1953 Austin-Healey

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.

1953 Austin-Healey
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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1954-1956 Austin-Healey

The 1954-1956 Austin-Healeys saw steady improvements. The BN1 was replaced by the BN2 for 1956, with a four-speed transmission instead of the three-speeder.

1955 Austin-Healey
Production of the original BN1 Austin-Healey ended in 1955.

In the meantime, two derivatives -- one for racing, one for road use -- had already gone on sale. The former was the 100S, a 55-unit run of Warwick's own "Special Test Cars." It featured an aluminum body, a 132-bhp version of the engine with an aluminum head designed by Harry Weslake, the BN2 four-speed transmission minus its overdrive, and four-wheel disc brakes.

The latter, the 100M, which had a 110-bhp version of the original engine and chassis modifications, was much more mainstream. At 8.2 seconds in the 0-60-mph sprint, it was 2.1 seconds faster than a base car.

All in all, 1159 100Ms were eventually sold, many of them being converted from standard 100s at Healey's Warwick factory.

Keep reading to learn about 1957-1961 Austin-Healey cars.

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1957-1961 Austin-Healey

For the 1957 model year, British Motor Corporation (BMC) made a big change to the big Healey. First of all, it lengthened the wheelbase by two inches (to 92), giving more space in the cabin and allowing 2+2 seating to be added.

It also made minor style changes to the bumpers and nose, specifically an elliptical grille in place of the original "fan" style and an extra air intake in the hood. A fixed-position windshield was also fitted.

1958 Austin-Healey
This 1958 Austin-Healey 100-Six has a 2.6-liter
six-cylinder engine and 92-inch wheelbase.

To keep the lid on costs, disc wheels were now standard, and there was no over­drive, though center-lock wires and over­drive were both available as options -- and often specified. At the same time, the old four-cylinder engine was ditched in favor of the new, physically larger, heavier, BMC C-Series six-cylinder engine. Put all together, this was BN4, the original 100-Six.

With 102 bhp, the 2.6-liter six was 13.3 percent more powerful than the old four, which was all well and good, but the car itself was nearly 300 pounds heavier than before, too. The result was a car that looked good but was actually slower than its predecessor, which gave BMC's marketing staff a lot of grief in the next two seasons.

Announced with drum brakes just weeks before Triumph standardized front discs on the TR3, it was a low point for the brand. Every subsequent move would be upward, however.

As a result, BMC's engine tuners at the Engines Branch factory in Coventry completed a tuneup job in double-quick time, finalizing a new deeper-breathing head that, with raised compression, delivered 117 bhp, which seemed to make all the difference.

At almost the same time, in the last weeks of 1957 (there was no clean break; this was BMC, after all, where efficiency was not a word well understood at the time), final assembly was moved out of Longbridge and into the MG sports car factory at Abingdon.

From that moment, Abingdon became the manufacturing home of all BMC sports cars, for the little "bugeye" Sprite would soon appear too, and an MG Midget would follow. Nor was this the end of the changes, for BMC's planners realized their mistake in making the 100-Six solely a 2+2 and reintroduced a pure two-seater version, coded BN6, to run alongside it. Confused? Don't worry; there were more changes to follow.

Until mid 1959, therefore, big Healeys then had 117-bhp engines, and this type of 100-Six, available either as a two-seater or a 2+2, could reach 111 mph. To its joy, the clientele found that the revised engine was surprisingly tunable.

With the 100-Six's reputation on the up-and-up, and with some success in circuit racing and the rough-and-tumble of European rallying to report, the brand then received a further boost. Along with several other cars in BMC's sprawling range, the Austin-Healey's six-cylinder engine was bored out to 2.9 liters, with peak power rising to 124 bhp at 4600 rpm.

But that wasn't all. Nearly three years after Triumph had raised the accepted standards of sports car design, the big Healey -- now dubbed the 3000 -- got front-wheel disc brakes, which meant that the chassis was finally able to deal with the extra power and torque of the six-cylinder engine.

Maybe there was mild disappointment that there were no style changes to celebrate the boost (you had to look carefully even to find the "3000" badges), and maybe the back-end ground clearance was still rather pathetically low, but this was an altogether more capable machine.

"Dollar for dollar this is still one of the top sports cars on the market," concluded Road & Track, and it wasn't the only magazine that deemed the 3000 a good value for the money. Two-seat (BN7) and 2+2 (BT7) types were still available, but demand for the former was falling fast.

Changes then came thick and fast. In spring 1961, the 3000 entered its Mk II phase, the most important change being the fitment of three SU carburetors with 1.5-inch chokes in place of twin SUs with 1.75-inch chokes.

There was a new front grille with vertical bars to point up the change, but no significant performance increases (even with a boost to 130 bhp), and as it was more difficult to set up and synchronize the triple SUs, no one was very impressed.

Read about 1962-1966 Austin-Healey cars in the next section.

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1962-1966 Austin-Healey

August 1962 (in good time to begin flooding the transatlantic ships with stocks for U.S. showrooms for 1963) brought the only mega structural change made to the 1962-1966 Austin-Healey cars.

The new model name of "3000 Mk II Sports Convertible" (BJ7) signaled a major rejig of the layout. For the first time on this model, not only was there a foldaway, permanently attached soft-top mechanism, but it was matched to a larger wraparound windshield and revised doors that incorporated wind-up windows and vent wings.

1964 Austin-Healey
1964 Austin-Healey convertible

The comfort and convenience of these features won approving notices from automotive writers on both sides of the Atlantic. At the same time, the 2+2 became the sole seating configuration offered, the demand for two-seaters having virtually disappeared.

For the time being, there were no changes to the fascia, but as the twin-SU carburetor installation had been revived -- without a loss of power -- no one was complaining. All in all, it was an appealing facelift, especially as the soft top (when erect) and the wind-up windows in the doors were very pleasantly detailed.

Now, it seemed, the only obsolete feature might be the old-type instrument-panel layout. This problem was finally dealt with less than two years later. In spring 1964, almost every big Healey lover was delighted to greet the 3000 Mk III (coded BJ8), the definitive model with a totally revised dash (which included a wooden fascia panel) and a brawny new version of the engine that now had dual two-inch-choke SUs good for no less than 148 bhp.

Here, for the first time, was a big Healey that could beat 120 mph and deliver that sort of performance in comfort and style for the passengers.

Even then, Healey and BMC kept on making improvements to the design. Only months after the Mk III had been introduced, what we now know as Phase I became Phase II, with a major change to the rear suspension location.

At long last, the main chassis rails were sharply kinked under the line of the rear axle, which allowed its position to be reset. At the same time, twin radius arms replaced the earlier Panhard rod location of the rear axle.

Here was the final flowering of a great car. It proved to be very successful in motorsport, its most outstanding feat probably being when Rauno Aaltonen drove a works car to win the Spa-Sofia-Liege Marathon in 1964, the last, the fastest, and the toughest open-road rally ever to be held in Europe.

Learn about the 1967 Austin-Healey in the next section.

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1967 Austin-Healey

Demand remained steady for the 1967 Austin-Healey -- 4,000 to 5,000 cars a year until the end of 1967. By then, however, British Motor Corporation's (BMC) management was appalled by the new safety regulations being proposed in the USA.

Sensing that it could not get the aging car to meet them, BMC decided to kill off the old BJ8 in favor of the forthcoming MGC, which quite unsuccessfully mated the 3000's six-cylinder engine to the MGB.

1966 Austin-Healey
1967 marked the end of Austin-Healey “big car” production.

No matter how hard Donald and Geoff Healey tried to dissuade corporate decision-makers, they could not be moved. Not even the building of a totally reengineered prototype, which was not only six inches wider but was fitted with a 175-bhp 4.0-liter six-cylinder Rolls-Royce engine, could change their minds.

With their ties to BMC cut, the Healeys were now free to move on to their next automotive venture, the Jensen-Healey. Existing BJ8 assembly ran down rapidly in autumn 1967.

Only 15 cars were built that December, which should have brought the project neatly to a close, but in March 1968, an influential regular customer persuaded Abingdon to build him one final extra-special car from existing spare parts.

Thus, almost 15 years after it had begun, the big Healey story was finally at an end, with a total of 73,054 cars produced. Its reputation never faded, an enthusiastic preservation body of owners soon built up, and many of the cars still survive to this day.

Check out the next page for 1953-67 Austin-Healey 100 and 3000 specifications.

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1953-67 Austin-Healey 100 and 3000 Specifications

The Austin-Healey story ended after only 15 years in production. The following charts detail model specifications and production and delivery statistics for 1953-1967 Austin-Healey cars.

1956 Austin-Healey
The six-cylinder BN4 100-Six replaced the four-cylinder BN2
100 in 1956. The 956 Austin-Healy is shown here.

1953-67 Austin-Healey 100 and 3000: Selected Model Specifications


100 (BN1) 100S (AHS) 100-Six (BN4)3000 Mk I (BN7)3000 Mk III (BJ8)
Year first sold in U.S.
1953
1955195719591964
Wheelbase (in.)
90.0
90.0
92.092.0
92.0
Length (in.)151.0148.0157.5157.5157.5
Displacement (cc/cid)2660/162.22660/162.22639/160.92912/177.7
2912/177.7
Bhp @ rpm
90 @ 4000132 @ 4700102 @ 4600124 @ 4600148 @ 5250
Torque (lb-ft) @ rpm
144 @ 2500
168 @ 2500142 @ 2400162 @ 2700165 @ 3500
Weight (lbs, unladen)21501924243524602548
Top speed (mph)
103119103114121
U.S. retail price (FOB, East Coast)$2,985$4,895
$3,195
$3,051$3,535

1953-67 Austin-Healey: Production and Deliveries


Total North American productionTotal North American deliveries
100/4 14,634*12,000**
100S5028
100-Six15,44411,982***
3000 Mk I13,65011,016
3000 Mk II5,4514,449
3000 Conv.6,1135,019
3000 Mk III17,71215,407

*Combined BN1 and BN2 production. Includes 1,159 cars converted to 100M specifications.
**Approximate; accurate figures from Longbridge production not available.
***Approx­­imate. Includes 6,982 cars from Abing­don and approximately 5000 from Long­bridge, from which accurate figures are not available.

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