Big Healey restoration
Restoring a Big Healey is both costly and time consuming, particularly if you want more than just a show car. I started out with a tatty but roadworthy Healy in 2006, running it for 10 years until it was too bad to continue. Basically the floor, boot floor, sills, front and rear wings all needed significant work, thankfully the engine and transmission oil splashing over the chassis had saved it from rotting in the same way as the outer panels. Healeys are a bit different from many cars of this era in that they have aluminium front and rear shrouds, with bolt on wings and welded steel floors.
Finding someone to undertake the welding, without spending a fortune took some work, but eventually I found an amazing body man in Stoke on Trent, who used some pattern and made all the necessary panels, which he either didn’t like or preferred to make!
I’ve included some of the photo’s showing how far back he had to cut to the chassis below.
To be honest, at this stage it hardly looked anything like a car….I was astonished at how much metal needed cutting out. At this stage we had a good look at the fasteners required,given, once we were past the welding, the car needed some reconstruction before painting.
Leyton Classics firstname.lastname@example.org matched up the old fasteners, where possible, they offer a brilliant service for matching fasteners, you send them and they will attempt to match them.. In some cases this meant I need to take a box rather than a handful, but that meant the overall cost came down significantly on individual or handful quantities. Its always worth looking at getting box qualities when you’re restoring, as this reduces the cost by as much as 60%! Although some restorers cut costs by using cheaper metric fasteners, I opted for the correct imperial (UNC/UNF)
Once the metalwork had been largely complete, I needed someone to paint the car…at which point my good friend Paul Birkin from Birkin Brothers in Buxton put his hand up. Whilst Paul and his sons stick to crash repair (normally), given Paul’s love of Healeys he agreed to paint it for me….and what a job!
The initial preparation took the majority of the time, with much time spent on ensuring that the panel gaps were absolutely right. Each panel was trial fitted, then fettled until the fit was near perfect. Incidentally, the panel fit from the original Jensen works was said to be fairly poor!
Once the crew were happy with fit, next stage was to get each panel the right shape, remove any imperfections and the lay some paint on to check the work. You have to admire the sheer dedication of the Guys in working through the panels, until everything is right.
The next stage was to remove all the panels and paint the main body to wings, doors, bonnet and boot.
The above photo’s clearly show how the Healey is literally a chassis, with internal panels welded on then the front and rear aprons carefully attached. All the other panels are then carefully attached with bolts. Care is needed at this point, as the aprons are aluminium and the inner structure and wings are steel. If the two metal are directly attached an electorate process starts to take place, leading to rusting of both metals. We used imperial fasteners from Leyton Classics UNC range to fasten the panels together, with stainless fasteners used where possible.
The next stage was to build the car back up into the completed vehicle, another highly time consuming stage. This is one time in restoration where things do become quite satisfying! putting the vehicle back together with refurbished or new parts, rubbers, brightwork etc is the part I always look forward to.
However this is always the point when, on completion, you turn on the ignition and find out exactly what is and isn’t working!
Big Healey vs Lotus Elan or Beauty and the beast?
With the lockdown in place and casting around for things to occupy my time, I decided it was time to sort out the loft. Whilst the detritus of 40+ years of marriage and 3 children, who left home but left much of their early belongings at behind, thus started the marathon clear-out. Trouble is I discovered a mountain of old car magazines, that’s when the clear-out stopped and the reading began! In the middle of the magazines was a copy of an August 1988 edition of Practical Classics; I suddenly realised where my passion for big Healeys’ and Lotus Elans’ sprang from.
In August 1988 I had bought a copy of Practical Classics, price £1.30…at the time I was the proud owner of a 1969 Cooper S (still owned today). The cover of Practical classics showed two of my “dream cars”, but even then it seemed an odd choice for a “back to back” feature. The Healey was a tough, no nonsense, rally winning beauty, whilst the Elan had a reputation as an amazing Drivers car, albeit unreliable and fragile. They seemed an odd choice to place in the same article.
Fast forward ten years and I’d acquired an Elan, all the rave reviews were true, as were the fragility, worrying fires and unreliability. By 2007 I’d purchased the other car in the article, a ‘63 Healey 3000, which seemed to run regardless of maintenance, although mine was worn out and very tired. Today, both cars are running well, mechanically sorted and great to drive, in their own ways.
So I thought I’d create my own version of the Practical Classics ‘back to back” article, but with 20 years of ownership to bring a personal perspective. Which is best, why would you own one and what surprises lay in store?
When looking, some 20 years ago to buy an Elan, I must have inspected at least 12 before settling on the one I would buy, oddly located 3 miles from where I now live. This Elan had been restored, rather inexpertly and owed by a property developer. The previous owner had tired of it, so it came up for sale. Whilst it ran OK, it did have a few issues, which took rather a long time to fix…. mainly due to electrics (now rewired) as well as needing ongoing maintenance…. this is one car that needs constant attention! Whilst the body doesn’t rust, the chassis certainly can. The Lotus chassis is incredibly light, unlike the Healey, but whilst its strong, it feels like its made of folded paper. Parts availability is OK, but nothing like the Healey. You really need to know where the original parts were sourced from in the first place. For instance the rear lights are E type, the steering rack triumph and the internal door handles are from a Maxi. Incredibly, the fuel cap was sourced from a Norton Commando motorbike.
The Elan looks normal size until you park it next to a “normal” car and it then looks more like a toy. Its tiny dimensions belie the amount of room, both in the cabin and in the boot…. easily sufficient for a holiday, unlike the boot in the Healey. Amazingly, the elan will do late 30’s mpg, but also uses a pint of oil every 500 miles.
The revelation though is how it drives. The twin cam engine, double twin choke webers and a low weight and VERY soft springing mean it handles beautifully. The skinny tyres give the driver lots of feedback and it seems literally glued to the road. This a car for fast winding roads not motorways, where the 4 speed gearbox cries out for a 5thgear (much like many cars of the era, but not the Healey). Being a 1971 Sprint, my car was in its last iteration, so has lots of interesting features, how about electric windows and screen washers, 4 wheel disc brakes and bucket seats?
Austin Healey 3000
Whilst I honestly don’t know anyone else who owns both an Elan and a Healey, I guess both marques tend to have a loyal following, rather than multi ownership. My car is an ex Detroit car, which came back to the UK in the 1980’s. Its previous owner had used it for classic rallying, maintaining it well, albeit wearing it out at the same time.
The last 12 years of ownership have seen much of the wear attended to, with rebuilt gearbox, final drive, suspension etc., as well as new sills, floor and attendant work. Finally I have a Healey as it was made, I guess there are few cars, which can handle long distance touring such as a Healey, the only problem is where do you put the luggage?
One of the best things about the Healey is the availability of spares and the quality of specialists. Whilst Lotus specialists are amazing, they are, unfortunately, few in number.
After driving a Mini and an Elan, jumping into the Healey is like a trip back in time. Heavy steering, bouncy hard suspension and seats designed for a trip to the chiropractor. However, the torque of the engine (missing in the Elan) and the throaty exhaust rumble are a lovely way to travel. Whilst the ride is a little agricultural, the thing I found difficult when I started driving it was the steering. With a steering rack, placing a car is straightforward, with the Healey “set up”, I’m never exactly sure where it will end up, without correction, although I suppose its all part of the charm.
So do they go well together, absolutely! They are so different that they complement each other perfectly, bringing out the best (and worst) in each other on a back-to-back drive. If I’m off to the Lakes for a long weekend, it’s the Lotus I’d take, getting off the motorway as soon as possible. If it’s a trip down to Goodwood, then the Healey makes much more sense, with a one-piece hood and overdrive. I’m often asked if I had to sell, which one would I keep, answer, neither, I hang on to the Cooper.