The Nash-Healey and the 1950 LeMans 24 Hours

"It's been more than three decades now, but I still clearly remember one of the most compelling automobile racing films I ever saw," says John A. Conde, formerly of Nash-Kelvinator's public relations staff. "It was a black-and-white documentary produced by a British oil company about the 1950 LeMans 24 Hours."

This event was only the first outing for the then-new Nash-Healey, but the Anglo-American sports car proved itself for all the world to see by coming in fourth, one of only 29 finishers in a starting field of 66.

1953 convertible Nash-Healey
Publications International, Ltd.
Nash's Anglo-American sports car bowed with a somewhat ungainly all-aluminum body, then acquired smart new Pinin Farina styling for 1952. Shown is the 1953 convertible.

The film's British commentators were surprised by the Nash-Healey, not only because an American-powered car did so well, but also because it was the first entrant in LeMans history equipped with overdrive.

Bearing number 14, the car had a Nash clutch, transmission, and rear axle assembly. Power was supplied by a modified version of the production Ambassador six, with a special aluminum cylinder head, special camshaft and valve springs, and dual carburetion, all of which boosted horsepower to 130 at 4,300 rpm. Tipping the scales at 2,300 pounds, the racer could reach 130 mph flat out.

The Nash-Healey faced impressive competition. Among the starters were five Ferraris, three Aston-Martins, three Jaguars, two Bentleys, four Renaults, and four Dyna-Panhards -- along with two Cadillacs fielded by American sportsman Briggs Cunningham, which finished 10th and 11th overall.

The winning car was a Talbot that averaged 89.72 mph, but the Nash-Healey averaged only 2 mph less. Another Talbot finished second and an Allard came in third.

Piloted by A.P.R. "Tony" Holt and J.D. Hamilton, the Nash-Healey managed fourth despite being out of the race a full 45 minutes. This was the result of an accident caused by a Delage, which rammed the Nash-Healey from behind, sending it into a spin and damaging its rear axle.

The Nash-Healey would again triumph on the French circuit, but its 1950 showing was commendable, even remarkable. Aside from establishing the Nash-Healey as a serious proposition on the international sports car scene, it also gave Nash dealers something new to talk about: performance.

With the car's performance and stamina now firmly established, Mason and Healey moved full steam ahead on a roadgoing version. Healey penned a smooth, envelope-style two-seat roadster body, and Panelcraft of Birmingham, England, was contracted to execute it entirely in aluminum.

The ohv Nash six was a strong, modern engine capable of a fair amount of "hotting up," and Healey duly attended to it, mating the modified power unit with Nash's three-speed manual transmission and Borg-Warner overdrive. The Healey works would take care of final assembly.

For proper make identification, the car was designed to accept the grille, headlights, bumpers, and other trim parts from the 1951 Nash Airflyte. Although production didn't get underway until December 1950, the Nash-Healey bowed in prototype form at that fall's London and Paris shows.

Remarkably, this was less than nine months after the program's inception.
Contrary to some accounts, initial plans did not call for the Nash-Healey to be exported solely to the United States. A public announcement issued in Detroit on September 27, 1950, stated that the new sports car would be distributed by both the Healey company and Nash Motors' Export Division in Great Britain and France and by Nash "in all other countries except the United States and Canada."

the first Nash-Healey prototype
©2007 Publications International, Ltd.
The first Nash-Healey production prototype, fresh out of its shipping crate from England. It did not have the permanently open cowl ventilator that distinguishes the 1951 production models. Grille and other body hardware came from the Nash Airflyte.

That decision was quickly changed, and all 104 of the first-year Nash-Healeys (36 of which were built before the end of 1950) came to America. That wasn't very many, but they were worth a lot in publicity.

Continue to the next page for details on the first road-ready Nash-Healey, which arrived in 1951.

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