Carroll Shelby wasn’t the first person who thought of putting a powerful American engine in a British sports car. Sydney Allard did it more than a decade before Shelby made his first Ford powered A.C.E. and called it a Cobra. As a matter of fact, Shelby raced an Allard J2 in the early 1950s. So did Zora Arkus Duntov, whose ARDUN heads were equipped on the flathead Ford V8s that Allard fitted to UK domestic market J2s. Allard’s American customers generally preferred to buy cars without engines so their could fit their choice of high compression OHV V8s that were proliferating in the late 1940s and early 1950s. The most popular engine was the 331 cubic inch Cadillac V8, introduced in 1949. Actually Allard wasn’t the only British manufacturer with the idea of using American muscle in his performance cars. Donald Healey also wanted to use Cadillac engines in his sports cars and traveled to Detroit to buy them. A chance encounter while shipboard with a large man taking stereo photographs, though, changed those plans.
Due to his interest in aviation, Donald Healey’s father secured him an apprenticeship with the Sopwith Aviation Company, where he worked while continuing his engineering studies. At the age of just 16 years old, Healey volunteered for the Royal Flying Corps, earning his wings and then flying combat missions including bombing raids. After being shot down by friendly fire and having a few other crashes, he was declared medically unfit to fly and spent the duration of the war quality checking airplane components. After the war he took an automotive engineering correspondence course and opened up a repair garage, expanding into car rentals. Soon, he found motor racing and rallying more exciting than running the business, which he proceeded to use to prepare cars for competition.
Healey became an accomplished rally driver, competing in nine straight Monte Carlo Rallies, with an overall win in 1931. His success as a driver brought him some attention and in 1932 he was hired by Riley and sold off his garage. In 1933 he joined Triumph as head of experimental engineering, later serving as technical director. He was responsible for the design of a new family of four and six cylinder OHV engines along with the supercharged double overhead cam, all aluminum straight eight for the very limited production Dolomite sports car. Healey was recruited by Joseph Lucas Ltd. in 1937 but returned to Triumph shortly thereafter, rewarded with a seat on the board of directors, eventually rising to managing director.
Unfortunately, by the time he got that job, Triumph was in terrible financial shape and went into receivership in 1939. The Thomas Ward company that bought the assets sold one of Triumph’s two factories, and leased out the other, so without anything to manage, Healey looked for other work, eventually ending up at Roote’s Humber subsidiary, where he worked on armored cars during the second world war. As a member of the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve he also commanded a training squadron.
Despite his obligations serving the war effort in uniform and in his day job, Healey managed to find time to give thought to reviving Triumph after the war. Perhaps it was a psychological way of coping with the war since much of Triumph’s tooling was destroyed in German air raids on Coventry in late 1940, but Healey and some coworkers at Humber, stylist Ben Bowden, engineer A.C. “Sammy” Sampietro (who later designed the Jeep “Tornado” six as chief engineer at Willys (and later Kaiser) Jeep), and another reserve pilot, James Watt, started working on an all-new Triumph they hoped to build and sell after the end of hostilities.
However, by the time Healey and his team approached Ward with their proposal in 1944, the company had already lost interest in making cars. Also, it is likely that Ward was already negotiating the deal that was concluded later that year to sell what remained of Triumph to the Standard Motor Company, which would revive the brand into how most people today remember Triumph cars. While Healey and his team would not be able to themselves return Triumph to the land of the living, the fact that they’d started with a clean sheet with their design, unrelated to any previous Triumph car, meant that they could continue to develop the project without having to pay royalties or be dependent on Triumph’s owners for components.
Healey used his connections, developed from over a decade in the industry, to find manufacturing space and a supplier, Riley Motors, for the bits they couldn’t make themselves: engines, transmissions, rear ends, and other assorted components. With money raised from family and friends, and a hard to secure manufacturing license in hand, in 1945 Healey started the Donald Healey Motor Company Ltd, with their first cars, a roadster and sedan, going into production in October 1946.
Aaron Severson described Donald Healey’s first cars in his history of the Nash-Healey at Ate Up With Motor (from which much of this post is drawn):
The early Healeys were sleek, low-slung, and surprisingly aerodynamic; with wood-framed aluminum bodies on a steel frame, they weighed around 2,500 lb (1,125 kg), depending on coachwork. They used Sampietro’s independent front suspension, with trailing arms and coil springs. The rear suspension used a Riley torque tube, carried on coil springs and located by twin radius arms and a Panhard rod. The four-speed gearbox was also provided by Riley, as was the engine, an unusual 2,443 cc (149 cu. in.) inline four with hemispherical combustion chambers and twin in-block camshafts. Rated output was 104 hp (78 kW) and 132 lb-ft (178 N-m) of torque.
They were capable of more than 100 mph as they left the works, making them among the fastest cars sold in Britain at the time. They earned class victories in the 1947 and 1948 Alpine Rallies, the 1948 Targa Florio and the 1949 Mille Miglia. Though they performed well, they also were expensive (the roadster was the equivalent of about $6,300) limiting production to just 227 cars through late 1950. Another 120 rolling chassis were sold to customers who wanted custom bodywork.
Donald Healey’s first true sports car was the Silverstone, named after the UK’s most famous race track. Though it shared its Riley mechanicals with the earlier Healeys, the chassis was different, with the engine mounted farther back for better weight distribution and it had a lightweight aluminum body. Top speed was a claimed 110 mph, and it was a better bargain than the earlier cars, starting at just £975 ($2,730) before taxes. In the U.S. they were sold for $3,995.
The Silverstone had cut-down doors, cycle-type fenders, a fold-down windshield, and just about no protection from the elements. Suspension was via coil springs at all four corners, with trailing arms in front and a rear axle located with a torque tube, radius arms and a Panhard Rod. Telescoping shock absorbers replaced the lever action dampers of early Healeys.
One of the first American customers was gentleman racer Briggs Cunningham, who in 1949 bought two Silverstones for racing. Cunningham fitted one of them with the then new Cadillac OHV V8 and a Ford transmission, yielding much better performance over the Riley equipped cars. Healey and his son Geoff, by then a graduate engineer, managed to acquire their own Cadillac engine and they discovered that not only did the V8 have 56 hp more than the Riley four cylinder, and twice as much torque, it weighed no more than the Riley and it improved weight distribution.
It wasn’t just the performance that impressed Donald Healey. He saw the use of an American engine as a way of selling more cars in the U.S. The UK and Europe were still rebuilding after the devastation of WWII while America was experiencing a postwar economic and automotive boom. Donald Healey Motor Company was by then nearly £50,000 in debt and they needed the business.
In December of 1949, Healey booked passage on the Queen Elizabeth ocean liner and set off for the United States and a meeting with Ed Cole, Cadillac’s chief engineer, later the father of the small block Chevy V8. While on board the ship, Healey, a photography buff, noticed a tall, rather fat gentleman taking pictures with a 3D rig, most likely a Stereo Realist camera, which were popular in the late 1940s and early 1950s (coinciding with the 3D movie craze of that era). Healey approached him to talk about photography and the large man with the interesting camera turned out to be George W. Mason, president of Nash-Kelvinator, on his way back to Kenosha from the European auto show circuit. Both of them being in the automobile business, albeit on different scales, Mason invited Healey for dinner, where Healey told him of his planned meeting with Cole in Detroit. Mason cautioned Healey that Cadillac was selling every V8 powered car it could make and suggested that if things didn’t work out for him in Detroit, he should give him a call in Kenosha.
As Mason expected, at the meeting with Cole the GM engineer told Healey that they had no capacity to spare him some V8s for his Anglo-American sports car project. While Nash didn’t have a V8, they did have a 235 cubic inch six, so Healey went with plan B and a trip to Wisconsin. In Kenosha, Mason made Healey that proverbial deal he couldn’t refuse. Not only would Nash supply Healey with engines, transmissions, overdrive units, and rear axles, they would do so on credit, and, putting the cherry on top, the American company would distribute the finished cars via Nash’s dealer network.
Though the Nash six was heavier than the Riley four, it had great low speed torque and it was durable. Production Nash-Healeys featured a special aluminum cylinder head, fitted with twin SU carbs, that had higher compression. Nash-Healey engines also featured a hotter cam. The improvements lifted horsepower from 115 to 125, with 210 lb-ft of torque at just 1,600 rpm. The prototype was entered at LeMans in 1950 and did fairly well, third in class and fourth overall, beating Cunningham’s Cadillac powered entry.
The production car, called the Nash-Healey, was revealed at the 1950 Paris auto salon in October. It had a newly styled aluminum body that unlike the Silverstone’s cycle fenders, was an envelope design with integral fenders. It was designed by Donald Healey and Len Hodges and the body was made by Panelcraft Sheetmetal in Birmingham, England. To keep the car consistent with other Nashes, Mason demanded that bits and pieces of the Nash Ambassador, including the grille design, be incorporated. Other Nash parts included headlights, bumpers, hubcaps, and a shortened Ambassador torque tube. The Nash-Healey was also equipped with the Ambassador’s Bendix brakes (drums).
Healey was never completely happy with using the Nash grille, comparing it to comedian Joe E. Brown, known for his rather large mouth. When he revised the car for the European market as the Alvis powered Healey Sports Convertible, Healey had the front end redesigned.
Regular production of the Nash-Healey began in December 1950, going on sale in the U.S. in the spring of 1951 after being introduced at the Chicago Auto Show. It was available in two colors, ivory and maroon, with leather upholstery, and whitewall tires. The sources say that the first Nash-Healeys had snap in Perspex (acrylic) side curtains that had to be stored in the trunk when not in use but the maroon one pictured in this post appears to have windows that slide up and down. Perhaps they’re similar to the windows on the early Lotus Elans, which were counterweighted but had no cranks. Curb weight was 2,600 lbs. Though the heavier motor ended up causing understeer, in general the Nash-Healey was regarded as having competent handling and a comfortable ride. Zero to sixty time was about 12 seconds with a top speed of 104 mph. Not as quick or as fast as the Silverstone but still very respectable speed for the early 1950s. Reviews generally praised the sports car, though they criticized the bench seat and said that the 10 inch drum brakes were not suitable for fast driving.
Though Nash dealers were enthusiastic about the car as what we’d call a halo vehicle, a showroom traffic builder, the car cost just over $4,000, more than 60% more costly than the next most expensive Nash. Just 104 1951 Nash-Healeys were made. Only 20 are known to exist today, most of them not in operating condition.
While not a huge seller for Nash, the Nash-Healey helped balance the books at Donald Healey’s company, allowing them to proceed with the development of what would become known as the Austin-Healey 100, the first of the so-called “big Healeys”.
A year after his chance shipboard encounter with Donald Healey, George Mason was once again touring the major European auto shows. He was impressed with the work of Battista “Pinin” Farina, of Turin, Italy, particularly the Lancia Aurelia B10. Upon his return to Kenosha, Mason had his protege, George Romney, hire Farina as a styling consultant. Though very little of Farina’s styling suggestions would end up on production cars, Nash promoted the association and the company’s cars bore the Pinin Farina badge.
One car that did end up featuring Farina’s styling was the second generation Nash-Healey. Farina gave it a new grille with inset headlamps (a styling motif that would eventually show up on the 1955 Ambassador), a one piece windshield and flared rear fenders that kicked up into proto-tailfins. The 2nd gen Nash-Healey was a convertible, not a roadster, with wind-up windows, and later a coupe version was offered. The bodies were made of steel, instead of aluminum, resulting in significantly more weight and lower performance. Donald Healey’s Joe E. Brown comments notwithstanding, I prefer the look of the original cars, which because of their low production, aren’t as likely to be seen at car shows so they’re not as well known as the later cars. Not only do I think it’s a more attractive design, there is more design continuity between the early Nash-Healeys and the Austin-Healeys than with the second generation cars. The earlier cars have a timeless quality about them. It wouldn’t surprise me if observers thought the earlier cars were actually newer.
Recently there’s been renewed interest in Nash-Healeys in general, and the early versions in particular. The Fast ‘N Loud television show on the Discovery Channel featured a first generation Nash-Healey, hyping the six-figure value of the earlier cars. One reason why that car was on the show is that show star Richard Rawlings’ business partner, Gumball rallier Dennis Collins, whose family owns a successful Jeep, is a serious Healey collector, having owned 200 or so at one time or another, including some historically significant early Healeys.
You won’t get any earlier than this particular Nash-Healey, nor will you find a car with any better provenance. It was part of a retrospective on the evolution of the sports car at the 2014 Concours of America. The little maroon roadster was not just the first Nash-Healey built, it was owned by Donald Healey and it was used for his personal transportation when in the United States. It currently belongs to John Kruse of Worldwide Auctions. The subject of a $400,000 restoration to how it was when Donald Healey drove it, the car has been a winner at a number of car shows and concourses. Kruse bought Healey chassis #N2001 when Collins put it up for auction last year. The reported sale price was half a million dollars, including the auction house’s cut.
While I was buttoning up this post, I discovered that in preparation for that sale, Collins put together a detailed history of the car. He calls it “the first purpose built American Sports Car”. I’ll excuse that little bit of hype, Collins is all about the hype (as you’ll see below). In fact, the Nash-Healey was at best only half American and never built in America (and the Crosley Hotshot was likely the first American sports car) but Collins’ history of the car does fill in a lot of the details, including the car’s competition history:
Winner from day one: the first purpose-built American Sports Car
Like many of life’s treasures, the Nash-Healey’s birth was an unlikely confluence of events. Its beginnings sprang from a chance meeting in 1949 aboard the Queen Elizabeth, between Donald Healey and George Mason, president of Nash-Kelvinator Co. Mason wanted a sports car to improve the image of his automobile company and Healey was on his way to back to England after failing to acquire Cadillac engines from GM for his new sports car. They agreed that motor racing was a necessity in the development and promotion of a sports car. Mason thought his Ambassador engine would be perfect. The rest, as they say, is history: America’s first true sports car, designed from the beginning to go toe to toe with the world’s finest. Conceived with the engineering genius of England’s master car designer and nurtured by the financial backing of a great American industrial corporation, the results were predictable – one of the great cars of the age. As soon as first prototypes were ready, they began to appear on the race tracks of the world among some very famous company.
It is June of 1950, only months after its conception, and the fledgling marque finds itself in the boiling cauldron of motorsports: Le Mans. The factory drivers Tony Rolt and Duncan Hamilton have driven the freshly constructed Panelcraft aluminum-bodied Nash Healey prototype to the race from the factory in England. They are surrounded by decades of tradition, hundreds of years of European and English engineering expertise and the grand marques of the world, including a first: a two-car Cadillac factory team with the full support of GM, fielded by millionaire sportsman Briggs Cunningham. Our heroes prepare to do battle .
The starting grid is formidable, including 4.5 litre Talbot-Lagos from France, looking like overpowered lightweight sprint cars. Three Ferraris from Luigi Chinetti’s North America Racing Team, the factory Jaguar XK120s and the Aston Martin factory team are among those who clearly came to win. Two lightweight Allards, one driven by Sidney Allard himself , were now equipped with monster 5.4-liter Cadillac engines with multiple carburetion and were clearly dead serious.
The results after 24 hours: only two of the 4.5-litre Talbot-Lagos and Sidney Allard in the 5.4-liter Allard have bested the 3.8-liter Nash- Healey. The best the Jaguars can do is 12th and 15th. The fragile Ferraris are all parked, not one of the prancing horses is prancing at the finish. The Cadillac team can only do 10th and 11th, the beginning of several defeats at the hands of the Nash-Healey for American icon Briggs Cunningham. The Nash Healey is a monster success on the biggest stage in the world. Mason is sold, and authorizes the beginning of production. A star is born.
In the 1951 Le Mans race, Briggs Cunnigham came to play. He entered three Chrysler 5.5-liter Hemi-powered C2Rs. In spite of qualifying second, third and fourth, his best finish of the three cars was 18th as his cars were still somewhat overweight. The Panelcraft alloy bodied Rolt-Hamilton Nash-Healey was to finish a very nice sixth. This was the year of the C-type Jaguar and Dunlop disc brakes, of Jaguar, Talbot-Lago, Aston Martin, Aston Martin, Nash-Healey and Ferarri 340. Several other Ferraris finished down the list.
But the Nash-Healey’s final factory appearance at Le Mans in 1952 would be the jewel in the crown. Nineteen-fifty two would mark the introduction to the world of the Mercedes-Benz 300SL factory team. It was the 30th running of the 24-hour race and the Germans were not to be denied. The Mercedes-Benz factory was about to conduct a clinic on how to run a professional racing team. (History shows that a young Roger Penske was present, taking careful notes.)
This was probably a world record to date for the amount of money spent by a manufacturer on a motor race (not a government – the Third Reich probably holds that record). The Mercedes-Benz team had, in addition to the requisite dozen or so engineers in the obligatory white lab coats, at least 40 technicians, five fully prepared and tested racing cars (two were spares) and, unusual at the time, two semi trailers fully outfitted as workshops.
I think we all know who was going to win this little fracas. Predictably the Mercedes team finished one-two. Score a victory to Rommel and the Panzers. Let’s list the top five since we are all sportsmen here: Mercedes, Mercedes, Nash-Healey, Cunningham C4R coupe, Ferrari 340. So Briggs Cunningham gets into the top four with his new jillion dollar car, now much lighter with 350hp, and still has to look at the back end of a Nash-Healey. Bummer.
So, is the story here that the little Nash was able to defeat all but the Panzers; or that once again no matter how many millions he spent, Briggs Cunningham could not defeat the Donald Healey design?
No, the story is that for two generations foolish American collectors and vintage racers have fought tooth and nail (and checkbook) over “European purebreds,” and have remained fundamentally ignorant about these wonderful, incredibly sophisticated cars that first took our flag into battle with such distinction.
In addition to its record at Le Mans, the Nash-Healey competed at the Mille Miglia, finishing as high as 30th (out of over 400 entries in 1951) of 173 finishers. Nash-Healeys also competed there in 1952 and 1953. A special car was prepared for the 1953 Mille Miglia driven by American ace John Fitch. This incredibly fast car was well in it until forced to retire with brake (hydraulic) failure.
Sadly, this story does not have an altogether happy ending. As in the American automobile industry in general, style was about to vanquish substance, and these lithe, lightweight alloy-bodied Panelcraft Nash-Healeys would be replaced by the steel bodied Pinin Farina cars in 1952. Longer, wider, tail finned, beauties that looked more like the road going sedans, with hundreds of pounds more “road hugging weight,” they were glamourous to a fault. With racy names like Le Mans and sexy looks, they sadly could not match the performance of the alloy Panelcraft cars, but still embarrassed the likes of Thunderbird and Corvette, sports cars in name only. One hundred four of the alloy Panelcraft production cars were built. According to the Nash-Healey registry, as of today 20 are accounted for. Of these 20, seven are in operating condition. Three can be classified as restored.
Three of these early cars have been presented as entries into the modern day Mille Miglia, one of the most prestigious and exclusive events in historic motorsports. All three cars have been accepted and have run and completed the event.
Now we come to that point in our conversation where we turn to evaluation. We would all like to have the first Gullwing, snatched from the Mercedes-Benz museum, but that is not going to happen. I am sure, however, we are all arrogant enough to place some value on it. At least seven figures. What seven figures is where we would differ.
How about the first Ferrari? Again seven figures, but what that figures would be would be all over the room. The C4R that finished 4th at Le Mans in ’52? Let’s not be picky, I will take any Cunningham team car.
The point is this: The first 1953 Corvette was not the first American sports car. It is a nice cruiser built on a shortened 1949 Chevy frame, with a fiberglass body constructed by a boat manufacturer. It has the same chance at a sports car event as a snowball in a frying pan. The Cunninghams had their shot, but their results were wanting. They are great cars, are huge money and we all covet them, but they were not around in 1950.
So alone and unafraid we have the alloy bodied Panelcraft Nash-Healeys. Competitive with the world’s finest from the period that the sports cars we crave the most were created.
Now we present the very first Nash-Healey production car. Chassis #N2001 Engine #NHA1001, Panelcraft alloy bodied, hand built. A car that cost $8,000 delivered, when the most expensive Ferrari cost $9,500, another reason they were doomed to be replaced by the easier-to-produce steel Pinin Farina cars that were thousands less. That is why they were exclusive, and that is why there are not many around. In road trim they were 124 MPH cars; and in race trim 144 MPH cars. No other American car came close.
Let’s not quibble. This is the first among firsts. The crème de la crème. The best of the best. This automobile is eligible for the most prestigious events in vintage motorsports. Today, as it did in the day, it will compete with, and defeat Ferrari, Maserati, Jaguar, Alfa and Mercedes, anything it comes up against. It will win on show field or track, rally or race.
1. The white 1952 Nash-Healey was photographed at the preview to RM Auction’s 2014 Motor City auction held in conjunction with the Concours of America at St. John’s. The black 1952 Nash-Healey was photographed at the 2011 Eyes On Design show. A number of observers at the auction preview and at the concours mentioned how the white Nash-Healey was sporting wire spoked hubcaps from off of a Chrysler. Looking at historical photos, it appears that the wheel covers on the black car are also not correct.
2. Due to my own interest in stereo photography and videography I tracked down George Mason’s grandson, to see if the family had saved any of his stereo photos. I’ve found some vintage 3D photos of cars from the Keystone View company and I thought it might be cool to see some 3D pics of cars shot by a guy who ran a car company. Unfortunately, Mason’s stereophotographic oeuvre has been lost to posterity. Please digitize your family’s photos, films and videotapes.
Ronnie Schreiber edits Cars In Depth, a realistic perspective on cars & car culture and the original 3D car site. If you found this post worthwhile, you can get a parallax view at Cars In Depth. If the 3D thing freaks you out, don’t worry, all the photo and video players in use at the site have mono options. Thanks for reading – RJS