Five Classic Trials
They say that looks are only skin-deep, but there’s a worry here that the beauty of our latest Five Classic Trials ‘defendant’ could sway the judge and jury from making rational decisions as to her character.
The Austin-Healey 100/4 is one of the prettiest mass-produced cars this side of the Jaguar E-type. Sitting here in sexy red with standard wire wheels, few could fail to fall for this delicious cocktail of curves, soaring swage lines and gleaming chrome. One glance at it, and I’m no longer in Peterborough, but booming down a San Franciscan highway or over an Alpine pass, a potent mixture of hot engine and local fauna assailing my nostrils.
Yet under that pretty skin lurks a lot of rather unglamorous Austin mechanicals, including the gearbox, suspension components and a 2660cc four-cylinder engine from a couple of Longbridge’s less successful post-war models.
But behind this car was engineering genius Donald Healey, who had worked wonders at Riley and Triumph before the war and following the end of hostilities produced cars under his own name, including one in conjunction with Nash. Most importantly, the car that would become the Austin-Healey 100 was Healey’s own creation, with all the parts chosen by him for what was originally an independent project. It is the stuff of legend that BMC chairman Leonard Lord saw the car at the 1952 Motor Show and loved it so much that he thrashed out a deal that very evening to build it at Longbridge as the Austin-Healey.
Opening the driver’s door, there is a feeling, on lowering yourself into the driver’s seat, that you are sitting below ground level. It seems a long way down! That said, the seats are very comfortable and there’s a sense of at least some space around you as you turn the ignition key and press the starter button to activate the throaty 2.6-litre four-cylinder engine. Inevitably, it’s not quite six-cylinder smooth, but it feels surprisingly refined nonetheless.
Instrumentation is pretty straightforward, with a rev counter (redlined at a lofty 4800rpm) and oil pressure and temperature gauges on a main instrument panel, but the three-speed gearbox’s shift pattern is anything but. First is where you’d expect fourth to be, second where first usually is and third is straight back down to where second traditionally lives. Reverse is to the right of first, and to confuse matters further, the gearlever sprouts out of the left side of the transmission tunnel rather than the centre.
Release the handbrake and rather sharp clutch as you get the car into first gear – oh blast, that’s second – and we’re off, the four-pot engine thumping over evocative gear whine and a heavenly exhaust note.
Change up the low-geared ’box in search of second, then straight back into third, remembering that there’s overdrive on both second and third. This is a light car, despite its complex chassis, and the engine’s torque is put to good use. As the name suggests, this really feels like a 100mph car.
Handling and ride are excellent too, the car feeling totally controlled even through fast, sharp bends, and the brakes are surely one of the best all-drum set-ups ever made. Great engineering? Yes. And some Healey magic.
Elegant fan-shaped grille disappeared on later cars, but the basic stunning shape remained.
No-frills cabin is dominated by the colossal steering wheel and a three-speed manual gearbox whose unusual shift pattern takes some getting used to.