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Jaguar XK vs.  Big Healy

They’ve been fierce rivals since the early 50s when new, but what iconic British sports classic whets your appetite for 2107? Published: 9th Dec 2016 - 0 Comments - Be the first, contribute now!

What The Experts Say...

Writer of this article Robert Couldwell recently sold his XK150 DHC after “12 wonderful years” and only because he wanted space to seat four. Like others, Robert’s car was uprated in certain areas and this is becoming more common says Bristol Classic & Sports Cars, probably the UK’s largest XK restorer, who also sells enhanced turn key restorations.

AH Spares, of Warks, says Big Healey owners concentrate mostly on brakes and electrical upgrades but adds that too many owners continue to seriously under value and insure their cars.

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We have the Americans to thank for this pair of British classic cars for without this lucrative market they would never have been made.

The Jaguar XK came about essentially as a quick rebody of an existing basic chassis, to primarily showcase Lyons’ new advanced XK engine at the 1948 London Motor Show, while BMC head Leonard Lord quickly cottoned on to the potential of the Healey 100 sports car that was in search of a suitable engine and take over where the Austin Atlantic left off.

Today, this pair of British beefcakes are the epitome of 1950’s sports car motoring meaning anyone in such a market for classy classic motoring must put both on their shopping list.

Which model to buy sports car or tourer

The XK 120 concept was based on a cut-down MkV saloon chassis clad in hand-made aluminium panels over an ash and steel frame, viable for a predicted run of 200, based on 400 sales of Jaguar’s previous two-seater over four years.

The public response at the 1948 Earls Court show changed everything and Jaguar had to rapidly prepare for volume production. Owing to post war material shortages, steel was only allocated for export production and the XK became the first left-hand drive Jaguar to target the USA, a burgeoning sports car market. As a result there were 25,000 left-hand drivers, just 5000 right.

The Austin-Healey on the other hand was no mistake. Tiny car maker, the Donald Healey Motor Company, which had only started in 1945, had been hand-building sports and luxurious coupés with costly Riley engines.

Donald Healey knew that to grow his company he would need to offer a cheaper sports car particularly in the USA where his Nash-Healey cost $2000 more than the much more desirable Jaguar XK120.

The first Healey 100 was shown at the 1952 London Motor Show and the company was inundated with orders that it knew it couldn’t fulfil and fortunately Lord was so impressed with the car and its public acclaim, he agreed to build it, call it Austin-Healey and give Donald royalties on each one.

The first car had a four-cylinder engine was replaced in 1956 by a 102bhp, 2.6-litre six in the BN4 2+2 which was also 6.5” longer with a wheelbase increased by 2”. The BN6 was next with 117 bhp and was in 1959 followed by the 3000 Mk1 BN7 with 3-litre, 129bhp and front disc brakes. The 134bhp 3000 Mk11 followed in 1961 with a choice of BN7 two-seater and BT7 2+2. There was a new grille and three SUs instead of two.

The Mk11A 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.
The Mk111 BJ8 2+2 completed the job of turning a raw sports car to a sports tourer with much more luxurious interior with leather and a burr walnut dashboard. The two SUs were increased to 2” which, together with other mods increased power to 150bhp. The final iteration was the BJ8 Phase 2 which had anti-tramp bars and finally, improved ground clearance.

The first 200 XK120s were alloy but subsequent cars were steel and the roadster versions very similar in concept to the early Healeys – raw sports cars with little thought of comfort or practicality, not cars for wet days. Jaguar recognised this and offered not only a Fixedhead Coupé but also a Drophead Coupé with a proper hood and wind up widows. The first 120s developed 160bhp and later ones 180.

In 1954 the XK120 morphed into the 140, also available as Roadster and Drophead Coupé featuring a considerable number of changes inspired by customer feedback, particularly American. The chassis was changed to allow the engine to be moved 3” forward to improve leg room with the benefit of moving weight forward and improving stability but the disadvantage of increasing understeer.

Thanks to high-lift cams, power was up to 190bhp and the steering was greatly improved by the fitting of a rack and pinion system instead of recirculating ball. A special equipment (SE) version became available with 210bhp which would become pretty standard on the 150 in 1958 although some fitted with 190bhp units might have got through.

Not everyone thought the XK150 was a step forward but while it may not have been as elegant as its forebears, it was much more practical and capable of covering long distances in comfort. It was the first British car to have disc brakes all round which worked extremely well.

There are a couple of points which will make your decision easier: if you want a fixedhead it will have to be an XK although factory hard tops were an option on the Healey, albeit these are now rare.

Then there is budget; while the Healey 3000 is steadily rising in value, it is still some way behind the XKs, apart from works rally cars. A rolling restoration but roadworthy MoT’d Healey 100/6 will cost from around £35,000 and a concours 3000 MkIII around £90,000 while 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, a fact borne out by our auction expert Ray Potter who, at the recent H&H Duxford sale, helped a friend secure the best XK150 – even if it cost a whopping £230K! Certainly XK values can match or even outstrip E-types and are catching Aston DBs.

What’s best to drive?

What’s best to drive?

Healey is more hardcore

If it is just for dashing across the Cotswolds or the South Downs on a Sunday morning, the raw and highly ‘chuckable’ early Healeys and XK 120 would be great fun although without modifications to the pedal box, the 120 is not suitable for tall drivers.

However, Jaguar managed to develop the XK more effectively than Austin-Healey and an XK150 feels much more modern than the last Healey 3000 BJ8 thanks to the all-round discs and the lovely rack and pinion steering, completely free of play unlike the Healey’s soggy 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 Jag’s Moss box which once conquered, is actually a pleasure to use.

Both cars need to be mastered and as their successes in rallying and circuit racing have shown, both can be modified considerably although they’re never going to beat a Cooper S. As Autocar remarked in 1978, “A TR7, the very antithesis of a big Healey will go ronud corners much quicker”.

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 journeys and continental trips as well as dashing across the Cotswolds, it really has to be an XK140 or 150. The 120 is cramped and the brakes marginal while any Healey suffers from very high cockpit temperatures making the car most uncomfortable in summer and the low ground clearance, apart from on the very last 3000 MkIIIs, making the exhaust extremely vulnerable. Unlike the Healeys and 120, The 140 and 150 dropheads have excellent lined hoods which are totally waterproof and can be raised and lowered quickly.

You can’t talk about civility with a 50’s sports car but of the pair the Healey is the rougher and more for the dedicated.

Performance wise, the XK always had the edge with power outputs ranging from 160 to 265 against the Healeys’ 102 to 150bhp. Contemporary road tests show Healeys ranging from 103 to 122mph against the XK’s 117 to 136mph. 0-60mph figures for the Healey vary from 10.7 to 9.8 and the XK from 10 to 7.5 secs.

Overdrive was standard on early Healeys and optional on later cars and the XK140 and 150 and really makes a sizeable difference to cruising, not only reducing noise (although no car can be labelled quiet) but also improving fuel consumption which will vary between 15-20mpg on both cars depending on driver and state of tune.


Owning and running

Healey should be cheapest

There’s not much in it on this score to tip the deciding vote one way or the other. Both were hardly cutting edge when new and as such are straightforward classics to look after at home, although they are fairly heavyduty designs and need the appropriate tools and especially jacks, etc.

Because the Healey relied on Austin A90 running gear, it’s inherently the simpler car; certainly that lump of big six is as simple, albeit larger, as a Morris Minor to repair. 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 is pretty even-stevens and arguably the Healey is better supported when it comes to body parts and panels with new (not BMH) shells available. A goodly amount of mechanical hardware is shared with big BMC saloons, 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 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 characters. The closest younger alternative has to be the swinging 60’s TR6 or MGC but the Jag and A-H feel they are from a different generation – and that’s because they are.

And The Winner Is...

No sane classic car enthusiast would turn down either, both being true sports cars and if you turn up in either you can be sure of lots of attention and some friendly envy. While the Healeys have been appreciating really well recently they are unlikely to catch the XK simply because more than twice as many Healeys were built and many more right-hand drive than the Jags, which were mostly exported to the US. Having said that more Healey sixes have been lost over the decades as according to there are only 2050 on the road with 400 ‘sorned’. This compares with just 1300 XKs licensed and 200 ‘sorned’. If money is no object the real prize would be a Jaguar XK150 3.8S Drophead because it boasts very good handling and the same 265bhp E-type engine for similar get up and go. It is still a car you could happily drive to the Riviera and arrive with a smile on your face.

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