Austin-Healey was really a one-trick pony, a company that produced a single design and a few variations on that theme. From the first svelte, unadorned 100-4, with its graunchy three-speed gearbox and fold-down windshield, to the final ornate and luxurious BJ8, all the models we now call Big Healeys shared the same basic look. But the company of Donald Healey lasted barely more than 13 years.
That's not very long for a car marque to live. After all, Mercedes can trace its roots back to 1886, and GM is about to celebrate its centenary.
I'm not overlooking the iconic Bug Eye. How could I, when my first car, bought on the morning of my 16th birthday, less than an hour after I passed my driver's test, was a Sprite. But Bug Eyes just don't work on today's highways. And let's all agree to just say "no" to the badge-engineered Spridgets that soldiered on, each year with painfully diminished capabilities, until their unlamented demise in 1980.
It was good that the Big Healeys died when they did, at the end of 1967. Consider what smogged and safety-ed Healeys would have looked like, huge rubber bumpers hanging off the front and rear, toggle switches banished from the interior, and ride height raised to meet U.S. regulations. Not a pretty sight, which looking at any 1975-1980 MGB will confirm.
Then there's the Healey engine. The original four or the later straight six, with their dual SU carburetors, were exercises in simplicity. They wouldn't be nearly as appealing if they were festooned with vacuum lines and smog pumps. Plus, what fun would it be to drive Healeys that got less and less powerful each year?
Without doubt, a DOT- and EPA-compliant 1976 Healey would have become a jumpsuited Elvis, bloated and past its prime, a shadow of its once-brilliant self.
LOOKS GOOD, DRIVES BETTER
Aside from their pure, classic British appearance, Healeys are invigorating to drive. Today, with over 30 years of experience and technological advances under their belts, Healey owners have found ways to make these cars far more reliable and pleasant to own than they ever were when new.
Multi-bladed plastic fans, modern radiator construction, and catch tanks have all made engine overheating a thing of the past. With the judicious application of insulating materials to the floorboards and the firewall, driver overheating is greatly reduced as well. (You used to be able to tell an American Healey owner by the melted heel on his right shoe.) Modern electric fuel pumps have made a memory out of the routine of banging the OEM Lucas units with a hammer to free sticking points.
Two years ago, roadtrip sidekick Doug Hartman and I drove the SCM BJ7 to the 50th anniversary Healey meet in Lake Tahoe, CA. Both Bic Healey, Donald's son, and Gerry Coker, who designed the 100-4, were there. SCM sponsored a caravan of Healeys from the Pacific Northwest, and our journey had its requisite share of old-car excitement. Frayed wires to a dash toggle switch were repaired by using a pair of toe-nail clippers bought at a truck-stop. An overheating problem was solved by tensioning the fanbelt, using a flashlight handle to push the generator away from the block, and then tightening the cinch bolt.
But the true miraculous save was performed by Bob Macherione, owner of The Sports Car Shop in Eugene, OR (541.342.1520). At the kick-off dinner for the tour (always going first class, SCM provided the boxes of "chillable" red wine) we mentioned to Macherione that our Healey had the disconcerting habit of popping in and out of overdrive without warning. He jiggled the shifter a couple of times, proclaimed that we had a defective overdrive solenoid switch, and instructed us to follow us to his shop. This was at 10 p.m.
Of course, he had the part in stock. Less than two hours later, we were on the way to our motel, and for the rest of the trip, the car performed flawlessly. A noble deed by Macherione, and the stuff that sports car club legends are made of. When, not if, your sports car needs some attention, I recommend him highly.
The next day, our group of about 30 Big Healeys headed out around seven a.m. (There was a single Jensen-Healey in the group, desperately trying to make its guppy-gulping-air-face fit in with the all the bulldog noses.) There's nothing like the sound of a gaggle of vintage British engines firing up, running ultra rich, sputtering and spitting, with choke full on. Then, as the water temperature came up, the engines smoothed out. Last minute route changes due to road construction were passed down the line. A final run was made to the nearby espresso shop for the 20-ouncers we all needed for the first hour or so to warm our hands.
Everyone had their tops down, bundled up like gypsies with a ragamuffin collection of jackets, scarves and hats to ward off the morning chill. Setting off, we each snicked our shift levers into the non-synchro first, almost feeling each tooth on the straight-cut gears as we slid the lever towards the firewall. And then, one at a time, we set off on our adventure, heading south.
Around nine a.m., with 100 miles already gone by, I recall crossing a pass in the Siskiyou Mountains in southern Oregon. Hartman and I looked at the snow-covered peaks that seemed close enough to touch, listened to the sound of the Healey engines around us as they went in and out of overdrive, and we agreed on two things. First, it was terrific feeling like we were 17 years old again. Second, all things considered, life just didn't get much better than this for a couple of car guys.
Our BJ7 has gone on to a subscriber in Las Vegas, may he always wear asbestos-soled shoes and keep his fanbelt tight. I'd like to own another Big Healey, this time a late-model BJ8 in good driving condition. Given that that these now routinely sell for more than Ferrari 308s, the sooner we get one the better.
We're celebrating the Austin-Healey marque in our pages this month, and I propose that you do the same. Let's all lift a pint to the Big Healeys, the perfect forever-young English sports car, and to the pure unfettered melding of design and performance they represent. And let's lift another to the pleasure, nearly 40 years after the last one rolled off the assembly line, that they continue to bring to enthusiasts all over the world.