Austin-Healey is reborn

The Healey name has an enduring place of honour in the history of British sports cars. Now it is about to be return for a new century. Giles Chapman reports
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As long as it isn't Fascism, tuberculosis, ram-raiding or, possibly, the chart career of Brotherhood Of Man, the British like to back a revival. So it's hard not to be swept away on a tidal wave of longing at news of the return of Austin-Healey. After all, it's a name as redolent as any other of British motoring panache.

Austin-Healey slunk into oblivion in 1970 for what, then, was a sound reason: it was helping, in its small way, bleed British Leyland dry. When the marque was created in 1952, it was essentially as a licensing deal.

Under the deal, Austin would build the stunning sports car that Donald Healey had designed, and pay him a royalty on every car it sold in exchange for the reflected glory of using his name. The exact amount was never revealed, but it was sufficient for the Healey clan to happily abandon its own cottage-industry attempts at carmaking. A similar agreement was later reached with the racing-car constructor Cooper to create the stardust-sprinkled Mini Cooper.

But in 1970 British Leyland needed to cut costs, and both cooperations were ditched - so abruptly that the final 1,022 Austin-Healey Sprites arrived at showrooms badged simply as Austin Sprites.

What became Healey Automobile Consultants was then free to licence its name to others, which it did in 1972 for the Jensen-Healey sports car. Later came a plan, not concluded, for a Healey-branded Ford Fiesta. Towards the end of the Eighties however, the ground began to swell again with desire for Austin-Healey.

This meant a yearning for the Austin-Healey of the popular imagination: the ground-hugging 3000 model with its wire wheels, distinctive two-tone livery of cream below an icy metallic blue, a sweaty little cockpit nestling in the valley of the undulating wingline, and a thunderous exhaust note fit to shatter windows in narrow streets and hinting at the gutsy engine under that manfully elongated bonnet.

With well-preserved original Austin-Healey 3000s worth well over £20,000 apiece by the early 1990s, the "affordable" replicas were inevitable. The Scottish-built Haldane came first in 1987. It was soon renamed the Pilgrim and joined by a rival called Sebring.

A company named HMC engineered a rather good Rover V8-engined copy in 1991, finding a steady export market for it in Germany, and then, in 1996, the German firm Wiesmann took the iconic "Big Healey" profile and crafted a capable, modern, BMW-powered sports car beneath it. BMW itself, while owning Rover, built a concept car along traditional Austin-Healey lines and toyed with putting this "Project Warwick" on sale.

However, the thorniest issue in all this has also been the most magical: the Healey name. Donald Healey was a First World War pilot and irrepressible car enthusiast. He won the 1931 Monte Carlo Rally in an Invicta, and helped to design cars for Riley and Triumph. After the war, he set up his own company, making Riley-engined Healey cars, but he hit the jackpot with the Austin-Healey 100 in 1952, and subsequently the cut-price 1958 Sprite.

Later, he became chairman of Jensen. Healey's two sons, Geoffrey and Brian, also joined their father's Healey Motor Company, and the trio were closely involved in designing the Jensen-Healey sports car.

Although Donald Healey passed away in 1988 at the age of 89, his family have guarded his precious brand with all the fervour of a Nike or an Armani. No one gets to sell a Healey-branded car without their permission. Period. Yet now, someone has that permission, and he's the unlikeliest of candidates.

If enthusiasm and knowledge alone are enough for success, then Tim Fenna undoubtedly has what it takes. He owns the company Frontline Spridget, which is a thriving Austin-Healey spares specialist. "I've had a long-term love affair with Healeys and this is a long-held ambition," he has said.

But now he's also managing director of HFI, an Anglo-American consortium that's spent an undisclosed seven-figure sum to buy into Healey Automobile Consultants.

That gives Fenna and his US associates the right to use the Healey name on a new car, a prototype of which is said already to be running, while Kate Healey, Donald's granddaughter, says Fenna is "a worthy custodian" of the property.

He cannot use Austin, though - not without an agreement with China's Nanjing Automotive, which owns this venerable trademark after buying the assets of MG Rover last year. Media speculation is that Nanjing intends to use the Austin brand in China, as it has a definite Mandarin ring to it, but a licensing deal with Tim Fenna's HFI could still be possible.

Which is all dandy. Except that Tim Fenna is edging his Healey out of the quiet country road of classic vehicles and into the unrelenting motorway fast lane of selling brand-new sports cars; treacherous territory for all but the fleetest, most roadworthy of enterprises. To design, verify, manufacture and market a sports car that normal people might purchase instead of a Porsche, Lotus, TVR or Morgan is a daunting undertaking.

There is also the considerable burden of creating a new Healey car that doesn't suffer by comparison with its illustrious forebears. Why buy a "new" one as a plaything when, perhaps for similar money, you can get your hands on a feisty originals? And feisty and varied they were.

The birth of Austin-Healey occurred actually during the 1952 London motor show. The British Motor Corporation was so smitten with the Healey 100 sports car revealed on the opening day that it signed an on-the-spot deal with Healey. From the start, the cars were very rare in the UK, with 90 per cent exported, overwhelmingly to the US. There was plenty of rallying and speed-record success, too.

The first roadgoing Austin-Healey car was the 100/4, which was launched in 1953 at £1,064 - the world's cheapest 100mph sports car. Its four-cylinder 2.6-litre Austin engine gave 90bhp, and 0-60mph took 10sec. In 1956, it was replaced by the £1,144 100/6 with a straight-six 2.6-litre motor providing 102bhp; two tiny rear seats were fitted and an oval, chrome-lipped grille superseded the 100/4's distinctive fan-shaped one. The car was renamed the 3000 in 1959 when it gained a larger 2.9-litre engine giving 124bhp (ultimately 148bhp). Front disc brakes were now standard on the £1,159 roadster. The last ones were built in 1967.

In 1958, Austin-Healey introduced a small sports car: the Sprite, known as the "frog eye" because of its bulging headlamps. Power came from a 948cc Austin A35 engine and it boasted novel monocoque construction. It cost £679. In 1961, the £670 MkII Sprite gained a conventional bonnet and continued to be available until 1971, by which time it sported a 1,275cc engine.

Tim Fenna's paucity of hardbitten motor industry manufacturing experience need not count against him, of course. As Sir Alan Sugar would doubtless concur, if it's within you, then you'll make it. But the omens aren't encouraging.

I was at the 1998 British motor show when the wraps came off the Jensen SV-8 and Mike Gibbs, the car's programme director and a car industry consultant of longstanding, gushed with excitement: "We wanted raw beauty in a racy car. A man's car - the sort of thing that really looks like a machine to do a job. I laid out the basic architecture - I wanted a long bonnet and a big cockpit. Timeless but not retro, modern but with a historical significance. And subliminally Jensenesque."

The project had a revived brand name with sackloads of public goodwill, tens of millions in City backing, great looks, and a thumping V8 engine driving the rear wheels in time-honoured fashion. They were going to make 600 a year in a brand-new Merseyside plant.

Two years later, the whole shebang went bust with 20 manufactured cars flogged off by liquidators and Mike Gibb's metaphorical champagne glass lying in shards on the empty factory floor.

It was very sad, and a variety of reasons could be pinpointed for Jensen's crash - most notably funds that ran out during the necessarily protracted process of ensuring cars are fit for delivery to buyers. But similar scenarios had already been played out dozens of times in the long, chequered history of Britain's sports-car industry.

We're all impressed, then, that the life has been pumped back into the Healey name. Well done - we love that never-say-die, rave-from-the-grave ethos. But we're just sitting back and waiting for that new "Austin-Healey" car to come roaring back in all its glory....

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