By Gary Speckman
Originally printed in the Austin-Healey Magazine, August-September 1987
Healeys that have spent any amount of time in the northern states' winters suffer
terribly due to the effects of road salt. Corrosion was a problem with all big Healeys anywhere it rained or snowed, and adding the "salt factor" common to Wisconsin only compounded the problems. Finding a solid, original Healey in this area is almost impossible these days.
Knowing this, I was prepared for the worst in my search for a restorable car. Depending on the amount of time and money available, almost any Healey can be restored no matter how much rust is present.
However, I was determined to find one with a solid frame at least. This would insure some structural integrity and I could rest assured the car would not break in half after the restoration. (Don't laugh, I've seen this happen!)
Thanks to the help of a friend who located the car, I found what I was looking for. It was a 1960 3000 Mark I 2-seater. As the 3000 2-seater is rather rare (some 2800 were made) I decided the car was worth restoring although I must admit it was very close to the "parts-car" stage. Also, this was a quite early 3000, with the infamous "thermo-carb" cold weather starting device. It was obvious the car had been through many tough winters. After ensuring the main frame rails were solid, I took a complete inventory of the car and what would be needed.
Both front and rear shrouds were in good condition, but all four fenders would need appropriate patch panels welded in. Underneath, I could see both front outriggers would have to be replaced, but the rear ones were solid. The floors were relatively solid; however the inner and outer sills and rocker panels would have to be replaced. Front inner fenders were in good condition, the rear ones were not. The rear door shut faces were rusted as were the aluminum threshold trim pieces. Both would need replacing. The doors themselves were in surprisingly good condition with no rust-through.
Moving to the interior, it was obvious that this area would have to be totally refurbished. Prior to my purchasing the car, it had sat outside with only a badly ripped tonneau cover protecting the interior. It had sat like this since 1974. The seats were demolished as well as all the interior trim, door panels, rear kick panels, etc. All this had been ruined by the weather, and the wood portions were all badly delaminated.
I then turned to the mechanical condition of the car. As mentioned, the car had sat outside, exposed, for over 10 years so I really was not expecting much. For this reason I was not too let down when I found the engine to be "tight." It did finally turn, however there was no way the
starter would crank it over. After removing all the spark plugs and hand cranking it several times it loosened up enough so that the starter would turn it over rather easily. At this point I just wanted to get it running to check the vital signs, i.e, oil pressure, oil/water leaks, compression etc. After installing new points and plugs and cleaning the fuel system, the engine started and ran rather well. I could tell it would need a valve job but everything else checked out satisfactorily.
Since the car had no rear brakes when I got it, it could not be driven, so this was my next project. The brake lines were all rusted badly so all lines were replaced. The master cylinder was rebuilt ,and a new fluid reservoir installed, etc. The discs and drums were ground and new shoes fitted. I found the calipers were "frozen". The pistons would not budge. They had to be removed at a local brake shop. The pistons were too badly corroded to be reused so new ones were installed (not cheap!). After seeing these, I am convinced of the need and usefulness of silicone brake fluid! The pistons were installed along with all new seals. The system was bled and with 100% new brake system components, I felt safe taking the car for its first test drive!
The test drive was uneventful. Everything worked and the car ran rather well. The second and third gear synchros were bad, but the overdrive worked and the car actually handled quite well. It would need some sorting out but I was satisfied.
I had begun working on the car in March and got it on the road in late May. It had been many years since I had owned a sports car (previously I had had an MG Midget and an MGB-GT, but had always wanted a "Big Healey") so I decided I would drive the car all summer in its unrestored condition and begin the restoration in the fall. This way the neighbors also got a long "before" look at the car and ultimately decided this car was beyond help (some suggested that would apply to me too!).
October came too soon but I began the dismantling of the car anyway. It was getting too cold to drive the car without a top (someone had stolen the top clamps and finding clamps for the 2-seater models is impossible). The engine and transmission were removed as well as all exterior body parts. Basically, the car was "stripped down" to its chassis. It was then trailered to a local restoration shop were I had made arrangements for the work that I wanted them to do. Since I didn't have the proper welding equipment, I had this shop install the new outriggers, inner and outer sills, door shut faces and also weld in the new metal where necessary in the rear wheel arches, inner fenders and floor boards. They also completely stripped the body and chassis of al lpaint and welded in the fender replacement panels.
While this was being done, I tackled the engine and transmission. The engine was cleaned and stripped down. The head was removed and taken to Fourintune where Tom Kovacs and crew rebuilt it. The engine had good oil pressure and compression and the pistons and cylinders appeared in good condition so this was left as is. A new clutch and timing chain were installed, the engine reassembled and left sitting waiting to be re-installed.
The transmission was next. I wanted to thoroughly inspect it and replace all three synchro rings. After opening it up, I found it to be in good condition. After waiting for a month for the new synchro rings to arrive from England, I found they had sent me one incorrect ring! Another month went by before that was straightened out. (One note: I ordered many parts from England and other than the one problem with the synchro ring, I have had very good experience with this. The exchange rate is quite a bit less favorable now than it was when I ordered things, so many of the cost saving advantages are gone, but I would not hesitate to do this again even though it does take a month or so for the parts to arrive.) Finally the transmission was reassembled and both engine and transmission were ready to go back into the car.
It was now mid-January and I had been periodically stopping at the body shop checking on things and helping out where possible. The chassis and body were ready for their final primer coats. The engine compartment was then painted (it had gone from red originally to black) and the engine and transmission reinstalled. The exterior body panels were then individually painted. The shrouds were painted as well as all inner fenders, sills, and door openings. The body panels were then re-fitted, sanded and buffed out. An acrylic enamel with hardener was used as the finish paint. This was selected for its overall durability. At this point the car was hauled back to my garage where all remaining assembly was to be done. This was mid-March.
All exterior body hardware was replaced and the interior rebuild was started. The only thing salvageable from the original interior were the seat tracks and frames. All else had to be replaced. New leather seat kits and cushions were ordered and the two seats were again "as new". This was accomplished with much help from my wife. Stretching the new leather and fitting the kits is definitely a two person job! It can be done, however, with good results by the do-it-yourselfer.
The door trim panels were installed and the rear quarter arch kick panels were rebuilt using new wood. Replacing the seat tracks and fitting the carpeting completed the interior.
All the miscellaneous odds and ends were put together and the car was ready for another summer of "Healey Fun". The car was driven almost daily, and made many weekend trips to various car shows and events and even made it to Conclave in Cincinnati, Ohio. It was also the "second" center of attention at my sister's wedding! The car performed flawlessly all summer long.
To say the least this was a rather ambitious restoration project. As I stated earlier, this car was right on the line between restorable and parts car territory. If it had not been a 2-seater I don't think I would have gone through all this with a car in this condition, but, it can be done!
My intention when I began this project was to have a safe, reliable, "driver". I was not interested at that point to go for a "Concours" car, so obviously some short cuts were made, but none that would affect the safety or structural integrity of the car. I got what I wanted at an affordable cost, I believe.
Now you ask, what did it cost for this restoration? The chart gives a brief breakdown of the costs involved in the completion of this particular car. These costs can vary tremendously and a major off-set of my costs was the initial cost of the car. $500, restorable, Healeys are hard to come by.
Add to this approximately 10% for miscellaneous costs and the total cost of restoration is approximately $6000. This is under the current market value of the car. Better than knowing that I can get my money out of the car is the fact that I know what I've got. The car was not "patched" up and fixed cosmetically for quick sale, but rather, actually rebuilt, making it both cosmetically pleasing, but also, and equally important, it is structurally sound and safe. The total project took approximately 14 months to complete and I hope to get at least 14 years of enjoyment out of it before my kids steal it away from me!
Not what you were looking for? Don't forget you can check our back issues using the AHCUSA Magazine Index.