The Austin-Healey 100/4 was developed out of necessity. Britain’s Healeys -- the cars, that is -- were looking pretty long in the tooth by 1952, so Donald Healey -- their famed builder -- began casting around for a new design that would allow him to expand his business. To do this, he reasoned, he needed to buy cheaper components and build more cars so that he could sell each at a lower price. Thus was born the Austin-Healey 100/4.
The romance of this little story is that when the eventual Healey 100 was shown in prototype form at the 1952 London Motor Show, BMC managing director Leonard Lord made Healey an offer he couldn’t refuse. Thus was born the Austin-Healey, a car that would have been made in the hundreds at Warwick but that ended up being built at Longbridge in the tens of thousands. Sports-car devotees have been grateful ever since.
There were several good reasons why Len Lord was so attracted to the Austin-Healey. The sleek, beautiful two-seat roadster was rugged and straightforward, and designed around lightly modified Austin A90 running gear and suspension. Since the A90 wasn’t selling well at the time, Lord’s liking for the new Austin-Healey was quite understandable.
The Austin-Healey 100 had what looked like a steel body atop a separate chassis with box-section side-members, but these were actually welded together on initial assembly. BMC ultimately awarded the body/chassis contract to the Jensen brothers, Dick and Alan, who’d been building their own sports cars at a small plant in West Bromwich. Front suspension was coil-spring independent. At the rear was a beam axle mounted above the side-members, with rather restricted movement; a Panhard rod helped semi-elliptic leaf springs locate the axle itself. Center-lock wire wheels were standard.
Driveline comprised the A90’s 2.66-liter 90-horsepower all-iron four matched to a 4-speed gearbox with the top gear simply blanked off. However, it was allied to electrically actuated Laycock overdrive operating on top (third) and second gears, giving a dexterous driver five forward ratios to play with.
Body design was Donald’s own, albeit refined by Buckinghamshire coachbuilder Tickford, and was unmistakable. A modern “envelope” style, it featured smooth flowing lines, distinctive shell-shape grille, and a one-piece windshield that could be laid back for bugs-in-the-teeth traditionalists.
Austin-Healey 100 assembly began at the Austin factory near Birmingham in the spring of 1953, and U.S. exports soon followed. Right away, it was clear that the car had performance and handling to match its good looks. It could easily top the magic “ton,” hence the 100 designation. Even better, the Austin-Healey 100 stepped into a sparsely populated market sector, priced comfortably below the Jaguar XK120 but well above the Triumph’s new TR2.
Two problems quickly surfaced: excess engine heat in the cockpit and limited ground clearance, mostly due to a low-riding exhaust system. Neither would ever really be solved through this basic design’s long 15-year production life. Though the four-cylinder Austin-Healey was built for only 3½ years, there were four distinct variations. The original car, built until the autumn of 1955, was coded (and is now colloquially known as) BN1. The following year, it gained a new 4-speed gearbox (still with overdrive) to become the BN2. Meantime, the Healey company (not BMC) developed and further refined a racing BN1 in 1954-55. Called 100S (S for Sebring), it featured a stripped all-aluminum body sans bumpers and had a much-modified 132-bhp engine. Only 50 were built, all intended (and mostly used) in competition. There were also 1159 examples of the 100M, a BN2 conversion with 110 bhp, duo-tone paint, and assorted body and chassis modifications. The Healey 100 succeeded in establishing a fine reputation very quickly indeed, especially in the U.S., where enthusiasts found it offered everything a contemporary MG didn’t. In fact, most of the more than 14,000 BN1s and BN2s built were sold in America, making the name Austin-Healey a permanent part of sports-car love and lore.