THE BEST OF THE HEALEYS
Story by: Stuart Johnston, pics by Jay Groat
Thys Venter says that he can recognise the sound of an approaching Austin Healey 3000 from five blocks away. “The engine note is unique, a deep six-cylinder burble, and that is just one of the things I love about these cars, often known as Big Healeys.”
Venter’s beautifully restored Austin Healey 3000 is a Mk III model, the last, and arguably the best of a long line of British sports cars that first appeared at the 1952 Earls Court Motor Show in London and was badged simply as a Healey 100. The “100” bit stood for the fact that the car was capable (just) of doing 100 miles per hour. The car had been designed around a 2,6-litre four-cylinder Austin A90 engine and gearbox, and when Austin boss Leonard Lord saw the car at the show, he arranged a hurried meeting with Donald Healey.
Until that time, Donald Healey had been a small-time English producer of sports cars, namely a Riley-engined Healey Silverstone and a Nash Healey built in limited numbers for the American market.
Lord told Healey there and then he wanted to build the car as an Austin, as he could produce more examples than Healey had ever imagined. Before the show ended in late ’52, the only existing Healey 100 was re-badged as an Austin Healey, and by the time production of this timeless beauty ended 15 years later in December 1967, some 73 000 examples of Austin Healeys had been built.
The first Austin Healeys, known as the 100-4 models, were very successful on the showroom floor and did very well in motorsport events from the word go. The early four-cylinder models were distinguished by their truncated-pear-shaped grille with vertical slats, and a folding windscreen that could be angled almost flat to produce a much more streamlined profile. These 100-4 models were built in various guises, some of them very potent special models, until September 1956, when the new six-cylinder Austin Westminster engine was fitted.
A quick guide to identifying a six-cylinder Austin Healey from a four-cylinder model is that the grille shape was changed to a wider oval with crinkled horizontal slats. Also, the windscreen was now fixed and non-sliding with solid A-pillars along with a two-plus-two version, with nominal seating for children at the rear being offered, in a lengthened chassis. (The writer has vivid memories of being taken to nursery school in an early Austin Healey, driven by a lady friend of the family, whose husband was a real car enthusiast.)
Initially this 2.6-litre version, known as the 100-6, was hardly quicker than the 100-4, as it had a poorly designed cylinder head. A redesign of the cylinder head definitely improved things on the performance front in 1957, but the biggest leap came in 1959 when the Austin Healey 3000 was introduced, with the larger 2 913 cc engine.
Apart from extra power, an important upgrade for the Healey 3000 came in the form of disc brakes fitted to the front wheels. Interestingly, you could still order the Healey in two-seater or four-seater form at this stage of its evolution. The Healey 3000 evolved through Mk I and Mk II versions during the early 1960s, when triple SU carburettors were fitted to increase performance, but these proved difficult to keep in tune, and Austin soon reverted to a simpler twin SU set-up.
The Mk II version also had a slight grille design change when vertical slats replaced the earlier crinkle-cut horizontal slats of the Mk I 3000. Then, in August 1962, a cross-over model appeared, known as the 3000 Sports Convertible, which came with a curved windscreen, quarter lights and wind-up windows. A new sophisticated convertible top mechanism was much appreciated too.
The Mk III version, which debuted in 1963, retained the attractive new curved windscreen and wind-up windows, and also featured a lovely walnut wood dashboard. A pair of bigger 2-inch SU carburettors provided the fuel mixture, and further improvements continued to be made to the Mk III. The final Mk III versions produced 148 horsepower (111 kW) and top speed naturally increased as acceleration times shortened.
Venter’s car is a 1967 Mk III featuring raised ground clearance at the rear, introduced in 1964, which eased an exhaust-pipe snagging problem that had plagued all Austin Healeys since their introduction in 100-4 form.
It should be noted at this point that a fair few Austin Healeys were assembled in South Africa at BMC’s plant in Blackheath near Cape Town in the 1950s and 1960s – although Thys’s car was built at Abingdon in England – alongside the MG marque.
In its final form, with a four-speed gearbox and overdrive in third and fourth gears, the big Healey Mk III (designated as the BJ8 model), had a top speed of close to 200 km/h and a 0-100 km/h time of under 10 seconds.
Venter’s love of Healeys led him to open a classic car restoration business in Boksburg known as Route 101 Classic Cars, and this extremely well-run enterprise has carried out a number of Austin Healey restorations for customers over the past few years. At the time of our visit, a white Austin Healey 3000 Mk III was up on a hoist being fettled with final components for its restoration, while an earlier red 3000 version was also awaiting some mechanical attention.
“We are lucky to have a large complement of staff who are capable of working on a variety of these very valuable classics,” says Venter. Carefully stored around the large workshops were some amazing icons from the 1950s and 1960s, such as a couple of Jaguar E Types, a Mercedes-Benz 190 SL, an early Bristol awaiting a full restoration, and even a pre-war Mercedes-Benz. A first-gen Ford Mustang shares space with a Jaguar XK140, a few Triumph Stags, along with rare Mercedes-Benz 180 series ‘Ponton’ pick-ups, which were South African-specific models sold here in the late 1950s.
Getting back to Venter’s Healey 3000, it should be noted that the “Big Healey” name was an unofficial title that was bestowed on the original Austin Healey models, to differentiate it from the very popular Austin Healey Sprite, which made its debut in 1958. This was a much smaller, cheaper Austin Healey, and the original Sprite had pop-up headlights mounted on the nose, giving it the nickname “Frogeye”. The Austin Healey Sprite initially came with a 948 cc four-cylinder engine.
All the “Big Healeys” were based on the original chassis design conceived by Donald Healey’s son Geoffrey, in conjunction with their chief engineer at the time, Barry Bilbie. The styling was a collaboration between Donald Healey himself and Gerry Coker, and initially, way back before the Earls Court Show in October 1952, Coker and Donald Healey were agonising over whether they should build a version with tailfins, which were becoming so popular in the early 1950s.
Austin Healey enthusiasts all around the world will be forever grateful that the decision was made to go with the beautifully rounded tail section, which defines the Austin Healey, along with its long bonnet. In those early days before wind tunnels and computer simulations, it should be noted that the Healey had an extremely slippery shape, enabling a slightly modified 100-4 to achieve speeds of over 220 km/h at the Bonneville Salt Flats in late 1953.
Today in South Africa the Austin Healey Club is extremely strong with membership totalling over 200, while many members own more than one Healey. But rarity value is still high, and because of high global demand, a properly restored Austin Healey 3000 Mk III can command prices in excess of R1-million.