If you are planning to buy a big Austin Healey then you need to make absolutely sure you are buying the right model for your needs, before you even take one for a test drive. The owner is probably only going to let you out for a short test run of about 10 to 15 minutes. This may be long enough for you to decide if the car is in good enough condition to buy and that everything is working. But it isn’t long enough for you to decide whether it is the right model Healey for you or whether you can live with it or not. And if you are planning to spend over twenty thousand Pounds on an Austin Healey then you are in it for the long term. The best thing to do is hire a car of the model that you are planning to buy, to see if you really like it and can live with it.
First you need to understand the differences between the various Healey models and then some of the practicalities of owning and driving one. Having decided on the right car for you, you need to find one of that model and hire it for a day or weekend. Here I am talking about the cars that are generally called the “Big Healey” as opposed to the Austin Healey Sprite which by anyone’s definition would have been a very “Small Healey”. The Big Healey went through various evolutions, as most cars do, from the original Healey 100 of 1953 through to the final Healey 3000 MkIII which ceased production in 1968.
The Healey 100 was launched at the 1952 Motor Show with a body built by the Donald Healey Motor Company and the Austin engine that had been used in the A90 Atlantic and light trucks.
In what has become one of the stories of motoring legend, Leonard Lord of Austin was so impressed with the car that a deal was done and the car was instead launched as the Austin Healey 100. The four cylinder engine was a long stroke 2,660cc overhead valve (OHV) version which developed only 90 bhp but 150 lb ft of torque. Early models now tend to be known as 100/4.
The original cars had a four speed gearbox fitted the engine produced so much torque that 1st gear was deemed unnecessary and was blanked off. A Laycock de Normanville overdrive was fitted which worked on 2nd and 3rd (now top) gears, effectively giving the car 5 gears. A Le Mans kit was offered giving 110 bhp which would turn your car into a 100M and a limited edition of 50 competition variants were sold as the 100S (Sebring) giving 132 bhp.
But there are a few downsides to the car.
Brakes were drums all round with no servo assistance and worked well but needed regular adjustment. Steering was by cam and peg making it fairly heavy and slightly vague. The 16½ in diameter steering wheel, which was fitted to give sufficient leverage to lighten the steering, left little room in the cockpit for the driver’s legs. The leather seats were very basic bucket ones, with no option to recline and were not very comfortable. Windows were clip on side screens and erecting the hood was a lengthy complex process akin to erecting a tent. There was very little heat insulation built into the car with the result that much of the engine heat would bleed into the cockpit. This and the fact that the passenger was sitting above the exhaust meant that a Healey passenger was never cold, but the cockpit could become extremely hot in summer in a warm country.
In 1955 the 3 speed gearbox was replaced with a better 4 speed one with overdrive on 3rd and 4th, giving it 6 gears.
The first major revision to the car came In 1956 with the 100-Six when the four cylinder engine was replaced by a 6 cylinder engine of 2,639cc. This engine was smoother but had less torque than the 100/4 and as the car was heavier the car was slower than its predecessor. The interior was re-designed and the wheelbase increased slightly to allow 2 small seats to be fitted, offering a 2+2 layout. The cylinder head was changed in 1957 to increase the engine power. To keep the price down, some items which were standard on the 100/4 were now optional extras, including overdrive, wire wheels and even a heater!
Healey 3000 MkI
In 1959 the six cylinder engine was upgraded to 2,912 cc and the Healey 3000 was born. Power had increased to 124 bhp although adverts claimed 130 bhp. Overdrive was still an optional extra and braking was improving with disks at the front. The 2+2 variant continued to be offered and windows were still clip on side screens although now had a sliding panel instead of the earlier hinged window to allow for hand signals.
Healey 3000 MkII
In 1961 the MkII was launched with a triple carburettor engine increasing power slightly to 132 bhp and then in 1963 the Sports Convertible was announced, becoming the first Healey with wind up windows. The hood was completely revised so that it folded down normally and could be erected in seconds with just one hand. This is retrospectively referred to as the MkIIa. The troublesome triple carbs were changed back to a pair of SUs but the car benefitted from having a brake servo as an optional extra, drastically improving the braking ability of the car.
Healey 3000 MkIII
The final incarnation , the MkIII ran from 1964 to the end of production in 1968 and is the most numerous of all the models built. The car finally became civilised with a more luxurious interior, polished walnut veneer dashboard with lockable glove box and provision for a radio and a single speaker. The seats were improved and the rear seats folded down to form a flat luggage shelf to increase the otherwise poor luggage capacity of the car.
Official Healey production ceased in 1968 but a number of companies have offered replicas of Healeys with more modern running gear. The chassis and body shell tends to be based on the 3000 MkIII and the engine is generally a V8, sometimes the 3.9 litre used in late model Rovers and the MG RV8. The cars are variously described as either a Healey MkIV, Sebring, 3000 S etc.
The various Austin Healey models are normally described by enthusiasts, and therefore in classic car adverts by the first three characters of their chassis number:
BN1 Healey 100/4
BN2 Healey 100/4 with 4 speed gearbox
BN4 Healey 100/6 two plus two
BN6 Healey 100/6 two seater
BN7 Healey 3000 MkI & II two seater
BT7 Healey 3000 MkI & II four seater
BJ7 Healey 3000 MkIIa four seater
BJ8 Healey 3000 MkIII
What are the practicalities of the different models?
The Big Healey is generally regarded as a ‘hairy chested’ sportscar being designed to be driven by men. This is not a sexist comment as the car is genuinely heavy to drive. The lack of power steering and no servos on the early cars mean that driving one is quite hard work and can be tiring on long journeys. Overdrive was an optional extra on some models, but makes such a huge difference when cruising that I would regard this as essential when buying an Austin Healey.
All Healeys are very light on luggage space. The boot is short and curves down and is therefore very small and not helped by the fact that the battery and spare wheel between them, take up about half the available space.
All Healeys are very low, with very little ground clearance and a low slung exhaust that runs under the rear axle. If you are planning to take the car rallying then you are likely to have problems on rough roads. The profusion of speed bumps everywhere from residential streets to pub car parks means that both the sump and exhaust are always at risk. At The Open Road we fitted our BJ7 with a sump guard after one customer holed the sump on a rough road and have added an extra hanging bracket to one of the rear bumper irons to provide added support for the exhaust.
If you live in a country that suffers, or benefits, from inclement weather, then you really need to buy one of the later BJ7 or BJ8 cars with wind up windows and a good hood. BJ7 and BJ8s also benefit from being fitted with a brake servo making the car more drivable in modern traffic conditions.
All cars up to BJ7 had the indicators in with the side lights and brake lights. In modern traffic this means that the indicator is not very visible as it is a flashing brake light. The large amber indicators on the BJ8 are much more visible and arguably, safer.
Despite being referred to as the “Big Healey” these cars are very small inside. They are only big in comparison with the Frogeye Sprite and are smaller than the other 2 seater sports cars of the same era, the MGB and Triumphs TR2, TR3 and TR4. The cockpit is very narrow with short doors. If you weigh more than 18 stone (250 lbs, 115 kilos) you are unlikely to fit.
While some of the cars were built as 2+2 , recent European legislation states that small children (under 4ft 5in or 135cm in height) have to sit on a booster and this makes it completely impractical. I personally wouldn’t want a small child to be carried in the back of our own BJ7 and therefore as proprietor of The Open Road I tell all our classic car hire customers to treat our Austin Healey as a 2 seater.
Which is the best one to buy all depends on personal taste?
As with any model car there are a number of people that believe the original incarnation is the purist, in which case you have to decide between the 100/4 and 100/6. You have to grapple with the early awkward gearbox and comfort is minimal from the bucket seats. There was no provision made to install a radio, not that you’d be able to hear it. If it rains you either keep driving or get wet while you fit the windows and erect the hood.
The Healey 3000 produced progressively more power and the interiors improved slightly with the MkI and MkII. But if you prefer reasonably civilised motoring then you need to opt for the MkIIa (BJ7) or MKIII (BJ8) with wind up windows and a proper hood. The MkIIIs had space in the dashboard to fit a radio although you still may not be able to hear it above the noise of the engine, exhaust and the wind.
If you want further information on the Healey then Haynes publish an excellent book as part of their “Great Cars” series and this is available from Haynes direct, most specialist booksellers and The Open Road.
Hiring an Austin Healey before you buy one
Having picked the right model Healey, you then need to hire one for a day, or even better a weekend’s touring. The early Healey 100s are very rare with only one available for hire in England and one for hire in Italy. Healey 3000s are more numerous with a choice of 10 available for hire in the UK and others available in Austria, Germany, South Africa and the USA. Once you have decided which model Healey fits your needs, have a look through the Marques page on Classic Car Hire World. Select Austin Healey and this will show you a list of all the Healeys of various models that are available for hire around the world.
A weekend away may cost you anywhere from £500 to £1,000 for the car hire, a good hotel, a nice meal and all your petrol. But it is well worth it for two reasons:
1) You will have a great weekend away
2) Better to spend £1,000 or so and decide you can’t live with an Austin Healey, than find this out after you have parted with £20,000 to £30,000 or more of your hard earned cash.
Treat yourself and hire the right car for a day or so. At best it will make sure you buy the right one, at worst it may cure you of the Austin Healey bug – but probably not!