“THE BIG HEALEY STRETCH” or “The Car That Never Was.”
Article written by Frederick Pearce, originally published in Auto Magazine, a British automotive magazine, in August 1973.
An article on a Healey MkIV? Everybody knows production ceased with the MkIII. Of course, it’s not a MkIV. It’s not even an Austin Healey, and it is not 3000. But it’s not a home-brew custom job, either. Healey fans would call it the car that never was. Although the insignia on the boot lid calls it an “Austin-Healey”, that’s a lie. The identification plaque on the bulkhead reads: “Healey. Chassis no. ADO 24/1002. Engine no. F41.” and the front badge is missing. Aside from these details, the car is easily mistaken for one of the famous breed.
What it boils down to is, take one big Healey, split it down the middle, weld in a 6- inch strip down the entire length, and fit a Rolls Royce engine. Then you are quite free to call it what you like – a Rolls-Healey, a MkIV, Healey Princess, or whatever. The Donald Healey Motor Company never got round to christening it, but they did build three of them (the story that four were completed is untrue.) The one we tested was kindly loaned to us by Frank Allenby. Lifting the bonnet gives one quite a surprise. It requires a stretch to reach the two, side-mounted safety catches due to the extra width, but the sight of a Rolls Royce engine, complete with RR badge, snuggling in the inadequate space, is heel-rocking. An enormous air-cleaner was a attached to an old type air box feeding the carbs and blocked the view of this magnificent mill.
The engine is that unit fitted to the Austin Princess R, and was chosen by our friends from Warwick (a) because of the availability from Rolls Royce, (b) the fact that it was being built for Austin (remember, at this time the new car was to be a Austin-Healey), and (c) the pending demise of the Princess. There was, thus, a surplus of engines in addition to an established production line. It is an unusual unit, as engines go, for it has overhead inlet valves and side exhaust valves. These are operated hydraulically which makes for a very quiet engine. Maintenance is reduced also, because obviously adjustment is taken up automatically. The whole thing is constructed out of aluminium alloy reducing the front end weight of the car by some 90 lbs.
The weight distribution, in consequence, approaches that of works competition cars and improves the handling no end. In fact, during the road test we noticed a complete lack of the oversteer that usually plagues the 3000.The power from the 4-litre lump is, in the words of the famous Rolls Royce joke, adequate. The clutch is a 9-inch Borg and Beck unit tying things to a Jaguar E-type gearbox. The gear ratios are much more evenly spaced in the Jag box than they were in the MkIII and that big hole between second and third has vanished. Although the rear axle was described by Geoff Healey as a basic BMC unit it was apparently so chopped about that it might be better called a special one-off. The diff is probably a regular 3000 one or an MGC one. Asking Healeys about a car that was, officially, never built (and that several years ago) inevitably leaves gaps in the information. Ratio is probably 3.89:1 or thereabouts.
Wheels were originally 5-inch, 72-spoke, fitted, possibly, with Dunlop SP’s, and these might have been XJ6 (Jaguar) wheels. Our test model confirms this except that the wheels appear wider than 5-inch. Tyres fitted are 185 x 15 Continentals, which does nothing for the handling, by the way. The knock-on wheel nuts are specially made for the job but look remarkably like those fitted to Jaguar cars. Remember, these vehicles were built about the time of the BMC/Jaguar link-up so the odd Jaguar piece here and there in an experimental car is only to be expected. However, by this very fact, the new Healey would have been internal competition for the E-type so was really doomed from the start. As you take the driving pew, the extra width really hits you. The familiar Smith dials are there, but more dashboard separates them, and reaching across the vehicle to open the door for the passenger means you miss the handle by 6 inches until you get used to it. And, can you believe it, no more elbow rubbing with your passenger. Rear seat passengers now get 2 inches of knee-room instead of the former 1 inch. The padded indentations behind are still pretend seats, however. The driver and passenger seats look like standard 3000 semi-buckets but are much softer. Perhaps saloon car drivers still won’t call them soft, but those of you who have driven a 3000 will know what we mean.
Two of the three Healeys built were given an automatic gearbox and the other one, our test vehicle, had the manual. The gear lever, we thought, was a shade too long; 2 inches chopped off the top would have added sportiness and comfort. Overdrive is there but only on top gear, and the switch is mounted on the lever – easy in, easy out. Other switches mounted on the dash are by Lucas, the same rocker type seen in the Jaguars. Once you get to know where everything is, operating causes no hardship. Always in pairs, the two to the right of the steering wheel are the side and headlights. Beneath them sit the panel light and heater fan switches. Immediately below the dash on the right hand side is the bonnet latch. (NB. Right hand drive vehicle) Single speed wiper and electric washer switches are in a pair to the left of the steering wheel. A steering column stick operates the indicators. Production cars would have had a more thoughtful layout and the non-parking windscreen wipers substituted with self-parking units, but to criticise these minor points would be unfair. It is an experimental car, after all.
As far as the pedals are concerned, like the 3000, driving in Wellys (= rubber boots) would have been difficult there being too little room in the foot well. A good hard push on the clutch pedal can bring about dipping the headlights but that is nothing unusual. Roadwise, the Healey hardly compares with the 3000 at all. Gentle acceleration produces such a soft purr never before heard from a sports car and, even travelling fast, one can listen comfortably to the radio. A radio in a sports car! In this case, a hundred pounds worth of Blue Spot stereo. This car is undoubtedly a high speed cruiser. The ride itself is true blue Healey liveliness unlimited. Every bump in the tarmac was felt where the body bends but this was not uncomfortable. The car stayed on its solid path with only a little sideways movement on a particularly lumpy bend, all due to the very live axle. Gone was the traditional sucking sound that unnerves the first-timer in a 3000. Gone was the conspicuous fan whirr. Twin electric fans cool the radiator so releasing a few horses to the back wheels instead. But, all in all, the engine was a little disappointing. To be fair, Rolls Royce are not racing engine manufacturers and we should not expect racing performance from them. Bottom end torque was lacking and the engine did not seem to come into its own until 3,000 or 3,500 revs were showing. Even at the lower speeds the smoothness is something the hotted up Austin truck engine could never aspire to.(The Healey 3000 engine was originally used in the Austin tipper/dump truck!) To give and idea of the smoothness, we slowed the car right down, in top, to see when snatching began. The first snatch set in at 1,500 rpm. From this engine speed, without changing gear, we then accelerated. It pulled away quite comfortably with no sign of strain.
Up through the range, acceleration was smooth but hardly exhilarating until 3,500 when someone seemed to push on the rear bumper. At 5,000 revs a gap, an almost imperceptible cough – perhaps they stopped pushing. And then on she would have gone to infinity, but we must not be naughty, we’ve got speed limits in this country. There was never a hint of running out of revs but it would be safer to keep to, say, 6,000 red line. The top speed would appear to be about 120 -125 mph – not much faster, in fact, that the 3000 but consideration must be given to increased wind resistance due to the extra 6 inches of width.
Although we did not have the opportunity to time the acceleration, the figures would barely exceed the 3000 times. It would probably be a little faster to the ton (=100mph) , thanks mainly to the more evenly spaced gear ratios, but 0-40 would favour the 3000 because of more low end torque. Wiggling the car down a country lane provided less excitement than served up by a 3000, and an extra degree of safety. Road holding is much improved. The steering is neutral. The wider track stopped even the slightest hint of unmanageability, and, as previously mentioned, weight distribution cut out steering problems. It did feel a little spongy and if those Continentals had been replaced with a set of SPs or Zxs even that could have been eliminated.
Brakes were not to our liking, but here the problem might have been purely maintenance. The standard Healey braking system has always proved effective, and one would have thought that the Girling double braking system (split front and rear) with a direct acting servo would have been admirable. It stopped the car okay but did seem a little spongy. Perhaps it was the tyres, again. Wandering around underneath car gave the answer for the super-quiet exhaust. A standard 3000 system had been used to humour the Noise Abatement Society. Two boxes down the side and two across the rear must have cut out more than noise. Here, too, one could see the widening job done on the chassis. Standard members are used with longer cross pieces to make room for the engine and gearbox. However, any mechanic expected to work in the confined space would tell you that another 6 inches would not have gone amiss.
There can be no question that the car would have proven popular had production been started. The combined names of Healey and Rolls Royce could have made great advertising material, and, where long distances are the way of life, such as in the United States, the character of the new Healey would have attracted a good following. Smoothness, comfort and handling added to traditional Healey performance and looks; it couldn’t have failed.