Donald Healey didn't just race cars, he designed a stream of highly successful ones too. In the centennial year of his birth, we celebrate the colourful life of an extraordinary man; and overleaf, how to collect his legacy of great cars
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The Independent Culture
MOTORING ENTHUSIASTS around the world have, this summer, been marking the centenary of the birth of Donald Healey, legendary creator of the sports cars which bore his name. Healey fans and owners from as far afield as Australia and America will be converging on the Royal Agricultural College at Cirencester next weekend to celebrate both his brilliance as a car-maker and his outstanding ability and versatility as a driver. Healey was equally at home creating world speed records on the salt flats at Utah as he was driving long-distance races like the Mille Miglia and Le Mans, or competing in the Monte Carlo and Alpine rallies, always in the cars that he had designed and built himself.

Donald Healey was born in Perranporth, then a small fishing village in Cornwall, on July 3rd 1898. Although he shared his father's love of motoring, as a young man it was his passion for flying which almost cost him his life. At the start of the First World War he volunteered for the Royal Flying Corps and qualified as a pilot after less than three hours' solo flying. He was coming in to land at Doncaster racecourse when his French- built Maurice Farman biplane stalled and crashed into the grandstand, narrowly missing the hundreds of infantrymen billeted there who were asleep on the benches. Although he was drenched in petrol, the aircraft didn't catch fire and he was dragged from the wreckage relatively unscathed.

Once recovered, he was posted to a squadron flying BE2es equipped with rockets for shooting down German Zeppelins, but left soon afterwards for France to fly FB2b night bombers. His flying career ended when an Allied shell exploded alongside his aircraft and he crash-landed close to the enemy lines. He was rescued, but was suffering from memory-loss and sent to a mental hospital in England to recover. After the crash, he was no longer considered fit to fly.

Donald returned to Perranporth when the war ended and took a correspondence course in automobile engineering. Although there were only three cars in that part of Cornwall, he opened a garage and established a successful car and coach hire business; by 1922 the enterprise was doing well enough for him to start competing in the international car trials and rallies which were increasingly popular.

He achieved several successes in Riley, MG and Triumph vehicles, but his most important victory came when driving the very impressive 412 litre Invicta. In 1931 he won the Monte Carlo Rally in an Invicta, and became the first British driver to win the event outright. His victory was even more remarkable for the fact that he crashed into a telegraph pole some distance from the finish, leaving the car with a badly damaged rear axle and braking system. He sawed through the brake rod to release the brake and drove the Invicta for three days in this condition, over the Alps and into Monte Carlo, with the rear axle several inches out of place.

The dashing young Donald was also successful with an Invicta in that year's Alpine Rally when he had Ian Fleming, the creator of James Bond, as his navigator. Part of their prize for winning the Glacier Cup was a free flight in the Graf Zeppelin.

Donald's genius for car design was a natural development of his flair as a rally driver. He drafted his first car in 1945, on the kitchen table of his house near Leamington with Ben Bowden, a member of the Humber design team, and "Sammy" Sampietro, an Italian who'd been released from internment to join Talbot because of his engineering skills. Parts for the car were scrounged from motor companies that Donald had driven for before the war - engine parts came from Riley - and the prototype was assembled in a friend's shed usually used for making cement mixers. Help also came from friends Donald had made in the RAF. Technical drawings of his designs were copied by members of the WAAF stationed nearby, and the Commanding Officer of RAF Honiley allowed the prototype to be tested on the station's airfield. The main runway there was just long enough for the car to reach 100 mph before the driver had to take urgent evasive action to stop going through the hedge at the end.

The Donald Healey Motor Company was formed in 1946 with a capital of pounds 50,000 and two versions of the Healey Westland, fitted with the latest 2.4 litre Riley engine, went into production that year. They were the first of a series of outstanding Healey models which were driven to victory in major races and rallies by Donald Healey and many other top international drivers. He was equally keen to race his cars at Silverstone, Sebring and Montlhery, as well as in demanding races such as the Mille Miglia, Le Mans and the Monte Carlo and Alpine rallies.

During a visit to America, Donald realised there was still a large untapped market there for a British sports car to fill the gap between the Jaguar XK120 and the MG in both size and price. His answer was the Healey 100, which became the sensation of the 1952 Earl's Court Motor Show, despite being a last-minute entry and missing all the pre-show publicity. Donald Healey had taken the prototype to the Jabekke Highway in Belgium and driven it at speeds in excess of 110 mph, at a time when top speeds of 100mph were still pretty rare. It was consequently not surprising that word went round the stands at Earl's Court that Healey had another likely winner.

Although he was pleased with the car's performance, Donald still wasn't satisfied with the look of the radiator grille.When his new model arrived at Earl's Court early on the morning of the show, he insisted on it being placed close to a large concrete pillar in the centre of his company's stand, so that photographers couldn't take a head-on view until the modifications had been made. It was fortunate that he did so, because the pillar also helped to protect the car from the thousands of people who swarmed round it each day.

Sir Leonard Lord, head of the Austin Motor Company, was so impressed with the car that he did a spectacular deal on the opening day: it would be renamed the Austin-Healey 100 immediately, and built at the main Austin plant at Longbridge. He wanted it to spearhead his company's new export drive in America, following the dismal failure there of the Austin A90 Atlantic.

The Austin-Healey 100 was an instant success world-wide. Nothing could compete with its performance, style and price. In August 1956, Donald drove a streamlined version to a new production car world speed record of 203.06mph at Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah, and an Austin-Healey 100 also averaged 132.29 mph for a 24 hour period there. The remarkable Austin-Healey success story came to an end in the late Sixties, soon after the formation of the British Leyland Motor Corporation. The chairman, Lord Stokes, decided to kill off the names Healey, MG and Cooper, to leave the sports car field open to his Triumphs. Donald was summoned to his office at the Standard works in Coventry in 1967 to hear the news and be told that the Leyland staff no longer needed his help in producing sports cars. Stokes added: "I don't think there is any value in names."

Donald Healey returned to Cornwall. Always too energetic to sit back, he turned his attentions to radio manufacture and windmill design, and spent his latter years, until he was well into his 80s, visiting the thriving Austin-Healey Car Clubs in various parts of the world. When he died in January 1988, he was buried at the Methodist chapel at Perranporth and the funeral cortege was made up of some of the outstanding models which bore his name. It was a final mark of respect which Donald Healey would have appreciated.