The lure of the stylish two-seater Austin-Healey

This classic British marque is inspiring a new fanbase to take to the open road in quintessential low-slung style – and with plenty of “grunt”, says Simon de Burton

1961 3000 MKI, being auctioned at RM Sotheby’s on May 14, estimate €250,000-€300,000
1961 3000 MKI, being auctioned at RM Sotheby’s on May 14, estimate €250,000-€300,000 | Image: Tom Gidden 2016 Courtesy of RM Sotheby's

It’s not known who first used the term “hairy chested” to describe certain British roadsters from the 1950s and 1960s, but ask any gathering of classic car enthusiasts to name the model with the hairiest chest of all and they’ll likely say “Austin-Healey”. In the hands of celebrated factory drivers such as Pat Moss, Paddy Hopkirk and Jack Sears, this stylish two-seater with plenty of “grunt” achieved a string of podium finishes in rallies including the Monte Carlo and the Mille Miglia – and even today its muscular performance, reliability and quintessential classic looks make it ideal for both the track and the open road.

1965 3000 MKIII BJ8, £63,000 from John Chatham Cars
1965 3000 MKIII BJ8, £63,000 from John Chatham Cars | Image: John Chatham Cars

“Healeys are very popular for long-distance touring,” says Hampshire-based expert Bill Rawles. “Many of our UK customers think nothing of driving them as far as the south of France, Spain, Italy or Scandinavia. Although production ended almost 50 years ago, they remain remarkably usable sports cars – especially with a few simple upgrades, such as alternator electrics and modern starter motors.” Those keen to get behind the wheel of what has become one of the most sought-after of all classic British sports cars, however, will have to contend with soaring prices. In the past 10 years the best “standard” models have more than doubled in value; a 1954 Austin-Healey 100M is being offered by Bill Rawles Classic Cars for £79,500, while a 1966 3000 MKIII is £54,000.

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The original Healey 100 was unveiled at the Earls Court Motor Show in 1952 as an affordable offering intended to boost the fortunes of Cornish polymath Donald Healey’s company in the face of post-second world war austerity. The car combined the engine of the earlier, unsuccessful (and frankly rather mediocre) Austin A90 Atlantic with a gorgeous, low-slung, two-seater body penned by designer Gerry Coker. In its new guise, the Atlantic’s 2.7-litre, four‑cylinder engine provided sufficiently sparkling performance to justify the Healey 100 designation – in recognition of its 100mph-plus top speed. And thus began the fêted Austin-Healey marque.

1953-1955 Special Test Car, sold for £843,000 at Bonhams
1953-1955 Special Test Car, sold for £843,000 at Bonhams | Image: Bonhams

Between 1953 and 1956, no fewer than 14,634 100s were built, mostly at Austin’s Longbridge factory, together with 55 higher-performance S versions. There followed the 100-6 with a six-cylinder engine, which grew to become the 3000 MKI (a fine example of which is being auctioned at RM Sotheby’s on May 14, estimate €250,000-€300,000) and MKII and, ultimately, the 3000 MKIII, all of which were available as two-seaters and in the now-less-popular “2+2” guise. Although outwardly similar to the original 100, the later cars became steadily faster and more luxurious, benefiting from wind-up windows, fold-down hoods and full-sized windscreens – and today the 3000 models command some of the highest prices.

Interior of a 1956 100-BN2
Interior of a 1956 100-BN2 | Image: Heritage Images/Getty Images

“I think many people turned to the Austin-Healey when the best Jaguar E-Types began to exceed the six-figure mark,” says Jack Chatham, manager of Bristol-based specialist John Chatham Cars, whose father established the business in the 1960s. He currently has several 3000s for sale, including a 1965 MKIII BJ8 model for £63,000. “Not only are they great-looking and lovely to drive, they are also quite robust,” he says. “All the parts are available in either original or remanufactured form, meaning they are not complicated or expensive to maintain or repair.”

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One man who appreciates the lure of the Austin-Healey more than most is James Knight, group director of motoring at auction house Bonhams. Having coveted the marque since meeting Donald Healey’s son, Geoffrey, in 1989, he eventually became an owner around 10 years ago. “I have a lovely 1954 100 that I take out on sunny days,” says Knight. “I love the simple, pure lines of the original cars. However, the later, six-cylinder models, with their more powerful engines, are better for travelling long distances.” Still, this doesn’t stop him taking part in gentle rallies and tours with Austin Healey Club, which this July will be heading to Germany’s Black Forest.

Knight has also been involved in the sale of the two most valuable Healeys in existence. Registered NOJ 393 and NOJ 392 from a batch of four Special Test Cars built for racing and record-breaking, they respectively fetched £843,000 and £785,500 at Bonhams auctions in 2011 and 2013. More recently, the auction house realised £639,900 for a unique 100S hard-top coupé built for Donald Healey, but since around 80,000 Austin-Healeys were built during a 15-year production run, there is no shortage of less-exalted examples on offer. Bonhams regularly features the five main variants in its classic car sales and another good source is North Yorkshire’s Murray Scott-Nelson, which currently has 17 for sale ranging from a 3000 MKIII restoration project at £19,950 to a 100-4 BN2 that will start at £95,000 when fully rebuilt. Those in search of a Healey to race or rally, meanwhile, will find a competition-ready 100 on offer at Denis Welch Motorsport in Burton upon Trent for £85,000.

The occasional bargain does, however, still crop up. North Yorkshire-based IT consultant Roy Davies bought his 100 “blind” at a “price I couldn’t refuse” on a website called Car and Classic. “I didn’t really know anything about Austin-Healeys until I saw one parked in the street a few years ago and was totally bowled-over by the way it looked,” says Davies, whose Healey came from Austria as an unfinished restoration project and is currently being rebuilt. “As one of the original, four-cylinder cars, it is very simple. There’s a fold-down windscreen, a very basic soft top and just three gears. But I like it for that purity – it allows the true beauty of Coker’s design to shine through. I’m already hooked on the car. And that’s before I’ve even driven it.”

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