24 June 2013

Cars I Shouldn’t Have Sold: 1960 Austin Healey 3000

Roger and the Big Healey life-saver


In the summer of 1979 I was faced with a problem. If you build a new house on half an acre you have room for lots of cars. And as a friend said: “There comes a time when if you have 11 cars, none of them will start.” It all began the year before, when the Tri-City Herald newspaper, at which I was News Editor, was sold to the McClatchy chain. The outgoing publisher announced that faced with a choice of giving money to the government or the employees, he had decided to pay us bonuses. My five years amounted to a bit more than pocket change.

I was working part-time at Import Auto World, so I could restore cars at wholesale prices, and my choice was obvious. I bought a really good 1972 MGB from a colleague. It was probably the nicest car I’d owned to date, even if it was a bright aqua color, which I came to like. Of course it meant I sold my old International Scout, but we couldn’t possibly have another winter as bad as the last one, could we? Indeed we could. My MG wasn’t going anyplace in 12 inches of snow, and I was reduced to driving the only car that would start (and had snow tires) a 1962 Chevrolet Corvair coupe that I’d gotten on the cheap.

Come the spring, another problem presented itself. My wife had been very successful as a realtor in the past few years, which is why we had a new house. However, she hadn’t exactly kept up on her taxes. The solution was to sell the MGB, so we did. Soon after I bought a crashed but running 1970 MGB roadster, a complete 1966 roadster with a dud motor and a 1968 MGB GT Special, which had had a dash fire. They were all wire-wheel cars and between them, they had eight good wheels. Not only could I build one good car but I would have lots of extra parts.

Happily, an even better solution presented itself, in the shape of my restorer friend Jack, who had bought a 1960 Austin-Healey 3000 Mk 1 BN7 two-seater in a “goddam-it-all-anyway” sale from an owner who was frustrated he couldn’t solve the engine knock at idle. It had been rebuilt, but still rattled. Jack didn’t feel like rebuilding the Healey AGAIN, and was intrigued by the potential of my MG collection. So I traded him everything for the running Healey. He immediately sold the BGT to a buyer with a terminally rusty car, combined the two roadsters into one nice one, and sold off the extra parts.

Meanwhile, I had a silver-blue Healey 3000 to drive, and it was summer. It proved to be a strong running car, though the oil pressure did fall off drastically from the 55 lbs at cold start. I remember watching the gauge fall gradually on a hot day at about 80 mph, wondering if it would eventually just go bang, but it settled at about 20 lbs. I was also intrigued that the car had drum brakes all round instead of front discs, but detailed examination of the front frame and the mix of colors beneath the various panels suggested blunt force trauma at some point, such as might have been delivered by a train.

I owned the Healey for about a year, though it had little use during the winter. Other things were happening anyway, and by the time the next summer rolled around, I was getting divorced. My wife and children were in England (where the kids would go to school, and actually learn how to study) and I was preparing to sell the big house, divide the proceeds and get rid of all the non-running cars I hadn’t got to. The Healey went on the block and was bought by a veterinarian as birthday present for his wife, delivered with a big red bow. His barn was jammed with three 1958 Cadillac Eldorado Sevilles, in various stages of dismemberment, but collectors will appreciate he had ALL the unobtainable luxury extras, like decanters, glasses and perfume bottles etc. I did sense a certain tension there, however, as can attend endlessly uncompleted projects.

In the meantime, I was looking after my daughter’s dog, Roger, an irrepressible Yorkshire Terrier, which could have escaped from Colditz Castle. We finally had him fixed at age 7, but it didn’t slow him down a bit. One Sunday evening I returned home to find Roger lying on the front doorstep. He had dug out, as usual, but this time, he had been in a fight, and his intestines were scarily visible. I carried him inside, bandaged him up and called the veterinary hospital. No answer. I left a message. An hour or so later the senior vet returned my call. “Well, it doesn’t sound good,” he said.  “Bring him in tomorrow morning, if he’s still with us.”

While I tried not to imagine the call I would have to make to my daughter in England, the phone rang again. It was the junior partner at the same veterinary hospital. I told him what had happened. There was a pause. “Didn’t I just buy an Austin-Healey from you?” he asked. “I’m going to the hospital anyway, bring him in.” I put Roger in a box on the front seat of my 58,000-mile ’41 Plymouth and drove down there.

The vet was encouraging. “He’s a mess, but his intestines don’t appear to have been punctured. You hold him and I’ll sew him up.” I called about Roger the next day and the young vet said, “I think he’s fine, but could you come down and feed him? He seems to think he’s been left here.” Roger perked up immediately and recovered fully, to live another nine years. When he died, at almost 17 years old, my daughter, (who was back in the U.S. by then) said, “You know, I can’t remember life without Roger. He was my fourth birthday present.”

As for the Healey, some time later I ran into an old friend who had a body shop, and who remembered stripping and repainting the car. “Bit rough, that one,” he said. I told him Roger’s story and he added a final chapter. The young vet’s wife had driven the car up to Pullman, to go to Washington State University. “As far as I know,” he said, “she never came back.”

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