Donald Healey was a racer winning the Monte Carlo Rally before the war and every car he produced there after followed the ethos of race it on Sunday to sell on Monday with arguably the most famous of them all being this the Big Healey 3000.
As well as a decent competitor Donald Healey was also a savvy businessman, he knew that although his company could produce sports cars in small numbers the secret to success in places like America was in volume manufacturing and to do that you needed help. Never one to miss an opportunity Donald initially worked with Nash to produce the Nash-Healey with Nash engines as well as partnering Morris who provided Riley engines to power his own cars.
Realising the potential of placing a sports car to sit underneath Jaguar’s XK, Donald set about quietly designing a new car that after a chance encounter with Leonard Lord would be powered by the Austin A90 engine. In 1952 after much secrecy he launched the 100mph Healey 100 which hit the spot at its first motor show outing generating much interest and impressing Leonard Lord enough for a deal to be done. The now Austin Healey 100 went on to become the 100/6 before capacity was increased to 2912cc and in 1959 the Big Healey 3000 was born.
In a successful partnership arrangement that produced 47,000 cars over nine years, Jensen providing the body shells and Austin taking care of assembly, production finished in 1967 with one final car being produced in 1968 with an incredible 90% going to North America. All cars came with Girling front disk brakes, still unusual at the time and a direct consequence of valuable experience gained on track. Two body styles were offered; a two seat and four seat (2+2 in reality). There were three marks, each providing greater levels of refinement over the previous as well as additional ground clearance, particularly at the low slung rear.
Our steer from Vintage Classics in Melksham (UK) is a Mark 111 Series 1 car, a 2+2 (all MK111s had 4 seats) fitted with wind up windows, a walnut dash, wrap around screen, higher output 150bhp engine with twin 2” SUs and overdrive in 3rd and 4th gear. Disconnected is the optional heater, your passenger is sat over the exhaust system with extremely hot legs and feet which gets mentioned regularly and so no the heater is and I never suspect was a necessary addition. Also missing is the separate indicators which came with the roll out Series 2 car. All of which matters very little because today is a dream come true where yours truly finally gets to drive the legend that is the Big Healey 3000.
Irony number one, the Big Healey 3000 is not actually that big, it is instead just about right in size as is the straight six engine that powers it. True the powerless steering requires big muscles or at least that technique only the police seem to use these days to perform low speed manoeuvres but on the move it really is perfectly weighted and easy to turn. The worm and wheel affair does leave a bit of free play at top dead centre but this isn’t an issue once you get accustomed and doesn’t detract from what is otherwise an inherently sporty feel.
There is however looseness in another system that does take time to get used to often causing your passenger to do an involuntary bow, thank you, and that is from the throttle linkage. There is at least an inch of play in the lever and rod system that opens the two large SUs which takes quite a few miles to smooth out and prevent the car nose diving before slack is taken up once again and the Big Healey 3000 able to accelerate once more. Several apologies later and things improved no end.
In terms of the gear change the movement is exactly as you’d expect being extremely mechanical in feel and the only odd thing is first which without synchromesh and a ratio more akin to reverse appeared to be surplus to requirement. The car happy to pull away in second without any need to either slip the clutch or rev the engine unnecessarily highly, apparently this is the same for the much earlier Austin Healey One Hundred as well although on both cars overdrive on 3rd and 4th goes some way towards balancing things out again.
Once on the move and without wishing to be overly controversial the Big Healey 3000 is right up there with an early 911 or 6 cylinder E-Type in terms of providing an ultimate driving experience. Here is for us a third car that totally belies its age; the brakes feel bang up to date and performance strong with the Austin engine providing that ‘Big’ low down high torque feel whilst also willing to make full use of the rev range on offer if called upon. The thing is when you do you discover this car’s raison d’être which is its distinctive growly exhaust note, something to enjoy every time you press the loud pedal and press it I did, regularly.
Granted other cars like the air cooled 911, Jaguar DOHC E-Type and Daimler SP250 come with their own superb soundtracks but the Big Healey 3000 for me is on its own, the noise really hitting the spot, made even better by the genuinely quick pace that the same sound translates onto any available piece of tarmac. Enough to cause your by now toasty passenger to confirm this car really is genuinely fast and not only in a straight line either.
To say a Big Healey 3000 wants to go sideways at every opportunity might well sound like something you and I have read a thousand times in every article we’ve ever picked up. The thing is this car doesn’t just want to go sideways it almost needs to as that is exactly how it corners. Turn in and the nose immediately changes direction but the rear doesn’t, it instead tries to carry straight on deciding a short while later to join in, ultimately it doesn’t have a choice after all. Scary, not one bit of it, more a friendly and charming disposition that only adds to the pleasure you get from driving a Big Healey 3000.
After 180plus miles and by now on day two I started to want to explore this feature further on the safety of wide open and empty roundabouts. Now whilst falling well short of any hooligan activity the rear duly steered to the point where there was only a need to turn the wheel once and then point it straight again with the back end doing the rest. A bit like drawing around a fifty pence piece this it would seem is the Austin Healey way and I have to say I absolutely loved it.
Big (hearted) and beautiful the Big Healey 3000 does not disappoint having huge depth of ability creating journeys of endless discovery. Given most of us cannot afford to buy one then why not talk very nicely to anyone who cares enough to listen before your next birthday and hire one instead. Satisfaction as they say is guaranteed.
How does this car make you feel?
In one word: Macho
As a favourite meal: This is a steak and chips type of car, served with mushrooms peas and pepper sauce.
Anything Else: Lovely to look at and brilliant to pilot, just a shame they cost so much to buy.
Key Ingredients: Austin engine, sporty feel weight and size, performance brakes and steering, tail happy nature and best of all that noise.
With thanks to Vintage Classics, Wiltshire.
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