Austin Powers, or why 2015 is the right time to consider buying a Big Healey before prices really take off. We look at this beefy Brit and show how to pick a good one. The epitome of a classic 1950’s beefy British sports car that's more popular than ever and values reflect this. Great spares and club back up but be careful what you are buying say specialists.
Written by Aspi-Rant Tuesday, 20 January 2015 02:00
If ever there was a quintessential hairychested British sports car, the big Healey is it. It was the love child of Donald Healey and Leonard Lord, after the former unveiled it at the 1952 London motor show wearing Healey 100 badges. When BMC head Leonard Lord spotted it and saw a business opportunity, it became the Austin- Healey 100 – the model name being an indication of the envisaged top speed. The deal with Austin led to the first 20 cars being built in March 1953 and over the next 15 years, more than 70,000 big Healeys were produced. As well as the road cars there were works entries in both circuit racing and rallying. Le Mans and Sebring were both tackled by factory cars, leading respectively to 100M and 100S models being produced. Cars were also entered in the 1954 and 1955 Mille Miglia events which didn’t harm the car’s credibility. But it’s rallying that the big Healeys are most renowned for.
Starting with the 100/6 in 1958, six-cylinder Austin Healeys were campaigned in rallies such as the Alpine and Liege-Rome-Liege. The rallying continued until 1965, when the factory entered 3000 MkIIIs in events such as the Tulip and RAC rallies.
Forty-six years after the last big Healey rolled off the production lines, the model is more collectable than ever. It’s the original British bruiser; a sports car which has to be taken by the scruff of the neck and tamed. It may be a bit of a handful, but there’s nothing like a big Healey when it comes to good old-fashioned driving fun.
To the uninitiated, all big Healeys are the same. But like most classics, there were myriad changes to the engine, transmission, trim and even the bodyshell over the years. To distinguish between the different flavours, various unofficial tags were used. BN denotes an open-topped two seater with a B-class engine (2-3000cc) – except for the BN4 which is a 2+2.
Otherwise, a 2+2 roadster carries the tag BT, the BJ-badged models being two-seater convertibles with folding hood frames and wind up windows. At least the numbers are in order, although the numbers three and five were reserved for factory prototypes. Read on and you’ll see how it all neatly slots into place – but it’s still highly confusing!
1953 Austin Healey 100 (retrospectively the 100/4 or BN1) launched, using Austin’s A90 2660cc four-cylinder engine, giving 94bhp and driving through a three-speed overdrive gearbox. 10,688 are produced.
1955 The 100 BN2 arrives, with larger brakes (still drums all round) and a fourspeed gearbox – 3924 are built.
1956 The 100/6 (BN4) is released, with a longer wheelbase and 101bhp 2639cc six-cylinder engine. The windscreen no longer folds flat, a pair of seats are squeezed in the back and there’s a new, oval grille. Production totals 6045. 1957 The BN4 receives bigger valves and revised manifolding to liberate 117bhp. 4,410 are built.
1958 The 100/6 (BN6) is introduced, with a return to just two seats. 4150 are made. 1959 The 3000 Mk1 (BN7 or BT7 for 2+2 version) is launched, with 13,650 produced. Featuring BMC’s 124bhp 2912cc C-series engine, front disc brakes are standard, there are triple carbs and a vertically slatted grille. 1962 The 3000 MkII goes on sale with a curved windscreen, wind-up windows and a folding hood. Reverting to twin SU carbs, the model is denoted BJ7 and 11,463 examples are manufactured.
1964 The final 3000 arrives; the MkIII, of which 17,703 are produced up to 1968. Similar to the BJ7, the differences are a walnut dash, 2-inch SUs, separate indicators front and rear plus a new racier camshaft to liberate 148bhp.
There may be plenty of varieties to choose from, but whichever big Healey you opt for there’ll be no shortage of grunt. When a 3000 MkIII is running properly it’ll accelerate from a standing start to the magic ton and back again – in 29 seconds. Pretty impressive even by modern standards.
Make no mistake, it's a heavy vintage drive much like a Morgan although fitting an aftermarket power steering does make the car more manageable. Comparing it to an XK Jaguar is obvious; the Coventry cat is smoother although like the Healey, demands effort. Handling can be tail happy in the A-H, especially in the wet but with that big heavy old lump of an engine up front, it will understeer in normal use.
When The Motor first tested a Healey 100 in September 1953, it was clear that this was going to become a hugely sought after car. Not only was the performance sparkling but the value was exceptional. Having announced that the Healey 100 would cost £850 at launch, its metamorphosis into the Austin-Healey 100 lopped £100 off the asking price.
Singled out for particular praise were the engine’s flexibility along with its economy, which worked out at 22.5mpg over 871 miles of driving – no doubt much of which was rather spirited. Also appreciated were the supportive seats and the suspension settings, which reduced roll without producing a harsh ride – while the steering was “exceedingly good”.
It was clear there was little to criticise; Motor reckoned there was too much engine heat escaping into the cabin and it was rather fiddly assembling the roof and sidescreens – but once in place they were effective. An interesting sign of the times was the fact that “one restriction on the car tested was the inability to make any kind of signal with the hood and sidescreens up. Flashing light direction indicators are however available if required”.
By 1958 the 100/4 had gained an extra pair of cylinders to denote its new six-cylinder engine to become the 100/6; it was tested by Motor in April 1959. Despite being six years newer, it was clear that the ergonomic issues that afflicted the 100/4 hadn’t been addressed at all. It still took two people to assemble the hood and the Healey still wasn’t really suited to shorter drivers, as moving the seat forward meant the driver’s chest would be right up against the steering wheel.
What hadn’t changed was the effortless performance, only now there was an extra dose of smoothness too – or as the weekly put it: “this is an exceptionally enjoyable and untiring car fully deserving of the title Grand Tourer”. The magazine continued: “Reinforcing the comfort provided by the seats is a suspension system which secures exceptionally good results from a perfectly orthodox layout... This car gives a considerably more comfortable ride over bad surfaces than do most family saloons”. What Motor didn’t do was draw comparisons between the handling of the 100/4 and the 100/6 – something that’s become the norm in recent years. It saw the adoption of a six-cylinder engine for the big Healey as universally good news in terms of the dynamics – indeed, in terms of the overall package. So it was no surprise when the verdict came: “To find a comparable combination of performance and of smoothrunning comfort in any but a much larger and more expensive car would seem extremely difficult”.
Bearing this in mind, it was no surprise when the 3000 MkI was tested by Motor just a year after it tested the 100/6, and there was still very little to dislike about the big Healey. It was now faster yet more frugal. However, maybe the car’s age was catching up with it, as this time the reviewers weren’t quite so evangelical about the big Healey.
Having singled out the seat comfort for particular praise, this time the summary ran: “A little attention to seating comfort and a few modifications to some of the minor controls would still further improve a car which now offers quite extraordinary performance in relation to its cost, taking performance in its broadest sense to include acceleration, maximum speed, roadholding and braking. The winning of the team award, amongst other striking successes, in the recent Alpine Rally, shows that durability is another attribute that must be added to the list”.
Chris Everard runs JME Healeys (www. jmehealeys. co.uk), with his brother Dan. Says Chris: “The Healey that everyone wants is the 100/4 – we just can’t get enough of them. It’s the BN2 particularly that people want; they’re slightly rarer than the BN1 and come with a four-speed gearbox with a conventional shift layout, while the earlier car has just three gears and a strange gearshift pattern. These cars are especially hard to find as projects, but restored cars come up reasonably frequently at anywhere between £40,000 and £60,000 for something nice and usable.”
“While the earlier cars are very sought after, also popular are the newest of the breed, the BJ8. With their 150bhp engines they’re very usable, but many feel the six-cylinder cars don’t handle as well as their four-cylinder predecessors because the latter come with a lighter engine. Also, many big Healey buyers are keen to take part in road rallies and various racing series, and it’s the pre-1960 cars that are the focus of these, which is why for some buyers, the earlier cars are the automatic choice”.
There’s no such thing as a cheap big Healey anymore, but if your pockets aren’t especially deep and you just have to have one, the 100/6 is your best bet. With its 2.6-litre straight-six, it’s not as well balanced as the 2.6-litre 100/4, and it’s not as torquey either. It also doesn’t have the grunt of the later 3-litre cars, although thanks to the fitment of six cylinders the powerplant is decently smooth. As a result, you can buy a usable 100/6 from around £30,000 – you’ll need to find a third as much again (£40,000) to get into an equivalent 100/4 or the later 3000.
With the 100/6 topping out at £50,000-£60,000, you’ll save quite a bundle of cash buying one of these over the most valuable iteration of the breed, the 100/4. These top out at £80,000 typically, although an exceptional BN2 can fetch as much as £90,000 if it’s freshly restored to an incredible standard. At the other end of the spectrum, you can buy a project big Healey from £20,000, although some variations on the theme – such as the BN2 – are now hard to find as they’ve generally already been restored.
Before diving in too quickly though, make sure that you know what you’re buying as a full restoration of any of these cars will typically cost £60,000 for the parts and labour (including £10,000 of VAT), assuming there are no upgrades along the way.
Add a few of these and the parts bill will go even higher – just as if any key parts are missing from your project, which is why you must ensure it’s as complete as possible. The things to check most closely are items such as windscreen frames and interior or exterior trim parts. If there’s no engine, straightaway you’re looking at £5000 to source one – while an overdrive and gearbox could be up to £4000.
Everard continues: “Big Healeys have climbed gradually in value over the years, but recently there have been some fairly sharp increases. However, I don’t think things have peaked yet – I suspect the £100,000 BN2 isn’t far away. Price increases are being partly driven by buyers opting for a big Healey in place of something much more costly such as an Aston Martin DB4; they’re getting too valuable to use on public roads”.
Interestingly, Healey values aren’t particularly affected by history too much. Whether a car was originally left or righthand drive for example, doesn’t make that much difference. What matters is how well it’s been restored and which derivative it is. Because the big Healey is so usable – at least in relative terms – they’re often bought by enthusiasts keen to drive 3000- 5000 miles annually. Of course there are plenty of buyers snapping up their cars as an investment, but the majority of big Healeys seem to be going to owners keen to use them regularly, rather than cover just a handful of miles each year.
Incredibly, several of JMW Healeys’ customers still use their cars on an everyday basis, which proves just what a tough beast the British sportster is.
Four-cylinder cars tend to leak oil, but it can be kept to a minimum if the crankshaft’s original scroll-type rear main oil seal is replaced with a lipped version, to minimise oil escaping. These engines also tend to weep water between the head and block, but it’s not something that needs remedial work; Denis Welch can modify the waterways to eliminate it.
Simple mods include a spin-on oil filter and better cooling by way of an uprated radiator and worth incorporating on all cars. The 48-spoke wire wheels are quite fragile, so 72-spoke versions are often fitted instead; it’s a worthy mod and if more power has been coaxed from the engine (or you intend to), these units are essential if the wheels aren’t to self-destruct when you use the car’s available performance. There’s no shortage of Healey tuning parts around but opinions are divided how far you should go because some mods are almost irreversible without a lot of money and effort and this may affect their values in years to come.
A good set up includes an alloy head (which apart from its efficiency also cuts a lot of the nose weight), sportier camshaft and six branch exhaust which with a triple carb setup should provide an honest 200bhp plus from an engine costing one third of race spec that’s road usable, too. Rawles Motorsport advises an electronic Mallory distributor, lightweight engine plates, and a ported, gas-flowed head for starters but stick with twin carbs for servicing ease. “We’d also fi t twin SU HD8s, not the triples but the key thing is to set the cars up on a rolling road like we have, as that way you’re getting the optimum performance from the engine.” Dennis Welch Motorsport offers a whole range of go-faster gear, including a range of alloy cylinder heads for around £2000 – a similar outlay buys you a set of triple Weber DCOEs, which incidentally is not that much dearer than a trio of SUs. JME Healeys provides a similar selection of upgrades but warns owners not to go overboard and fi t parts which can be converted back to standard trim and devalue these appreciating cars.
Even if you intend keeping your Healey pretty standard, when carrying out a clutch change it's not a bad idea to fit a lightened flywheel. The best solution is to fi t an aluminium item, but this typically costs almost £500; a cheaper route is to have yours skimmed. If you’re feeling really flush, you could swap the Healey’s carbs for electronic fuel injection, available from AH Spares and giving better fuel economy plus smoother running. But you’ll need deep pockets because the conversion will set you back a cool £5100 or an alloy cylinder head or complete engine for some ten grand!
Big Healey legend John Chatham believes a few simple upgrades to a good chassis will transform the car. Going back to a bare chassis, strengthen the suspension mountings (as with the Works cars), before fitting an uprated front anti roll bar, and springs. JME Healeys advises better dampers poly bushing (Touring types) but not to lower the car – these Healeys are low enough! – and while sophisticated rear end set ups employing telescopic dampers are available, they’re for competition mainly.
Uprated brakes, five-speed gearboxes (usually a Toyota Supra unit) and lighter steering (either an electric set up or a £6000 rack and pinion conversion from Rawles are just some of the other mods available to you.
The term big Healey is a misnomer – it’s only big when compared with the diminutive Sprite – but they have big investment potential and prices can only soar, especially if the car is original or only lightly modified. If you’re looking for an original right-hand drive 100 or 3000, remember that nearly 90 per cent of the big Healeys built were exported to America. Over the last couple of decades, many have found their way back to Britain, and have been restored with varying degrees of success. This means there are a lot of poor cars masquerading as really good examples, so if you’re at all unsure about what you’re looking at, make sure you enlist the help of a Healey expert to ensure you don’t buy a bottomless pit into which you’ll inevitably pour all your cash. But get it right, and it’s better than money in the bank.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR
Make sure the rear springs aren’t sagging, as ground clearance was never generous on these cars. If the car is sitting too high at the back, it’s probably because the springs have been replaced. Remanufactured springs on BJ8s can take a while to settle, leading to a jacked-up look.
All big Healeys had drums at the rear and it wasn’t until the 3000 MkI (BT7) of 1959 that disc brakes were standardised at the front. Not all hairy Healeys boasted a servo either but is worth having.
Many big Healeys now sport wire wheels; 48-spoke items were originally fitted, with 60-spoke items for later 3000s. Splines can wear and cost £100 a corner to fix – check for wear by reversing the car and listening for clonks.
Some cheaper Indian-sourced wheels bought in the eighties now give problems. Poorly made, they’re not quite round – leading to inevitable vibration on the move. Another problem with wire wheels is that they’re frequently not balanced properly – as if that’s not enough their spinners are sometimes not tightened correctly as owners don’t like bashing them in case they damage the chrome finish.
THREE OF A KIND
Get past those awkward looks and you’ll see the SP250 is a gem. The problem is, with just 2648 built, there aren’t enough good ones to go round. If you manage to find one, you’ll quickly appreciate the pearl of a V8, the reliability plus the great performance. You’ll need at least £30,000 to secure something good though; look out for microblistering paint, poor quality interior trim, plus crazed bodywork.
For those who want something a bit left-field, the Jowett makes a fascinating classic buy. However, it’s not a direct rival to the 100 because it just doesn’t have the performance; you need to use the revs to get the best out of its 1485cc engine. But the Jupiter is more affordable than the Healey; you can buy something perfectly usable for just £20,000. Don’t expect same level of parts availability…
Another classic that’s brilliantly supported by clubs and specialists, these TRs are sought after, so buy well and you can’t lose financially. They’re also a hoot to drive thanks to a torquey four-cylinder engine, good brakes and a slick gear change. These early TRs are also more affordable than a big Healey; something nice costs from £25,000, with really superb cars fetching up to £40,000.
All that you need to rebuild a Healey is available, including chassis frames and even bodyshells albeit at a price.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR
100s had an A90-sourced gearbox, four-speed unit with first gear removed – so it was a three-speeder with overdrive on second and third. In 1955 the A90 unit was superseded by the Westminster’s four-speed transmission, once again with overdrive. All are tough, but a lack of syncromesh on first gear can lead to worn or missing teeth.
Overdrive was standard on BN1s and BN2s, and optional on all other versions. If it’s not working the chances are the fault is electrical, rather than hydraulic or mechanical.
Rear axles leak oil, which then seeps from the end of the axle casing onto the rear brake linings. Replacing the seal is a half-hour job, but if you haven’t kept an eye on it the brake linings and axle could need attention.
Front damper mountings can work loose and lever arm dampers can leak. The cam and peg steering boxes fitted throughout production can leak, but if oiled regularly they don’t need rebuilding – just check regularly that the box isn’t running low on oil. If the steering feels loose on the move it’s probably because of worn kingpins – these should also be greased every service.
Healeys are as popular as ever for historic race and rallying although prices for such cars can be very high.
GOOD BUY OR GOOD-BYE?
Great to drive, fabulous to own and there’s still investment potential. But good ones are now costly.
Best model 100/4
Worst model 100/6
Budget buy 3000 MkI
OK for unleaded No – you’ll need to use an additive
Will it fi t your garage 4000 x 1524mm
Spares situation Very good
DIY ease Excellent
Club support Excellent
Appreciating asset So far, yes – with more to come
Most featured two-seat cockpits but a 2+2 was made, mainly for children. Many cars are LHD and this makes them more saleable.
100/4 is the thoroughbred and most desired. Six-cylinder engine (below) provided smoothness but little added urge, although can be tuned highly as picture shows. Engine cooling ducts (top right) essential. 3000 (right) denoted by its new frontal treatment.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR
All engines fitted to Austin-Healeys are essentially unstressed truck units, so should happily run for 200,000 miles between rebuilds. When work is required it’s not cheap – a full rebuild costs around £2000+, and that’s if you do it yourself. Double it for a pro rebuild.
Four-cylinder cars tend to leak oil, but it can be minimised. If the engine has been rebuilt, ask if the crankshaft’s original scroll-type rear main oil seal has been replaced with a lipped version, to reduce oil escaping.
These engines also tend to weep water between the head and block. Denis Welch can modify the waterways to eliminate it, but as long as you keep an eye on it there’s no cause for concern. Just check the compression if you think there’s something awry and monitor the oil to ensure there’s no build up of emulsion through oil and water mixing.
Oil consumption is fairly high – maybe as much as 250 miles per pint. On the move, oil pressure should be 45-50psi, dropping to 10-15psi at idle.
Overheating isn’t a problem on properly maintained cars, but over the years waterways on many blocks will have silted up. If the engine runs hot this could be the cause, along with silted up radiators or incorrectly set ignition timing.
Because the car sits so close to the Tarmac the exhaust system is liable to ground at the slightest hump in the road. 3000 MkIIIs had slightly more ground clearance than earlier versions, but no big Healey sits far from the ground especially if the rear springs have settled, as they do.
Later the car the more sorted it became and models from mid 60s are best all rounders.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR
BODY AND CHASSIS
The big Healey’s weak spots are the chassis and bodywork. The ladder-frame chassis is simple, but can be damaged with the slightest knock – even a minor nudge on the front corner will lead to kinks.
Corrosion is also a problem – especially in the main rails and outriggers. The outriggers support the sills, and mud thrown up gets trapped between the two, then eats away at both chassis and body.
Beware of bodged chassis and floorpan repairs. Because the floorpans and bulkhead are welded to the chassis, many people won’t effect a proper repair. The whole of the bottom nine inches of the car is susceptible to rot, which means floorpans, sills, wings and wheelarches need careful inspection. Inner sills are structural and difficult to repair. These need to be checked from inside the car.
The front shroud (around the bonnet, headlamps and grille) is particularly difficult to restore to a high standard, as it consists of several curved alloy sections.
Standard front and rear wings were steel, but replacements are also available in aluminium. Fitting alloy panels reduces corrosion but they’re prone to denting.
Take a look at the swage line. If it’s not consistent where it meets or leaves the door it’s likely the car has been poorly restored. Also see how well the doors open and shut if the car is jacked up at its rearmost point. The chassis should be strong enough to not bend at all when subjected to this – if the door gaps close up at all the chassis is weak and needs replacing if that bad.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR
Re-importing Healeys from the US has been popular over the years. Although cars will probably be in good condition bodily, the sun will have taken its toll on the interior.
Rear bumpers suffer from corrosion thanks to the exhaust exiting onto them, and windscreen frames are almost impossible to obtain for 100 models. The supply situation for external trim is good – but remember a new (reproduction) 100 grille will set you back £1000.
On three-speed 100s make sure the overdrive is working on second and third gears. If you haven’t got five ratios to play with the chances are there’s an electrical fault with the overdrive wiring. The most likely culprits will be either the solenoid or the dash switch. Heaters weren’t standard on any models – they were even optional on the last of the 3000 MkIIIs; if you fancy one you’ll have to budget £250+ to buy one and then fit it.
Healey boasted quite a plush cabin and comfy although heat soak is always annoying trait in the summer. Six pots are very tunable but if you have a 2.6, use 3.0 engine first. Even £10K alloy engines are now available.
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