The Big Healey may lack the cachet of an E-type, but that’s what makes it such good value
I don’t want to get into an ugly Anglo-American spat along the lines of the Ford GT40 and AC Cobra argument about which nation should take the credit (England, by the way), but the fact is we have the Americans to thank for the aptly named Big Healey, which today is really big on value.
It was as a result of a trip to the US that Donald Healey, engineer and former rally driver, conceived his new sports car, later recalling: ‘I wanted to produce a very fast everyday car with genuine sporting characteristics, capable of 100mph, very cheap to buy and economic to maintain.’
Meanwhile, while you Americans were all driving brand new Cadillacs, we cash-strapped Brits, in the grip of post-war austerity, were all saving up to buy a single black-market bicycle clip; only dukes could afford a pair. It was all because British industry, in ‘export or die’ mode, was allocated scarce materials on the basis of export sales, and Austin boss Leonard Lord was also obsessed with the lucrative US market where MGs and Jaguars had been such hits.
It all came together at the 1952 London Motor Show, where the new Healey created such a sensation that Leonard Lord struck a deal to manufacture it there and then; thus was born the Austin-Healey 100. Beautiful and brawny, the 100 was powered by a twin-carb version of Austin’s lusty and flexible 2660cc four and a three-speed overdrive gearbox (first gear was considered unnecessary in a lightweight sports car and so was blanked off). The 100 really did stand for 100mph – 103mph, in fact – with 0-60mph coming up in 10.3 seconds.
When unveiled in New York, it created a similar sensation and was voted International Motor Show Car of 1953. Over the next 15 years the car we now know as the Big Healey, to distinguish it from the Frogeye Sprite, went on to sell over 70,000 units. Although now regarded as the quintessence of the British string-backed, cravat and corduroy sports car, to the point of cliché, more than 80% went to the US. In 1956 the Healey 100/6, with Austin’s 2639cc six-cylinder, was initially no faster until the head was redesigned. Neither was it as well balanced; it remains the bargain Big Healey.
However, in 1959 the Healey took off again with the front-disc-braked 2912cc 3000, which ultimately became a true 120mph-plus sports car. Whereas the earlier 100 had acquitted itself well on the race track (Sebring and Le Mans), the 3000 made an impact on the rally circuit, most famously when Stirling Moss’s sister Pat won the 1960 Liège-Rome-Liège.
Over the course of 3000 production the Big Healey became increasingly civilised, with wind-up windows in place of side screens and a folding hood. A final garnish was the pointless ‘luxury’ of a walnut-veneer dash. Yet the Big Healey remained spartan enough to appeal to anyone who’d enjoyed the deprivations of a proper public school.
It’s a car of immense character that amply filled a hole in the market, yet today it offers even better value, particularly compared with contemporaries that were in a higher price bracket when new, such as the Jaguar E-type and AC Ace.
Have a browse through the many Austin-Healey 3000s for sale in the classifieds
1953: At £1063 the Austin-Healey 100 filled the price-performance gap between the £780 MG TF and £787 Triumph TR2 and the £1601 Jaguar XK120 roadster. The AC Ace, at £1297, was not hugely more costly than the Healey!
1961: By now the £1203 Austin-Healey 3000 MkII was even better value compared with the £1890 AC Ace and the £2160 E-type roadster. The gap below had also narrowed, with the MGA Roadster costing £968 and the new Triumph TR4 at £1094.
1967: At run-out the 3000 MkIII, priced at £1126, actually cost less than it had in 1961. For the first time it cost less than its Triumph rival, the £1212 TR5. Further squeeze came from the £948 MGB Roadster and £1102 MGC: the E-type roadster was still in a different league at £1967.
Today: Average auction price over the last two years for very good condition 3000 road cars is £47,500; a superbly restored example made £61,800. Though 100/4s are generally worth slightly less than the last 3000s, the two-year average price for very good 100/4s is £51,750; some have gone as high as £83,000. These higher 100/4 figures reflect the quality of the cars sold. The 100/6 remains the most affordable and best value: £53,700 is the highest auction price over the last two years, yet decent cars have been snapped up sub-£30,000. It’s against rival sports cars that a Big Healey comes into its own at well under half, or even a third, the price of a comparable E-type. Compare it with the AC Ace at four-times Healey money.
Words: Dave Selby/Octane Magazine