Donald M. Healey
Donald Mitchell Healey was born in the small fishing village of Pearranporth on the north coast of Cornwall. His parents, Fred and Emmie, ran a general store in the village, known as the Red House shop. He got his first real taste of motoring at 11 years old during a 260-mile, two-day drive from London to Cornwall in a 30 hp Beeston Humber.
In 1914, at the age of 16, DMH joined the Sopwith Aviation Company at 6 shillings per week and struck up an acquaintance with the famous test pilot Harry Hawker. The next year, he added two years onto his age to enter the Royal Flying Corps. He flew anti-Zeppelin patrols until his plane was shot down by his own anti-aircraft battery. He then finished the rest of his military service as an aircraft inspector.
The Royal Flying Corps
Opened his own garage in Perranporth, UK
In 1919, after departing the Royal Flying Corps, DMH opened his own garage in Perranporth. This became an important part of his apprenticeship with the automobile as it provided a solid foundation in what was required of people to maintain and repair cars. Around this same time, he also began racing in club events He drove a Buick in his first hill climb in 1922, taking a bronze medal—his first motoring prize. His first gold medal comes at the 1924 London to Land’s End, which he started in a Riley and then finished in an ABC after his original car caught fire. From 1924-1930, he won gold medals in that same race four out of five tries, driving Fiats, Rovers, and Triumph 7s. In 1928 he won the Bournemouth rally, and a year later the Brighton rally.
According to Graham Robson, Donald Healey was Britain’s best rally driver in the 1930s. Between 1925 and 1952, DMH competed in nine hill climbs or performance trials, nine reliability trials, nine alpine trials, and 17 international rallies. He placed in many of these races, including the 1931 Monte Carlo, which he won while driving a wrecked 4.5 liter Invicta with damaged brakes and rear axle. Perhaps his finest achievement was joining the 200 mile per hour club at Bonneville, topping out at 203.11 mph in a car of his own making.
Chief Engineer at Triumph
What Donald Healey is most well-known for, of course, is his career as a car designer. He joined the Riley Company in 1933 and moved over to become chief engineer at Triumph a year later.
He was responsible for the Dolomite and Gloria series of cars, and after the company ran into financial difficulties in 1937, he supervised the liquidation.
Building a Prototype
During World War II, DMH worked on the development of airplane carburetors and armored fighting vehicles. In his spare time, he discussed the possibility of designing a sports car with two other employees of the Humber Company—A. C. “Sammy” Sampietro and Ben Bowden.
In March 1945, he obtained permission from the Board of Trade to proceed with the building of a prototype for the car he had in mind. He had hoped to sell his now car idea to Triumph, which had risen from its ashes. When it refused, he formed his own company to build the car in rented garages at “The Cape” in Warwick.
The first Healey cars were either Westlands (an open body 4-seat roadster), Elliots (a saloon), and eventually the Silverstone (the ultimate 2-seater sports car). Steel was in short supply, but there was plenty of aluminum left over from wartime production. Many of the first Healey car parts were made of aluminum alloy, and many of the wooden bits were fashioned from coffin bottoms.
The Nash Motor Company
The Nash-Healey 1951
In 1949, Donald Healey met George Mason, president of Nash Motors, on a trip to the United States. The two hit it off, and an agreement was reached to produce the Nash-Healey. The car, released in 1951, had limited success. That same year, though, Healey and his team were already working on the development of their next prototype. His goal was “to produce a very fast everyday road car with genuine sporting characteristics, capable of 100 miles per hour, which would also be exceptionally cheap to buy and easy and economical to maintain.”
With the help of his small company and a team of young and imaginative designers—especially Gerry Coker—DMH produced the Healey 100, which was the envy of the Earl’s Court International Motor Show of 1952. Austin liked the idea immediately, shaved 100 pounds off the price, and began turning out the production version at Longbridge. The rest, as they say, is history.
The Next 20 Years
Over the next twenty years, 74,000 Austin-Healeys would be exported to the United States, making it an iconic part of automobile history. After the Austin-Healey came to its unfortunate end, DMH became chairman of Jensen and created the Jensen-Healey, which he hoped would replace the Big Healey. However, an issue with the engine, while quickly fixed, damaged the car’s reputation and ultimately lead to the downfall of the car. The last car to wear the Healey wings was a modified Ford Fiesta completed in 1978.
In his later years, Healey spent most of his remaining years dabbling in projects involving electricity and electronics. He had ideas for harnessing the wind to deliver electricity, and he had a dream of bringing electricity to developed nations. He spent much of his time travelling to American club meetings, where he was amazed at the following and enthusiasm the cars produced.
January 15, 1988
Donald Healey died at the age of 89, leaving behind an incredible legacy. John Lamm, writing in Road & Track in 1985, said: “If anyone can think of a man who deserves more credit for creating the post-war British sports car than Donald Healey, I’d like to know who he is. Jaguar fans will nominate Sir William Lyons, of course, but I have to put him in second place, because for the most potential sports car owners in the 50s and 60s, Jaguars were cars you dreamed of, while Austin-Healeys were affordable cars meant to be driven.”
Donald Healey will no longer visit our meets to sign autographs or chat with new friends. Nevertheless, his spirit survives in the cars carefully preserved by his friends who are still faithful to his dream on wheels.
This page was created using excerpts from an article in the June-July 1988 issue of the Austin-Healey Magazine, written by Terry Ganey.