Obituary: Geoffrey Healey

Jonathan Wood
Monday 16 May 1994 00:02

Geoffrey Carroll Healey, automobile engineer; born Perranporth, Cornwall 14 December 1922; chief engineer, engineering director, Donald Healey Motor Company 1955-74; married 1953 Margot Murcell (two daughters); died Barford, Warwickshire 29 April 1994.

DESPITE the Austin Healey make's surviving for a mere 18 years between 1952 and 1970, today it is remembered with both affection and respect as one of Britain's most successful post-war sports cars. Although it is forever identified with the colourful, extrovert figure of Donald Healey, an immeasurable contribution to the success of the 100, 3000 and, above all, the cheeky, low-cost Sprite, came from the quiet moustachioed figure of his eldest son, Geoffrey, who was responsible for their engineering and design.

After attending Warwick School, Geoffrey Healey received his technical education, briefly at the Camborne School of Mines in Cornwall, and then at the Coventry Technical College. He left in 1939 and served a local apprenticeship with the Cornercroft engineering company, which he completed in 1943. In the following year he joined the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers, latterly serving in Beirut, and left REME in 1947 with the rank of captain.

His father had, in the meantime, established the Donald Healey Motor Company in Warwick, but before Geoffrey joined him there, Donald believed that his son should first gain motor-industry experience with another car-maker. The younger Healey therefore went to Armstrong Siddeley as a development engineer, where he worked under WO Bentley and Donald Bastow on a stillborn 3-litre model, and it was not until 1949 that he joined his father full-time in what was to become the family business. His brother, Brian, later ran the company's sales side.

Geoffrey soon proved his worth in taking over responsibility for the construction of the prototype Nash Healey and seeing, in 1950, the model into production. But these Warwick-built mostly Riley-engined Healeys proved to be heavy, expensive products and Donald Healey recognised that he would have to produce a smaller, cheaper, lighter car if he was to remain solvent. He and Geoffrey therefore laid out the specifications of the Austin- engined Healey 100 sports car, which appeared at the 1952 Earl's Court Motor Show. Overnight it became the newly formed British Motor Corporation's sports car and as the Austin Healey was aimed at the burgeoning American market. The 100 ultimately developed into the muscular 3000 which proved to be at home on the rally field as it was the road.

Geoffrey Healey, with a deep- rooted love of motor sport, took over responsibility for the racing and record-breaking side of the Warwick business and, in 1955, was appointed engineering director. It was in this capacity that he had overall responsibility for the Sprite of 1958 which was created in the utilitarian spirit of the pre-war Austin Seven Nippy. Soon to be universally known, in Mark I form, as the Frogeye on account of its distinctive protruding headlamps, it proved to be a great sales success for BMC and eventually some 130,000 were built.

Alas, the following decade saw BMC tumble into deficit and it became a subservient partner in the British Leyland Motor Corporation, created in 1968. Its chairman, Lord Stokes, decided to discontinue royalty payments to consultants. The Healeys had their contract terminated in 1969 and the last Austin Healey was built the following year. The MG Midget version of the Sprite held on until 1980.

Geoffrey and his father were the first to recognise that the demise of the 3000 would produce a vacuum in America and the car created to fill it was the Jensen-Healey of 1972. They had joined the board of Jensen Motors and Healey senior became chairman. Sadly, there were too many fingers in the corporate pie. The Lotus-engined car suffered from poor build quality and lacked the persona that the 3000 had possessed in abundance. Whilst the Healeys should carry some responsibility for the car's shortcomings, they found their opinions disregarded and the world depression, following the 1973 world oil-price rise, provided the knock-out blow which culminated in Jensen's 1976 bankruptcy.

It was at this time that Geoffrey Healey turned to authorship and his book Austin Healey, the first of three related titles, was published in 1977. Providing a first-hand account of the 3000's creation, it became required reading for a generation of classic car enthusiasts, who nostalgically recalled the great days of the Big Healeys.

In 1979 Healey renewed his contacts with what had become BL Cars and joined the business as a development engineer, a position he held until his retirement in 1987. Latterly he continued his work with Healey Automobile Consultants in Barford, Warwick, where he delighted in his involvement in an updated version of the Frogeye Sprite which impressed him sufficiently for it to carry the Healey name.

(Photograph omitted)

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