Five Clas­sic Tri­als

Austin-Healey 100/4

Classic Car Weekly (UK) - - This Week -

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.

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