McCahill Drives The Austin Healey (Nov, 1953)
McCahill Drives The Austin Healey
Uncle Tom test-drives the most talked-about sports car of the year and finds very few faults to criticize, many virtues to praise.
NOT since the day Neville Chamberlin showed up at 10 Downing Street with his umbrella incorrectly rolled, has a more sensational shocker taken place than that caused by the birth of the new Austin Healey 100. The windscreen and bonnet boys of England’s motordom were outrageously amazed at the reception accorded this upstart at Mr. Herbert Shriner’s Second Annual International Motor Sports Show in New York. At this prime American exhibit, the sales people of some of Britain’s oldest and most traditional concerns never put a mark on an order blank whilst Mr. Donald Healey’s creation was causing a near-riot. In two words, Donald Healey and associates “had It” whilst their fellow Britons “Had it.”
Like a breath of fresh air in a cave, this newest import seemed to have everything. Sexy looks, the right size and performance claims that were sensational. For a power plant it had the excellent Austin A90 engine which is as reliable as sunset and a baby power giant for this little two-seater that tweaked the boy in every man who saw it.
If there had been 10,000 of them in New York the day the Austin Healey made its debut, 10,000 would have been sold before the sun went down. The most interesting phase of this whole phenomenon was that, without ever hearing one run and of course without ever having a ride, hundreds of people placed orders with deposits for this car on its looks alone. This proves once again that Barnum was right—but in the case of the Austin Healey, the early buyers weren’t suckers, despite the long wait for delivery.
Donald Healey has spent a lot of time on these shores and has a better feel for what Americans want than most of his English competitors. When I first saw the car at Shriner’s show, I went for it like the rest and I wrote to Healey, whom I have known for a long time, saying I wanted a car for a test in France. He wrote back and told me I’d get the car at Le Mans in June. Unfortunately, it was wrecked by a truck, just as it was being driven into Le Mans, so I had to satisfy my curiosity by watching the two AH’s that were entered iii the race. Healey told me that the first 20 built were made by him and from there on Austin had the production ball. From what I could learn later, this turned out to be quite a ball—trying to keep the car at the original $2,985.00 delivered-in-New York price.
On the production car I just tested, the only cheapening I could find was that the wire wheels, instead of being chromed as on the original model, are now painted with aluminum paint. The company calls it “cadmium plated” but I call it aluminum paint.
Now that Austin is making these jobs, production should pick up. Austin is the fourth largest producer of automobiles in the world (surprised?) and has the facilities to do the job. As you may know, Austin today controls MG, too, which is a little sad. After all the horse’s mouth rumors I had heard about the “sensational” new 1%-litre MG in the works, I learn that the upcoming model will have the same old engine just slightly hopped up. The new MG looks better, from its slanted chrome grille to its wire wheels (optional) and fender headlights. But without a real engine change, it will be as competition-dead as Cock Robin.
For my test of the Austin Healey I contacted John Penn of Suburban Motors in Plainfield, New Jersey. I knew he had one for display so I called him up. Suburban Motors, incidentally, is one of the largest foreign car outlets in the East and, of all things, features service, something some of the other dealers should try. As the temperature outside was in the 90’s, I put the top up to shade my bald dome. This was a big mistake. Before I could get it into high gear, the inside of the cockpit was hot enough to roast a twelve-pound turkey in six minutes. If ever a car needed foot vents, this is it. Even the neat ashtray, recessed into the drive tunnel between the passenger’s and driver’s seats, was a hot babe. As this is directly above the transmission, it not only gets hot, it gets white hot— enough to raise blisters. What an ashtray-cigarette lighter combination! With the top down, the temperature was more bearable. But I sincerely doubt the need for a heater in this rig even in the Arctic. Frankly, unless you live north of Hudson Bay, you are going to have to cut foot vents into this tomato just to live with it, if you ever intend to ride around with the top up. Penn assures me he can do this very neatly and for very little dough.
We might as well bring out all the faults right away so that we can have some fun (I’m not kidding) with the car later. The much-touted up-and-down sliding windshield is another big blob of nothing. In any position with the top down, it vibrates and rattles like Harlem dice in a wooden cup. If you place the windshield in Position Two—which means to slide it forward—it beats itself to death in spite of some small shock springs. On this complaint Penn again agreed that it needs some extra support and anchoring and he is prepared to fix same at a reasonable price.
Last but not least is the top and side curtain arrangement. There is no exterior door handle. So when the side curtains are on, to open the door to get in the car you must first unlatch a piece of the top and grope for the door release on the inside by bending your arm jiu-jitsu-style, a maneuver that is a little on the primitive side. Next, the solid Plexiglas curtains, which give wonderful visibility, miss sealing at the windshield by a good inch and a half. In other words, on both sides they act as an air scoop to dump the rain, sleet and snow right in your lap. Sporty, eh what?
But now all you droop-mouthed Austin Healey fans can perk up, for from here on in we’re in the clear. On the road this car is truly sensational. In fact, it’s a man-size junior bomb. Over rough roads it sops up the bumps better than any true sports car I have ever driven. And in corners it’s a glueball. On my number two test corner, which is pretty severe at speeds above 50, I took the curve at a full 75 mph and there wasn’t the slightest trace of breakaway. On my dust-and-gravel corner I found I could snap the rear into a slide when I wanted to or keep it plowing while I drifted around. Once or twice when the car got around a little too far, a snap-back of the steering wheel and she was on course again.
In hill climbing this car became the fourth ever to take my test hill all the way in top gear. This is a three-speed-and-overdrive car (unlike most imports) which gives it a top gear advantage over some four-speed jobs I have tested. But anyway, this is one of the best hill cars I have ever driven.
As a competition car, the engine size of 162 cubic inches gives it some trouble. This will put it right in the same class with the faster 212 Ferrari, the Aston Martin and some Gordinis. And it’s bigger than some smaller class cars, such as the 1-1/2-litre Osca and the Maseratti, which can take it. Competition-wise, the AH is in a bad spot, despite its excellent showing at Le Mans. At Le Mans the Austin Healeys finished 12th and 14th overall, which was amazing. One finished second in its class to a Gordini which was sixth in the overall picture. However, while Le Mans proved the endurance qualities of both All cars entered, in a regular 200 or 300-mile event it would be at a bad disadvantage due to its big size. For example, so-called sprint cars such as the Ferraris would just eat it up like a wildcat chomping on a baby duckling.
When races are run by classes based on the cars’ original and in its place a complete Mercury unit is installed. This gives the Studie 11-inch rear brakes instead of the standard 9-inch and the whole unit is huskier in order to take the extra power. Bill also installs a larger radiator core. Out comes the Studie engine and in its place goes a standard 1953 Cadillac mill. As the Cadillac engine weighs only about 50 pounds more than the Studie plant, this is more than balanced by the heavier Mercury rear end assembly. With all this done, what do we have? To start with, we have a car that is now rattle-proof and all of whose accessories are nailed on right. Under the hood we have one of the finest engines in the world, one which turns this mild car from South Bend into a sports coupe that will match nearly anything in the world in getting down the highway.
My test of Frick’s Studillac was brief and to the point because the car had already been sold and its new owner was waiting. I believe you may have heard his name before—Briggs Cunningham. Actually, Phil Walters was picking up the car from his old partner Frick and was waiting to take it to Briggs.
Phil and I got into a slight hassle about the car’s cornering ability. Phil claimed that, due to the Studie’s low center of gravity, it was undoubtedly the best cornering assembly-line car in America. I claimed that it takes more than just a low center of gravity, that little things like suspension and shocks enter into it, and that I feel my ’53 Lincoln could out-corner any stock Studie with plenty to spare. As these kinds of yak fests never get anywhere or prove much unless you run the two cars together, we went on to other things. Walters rightly asks where in the world could you get as reliable a 125-mph, four-passenger coupe as the Studillac at any price, and on this point I must fully agree with the general manager of the Cunningham Company.
The stock Cadillac engine, unhopped, just loafs in the light Studebaker chassis and should outlive a new-born colt by about 20 years. Frick sells this job for around $4,500 or just a few bucks more, depending on the extras, and at this price it is a real bargain. Zero to .60 averages 8.5 seconds. Top speed is 125 to 126 and you get up there in an eye blink. For a transmission you can have the regular Cadillac Hydra-Matic dual-range job or, if you insist, Frick will install a three-speed Cadillac transmission that will give even a little more flash. Is this a practical job? Well, with Ferraris and Continental Bentleys costing more than three times as much, you get a car that will outrun the Bentley and match price (such as the meet the AAA so successfully sponsored at Floyd Bennett field in August) my dough would be on the Austin Healey every time. Here is a sports car selling for under $3,000 that was able to go the full 24 hours at Le Mans and finish 12th overall against the greatest cars in the world. At this writing, great things are claimed for the new Triumph but as that bucket hasn’t proved itself in competition yet, let’s just make a flat-footed statement and say that for cars costing $4,000 or less, the Austin Healey at this moment is the best sports car in the world.
The car I tested was almost new and had less than 500 miles on the clock. It had not been tuned and definitely was not broken in. However, here are the performance figures made on a corrected speedometer. Zero to 30 took 3.7 seconds, zero to 50 went 8.1, zero to 60 averaged 12.3 seconds and zero to 70 took 15.8. I didn’t get a top speed run because of traffic conditions and over-interest in my work by the law after my acceleration trials.
If the car had been thoroughly broken in, I would have taken it to my regular high speed test road some miles away but in its new condition it would prove nothing. I hit 100 mph once or twice but that was all. The company claims 110 for this rig and in view of the fact that they got through Le Mans traps at 119, I see no reason to doubt it. The company also claims zero to 60 in 10.5 seconds. This I would have to see before I’d believe it. I know the 12.3 I did would improve with breaking in with a good tune-up, but cutting 12.3 seconds down to 10.5 is like growing 27 feet overnight.
In summing up, I think this new car is one of the greatest additions to the sports car world in many a moon. It has loads of luggage space and will appeal to on-the-fence sports car fans who just haven’t bought a sports car yet, though they have wanted to. In spite of the few things I have pointed out that will have to be altered, I heartily recommend this car as one of the best buys ever to come down the pike.