The 1953 Austin-Healey 100 and 3000 were among the first of the cars made by the company of the same name. Donald Healey wanted to increase production volume for his budding British car-building concern in the early Fifties, so he turned to a reasonably priced sports car as the vehicle for this objective. He wound up with a car that was a winner on both sides of the Atlantic.
Austin-Healey was one of those brands invented by chance, and, after a turbulent career inside British Motor Corporation (BMC), and latterly inside British Leyland, it died off after only 18 years.
Only two basic types were ever put on sale: the larger-engined types, which eventually gained the “big Healey” nickname; and the small Sprites. Both cars were originally engineered by Donald Healey’s son, Geoff, and his small team, and both were progressively changed, and diluted, with the help (and sometimes the hindrance!) of BMC’s own designers.
Donald Healey set up his own small manufacturing operation at Warwick in 1946, using Riley running gear, a simple chassis, and a variety of bought-in body shells. The business was rarely very profitable, however, though the addition of the Nash-Healey in 1951 with American Nash engines and -- eventually -- Pinin Farina bodies, certainly shored it up for a time.
The 1953 Austin-Healey was admired for its looks and performance.
See more pictures of Austin-Healey cars.
Even so, by the end of 1951, Donald Healey knew that he needed a cheaper new model to secure his future. At that stage, he was still planning to have the car assembled at Warwick. John Thompson Motor Pressings would produce the chassis, and Tickford, of Newport Pagnell (later to be absorbed by Aston Martin), would produce body shells.
Encouraged by "The Old Man," or "DMH" as he was known within the family, Geoff, chassis designer Barrie Bilbie, and stylist Jerry Coker laid out a new two-seater with a smooth style. The structure was totally new but simple and was intended for many inner body panels to be welded to the platform on initial assembly.
There were lift-off side curtains in the doors and a windshield that folded flat. DMH, who was the creator, but not a drawing-board engineer, did not take part in the detail layout. Except for the badge, there was absolutely no carry-over from existing models, for Donald was shooting for an entirely different market sector.
After a brisk search around Britain's motor industry, they chose to fit the prototype with a four-cylinder 2.7-liter Austin A90 Atlantic engine and four-speed gearbox. (BMC's boss, Leonard Lord, made it clear that ample supplies were available -- not least because the A90 itself was such a sales flop!)
The first car was finished in summer 1952, proved that it could do more than 100 mph, and was put on display at the London Motor Show the following October.
Although legend has it that BMC Managing Director Len Lord saw the car for the first time at Earls Court, loved it, and offered to invent the "Austin-Healey" brand on the spot, in later years, DMH confirmed that the two had long been talking about ways that they might get together.
However, when Lord saw the car for the very first time -- he had never viewed the prototype before that moment -- he fell for it, did a deal with Healey that very evening, and created the Austin-Healey brand, though not yet the motor cars, overnight.
While Healey should continue to design the cars, and the improvements to follow, BMC would set it up for series production and begin assembly at the Austin plant at Longbridge as soon as possible.
Lord promised to reduce the projected selling price by at least £100 ($280 at the time) and to produce up to 200 cars every week, though in the event, it was rare that more than 100 machines were ever built in that period. In fact, only 1274 cars of the original BN1 type of the Austin-Healey 100 were completed before the end of 1953.
The key to getting things going quickly was that Tickford was speedily airbrushed out of the "Master Plan," Jensen of West Bromwich was brought in to produce the body/chassis units, and space at Longbridge originally allocated to building the A40 Sports was allocated to big Healey assembly instead. Commercially this made a great deal of sense, for the body of the ousted A40 Sports had also been made by Jensen, which needed new business.
In the meantime, some reengineering took place, specifically by providing a three-speed-plus-Laycock-overdrive transmission to replace the original four-speeder, making center-lock wire-spoke wheels standard instead of the early discs, and tidying up the styling at the front and in the cabin. Although some of the outer-skin panels were in aluminum on earlier cars, plans were already being made to employ pressed steel instead.
After Healey had built the first 20 cars in its own cramped little factory, production slowly cranked up at Longbridge. As expected, most deliveries were made to the USA, where the FOB price on the East Coast was set at just $2,985.
American sports car enthusiasts, it seemed, loved the lines of the new car; loved the effortless high-geared performance; and, of course, they loved the price, which was so much less than, for instance, the Jaguar XK120. Even though Triumph's TR2 would soon arrive in the same marketplace at an even lower price, the initial impact was never lost.
As the 90-bhp engine was relatively unstressed, there were few teething problems in that area, though the usual whinges about British build quality and about the reliability of Lucas electrical equipment soon followed.
Owners in hot-climate states like California and the Deep South soon noted that much engine heat was transmitted through the bulkhead but had to make their own air conditioning by removing the side curtains.
Even to those who only drove their cars on smooth roads it was clear that the ground clearance toward the back of the car was marginal, a problem that would persist until the mid Sixties. This was caused by the initial layout -- the chassis platform passed under the line of the rear axle -- and a remedy would be very expensive to carry out.
Keep reading to learn about the 1954-1956 Austin-Healey.
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