History of the 1953 - 1955 Austin-Healey 100-4
The Austin-Healey 100 arose from a simple maxim: go 100 mph, and look good doing it.
After creating the Nash-Healey in conjunction with American George Mason in 1951, Donald Healey saw that there was a market for a fast, cheap sports car that handled well, was more refined than an MG, and less expensive than a Jaguar. He and a small development team made a list of affordable cars that could do 100 mph, and it was a short list indeed.
Healey was used to adapting existing components and gained permission from the Austin Motor Company to use the engine and transmission from their unsuccessful Austin A90 Atlantic, as well as the suspension and drivetrain assemblies. The bits and pieces were coming together, but Healey needed a looker, too.
Healey took his list of parts to body designer Gerry Coker, who had penned the Nash-Healey, told him to design the car around the parts, and aim for a car that would sell in America. Coker was a fan of Italian style, and without much supervision from Healey, created an elegant two-seater with tailfins. A prototype was built, with a different treatment on each rear wing. One side carried a tailfin, and the other was a proper, restrained British curve. “Let’s do the pure side, without the fins,” Healey said, upon seeing the mock-up.
Healey also suggested that Coker do something to liven up the slab sides of the car. Coker drew a character line from the front wing to the rear wheel well, just a useless swoop meant to make the car look lower and longer. To provide a reason for its beginning, Coker thought of positioning an air vent on the front wing. For a bit of flair, Coker looked no further than the shape of the clip of his Parker fountain pen. Cut a bit short and positioned horizontally, this chrome spear commences a character line that identifies the 100 and 3000. It is also the cut-off line for the two-tone paint treatment, something Donald Healey never liked.
The Healey 100 debuted at the Earl’s Court Motor Show in October of 1952 with a price of £850. On the day before the show opened, the head of the Austin Motor Company, Leonard Lord, told Healey that he wanted the car to be built by Austin. He argued that Healey could only manage 20 or so cars a week, whereas Austin could produce 200. Healey agreed, his car was quickly rebadged “Austin-Healey,” and the price dropped to £750.
When automobile magazines got the chance to drive the new Austin-Healey, praise was generous, tempered with comments on what we now call “character.” Road & Track editors in the US were unanimous in rating the 100 as “the best all-round handling car encountered this year,” but cautioned that there were two distinct sounds coming from the exhaust. One sound was a pleasant rasp that at some rpms sounded as though the exhaust were welded to the chassis. The other sound was the scraping of the silencer on driveways, or even high spots in the road.
The problem was the position of the exhaust pipe, and was not remedied until the final phase of the Austin-Healey 3000. The chassis was so low, and the body and suspension so close, that there was nowhere for the exhaust to run except under the chassis. Many aftermarket exhausts were sold to owners who hit a rock or bottomed out the suspension.
These first generation cars wore Austin-Healey 100 badges, but internally they were designated model “BN1.” "B" indicates an Austin engine between 2000 and 3000cc. “N” designates a two-seater. Later cars would have four seats, and be labelled with a “BT”. When a folding convertible hood was fitted, rather than the roadster’s detachable weather protection, the model designation became “BJ.” Furthermore, each model attached a numerical suffix, commencing with “1” and ending in 1967 with “8” for the eighth version of the car.
The 4-cylinder engine in the BN1 produced 90 bhp, and propelled the car past 100 mph. But Healey knew that the engine could be tuned more effectively, and Harry Weslake designed a cross-flow head that produced 132 bhp for a car to race at Sebring in Florida, the 100S. Seven Austin-Healey 100S cars were entered in 1955, with five of them finished the 12-hour race. Stirling Moss drove to sixth place in one, trailing a D-type Jaguar, two Ferraris, and two Maseratis. Not bad for four cylinders.
In 1955, production of the second series of cars began. Designated “BN2” these cars had a true 4-speed transmission and overdrive, as opposed to the BN1’s blocked-out first gear, three-speed, and stiffer front springs to improve the car’s handling.
To provide the public with a similar performance package to the racers, Austin-Healey built 640 Factory BN2 100M Le Mans cars, and about the same number of dealer-installed packages were fitted. The Factory 100M featured larger carburettors, cold-air intake, higher compression pistons, and hotter cams, with a louvred bonnet with a strap, and a front sway bar. Not all 100M packages were the same, (only Factory cars had special pistons) and to further confuse things, enthusiastic owners could fit the Le Mans package themselves.
The next model was the 1956 Austin-Healey 100-6. It was fitted with the Austin A90’s 6-cylinder engine, which provided no improvement in performance. The model designation for the 6-cylinder car was BN4 (BN3 was a prototype). Cosmetic differences from the 4-cylinder cars (henceforth known as 100-4) included an oval grille, additional tail lamps at the rear, a lengthened body to accommodate the larger engine, and cramped child seats. Over the span of production of the 100 models, 95% of the cars were left-hand drive, and 59% were sent to American drivers.
The 100 series cars evolved into the 3000 in 1959. Whereas the name 100 had stood for the top speed, the 3000 was so named because of its engine displacement. The final version in 1967 was a far cry from the bare-bones original, with wind-up windows, a proper folding convertible top, handsome wood dash, front disc brakes and a small rear seat.