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Jaguar XK vs Big Healey

This pair of British beefcakes remain the epitome of 1950’s sports car motoring but what serves up the tastiest dish for you to Published: 13th Mar 2018 - 0 Comments - Be the first, contribute now!

What The Experts Say...

Last year A. H. Spares celebrated 45 years of trading and brother and sister (Jonathan and Rebecca) co-directors say interest in these classic Healeys has never been greater. Speaking to Rebecca Kemsley, days before heading for Retromobile, she says both here, and across Europe, demand for spares is high, split between professionals and keen DIY owners, the latter in part due to this car’s simplistic make up. Components are mainly UK made, the rest sourced from the US where the Big Healey is continues its popularity.

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There’s always been one upmanship in motoring and probably always will be. When the Jag XK and Austin-Healey sat in the showrooms, it was case of sporty gents bought Browns Lane wares while chaps or blokes in their flat caps probably elected to look to Longbridge (if you want to split hairs, we know Healeys were built by Jensen in West Bromwich but some weren’t-ed!).

Now they are both classics, is there still such a pecking order? Until recently, the answer was yes, to a degree, with the Big Healey trailing the XK (which in turn trailed the E-type) but such dutiful deference is diminishing and they are pretty much on even footings, including general values, so it’s pretty much a case of personal preference as opposed to a class thing. Which is a good thing…

Which one to buy?

Similar yet different

As both designs surfaced just after WW2 they relied on pre-war components and so were hardly cutting edge although the XK (based on a cut-down MkV saloon chassis) was initially clad in hand-made aluminium panels over an ash and steel frame, due to post war material shortages where steel was only allocated for export production. The XK was Jaguar’s first LHD model to target the USA, a burgeoning sports car market ever since. As a result there were 25,000 left-hand drivers, just 5000 right-handers.

There are a couple of points which will make your decision easier: if you want a pure fixedhead it will have to be an XK as factory hard tops were a rare-spotted option on the Big Healey.

Tiny car maker, the Donald Healey Motor Company, which had only started literally months after, the end of WW2 made a name for himself by building high class sports coupés with costly Riley engines, but he knew that to grow his company he needed to offer a cheaper car particularly in the US where Nash-Healeys cost $2000 more than the XK120.

It initially débuted at the 1952 London Motor Show, resulting in Healey inundated with orders that it knew he couldn’t fulfil; fortunately Austin-Morris head Leonard Lord was sufficiently impressed with the car and – more importantly its public acclaim – that he agreed to step in and build it, giving Donald royalties on each one.

The first – called Austin-Healey 100/4 – used the four-cylinder 2.6-litre Austin A90 Atlantic engine, albeit higher tuned to over 90bhp, before being replaced in 1956 by the 102bhp, 2.6-litre six pot ‘Westminster’ unit in the BN4 2+2 which was over six inches longer with a wheelbase increased by two inches. The following BN6 enjoyed 117bhp before being replaced in 1959 by the larger 3-litre, resulting in the ‘3000’ strain. Initially with 129bhp and front disc brakes, a 134bhp 3000 MkII followed in 1961 with a choice of BN7 two-seater and BT7 2+2. The MkIIA 2+2 in 1962 was the start of the gentrification of the Healey with a stylish curved screen, permanently attached folding hood, quarter lights and finally winding windows in place of draughty, leaky, plastic side screens.

BJ8 2+2 150bhp MkIII completed the job of turning a raw sports car to a civilised sports tourer sporting a more luxurious interior with leather trim and a burr walnut dashboard. The final iteration was the BJ8 Phase 2 which employed anti-tramp bars to secure the rear axle and, at last, added ground clearance to increase exhaust silencer survival rates.

It should be borne in mind the transition from 100/4 to 100/6 and then onto the 3000 Healeys was purely down to pragmatism and production reasons first and foremost. There’s more to a car’s evolution than pure power and the six-pot Healeys did gain more refinement and civility as with those extra cylinders, although, as a result, the Healey’s demeanour changed.

The XK evolved in much the same way, becoming faster yet more civilised at the same time. The roadster versions very similar in concept to the early Healeys – raw sports cars; Jaguar recognised this and offered not only a Fixedhead Coupé but also a Drophead Coupé complete with a proper hood and wind-up windows. The first 120s developed 160bhp and later ones 180bhp. In 1954, the XK120 morphed into the 140, available as Roadster and Drophead Coupé with a considerable number of changes forced by customer feedback, American owners. The chassis was revised to allow the engine to be moved forward to improve leg room with the hidden benefit of moving weight forward and improving stability but the disadvantage of increasing the already strong understeer.

High-lift cams saw power raised to 190bhp and the steering was greatly improved by the fitting of a rack and pinion system instead of recirculating ball like the Healey. A special equipment (SE) version became available with 210bhp which would become pretty standard on the XK150 in 1958. Not everyone was taken by the XK150 mind, as it was not as good looking as its forebears, but it was much the more practical and comfortable car.

There’s the question of money and both are making big bucks. Healeys traditionally trailed XK values but the gap notably narrowing. Rolling restoration but roadworthy MoT’d Healey 100/6 will cost from around £35,000 and a concours 3000 MkIII around £90K mark. An XK fixedhead starts at around £45,000 with a concours XK120 alloy Roadster or XK150 3.8 S Roadster in the stratosphere; say £250,000-£300,000. For sure top XK values can match or even outstrip E-types and are catching Aston DBs, especially as this year marks 70 years of the XK120 which will surely boost overall values.

Healey Hundred prices, particularly the 100M and the Le Mans-inspired S derivatives aren’t far behind either. All things being equal, 100/6s equate to some two-thirds values of a 3000 but there are exceptions, such as the 100/6 S, of which 50 cars sported 3000 disc brakes along with a higher-tuned 2.6-litre engine, all fitted to homologate the car for racing purposes. That it was carried out at the Works further adds to the appeal and, recently, one sold for £56,000. Another rarity is the early Longbridge-built models, identified by their peculiar bonnet design.

What’s the best to drive?

Elbows out all the way

It’s fair to say that with both brands, the earliest cars were the most evolving if you were prepared to put up with their deficiencies. However, Jaguar managed to develop its XK more effectively than Healey was allowed and an XK150 feels less vintage than the last Healey 3000 BJ8 thanks to the all-round discs (it was the first British car to have them) and a lovely rack and pinion steering, notably free of play unlike the Healey’s sloppy old steering box. To be fair, the exception is the gear change which, on early acquaintance the A-H’s one is much easier to use than the Jaguar’s slow old Moss ’box which admittedly, once mastered, is actually a pleasure to use.

Both cars need to be shown who’s the boss and, as their successes in rallying and circuit racing have shown, both can be modified considerably. If you want to press on, the Healey’s seats are more supportive unlike the Jag’s bench which offers no lateral support at all. Very good ‘racing’ bucket seats were an option when new and are now available from various Jaguar specialists. They totally transform the driving experience.

If you are looking for a car for long jaunts or continental trips as well as dashing across our countryside, it really has to be an XK140 or 150. The 120 is too cramped and the drum brakes marginal while any Healey suffers from high cockpit temperatures making the car particularly uncomfortable on summer trips. Unlike Healeys and the 120, 140 and 150 featured very good lined hoods which are totally waterproof and can be raised and lowered easily. You can’t talk about civility with any 50’s sports car but of the pair, the Healey is the more rustic and agricultural – yet that’s more of a compliment than a criticism.

Even if you don’t intend ear-holing your Healey around, you’ll appreciate how much more agile the 100/4 feels and how much smoother it rides – hardly serene by any standards, but not as laden as a ‘Six‘. In contrast, the six-pack Healeys have the advantage of a four-speed gearbox from the outset against the 100/4’s wider ratio threespeeder, which was fitted up to 1955 before the Westminster four-speeder was installed.

Performance-wise, the XK always enjoyed a considerable edge with power outputs ranging from 160 to 265bhp against the Healey’s 92-150bhp. Contemporary road tests show Healeys ranging from 103 to 122mph against the XK’s 117-136mph clip. 0-60mph figures for the Healey hover around 10-11 seconds with the XK as little as 7.5 (E-type-powered XK150S) respectively, although as classics this is little more of academic interest, as is fuel economy which on both spans from 15-20mpg. Overdrive was standard on early (three-speed) Healeys and optional on later cars and available on the XK140 and 150 and really makes a sizeable difference, not only reducing noise (although neither can be labelled ‘quiet’) but further improving fuel consumption.

Owning and running

Healey possibly cheapest

There’s really not much in it on this score to tip the deciding vote one way or the other. Both were hardly cutting edge when new (XK engine excepted) and as such are straightforward classics to look after at home, although they are fairly heavy-duty designs and need the appropriate tools and especially stout jacks, and so on.

As Healeys relied on Austin Atlantic/ A90 running gear, it’s inherently the simpler car; certainly that lump of big six is as conventional, albeit larger, as a Morris Minor to look after and parts supply, standard or tuned, is excellent. The XK overhead camshaft engine is hardly high tech 70 years on, but setting the valve clearances remain beyond the scope of many home mechanics.

Parts supply and prices are pretty evenstevens and arguably the Healey is better supported when it comes to body parts and panels with new (not BMH) shells available; SC Parts is advertising a chassis hull for under £14,000, for example.

A goodly amount of mechanical hardware is shared with big BMC saloons of that era, but such commonality is not the case with the relationship of the XK and the Jaguar saloons made at that time.

Both cars benefit from some amounts of modifying and improving for road use and there’s no shortage of upgrades; specialists say that it’s rare to find a completely standard Jag or A-H as many owners prefer better braking (early versions of both relied on adequate but heavy under foot drum brakes) and handling but without spoiling their unique characters.


And The Winner Is...

Who wouldn’t turn down either? They’re both being true-blue British sports car that if you turn up in either, you’d be sure of lots of attention and deserved envy. Neither can be called cheap anymore yet in today’s monetary terms they still strive to fill the void between exotic and good, honest fun sports car motoring. You decide – because we can’t – although what may sway it for the XK is its better engine and more precise steering. Be in no doubt – if the E-type hadn’t happened, XKs would be even more revered than they are now.

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