 1948 works entries are sharing workshop space at Warren Kennedy’s Classic Restorations company, two of them (at the time of our first visit) being prepared for the 2016 event. What are the chances of that? Of all three not only surviving, but also being at the same place at the same time? Naturally, we had to have a look.
I knew a bit about pre-Austin Healeys, thanks to a book – dated even then – I was given when I was about four years old. British Motor Cars, published in 1952, included a section on the Healey Tickford two-door saloon and the Healey Abbott drophead coupé, essentially the same cars apart from their roof arrangements, plus a more modern-looking two-seater sports car with an Alvis engine. So rare were these cars and their relatives that I have never deconstructed the pre-Austin Healey range any further than these and the Silverstone. How unanalytical, and how wrong, I have been.
There’s a sad-looking, engineless Tickford in an alleyway next to the converted barn that forms Classic Restorations’ main building. But I notice it only after seeing past the shiny svelteness of the two Elliott coupés and the Westland tourer sitting out front. These are the three 1948 Mille Miglia cars. A 1949 Mille Miglia car is also in residence, a rather less curvy concoction which we’ll meet shortly.
What’s clear is that the Elliott is not at all like the Tickford, apart from an overall swoopy roundedness and the radiator grille which, greatly stretched laterally, helped form the face of the Austin-Healey 100. The Tickford’s windscreen has angles in its corners and the headlights are mounted in the front wings, whereas the smaller Elliott has a narrower, more rounded and almost panoramic windscreen and its headlights neatly flank the front grille.
Abbott, Tickford, Elliott, Westland… it’s an eclectic mix of two coachbuilders, a furnituremaker and an aircraft manufacturer. There was a logic to this, but it’s not what you might expect. Common to all, though, are a Riley engine and an unusual form of double-trailing-link front suspension. And a pace considered remarkable at the time.
I’m driving the Westland, a curvaceous vision in light metallic green and effectively an open Elliott. The green is an original colour, Healey being an early British adopter of hues daringly innovative and flamboyant in the greyness of post-war Britain. To be driving it is quite an honour, given who has sat here before me, holding this functional-looking, rivetedtogether, three-spoke steering wheel.
This wheel is adjustable easily for reach and laboriously for height. A fine array of British Jaeger dials occupies a panel to my left, six instruments in all. Switches of pre-war style and function are scattered across any available spaces. Through the divided windscreen I can see the sharp ridges that crown the curvy wings. Yes, yes, but who are these past luminaries?
For the 1948 Mille Miglia it was Donald Healey himself, navigated by son Geoffrey and the Westland running at number 44. The following year motoring journalist Tom Wisdom took the wheel, with Geoffrey (quickly gaining knowledge as a development engineer) on the road book again. This time the race number was in a new three-digit format, denoting the start time: 355, as still worn today.
The Healey duo achieved ninth overall and second in the unlimited-capacity sports car class in 1948, despite a crash late in the race which left them with a half-hour delay and without lights as darkness fell. In 1949 Wisdom and Healey Jnr once again proved the Healey’s prowess by winning the Touring class, just two minutes ahead of the second-place Alfa Romeo and averaging 69.6mph. And now, 68 years later, the Westland still feels pretty fit even after tackling last year’s Mille Miglia retrospective.
Its 2443cc Riley engine, taken from the RMseries saloon and delivering 104bhp from its four very undersquare cylinders, features a pair of camshafts mounted high in the block and a pair of SU H4 carburettors. It’s a lusty, torquey unit with a crisp, open-hearted blare to its exertions; its outputs were sufficient to propel the protototype of the Healey’s more slippery Elliott incarnation to 104.56mph on the Como autostrada in Italy during a test of surprising distance (given post-war petrol shortages) by The Motor. This was increased to 110.65mph later in 1947 on Belgium’s Jabbeke Highway in the same car, lightly tweaked with a cool air duct to the carburettors and platinum-tipped Lodge spark plugs, the better to ward off detonation on the low-octane ‘pool’ petrol obligatory at the time.
These speeds enabled The Motor to declare the Healey the ‘Fastest Car in the World in Series Production’, although the accolade didn’t last long. Today this Westland just feels brisk as it snorts away through its SUs, and there’s little point in venturing beyond 4000rpm or so as I manhandle the slow, deliberate gearshift between the three tuneful intermediates and a silent top via the short, cranked-back gearlever.
Recently I drove several Austin-Healey 100s, lovely cars which felt lither, lighter and sharper than I expected. You might expect the Westland and Elliott to have a similar dynamic signature to that of the 100, so it’s a shock to discover what a difference a few years of knowledge acquistion by Healey’s engineers can make. There’s a late pre-war feel to the Westland, not the beam-axle, bounce and flex variety but one still born of long, springy steering linkages and primitive geometry despite what looks to be a less conventional, and possibly more advanced, suspension design.
My arms and upper body suspect as much as soon as I manoeuvre GWD 43 out of the car park and heave it onto the main road. Now, here’s a roundabout. I heave again at the steering wheel, to discover that once the slack and springiness is taken up and the steering engages properly, the response speed quickens dramatically and I have to unwind a little lock. Partly this is the the springiness unwinding itself, partly it’s a touch of geometry-induced roll oversteer, which you can exploit to help point the Healey further round the roundabout, especially if you than apply a dab of power to tighten the line further.
It’s the same principle, but in a less-extreme manifestation, on faster, more open bends, and once you have learned the rates at which things develop you can have as good a time as those Mille Miglia entrants, past and present, did and do. The faster you go, the better it gets.
The steering is never actually pleasant but the Westland is stable in a straight line, it feels quite light despite the steering’s heft, and it rides with a supple sort of gentle agitation. This example is running on radial-ply tyres of an unusual 180mm section on the distinctive Healey threehole wheels; it must have been enjoyably slideable on its original 5.75-15 crossplies. The brakes are drums, obviously, but drums have unfair scorn heaped upon them in my view (I own three cars with drum brakes all round, all of which stop beautifully) and these have a smooth, firm, confident response.
Back in Warren Kennedy’s office we sit at the same table and on the same dining chairs that once occupied the boardroom at the Donald Healey Motor Company. On the table is a letter from Healey to Bill Boddy, editor and lodestone of Motor Sport, dated 10 January 1946. Healey wanted to tell Boddy ‘about the new car’ for which a 10-second time to 60mph was claimed. The letter came from The Cape, Warwick, telephone number Warwick 503.
The Cape, in the area nowadays home to JME Healeys, was more of an assembly shop than a manufacturing operation back then. The cars developed there arose out of an idea hatched during World War Two when Donald Healey worked at Humber. Healey’s colleagues included chassis designer Achille Sampietro and body designer Ben Bowden, and the three of them sketched out what became the first Healey, chassis number A1501.
After the war, Healey set up his company and got a local sheetmetal fabricator, Buckingham’s, to make the chassis and two prototype bodies, one tourer and one saloon. The latter was fitted to the second chassis, A1502, and used thicker steel to prevent the cracking that A1501 suffered. A1501 was finished on the day that Healey wrote to Bill Boddy, while A1502 was the ‘fastest production car’, albeit then still a prototype, that The Motor clocked at 104.56mph on the Como autostrada. A1501’s body was later removed and fitted to a revised, stronger B-prefix chassis to make GWD 43, the Westland I’ve just driven.
So, why is it called Westland? This aircraft manufacturer was happy to take on contract work after the war, and made the production chassis frames and the panels to clad them. The Elliott name comes from Reading-based furniture manufacturer Samuel Elliott and Sons, which produced the ash body frames for both body types, open and closed. Naming the cars after these companies helped Healey to negotiate advantageous rates for their work.
Once the cars were in production, it was Westland which assembled the Elliott body frame sections, panelled them in Birmabright aluminium (steel was rationed, aluminium was plentiful), and fitted the body to its chassis. It also fitted the engine, transmission and running gear, trimmed the cars and finished them off. Bill and Ray Buckingham continued to build about 20 prototype Healeys over the following years, however.
Now, the two Elliott saloons with their deep windscreens and distinctive half-moon rear windows. GUE 722, in an even more eyeblowing metallic green, was Count Giovanni ‘Johnny’ Lurani’s car for the 1948 Mille Miglia. He shared it with Guglielmo Sandri, and the pair, as Lurani (a well-known journalist of the time) reported, ‘got off to a great start, and we pulled out a good lead until Pescara. But shortly afterwards the Panhard strut, which held the rear axle in place, broke.’ So the coil-sprung rear axle had lost its lateral location, and there were still 1200km to go.
Amazingly, nothing else broke. The Healey battled on as the left rear wheel regularly clouted the exhaust on right-hand bends, passing 92mph on a motorway full of spectators, averaging 64.6mph for the whole event, winning the Touring class (as it had done earlier in the year in the Targa Florio) and finishing 13th overall. The third car, the dark non-metallic green Elliott, fared less well, retiring with a similar suspension fault in the hands of Nick Haines (driving ‘off-brand’ because he was the Aston Martin agent for Belgium) and Rudi Haller. This one, registered GWD 42 and now returned to its original colour after a mid-life coppertone hue, is currently sans engine as it undergoes pre-Mille Miglia preparation.
GUE 722, however, is finished, fully fit and the only Elliott not to be built with a sunroof. It has been a long-term restoration, its story starting in 1963 when the present owner bought it for £25. The rebuild started two years later, then in 1967 the restorer went bankrupt and the Healey was brought home to the owner’s garage. Various restoration restarts flowered and wilted over the years until Warren Kennedy took it on. It has just been finished and Warren is about to take me for an exploratory drive to check it all works.
Inside it’s obviously related to the Westland but is much plusher, with lashings of shiny wood veneer and an air of leather-padded cosiness. There’s a rear seat but it’s largely pointless, given that there is no legroom to speak of. We, seated up front, have our legs almost straight out in front of us, and the low scuttle gives a fine view forward. I pull the rearhinged door shut; it clicks precisely home, with amazingly tight panel gaps outside. This is a terrific restoration.
We set off as the heavens open. The wipers work and the rain stays outside. The art of banishing NVH (noise, vibration and harshness, a term popularised by Ford around the time it introduced the less-than-smooth CVH engine) was not one that Healey had mastered, and it’s quite rowdy in here, but the Elliott feels strong and solid. This one isn’t returning to the Mille Miglia, though, unlike its siblings. It will be taking life more gently, and its Panhard rod will be spared the stress.
Warren Kennedy’s Healey collection is extraordinary, most of it having a direct Donald Healey connection. Here’s a Panelcraft-bodied Nash-Healey; the last 25 of those bodies clothed the Alvis-Healey after Nash switched to Pininfarina. And there’s the Ford Fiesta Healey, the stillborn dark green prototype that predated the XR2. But he has formed a bond with GUE 722. ‘I have as much love for this car as any of my own cars,’ he says. After visiting Classic Restorations, I can see why.
THANKS TO David Long and Shirley Wong for trusting me with GWD 43 before the Mille Miglia.
TECHNICAL DATA 1947 Healey Westland B
Engine 2443cc inline fourcylinder, cast-iron block and head, two high-mounted camshafts with short pushrods, twin SU H4 carburettors
Power 104bhp @ 4500rpm
Torque 134lb ft @ 3000rpm
Transmission Four-speed Riley gearbox, rear-wheel drive
Suspension Front: double trailing links, coil springs, leverarm dampers acting as upper links. Rear: live axle located by radius arms and Panhard rod, coil springs
Brakes Drums all round
Performance Top speed 102mph. 0-60mph 14.7sec
‘Naming the cars after these various companies helped Donald Healey to negotiate advantageous rates for their work ’
Facing page from top. Ex-Johnny Lurani Elliott has just emerged from restoration; interior is much plusher than Westland’s.
‘These speeds enabled The Motor to declare the Healey to be the fastest car in the world in series production’
Below and opposite. Lusty engine comes from Riley RMA; cornering style feels much more vintage than an Austin-Healey 100’s; modern Mille Miglia rally equipment contrasts with traditional, Jaeger-dialled dashboard and split screen.
THE DUNCAN DRONE
It’s the same underneath but was much cheaper to buy
One of Warren Kennedy’s early Healeys looks more like a backyard special. It’s actually a Purchase Tax special, designed to avoid the punitive post-war rate of that tax applied to cars costing over £1000. You could always fit a grander body later, as happened to at least two of the ten or so Drones built. They transmuted into tax-free Westlands.
The body, designed and made by Ian Duncan who also designed a Healey saloon with unbelievably deep side windows, has no double curvature in its aluminium panels, supplied bare when new. The spare wheel and headlights are exposed, and the squared-off front consists of horizontal wraparound tubes of aluminium under a near-flat bonnet.
The seats are simple buckets; wind is deflected by aeroscreens but a full fold-flat windscreen was on the very short original equipment list. Rather usefully the Drone, the prototype of which was called SPIV, weighs about 270kg less than the Westland. Which means it feels quite perky, and not a little skittish on the tail. The exhaust emits a hearty bellow to go with the crisp throttle response, this and the firm springing encouraging a spirited approach to driving. It’s great fun in a vintage-meets-the-future way, so it’s especially sad that on the 1949 Mille Miglia this 1947-built machine crashed heavily into a wall after swerving to avoid the parapet of a narrow bridge hidden by spectators. Navigator Reginald Hignett died instantly, driver James Cohen a few months later.
The Drone, however, was repairable and today it’s immaculate in its dark green ready for Warren’s third time of entering the Mille Miglia with it. By the time you read this, the Mille Miglia will have happened. Warren and his wife Wilailak had a blast, and not just from the rush of the wind.