3 JULY 1898-15 JANUARY, 1988
This biography of DMH was written in 1995 for inclusion in promotional campaign material sent to nearly 150 media personnel whose charge was to nominate and select candidates for induction into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame at Talladega, Alabama. It is the hope that this biography of DMH will assist the reader in understanding the numerous contributions he made to the motoring industry and to personal experiences as well.—Baird and Margo Foster
Donald Mitchell Healey was born in 1898 in the seacoast village of Perranporth in North Cornwall, England. His parents ran the small village store, but it was his father’s hobby that influenced Donald more than anything else.
His father, John Frederick Healey, was keen on motor cars, owning a 1907 Panhard, and he later gave Donald a 1923 Buick with the first overhead valve engine that Buick made.
Royal Flying Corps
After attending Newquay College, Cornwall, Healey was entered as an apprentice at Sopwith Aviation in 1914. The following year, in World War I, he volunteered for the Royal Flying Corps and received his pilot’s license in 1916—two years before he qualified for his driver’s license.
Two plane crashes forced him from flying, and he returned home to Perranporth after the war’s end and began to study motorcars and engineering. Healey opened a garage, built by his father, and began to work on cars in earnest. From this grew his interest in rally competition; he competed successfully, and by 1928 his reputation began to gather momentum.
Monte Carlo Rally Successes
In the late 1920s through the mid-1930s, Donald Healey competed in the famous Monte Carlo Rally and other major rally competitions in England and abroad. He said his greatest success was finishing first in 1931, second in 1932, and third in 1934 in the Monte Carlo Rally over four years; he had more miles in that rally than any other driver in his day. For this exceptional achievement, he was awarded the Perpetual Trophy, a most coveted rally prize.
Triumph Company Years
In September 1933, Healey joined the Triumph Company and soon became chief engineer and then technical director. Modifying a “Gloria” for rallying, he placed third overall and first in the 1500cc class in the Monte Carlo Rally. While at Triumph, his 1934 straight-eight supercharged Dolomite and the elegant Triumph sports saloons and touring cars will be best remembered. Triumph failed in 1939, and Healey joined Humber-Hillman and helped develop armored vehicles for WWII. In his spare time during the war, Donald Healey plotted and planned for his future. Immediately following the end of the war, the Donald Healey Motor Company Ltd. was founded.
The Healey Westland became the first British, all new sports car after WWII. In 1946, Motor magazine tested the car at 106.56 mph for a kilometer’s distance. Publicity about this monumental accomplishment pushed Healey’s little company into the spotlight of the motor world, and the “Cape Works” in Warwick was born. This was to become the center for all Healey operations for many years. Other Healey models, the Tickford saloon, the Abbott drop head coupe, and the Elliott followed the Westland.
1948 America Tour
In 1948, Donald Healey and his son Geoffrey toured America in Healey’s Westland roadster, promoting sales and gathering information about the one market Donald felt was ready for sports cars. “After the war, everyone else hadn’t any money left, and I decided I had to earn dollars,” he once said.
From his experience with publicity gained in pre-war rallying, Healey was very aware of the benefits to be had from success in motor sports. Today, “Race on Sunday, sell on Monday” is often heard as a marketing and sales slogan. Donald Healey began that concept. So, in 1948, Donald and Geoff competed in the famous Mille Miglia, finishing ninth overall in a basically stock Healey Westland. Healey cars were also entered in the Alpine and Monte Carlo Rallies.
In 1949, a government regulation inspired Healey’s most famous pre-Austin car—the Silverstone Roadster. Parliament decreed that the purchase tax would be doubled on all cars costing over £1,000 (similar to the U.S. luxury tax today). The stock-bodied Silverstone, at under £1,000, beat the higher tariff and became the best-known Healey of the period. It enjoyed a great reputation in competition motor sport, including a second overall placing in the 1949 Alpine Rally.
Creation of Nash Healey
Donald Healey visited America again in 1949, seeking to purchase V-8 engines from General Motors for his cars. On the way, aboard the ocean liner Queen Elizabeth, Healey met George Mason, president of Nash Kelvinator. Later these two automotive geniuses struck a deal in which Nash would supply 3.8 liter, 235 cid (cubic inch displacement) engines, gearboxes, and final drive units for use in a Healey-built sports car, to be known as the Nash Healey. Sold predominantly in America, the cars were initially built by Panelcraft in Coventry, and later Pinin Farina in Italy put a restyled body on the chassis before shipment back to America.
Healey’s chance meeting with Mason and the deal struck with Nash freed Healey of
£50,000 of debt and enabled him to remain in business. According to DMH, it proved to be “one of the major stepping stones in my life, and probably the greatest and most far-fetching of them all.”
Healey entered versions of the Nash Healey in the Mille Miglia and at Le Mans, where in 1952 Leslie Johnson and Tommy Wisdom drove to an amazing third-place finish behind two factory-backed Mercedes. The Nash Healey was a “carefree plaything” for the wealthy, but it also had, as did every Healey product, the “rugged soul of a racer.” The car was a milestone, for it paved the way for better-known American models such as the Corvette and the Thunderbird, as well as for Donald Healey’s plans for the Healey Hundred.
At the end of 1951, Donald; his oldest son, Geoffrey; and experimental engineer and long-time friend Roger Menadue began work on a new, low-cost sports car, positioned in price and performance between the MG TD and the Jaguar XK 120. It was intended to be the first reasonable priced sports car to offer 100 mph performance, and the American market was firmly in mind.
Debut of Healey Hundred
Geoff Healey and Barrie Bilbie designed the chassis of this new car, and Gerry Coker, who joined Healey from Rootes in 1950, did the body design and styling. Named the Healey Hundred (with a top speed of over 100 mph), it was the sensation of the 1952 London Motor Show at Earls Court.
The Hundred’s engine and driveline were from the Austin A90 Atlantic; and Leonard Lord, chairman and managing director of BMC, was very aware of the splash the car was making. Over 3,000 orders were received during this show alone—and Donald Healey had never been able to produce more than 200 cars in any one year! During the show, Healey and Lord made a deal over dinner; Austin bought the rights to the Healey Hundred. The car was rebadged “Austin-Healey” while it was on the show stand, and the Donald Healey Motor Company was engaged as consultants on a 20-year contract. Healey would develop new designs and special projects such as race-competitive versions of production cars.
The new Austin-Healey prototype won the Grand Premier Award at the 1953 Miami World’s Fair, and at the 1953 New York Show, it was voted International Show Car of the Year. The rest, as they say, is history. Following the Austin- Healey 100’s introduction, DMH asked middle son, Brian (known to all as “Bic”), to join the company in a sales capacity. Bic was instrumental in establishing procedures for U.S. servicemen stationed in England to purchase Austin-Healeys free of British taxes. Bic’s sales and marketing talents contributed to the success of the “Big” Austin-Healeys and Sprites.
Between 1953 and 1967, just over 73,000 “Big” Healeys (as they were later called, to differentiate them from the Austin-Healey Sprites) were sold. Included were various models designated as the 100 (with four cylinders), 100-6 (with a six-cylinder, 2.6 liter engine), and the 3000 series (with a six-cylinder, 2.9 liter engine). Approximately 77% of these cars were exported to America. Big Healey competition cars included the 100M (Le Mans modification) and the fabled 100S (Sebring version), many of which are still raced today in a number of vintage racing series.
The 100S gained new respect for the Healey name in competition and in production. Austin-Healey’s finest hour may have come at the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah when in 1953 and 1954, specially modified Healeys were pushed to a limit of endurance and speed, posting records with drivers Donald Healey, Carroll Shelby, Mort Goodall, John Gordon Bennett, movie star Jackie Cooper, George Eyston, and Roy Jackson-Moore. In 1956, the race team returned to Bonneville with an improved car and recorded a two-way average of 203.11 mph.
Donald M. Healey became only the twenty-fourth man to break the 200 mph barrier and join the 200 MPH Club. Following this record-breaking run, Donald Healey decided to retire after a competition career covering more than 30 years.
On the heels of the biggest Austin-Healeys came the smallest, the Sprite. The idea of a small sports car resulted from a comment heard by Donald Healey at a BMC product planning meeting in 1956. Leonard Lord was said to have bemoaned the fact that Austin Motor Corporation no longer made a small sports car like the Austin Nippy. Lord’s comments set Healey’s mind into top gear, and the same team that had developed the 100 a few years earlier set out to develop a “spritely” little sports car.
Introduction of Austin-Healey Sprite
On May 20, 1958, the Austin-Healey Sprite was announced at Monte Carlo, coinciding with the running of the Monaco Grand Prix. The press loved the car, and rave notices followed. The first Sprite, lovingly called the “Bugeye” in the U.S. and “Frogeye” in the U.K., was very successful, with nearly 49,000 being sold in their three years of manufacture.
Subsequent style changes were made, and the “squarebodied” Sprites took off after the demise of the Bugeye. Badge-engineering saw Austin-Healey Sprites and MG Midgets being produced in great numbers; nearly 127,000 Sprites were produced through 1971, and over 199,000 Midgets through 1977. As with the “Big” Healeys, approximately 80% were exported to America. Today, the Sprites are raced competitively in nearly all sanctioned races as well as in vintage racing events.
After the demise of the Big Healey in late 1967 and the Sprite in 1971, Donald Healey continued in his quest to build cars. Included was an Austin-Healey 4000, powered by a Rolls Royce “R” engine, but when this project was cancelled, hopes for a BMC Healey died, and BMC put its efforts into the Triumph.
Healey’s last major car building venture involved the Jensen-Healey, which was launched in 1972. The Healey Company was responsible for the design of the prototype car following an approach by the late Kjell Qvale, who wanted an updated sports car to replace the Austin-Healey 3000. The car was planned to be based on General Motors components with the engine units being produced by Vauxhall, GM’s U.K. operation. However, the engines did not produce sufficient power after “de-smogging” to satisfy U.S. emissions standards or to give required performance. Approaches were made to European manufacturers, but none had sufficient spare capacity to meet the expected demand for the new car. Finally Qvale was persuaded by Lotus to use their new and underdeveloped two-liter power unit. The new car was beset with engine problems from the outset, and the finish of the car as it emerged from the Jensen factory was of a very poor standard. Despite general acclaim for its road handling and comfort, the Jensen-Healey did not fulfill its early promise. Production ceased upon the collapse of the Jensen company in 1976.
Donald Healey resigned as chairman of Jensen Motors Ltd. and later formed Healey Automobile Consultants. He continued to plan for new cars and traveled extensively in his final years, often visiting America and the many Austin-Healey club events, much to the delight of the thousands of admiring and grateful owners of his fabulous cars.
Queen Elizabeth II Honors Healey
Surely ranked as one of the most successful salesman and public relations officers the British motor industry has ever produced, Donald Healey’s reward came in 1973: He was made a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (C.B.E.) by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth, at Buckingham Palace.
In the mid-1980s, with his health failing, DMH retired from Healey Automobile Consultants. Donald Mitchell Healey died in his beloved hometown of Perranporth, Cornwall, on January 15, 1988.
Remembering a Friend
After Healey’s death, many enthusiasts and club members sought a way to honor DMH. The DMH Memorial Fund Committee was formed in 1991, spearheaded by Bonnie Ayer, then president of the Austin-Healey Club of America, and supported by other Healey clubs from around the world. The theme of “Remembering a Friend” was suggested by Bic Healey, DMH’s second son, and in 1993 DMH was honored with the installation of a memorial stained glass window in St. Michael’s Church, Perranporth. Other remembrances in England include a Memorial Garden and Walk in Perranporth, and a cross atop Perranporth’s Methodist Chapel.
In 2005, a large timeline of DMH’s life was unveiled at the Callestock Cyder Farm, a working farm owned by Donald’s grandson David and which attracts more than 350,000 visitors to Cornwall each year. Under the guidance of the DMH Memorial Fund, scholarships and grants are awarded to deserving young people from the Cornwall area yearly.
Hall of Fame Inductions
Here in the United States, Healey is remembered at the International Motorsports Hall of Fame, Talladega, Alabama where he was inducted in 1996 and at the Automotive Hall of Fame, Dearborn Michigan. At his induction there in 2004, he became one of more than 200 persons so honored for their contributions to the automotive industry world-wide. These inductions are a lasting tribute to a man who began his career in a small village garage in Cornwall.
To quote Mike Taylor and Julie M. Fenster from the story “Donald Healey: His Own Way” (Automobile Quarterly Magazine, Fourth Quarter, 1986):
The rally hero of pre-war Britain became the survivor of modern, oligarchic British automaking: one man, rugged and graceful, and cars the way he saw them. The Austin-Healey is irreplaceable the way that a conglomerate is not,
the way that a man is.