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Austin Healey 100 vs. Austin Atlantic vs Austin Metropolitan

Back in the 1950s, BMC provided three vastly different ways to have motoring fun. What makes you smile the most in 2019 may well Published: 17th May 2019 - 0 Comments - Be the first, contribute now!

What The Experts Say...

Alistair While not only acts as the PR representative for the renowned Austin Counties Car Club (.(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)) but also owns both an Atlantic for 16 years – and a Metropolitan, the latter a two lady owner car.. Probably the youngest owner in the club (joining when he was 21), he loves their trans-atlantic styling with the Metropolitan the biggest head turner of the lot. Alistair adds owning and running either car is not a problem as mechanically, Healey specialists can help with the Atlantic and club remanufactures the most popular replacement panels although trim and things are a problem. Thanks to their endearing popularity in the US, Metropolitans are almost MG easy to run and repair.

David Wyley (right) is an ardent Austin fan and is building the most audacious Atlantic yet, as the engine is rebuilt with a Dennis Welch alloy cylinder head and tuned to Healey M spec! He has been searching for this car for 30 years after it appeared on an album cover. David says the car’s popularity in Australia helps with hard to find parts such as switchgear, etc.

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Austin loved America. If it wasn’t for their car enthusiasts’ long desire for British sports cars after the Second World War, we might not have classic legends such as the Austin-Healey 100 (and 3000), Triumph TR and Jaguar’s XK. BMC’s Leonard Lord yearned to conquer the US market before somebody else did. Initial attempts in 1948 to seize the Stateside market was with the aptly named Austin A90 Atlantic and it is said that he originally produced the first styling sketch, inspired by the 1946 Pininfarina Alfa Romeo Cabriolet, which also nodded to American tastes.

The bulbous Atlantic was not a big success. The car was certainly received well enough at its 1948 Earls Court début although understandably its announcement somewhat over-shadowed by the jaw-dropping Jaguar XK120.

To be fair to Lord, he tried hard to make the Atlantic a success in the USA even turning to highly successful record speed attempts but to little avail; of the respectable total of around 8000 made, only 350 went to the USA. Australia was one of the best markets with total imports of around 800.

In 1953, Lord devised a two-pronged attack, first with Healey 100 and then the quirky Austin Metropolitan. The history of the Healey is well charted but the ‘baby’ Atlantic less so. The Nash Metropolitans were, at first, exclusively made for the US market for the Nash/Kevinator Corporation to appeal to women as small second car. The Pininfarina-penned bodies were built by Birmingham-based Fisher & Ludlow, the mechanicals fitted by Austin at the Longbridge factory. Two versions were offered; the 541 (convertible) and the 542; (coupé), both powered by Austin’s 1200cc (A40) engine. So Austin powers across the Atlantic with these three decidedly different convertibles that are also ideal for these shores. What floats your boat though?

Which one to buy

1st Healey | 2nd Atlantic | 3rd Metropolitan

While both the A90 Atlantic and Austin-Healey 100 were made by Austin, and used many of the same components, they were very different and came from dissimilar directions. The Atlantic’s chassis was borrowed from the much smaller A40 but widened and suspension and brakes came from the A70. Vitally, for the American market it was aimed at, an electric hood was available as an option from the outset and the Atlantic, initially only as a convertible, was nicely trimmed with leather upholstery.

Despite the car’s commercial failure, Leonard Lord still fancied an Austin-powered sports car so was happy to accommodate Donald Healey with his new sportster and provide any components he needed – which were many. For the sake of secrecy, Healey had prototypes built in his own garage. Styling was by Gerry Coker who was actually a body engineer but had a very good sense of line and his designs had the benefit in that he knew they could be built.

It’s said that Healey disliked the 100’s frontal so much that he famously had the car positioned at the Motor Show to hide its face. The engine, a lusty but not sporty unit, was used in broadly the same tune as the A90 Atlantic unit but thanks to lower weight and better aerodynamics, maximum speed was up to 110mph with the screen flattened. Autosport would later test the car on the legendary Jabbeke straight at 112mph.

A Le Mans kit, known as the ‘M’ was available kicking out 110bhp owing to a high lift camshaft, higher compression and larger carburettors. Front double wishbone coil sprung and rear leaf sprung suspension was Atlantic sourced as were the brakes which by 1952 had become thankfully fully all hydraulic! As well as the ‘M’ version there were also just 55 of the fabulous ‘S’ racing cars churning out a healthy 132bhp contained by better brakes and suspension. These are now coveted to the extent that it’s unlikely that mortals such as you and us will ever be able to afford one now…

The Atlantic had long been forgotten by the time Austin phased out its trusty four-cylinder 2660cc old engine, which meant Healey had to source another engine. This time salvation came from the 2639cc six-cylinder taken from the Westminster saloon to create the 100/6 and then the 3000, but that’s, as they say, another story because it’s a car sporting a completely different character to the Hundred.

Most Atlantics were dropheads but a swanky fixedhead coupé, complete with vinyl covered roof, was launched in 1950, two years before the car was quietly dropped. In 1956, the Metropolitan (still only available in the US) receives a facelift, with the pokier 47bhp 1489cc B-Series powerplant superseding the far too small 1.2-litre A40 unit. Jazzy two-tone paint schemes are standardised while the exterior brightwork is revised.

In 1957 Austin finally made the quirky bench three-seater Metropolitan available in the UK but found few takers – a few thousand at most. Three years later a body revamp saw the boot get its own lid; previously the rear seat back was tipped forward for luggage bay access. It was all to little avail because the final car was built in 1961 the production tally being 104,000. Incidentally, the car was only sold as the Nash Metropolitan in America, where it could also be bought as a Hudson Metropolitan. Cars sold in the UK were marketed as Metropolitan 1500s in drophead and coupé forms.

Expenditure-wise Healeys are the most expensive as only the best Atlantics muster around £30-£35,000, a sum that barely affords a project Healey 1000 as the early models are worth far more than the latter six-cylinder models and a top standard car can attain £100,000. A 100M goes for double this at least – but that’s loose change when the ultra rare 100S can make the thick end of a million!

Cheapest by a country mile are the bumper car-looking Metropolitans where despite their rarity (well under 300 survive in the UK – thousands more in the US though) you’ll find it hard to spend £20,000 and that’s for a convertible. Just 1 in 13 Metropolitans were dropheads, so rag-tops command higher values. A good fixedhead can be yours for ten grand and it’s hard to think of something so fun loving and head turning for so little. Apart from half a dozen or so examples, all are right-hand drive – which means they’re automatically the Series 3 or S4 cars with the bigger engine although production of UK cars was suspended in early 1959 for 18 months to bolster production for the US market.

What’s the best to drive

1st Healey | 2nd Atlantic | 3rd Metropolitan

No prizes for guessing here but not only does this Healey stand head and shoulders over the others but the 100 is also preferred by enthusiasts over the later six-cylinder models, despite their lustier nature. This is because the Atlantic-powered 100 feels the more agile. While hardly quick in today’s terms either (0-60 in around 10-12 seconds), the Healey obviously has much higher performance and considering their commonality with the Atlantic, what Healey did to transform a very ordinary handling car – even by 1950’s standards – into a serious sports car is little short of startling.

Lord wanted the Atlantics’s maximum speed to exceed the magic ‘ton’, but however hard Austin engineers and test drivers tried, no more than 95 was the best it could muster and Motor, in its 1948 road test, could only coax 91mph from the twin carb engine upping power from 67 to 88bhp. That said, this together with a 0-60mph of less than 17 seconds was deemed pretty impressive in the late 1940s.

The Austin Atlantic was saddled with a column gearchange (but with a full four-speeds) although for a relaxed tourer it makes little difference to the driving pleasure and to be honest, rather adds to the quaint appeal of the Austin, we feel. The identical Healey’s gearbox was floor shifted but the much lighter weight of the sports car made the low first gear mostly redundant anyway so it was blanked off and an overdrive on third and fourth was combined instead. The Healey finally gained a proper four-speed gearbox in 1955 and was known as the BN2 (plus also had larger front wheel arches and the option of two-tone paint). Neither Austins compete with a Lotus Elan MX-5 when dealing with the twisty bits but that shouldn’t come as a great surprise. Across the Cotswolds, on a sunny Sunday, it has to be the lower, sports car Healey for pure fun yet if you wanted your classic to be an occasional daily or if you fancied carrying passengers, the far more leisurely Atlantic would foot the bill and, of course, there’s enormous scope to tune the engine via Healey specialists to make quite a decent Q Car.

In wet weather the hood on the Atlantic is far better than the Healey and is actually a pretty waterproof affair and there’s a saloon-styled version of course for those who don’t want wind-in-the-hair sensations. If you have kids or want to carry friends, it has to be the Atlantic and this car will be a more comfortable, if sedate drive as all Healeys by nature suffer from very warm footwells which makes summer driving somewhat challenging. Which leaves the Metropolitan languishing in last place. Even with the bigger, better B-Series engine installed performance is leisurely to say the least (0-60mph in 23 seconds and 76mph top speed were the quoted figures at the time).

Yet for such a small dodgem car, the surprisingly torquey and flexible 1.5-litre engine ensures there’s better real world performance available than you’d credit. It’s no slingshot, but you don’t have to row the car with its three-speed gearbox either; ratios being swapped by stirring a lever on the steering column.

Strangely, in common with the Healey this Austin also sports a four-speed gearbox but with ‘first’ blanked off (can this be reinstated we wonder?). Bear in mind also that the 1489cc unit found a welcome home in the MGA by the time the Nash came to our shores so all sorts of performance permutations are proffered if you want to improve modern day driving.

With such a short stubby wheelbase, independent suspension up front but a live axle and cart springs at the back handling is, shall we say, interesting and the whole set-up is ridiculously softly sprung to suit Americans. Major understeer is the order of the day, but once you’ve got to grips with it, the Metropolitan is fair fun to punt along.

We’d avoid routes that have too many really twisty bits though because of that understeer and the fact that things aren’t helped by those enclosed front wheels restricting the steering’s lock, limiting the turning circle to a oil tanker-like 37 feet, which hardly helps this tiddler’s manouevrability!

 

Owning and running

1st Healey | 2nd Metropolitan | 3rd Atlantic

Thanks to the component sharing of Austin to save cost, both the Healey Hundred and the Atlantic enjoy a good supply of mechanical components but, owing to the numbers surviving, the Healey has much better availability of body and interior parts, as you’d expect from an army of A-H specialists.

Alas, too many Atlantics were scrapped and sacrificed to heal a down at heel Healey and, according to the Austin Counties Car Club, around 100 are left now; a third roadworthy, a third undergoing restorations and the remaining third perhaps killing time on death row. However, this doesn’t mean that you cannot obtain body parts – although is chrome another matter – witness the lovely part restored convertible displayed by the Austin Counties Car Club at the recent excellent NEC Classic Car and Restoration Show.

Providing the Atlantic that you buy is relatively rust free, it will prove to be a reasonably inexpensive classic to maintain or own thanks to low insurance and mechanical parts costs plus over the years will more than keep up with inflation as this regal old Austin is becoming quite collectable.

Apparently, although Metropolitan body panels were obsolete within 18 months of production the fanbase in America has kept this car alive and thriving – albeit at a cost. Anything that’s superficially rusty can normally be rotten as a pear underneath and some owners just bodge the panelwork to sell the car on with the convertibles suffering the most.

But aside from a tired engine or transmission (no real problems in these areas), there’s only one major weak spot to be concerned about, and that’s worn kingpins if they’re not greased often enough. This wouldn’t be a big problem except the parts fitted to the Metropolitan are unique to it; the ever enthusiastic clubs (metropolitanownersclub.co.uk and nashmet.com) can however sort out reconditioned units though along with other parts and panels.

 

And The Winner Is...

1st Healey | 2ND Metropolitan | 3rd Atlantic

In terms of box ticking, then it has to be the Healey. Not only is this Austin a ‘proper’ sports car but it’s also a living legend that’s as popular now as ever. In comparison terms with the other pair, it’s pretty much a no contest and while – for fairness – we limited the choice to the four-cylinder 100 model, you might as well include the six pot 100/6 and the 3000 for they are much the same car in terms of design, if not character, and are cheaper buys due to weight of numbers.

It’s wrong to think of the Atlantic as saloon-like alternative because, while they share the same oily bits, they are as different as chalk and cheese to drive. That’s not to detract from the Atlantic’s good points such as Americana styling and room enough for four. However, it’s not our second choice.

That goes to the delightful dodgem, the Metropolitan. Yes, its performance levels lag the A90-powered Austins by a mile and it will be pain to keep that distinctive bodywork rot free, but if you’re after a laugh minute classic that puts a smile on your face every time you take it out – and gets everybody around grinning as well – this is the car for you… so long as you’re not a shrinking violet.

With that short wheelbase, those scalloped doors and the lairy two-tone paint job, combined it all gives this American Austin as much presence as anything costing 100 times as much. We reckon that the novel, natty Nash has to be the cutest looking car ever made and that is what makes you feel good the most. Surely, this is what classics, first and foremost, should be all about irrespective of their price tags and bhp figures?



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