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Purity of Form & Function: 1956 Austin-Healey 100

Austin-Healy-100-vintage-british-roadster-09 The Austin-Healey 100-4 was conceived as a road car that could be raced- and raced competitively- on the weekends against more popular rivals built by Triumph, MG, Porsche, Jaguar, Maserati and even more powerful Ferraris and Corvettes. Helmet and goggles on your noggin’, some kind of leather driving gloves on your mitts, numbers slapped on the doors, and windshield slid low out of airflow was all the preparation that was required. Here in the USA we were, and are, horsepower mad. And we should be. There’s nothing better than laying down rubber in all four gears or 400 pounds of torque that pushes the eyes back in their sockets. Nothing beats cubic inches, right? The British had a different philosophy. Light, low, quick, and fun was the design goal. And a pure sports car had to have character. The sharp-handling Austin-Healey hit all those marks. The “100” designation meant that the car would hit 100 mph, guaranteed... an achievement for the time. That it is also one of the most beautiful two-seat sports roadsters ever styled is almost superfluous. Austin-Healy-100-vintage-british-roadster-03 Post-war, into the 1950’s, England was still seriously hobbled by the calamity of WWII. Automotive designer Donald Healey could see an emerging market on the horizon for a fast and inexpensive sports car that handled well and could break the 100mph barrier. The classic MGTD was the British sporting car of note at the time. It was lightweight and capable, but looked like something out of the 1930’s, mostly because it was something out of the 1930’s. To keep costs down, Healey negotiated a deal with Austin to source an existing 2600cc engine and various suspension components. The sheet metal, styled by Gerry Coker, was modern, streamlined and true to the purity of concept. He gave it a bodyline to make it look lower and longer. The cockpit styling was spartan, purposeful and racy... and that sliding windshield left no question as to Healey’s competition intentions. Austin-Healy-100-vintage-british-roadster-12 This is a true roadster with a beating heart that is felt and heard in a way that modern insulated, air-conditioned and technology-weighted sports cars can’t compare. There is no radio or convertible top. The metal dash is sculpted and stuffed with traditional Smiths gauges that have never been surpassed in their good looks. A spare tire is in the trunk (or “Boot” as the Brits say) next to the fuel throat. And those classic spoke wheels are real racing-spec knock-offs for those quick tire changes that might be needed on the shoulder of a country road or next to the guardrail at any track worldwide. Austin-Healy-100-vintage-british-roadster-14 Jason Hertzberg grew up in the Southern California sunshine riding skateboards and listening to punk rock. He was interested in design and vintage machinery, riding an old Indian Scout motorcycle every weekend, and his eye was on a basket case Big Chief that had become available. English roadsters weren’t on his radar, but the car here sort of made it’s way to him. A relative living in the High Desert contacted him to ask if he had any interest in a wrecked sports car that had been gathering dust in a garage for 25 years. If he wanted it, he would just have to arrange the transport. “I knew what an Austin-Healey was but I was focused on vintage motorcycles and this one was kind of a wreck. They had some value, but money was tight and I was worried about getting into something that I wouldn’t really be committed to and then finding myself upside down on costs. At the time I had no idea that the value of these would skyrocket.” Austin-Healy-100-vintage-british-roadster-05 “After thinking hard about it for a while, I finally came to my senses. Hell yes I want an Austin Healey!” A few weeks later Jason trailered the rough old roadster home. Most of the front end was destroyed in a crash at some point, but the stock four banger and all its components were still bolted together and not pieced out to the unknown. “Of course, I bought the Indian Chief as well. So now I had two big restorations and almost no money.” This is a problem known to most vintage motoring enthusiasts. “The Healey looked so sad and busted up I decided to tackle it first.” Austin-Healy-100-vintage-british-roadster-07 “I knew my way around a toolbox, but I’d never even thought about doing a full restoration on such a rare foreign car. Most of what I knew about working on cars was from my Dad and he always had '50s Chevys. So, this was a mystery in a lot of ways.” There was a lot of head shaking at the wrecked front end. Reproduction sheet metal wasn’t available. “It was beautiful though, even in its bashed-up state.” Austin-Healy-100-vintage-british-roadster-13 Finding a correct front end proved to be difficult. “I ended up having to piece together the sheet metal from three different crashed parts cars.” Luckily, Jason had some friends to lend a hand with the bodywork. None of them were experts, but the car looked a lot less sad with the new hood and fenders mounted. “You just make a decision that this project is gonna happen. Dive in. The car is worthy. Learn as you go. My Dad used to say, "If you’re meant to be with the car, the problems you come across won’t dull your enthusiasm." If anything, overcoming the problems should make the car even more interesting to you.” Austin-Healy-100-vintage-british-roadster-10 True to his word, when the first Healey 100-4 was completed, it easily topped 100mph. The small 90hp Austin engine proved to be more than adequate. Donald Healey’s idea for a reasonably-priced sports roadster performed as well as he had promised. The car presented itself so well, in fact, that the suits at Austin approached him with an idea. Donald Healey’s small company was set up to build about 200 cars per year. Austin proposed building the car in one of their factories and calling the car an Austin-Healey. This would mean at least 2,000 cars per year could be built at a significantly reduced cost. Healey jumped at the deal. His beautiful sports roadster would stay in production, in various guises and configurations, for the next 15 years. Austin-Healy-100-vintage-british-roadster-06 The most difficult part of this restoration was installing the sliding racing windscreen. The original had been shattered in the crash that had crushed the front end. Once the frame and glass had been restored, it refused to fit into the pillars. The frankensteined front end looked perfect, but turned out to be slightly out of alignment. And worse, the car had already been painted. “It took some time, but we used some ingenuity and finally got it to slot in and the mechanism to slide smoothly. But that was a tough stage to get through. After that, everything else went together without too much headache and cussing.” Austin-Healy-100-vintage-british-roadster-04 Jason embraces the “character” of the car. What some might see as deficiencies, Jason recognizes as purity of concept. “You have to keep in mind that the car was built to drive fast on twisty country roads. But I’ve had this on long freeway trips and it cruises at 75 just fine.” Some drivers want to be surrounded by the latest tech and the most advanced materials. Others want to sit low, press on the throttle and watch a Smiths mechanical revcounter jerk its needle, picturing a tight cluster of gears spinning and whirring just behind the black faceplate. Austin-Healy-100-vintage-british-roadster-02 “With a lot of sports cars, the more time you spend driving them, the less you like them. They can be cramped and inconvenient. People tend to have them for a short time and then transition into more practical vehicles that don’t ask much from the driver. This car is just the opposite. Every time I get in it I ask myself why I’m not driving it every day. It’s rewarding. This car pays you back every time you put it on the road.” Hear more from Jason about what it's like being the proud owner of this Austin-Healey 100-4 in the video above.

What are you driving this weekend? Leave a comment!

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