Born in Perranporth, Cornwall in 1898, engineer, rally-driver and visionary Donald Healey was an outstanding pioneer in an age of pioneers. His inspirational thinking is still with us today. He understood, more than anyone, what the enthusiastic motorist wanted and strived throughout his career to deliver it. Without him and men like him, the motor industry would never have progressed as it did in the 20th century.
Donald Healey began work as one of the first apprentices at Sopwith Aircraft Co. in Kingston-upon-Thames. When WW1 began he volunteered for the Royal Flying Corps and won his pilot`s wings. In 1918 he was shot down on a night raid by British anti-aircraft fire. Healey was invalided out of the air force in 1918 (renamed Royal Air Force in 1917), and returned home to Perranporth to plan his next move.
He decided to continue with engineering and took a correspondence course in that subject. In 1919 he opened `Perranporth Garage` and in between repairing the local cars and tractors, got involved with rallying and road-racing. His reputation grew at an amazing rate and so he became a leading light in the new, post-war motor industry.
In 1931 Healey advanced his reputation still further by winning the Monte-Carlo rally in a 4.5 litre Invicta. In the same year he became general Manager of Triumph Cars. During WWII he worked at Humber Motors designing armoured-cars for the army and carburettors for the RAF. When the war ended Healey was ready with a new plan. In partnership with his son Geoffrey, he formed Donald Healey Motor Company (DHMC). They opened the business in Warwick, in the English Midlands, in 1946.
His cars were racing-inspired, very light and advanced for their time. In the beginning he favoured tuned Riley engines and gearboxes. Later Healey formed a relationship with Nash Cars of the US and used their engines to produce the Nash-Healey.
Healey`s cars all had a light-weight box-section steel chassis, designed by Barry Bilbie and manufactured at the Warwick factory. Riley running-gear was the norm and soon the Healey`s were experiencing great success in road-racing and rallying. Healey could sell every car he could make, such was their popularity. His 1948 `Elliott` saloon was rated as the fastest closed saloon in the world at the time. The Elliott was the first car we know of to have had its aerodynamics refined in an aircraft wind-tunnel! In 1949 the new Healey Silverstone won the Mille Miglia road race, albeit with an Italian crew. This was the milestone car in Healey production.
DHMC made some great cars but the Silverstone was the most exciting. The last car made was an Alvis engined `G type` roadster in 1953. Healey Cars had sold around 1122 cars by this date out of which many of them, probably 106, were supplied in `rolling-chassis` form to various prestige body-builders.
In 1952 Donald Healey struck a deal with British Motor Corporation (BMC) and the famous Austin-Healey marque was born. The agreement with Austin (BMC) was scheduled to last 20 years, which it did. Donald Healey`s new design, the Healey 100 would be built by BMC at Longbridge, Birmingham using bodies designed by Healey and built by Jensen Motors of West Bromwich. Donald Healey would take care of research and development (R&D) and design. It is not known when Healey first met Alan and Richard Jensen but they were close friends and would work together on several projects. The Jensen brothers were master body-builders.
The reason for the `arrangement` with BMC was simple. Healey wanted to spread the doctrine and mass-produce his cars. That required a big factory and huge investment. This was not a realistic possibility for a small company like DHMC. The Austin-Healey deal gave him his Healey cars in great numbers, though it was necessary to share the glory. Donald Healey would receive a royalty for every car sold that bore his name. This was a good deal for BMC because they would inherit a world-class car without the cost of design and development.
Certainly BMC was not forthcoming on it`s financial state because Donald Healey was dismayed when, from the beginning, BMC was more interested in balance-sheets than building cars. They were crying and wailing about costs most of the time. Healey responded that one could not make an omelette without breaking eggs! This `difference of opinion` would plague Donald Healey for all his time at Austin-Healey.
In 1966 BMC Joined with Jaguar-Daimler to form British Motor Holdings (BMH) and Healey could see the writing on the wall. Making the company bigger would only enlarge the problems unless there was a sharp change of direction. Healey`s advice was largely ignored and he became frustrated and disillusioned. BMH were also very happy to use his Austin-Healey 3000 and Sprite as the basis the MG Midget and MGC. Unfortunately for BMH they did not have the ability to make the MGC work properly and wasted a lot of money on a `dead-duck`.
The death of the glorious Austin-Healey 3000 and it`s replacement by the ill-conceived MGC combined with BMH`s decision to form British Leyland certainly helped Donald Healey make up his mind. It was time to go.
Austin-Healey would still have to pay him royalties for his name until 1972 when the `agreement` expired so the Sprite continued until then. Financially Healey had done well out of it but it is unlikely that he felt compensated for all the double-dealing and ill-treatment. Back in 1961 Healey had masterminded the re-engineering of the Jensen 541, getting a Chrysler V8 to fit in and perform. Alan and Richard Jensen were `friends of old` and were keen to meet with him, now the old warhorse was soon to be `out of collar`.
Donald Healey met with the Jensen brothers in some ill-lit watering hole and the result of the meeting was that he would join Jensen Motors as a director. In 1968 he bailed out of Austin-Healey and joined Jensen instead. By 1970 he became the chairman.
Healey had a new project which excited the Jensens. The Jensen-Healey. It was a joint-venture between Donald Healey, his son Geoffrey, Bill Townes (Lagonda designer), and the brothers Jensen. Healey`s long-time friend and chassis designer Barry Bilbie also joined the project. When this group was assembled in the board-room it must have looked like a Wizards Union meeting! So much talent in one place! The team went to work and in 1972 the Jensen-Healey was born. It was the product of the joint-venture and so, like the Austin-Healey, was effectively the product of a new company.
Another old friend, Colin Chapman of Lotus supplied the engine married to a Sunbeam Rapier (Chrysler/Rootes) gearbox. Healey and Bill Townes designed a beautiful modern body for the car. It was very well received both in UK and the US and went through several type revisions.
However, time marches on and it was catching up with Healey and the Jensen brothers. The pressure following the fuel crisis of 1973 hurt the industry badly and Jensen in particular. The directors decided to close the business. In 1976 Jensen closed and Donald Healey went back to his beloved Perranporth to enjoy his retirement. Donald Healey died in 1988.
In 1973 Queen Elizabeth II had awarded him the CBE (Commander of the Order of the British Empire) for his services to the motor industry. In 1996 he was posthumously inducted into the International Motor Sport Hall of Fame and the Austin-Healey club erected a memorial at his old home, Trebah near Perranporth in Cornwall. The estate and house are now open to the public.
Donald Healey gave so much to the motor industry, such men are hard to find these days.
© Photo: SIA #67, February 1982
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I was born in Hereford UK in 1948 and brought up in Gloucester UK. I played Rugby football internationally as a schoolboy. At the age of 17, a new and wet driving license in my paw, I entered motor racing. I was supported and financed by my parents and so my journey began.
In 1965 I bought a 1293cc Mini-Cooper `S` and campaigned it for a season. Having quickly made some good friends in the racing fraternity, several interesting opportunities came my way. I joined a sports-car team and raced in the Le Mans 24 hours in 1968 and 1969 in a Lola T70. Mechanical failure defeated both efforts. During that period I owned and raced a `D type` Jaguar and an AC Cobra. In those days cars like that were available and not too expensive, now they reside in museums and private collections. I had a chain of interesting cars through my youth including Jaguars, Minis, Mustangs and Lotus-Cortinas.
As a young driver I had my share of accidents too. Often the car would only be worth scrap-metal value by the time I got it home! I worked for an Aston-Martin/Jaguar dealership for a while, which enhanced my experience and gave me the opportunity to sample some very exotic machines, Ferrari, Facel-Vega, Iso and Maserati to recall a few of them.
At the end of 1969 I moved to South Africa to work on my uncle`s farm but the S.A. government had other ideas and drafted me into the army. After five years had passed I was thanked and released from the service. While I was there I bought a beige Cadillac Eldorado, previously the property of Marilyn Monroe. While I was away on a patrol my girlfriend had it re-sprayed pink! I was unimpressed by both the joke and the bill for the work!
When I returned to UK in 1974 I left it behind. On my return I found that the once-mighty British motor industry was in decline and was headed for oblivion. Motor racing was now very expensive so I turned to commercial transport. Driving large trucks gave me freedom and a chance to see some of the world. I don`t remember ever making a career choice but for the next thirty years a truck was my home. For about ten years in that period I owned two trucks of my own.
I also owned a famous MGB-GT, known as `Lucky`. If you`d like to read `The Story of Lucky` there is an article in Inopian`s archive. I finally retired, due to ill-health, in 2008. Since I had varied knowledge and many experiences on our subject I decided to share the stories of the cars I enjoyed (and hated) with the new generation.
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