Austin Healey SixGentlemen's Relish Published: 6th May 2011 - 0 Comments - Be the first, contribute now!
- Best model: 3000Mk3
- Worst model: Anything bodged
- Budget buy: Mk1
- OK for unleaded?: No; conversion is needed
- Will it fit in the garage? (mm): L 13’ 1’’ x W 5’ ½’’ (inches)
- Spares situation: Excellent, but some bits costly
- DIY ease?: Yes, except for the bodywork
- Club support: Superb
- Appreciating asset?: Yes
- Good buy or good-bye?: Good buy
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It may sound sexist and non PC but the meaty big six-pot Healeys are defi nitely hairy-chested classics – for men only
Pros & Cons
The love child of Donald Healey and Leonard Lord, after the former unveiled it at the 1952 London Motor Show wearing Healey 100 badges (but no engine!) the Big Healey has become one of the best brawny British sports cars ever. When the BMC head spotted it at the show he instantly saw a business opportunity simply by supplying one of his engines and the design quickly became the Austin-Healey 100 – the model name being an indication of the envisaged top speed. The deal with Austin led to the fi rst 20 cars being built in March 1953 and over the next 15 years, more than 70,000 big Healeys were produced with 49926 bing six pot -powered. As well as the road cars there were worksentries in both circuit racing and rallying, the latter where Healeys were renowned for, right up to 1965. It’s the original British bruiser; a hairy-chested sports car for real men, which has to be taken by the scruff of the neck and tamed. It may be a bit of a handful, but there’s nothing like a big six pot Healey at full chat when it comes to good old-fashioned driving fun.
To the unitiated all big Healeys are the same, but like most classics, there were myriad changes to the engine, transmission, trim and even the bodyshell. After the successful run of the original (and some reckon most desired) 100/4, the 100-6 (BN4) was released in October 1956, featuring a longer wheelbase than before plus a 101bhp 2639cc six-cylinder engine that was found in the fl agship Austin Westminster saloon. Slotting in a six pot always sounds good news but the change was more due to economics and what was available at BMC because the bigger, heavier engine was really little more powerful over the earlier ‘four’ that had been discontinued by Austin. Add a lot more weight and the new Healey was actually slower and lazier.
The Healey was growing up in other ways, too; the windscreen no longer folded fl at, a pair of seats were somehow squeezed in the back for 2+2 motoring and there was a new, oval grille to distinguish the car. In November 1957 the BN4 received bigger valves and revised manifolding toliberate a lusty 117bhp, which improved performance a good deal. The 100-6 (BN6), introduced in April 1958, saw a return to just two seats then the daddy of them all, the 3000 Mk1 (BN7 or BT7 for 2+2 version) was launched in March 1959. Now featuring BMC’s 124bhp 2912cc C series engine, front disc brakes were – thankfully – now standard issue.
Built in 1961/62, the fi rst 3000 MkIIs were MkIs with triple carbs and a vertically slatted grille. Incidentally the extra SU liberated hardly any added power in road tune; rather it was to make the car comply with racing regulations. These cars only ran for a year and are identifi ed by a special vertically slatted grille and a needed purposeful - looking bonnet bulge. From 1962 the MkII received a toned up torso with a curved windscreen, wind-up windows and a folding hood. Reverting to more reliable twin carbs, the model is denoted BJ7. The fi nal fl ing was the MkIII, produced between 1964-1968. Similar to the BJ7, the differences comprise a walnut dash, larger 2-inch SU carbs, separate indicators front and rear and a new camshaft to give a hearty, healthy 148bhp that fi nally saw the ‘six‘ match the original 100/4 for outright pace.
There were also some rarities along the way. 1954 saw the production of 55 100S (for Sebring) cars, with bodies and cylinder heads of alloy. In the same year two coupes were built on the BN1 chassis – thankfully both survive. A Le Mans kit could be specifi ed on BN2s, raising power to 100 or 110bhp, depending on camshaft choice. Known as the 100M, the car featured bigger carbs along with changes to the distributor and valve springs. Around 1100 of these were produced, some 100s being modifi ed retrospectively.
In 1964 two prototype fastback 3000s were made, each different. The project was canned but both survive. Then in 1966/7 there was an attempt to keep the Healey going with a 4000 version, using the Vanden Plas 4-litre (R’s) Rolls Royce-derived engine. Widened by six inches, just two were made (one manual, one auto), although at least one 3000 has been converted.
If the term ‘hairy-chested’ could ever be labelled at a classic British sports car then the Healey deserves it more than most. Finesse just doesn’t come into it – the A-H is all about brawn and bravado. Sure, six pot models are more noseheavy than the earlier ‘fours’ and handling duly suffers, but boy can you have fun with the tail in the wet….
Whether the bodyshell is made of steel or aluminium makes quite a difference, as an alloy body boosts the power to weight ratio quite noticeably and the six (rather like the later MGC which replaced the Healey) feels a bit lazy when compared to the 100/4. Only the last 148bhp models cracked the 10 second skit to 60mph but as ever in real world driving the car doesn’t hang about and there’s pulling power to spare. When a 3000 MkIII is running properly it’ll accelerate from a standing start to the magic ton and back again – in 29 seconds. And that’s pretty impressive even by modern standards. What’s more the ‘six’ always benefi ted from a proper four-speed gearbox with overdrive and closer ratios.
What is also hot is the cockpit thanks to all that heat soak! It’s a very antiquated cabin with few creature comforts despite all the wood and leather on later cars. However in 2+2 form there’s fair room for two small kids in the back and the ‘six‘ is certainly smoother and quieter than an equivalent 100/4 on a touring run. Ergonomics are very primitive however and the heaviness of all the controls will surprise many MGB drivers, let alone those used to newer machinery. Without being sexist the best way to sum up a Healey is to say it’s a bloke’s car and doesn’t pretend to be otherwise (So how come Pat Moss – Carlsson – Stirling’s sister – did so well rallying one-ed).
Thanks to an army of Healey specialists and their involvement in classic motorsport there’s a lot you can do to a Healey although for occasional road use upgrades can be kept to a minimum. The disc drum set up can be simply improved using larger brake calipers taken from Lotus Cortinas with harder pads. The suspension really only needs the usual beefi ng up (don’t lower it anymore though!) and poly bushing. Alloy cylinder heads are now available, while suitable gas fl owing reaps real rewards in better breathing. Along with a freer fl owing exhaust manifold, the big six can easily yield a tractable 180bhp in road tune. If you wish the block can be bored out to a lustier 3.3-litres while there are 3.5-litre kits – but that’s stretching it for road use in every way.
Healey prices have been on the rise for the past few years and the days of a bargain buy are fading fast. You now need to have at least £30,000 burning a hole in your pocket to net one on one of the various concours cars out there. Of course it’ll be far too good to use so you’d be better off buying a really nice example that you could show if you wanted. Such a car will set you back something like £20,000, while a more usable big Healey is 20 per cent less, or around £16,000. If you’ve got £10,000 or less to spend you’ll get a car that’s and usable, but will need a lot of work before too long. What you don’t want to do is splash out less than £5000 on a rebuild project – where restoration will cost more than the car’s worth. If you’ve got mega-money it’s the works cars that are the ones to go for – especially as their survival rate is very good. Just don’t expect any change out of £100k, and that’s on the rare occasions they actually come up for sale.
What To Look For
- Rust and accident damage are the key things to look out for, to both the chassis and the bodywork. Unusually, the bodyshell is welded to the chassis, making proper repairs that much harder – which is why bodges are so common and can catch out even the professional. If they are that bad walk away as proper repairs will outweigh a car’s value in most cases.
- The ladder-frame chassis is simple, but it can be damaged with the slightest knock – even a minor nudge on the front corner will lead to kinks. Check to see if the main rails are straight – any distortion will indicate accident damage. See if the car pulls to one side with no steering input – if the car has been in a shunt it’s possible to straighten out the chassis, but it’s very expensive to do, so you’re probably better looking elsewhere.
- Chassis corrosion is a major concern – the main rails and outriggers all suffer from tinworm. The outriggers support the sills, and mud thrown up on the move gets trapped between the two. With nowhere to go, the moisture trapped within then eats away at both chassis and body.
- Beware of bodged chassis and fl oorpan repairs. Because the fl oorpans and bulkhead are welded to the chassis, many people won’t effect a proper repair. The whole of the bottom nine inches of the car is susceptible to rot, which means fl oorpans, sills, wings and wheelarches need careful inspection. Inner sills are structural and diffi cult to repair. These need to be checked from inside the car, but the carpeting can make inspection tricky.
- The front shroud is particularly diffi cult to restore properly, as it consists of several alloy sections welded together and there are compound curves galore. Although not prone to rusting, parking knocks can wreak havoc with the soft metal, leading to all sorts of problems. The metal is so soft that it’s possible to collect dents in alloy panels just by leaning against them while working on the car. Check in natural light.
- The body panels are normally steel, but alloy replacements have been available for a long time. Consequently they’re common, but no more or less desirable than their steel equivalents. While steel panels are more prone to corrosion, alloy ones dent a lot easier.
- As there’s no double-skinned panelling, just open the bonnet or boot and look from inside for dents that have been fi lled. Accident damage is also common, especially from parking nudges. If a front or rear shroud needs replacing you can expect a £2000 bill just for the new panelwork, with fi tting extra.
- Look at the swage line that runs down the length of the car. If the doors don’t line up properly, the car has been badly restored and it’s best to walk away. Jack the car up at its rearmost point. If the door gaps close up the chassis is weak and needs to be replaced – which is £3000 upwards just for the parts alone… Front wings (depending upon steel or alloy) cost between £400-£500.
- New body shells are available from specialists if you want to carry out a nut and bolt resto (try AH Spares 01926 817181) but check the bank balance fi rst although to be fair if the original body is that far gone anyway a new shell could work out to be more cost effective than fi rst imagined.
- Engines are tough as they’re effectively tuned truck units (although Healey denies this claim). Unless thrashed or neglected they’ll cover 200,000 miles between rebuilds – but when that time comes you’ll be looking at a bill for the thick end of £2000 for the parts alone. That said it’s an easy, if heavy, engine to fi x yourself.
- Oil consumption is usually high (as much as a pint every 250 miles) but at least the ‘six’ doesn’t leak lube like the four-cylinder unit tends to. Oil pressure should be 50lb on the move and as little as 10lbft at hot idle. Also, don’t panic if there’s water weeping from between the block and head. It’s normal so you just have to keep an eye on the coolant level.
- Take a look at the running temperature of the engine. Properly maintained cars give no trouble and should run on the cool side but neglected ones suffer from silted up waterways and radiators. Flushing it through usually fi xes things but you may need a new radiator, at £100 or so.
- Take a look also at the exhaust system – as it’s super close to the ground and frequently gets knocked and scrapped on ‘sleeping policemens’ about and you can reckon on seeing some bodged repairs as a new system isn’t exactly cheap; reckon on around £100 for a mild steel system or between £550 and £800 for a stainless system from Quicksilver (www.quicksilver exhausts.com), which although dear is beautifully made and will last the life of the car.
- The four-speed Westminster transmissions are tough and should be quiet. Overdrive problems are usually because of dodgy electrics or blocked fi lters. Rear axles generally leak oil so don’t be alarmed. But this gradually empties the diff, which then means major expense when it seizes up – so make sure the diff isn’t noisy.
- The lever arm dampers tire and leak, as do the steering boxes. A bigger problem is worn kingpins, given away by sloppy steering. Getting a specialist to fi x these for you will set you back a hefty £500 or so although as the running gear is essentially Austin, you may fi nd cheap parts at an autojumble.
- Big Healeys sit low at the back by nature, but check there’s no sagging. Renewing the rear springs means removing the axle and entire suspension, so it’s a costly affair if you’re not the DIY sort. On fi nal cars, the Panhard rod to secure the rear axle was replaced by simple radius arms. See that their bushes are not shot.
- 48-spoke wheels are fragile because of the amount of torque they have to transmit. Many owners have swapped them for 72-spoke items instead, but if it still needs doing you need to budget on around £100 per corner for painted ones or £180 for chrome. If wire wheels are fi tted, check for play in the splines by supporting the car on axle stands then grabbing each wheel while somebody holds the footbrake. Try to turn the wheel backwards and forwards – if there’s detectable play it’s time for new splines – at £75 per corner.
- The interiors were never that luxurious, even later cars, and you can get everything practically off the shelf. Leather was confi ned tojust the seat facings. Check for dampness and rotting fl oors as a matter of course. Incidentally heaters were optional and many cars will lack one, but at least the engine’s heat soak will keep you warn! Talking on comfort, if the hood is tatty don’t fret as new ones usually costs not much more than a £120.
- Around 90 per cent of Big Healeys were exported to the US when new, and many have found their way back here. Check that what you’re buying started out as a right-hand drive car (assuming it’s not a left-hand drive!) or that conversion has been done properly.
Three Of A Kind
Daimler SP250Get past those awkward looks and you’ll discover that the SP250 is a true gem. The problem is, with just 2648 built, there aren’t enough good ones to go round. If you do manage to track one down however, you’ll quickly appreciate the pearl of a V8 engine, the reliability plus the great performance too. You’ll need at least £15,000 to secure something good though; look out for ‘micro blistering’ paint and poor quality interior trim, plus crazed bodywork.
Jaguar XksProbably the closest rival to the six pot Healey in style, character and overall performance although the Jags sell for a lot more. XK120 is purist choice but later XK140/150s are better daily drivers and a lot more useable. Closed topped Coupes are more like sportier Mk2s and car is fairly 2+2 sized – no worse than a Healey certainly. Now the XK has hit 60, prices are catching E-type, meaning that there are few bargains left. Really cheap cars should be viewed with care.
MGCSpiritual successor to the Big Healey, the MGC was a massive fl op when it was launched back in 1967, although now the car is looked upon in an entirely new light. Heavier and more cumbersome than an MGB, the C is better suited as a lusty long legged tourer, although early criticisms of dire understeer are now eradicated by modern radials and better chosen tyre pressures. As cheap as an MGB to buy and keep with an equally brilliant club and specialist support.
If you’re looking for a big beefy classic that will hold its own against fancier cars as well as its value, a Big Healey should be on your list. It’s as exciting as any E-type and just as classy. Just try one and tell us otherwise!
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