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The Exploits of the First Healey, Chassis 1502

Article by Clive Randall.

The beginnings

In 1946 a small company working from a yard shared with a firm making concrete mixers and without enough money to buy the chassis and components it needed to start production announced it had available two forms of high performance sports car.  Their early brochures even had artist’s drawings of cars stuck in place!  In reality they did have one testing chassis suffering from all forms of problems and needing regular attacks with the welder to keep the chassis together, and a wooden model of a saloon.  Chassis 1501 was the test car, its life was short, it was never registered or sold or even had a properly finished body made.  Surviving photos show a body designed to give the line of the roadster, but without details, like door handles.  This car was simply a test car and photos show it as a bare chassis with a horn, headlight and seat fitted for driving on a test track.

The first Healey chassis was always known as 'The Horror'.

Exploits of the First Healey

No published road tests were made using this car and the chassis was broken up by the factory in 1948.  1502 was a different matter, still a prototype showing most of the details of 1501’s chassis, but a relatively mature one.  This car was bodied, was good enough to sell and to be registered for the road — but not before it made history.

Who was the company?  I am sure you all know, Healey.  What were the first cars?  The first prototype chassis 1501 was a Healey tourer, but the first real Healey (i.e. the first complete production car with chassis and body and performance test car) was chassis 1502 and was a Healey Elliott saloon.

But Donald Healey had a problem, even though the company had orders coming in, he needed to prove his claim, that the Healey was a very high performance car.  More than that, he wanted his car to be the fastest production car in the World.  This would not only firm up the orders, but we can conjecture another incentive would be that suppliers would be flexible with their terms in order to be associated with such a car.  Indeed great lengths had been taken to make the Healey a serious contender for this accolade.  In the streamlined saloon, tested in a wind tunnel, the only glass was the windscreen, all other ‘windows’ were Plexiglas to save weight.  The seat frames were aluminium — legend has it that the seat frame was out of an aircraft.  The body was an aluminium alloy over an ash and plywood frame and the suspension had coil springs all round (much lighter than leaf springs).  Healey’s target was to produce a car that had 100bhp and weighed a ton.  What he managed was 104bhp and just over a ton.  Compared to the Riley 2½ litre saloons using the same engine, gearbox and rear axle and weighing in at 3,192 lb (1,450kg), the Healey saloon at 2,520 lb (1,145kg) and with a tweaked Riley engine (extra 14bhp) was a real lightweight.

The next step was to stage an event to test the car.  In Britain it was believed that there were no long high speed roads capable of properly testing the car, so where to go?  Healey wanted to cover some mountains in the test.  The editor of the Motor, Christopher Jennings, who had initially discussed the trial with Healey, owned one of the new Riley 2½ litre saloons and mentioned the idea to Victor Leverett, the sales manager of Riley.  The upshot was on October 29th 1946 two Riley 2½ litre saloons and the Elliott left Folkestone en route to Italy for the speed trial to test to see whether the Elliott could do what the calculations said were possible, in other words achieve an average speed on test of 100mph.

In those days obtaining anything was a problem.  Any petrol, let alone good quality petrol was hard.  France was well serviced and the procession found no problems with petrol there.  According to the report in the Motor (November 20th 1946), friendliness and hospitality abounded.  Crossing into Switzerland the group were also stunned with the goods in the shops compared to ration dominated Britain.  Italy was more of a challenge; in fact in 1946 no petrol was available at all, and hard even on the black market.  Roads were dangerous and un-repaired and bandits roamed looking for any opportunity.

On Saturday November 2nd the Healey and the two Riley 2½ litre saloons (FDU 741 and HXC 440) set off on the Milan-Como Autostrada.  This was one of Mussolini’s first motor roads, and the lack of maintenance and age, plus the fact it was still open to normal traffic made Geoff Healey feel that even higher speeds would have been obtainable elsewhere.  The Milan Autoclub were approached to scrutineer the tests.  The upshot?  All cars performed well.  The Healey achieved 104.14 mph mean speed in tests and an average standing start kilometre of 17.8 seconds giving 1502, and the Healey marque the title of ‘fastest production car in the World’. History had been made and a reputation for a marque was being established.

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According to the story written up widely in articles and books, the famous number plate VVV 214 given to the car (and also on at least one photograph of the prototype Westland) was simply made up from a pile of numbers lying around in the factory.  When in Italy she sported red & black trade plates 199 NX, but when she was first officially registered her number was GAC 506.

So what happened to 1502?  Well, the company desperately needed funds, so she was sold, but not until August 1947.  Until that time she was too useful for testing and public relations.  As she was still a prototype she was sold with some considerable differences to her successors, thinner chassis steel, numerous riveted rather than welded brackets, and a number of other detail differences.

One of her siblings in 1947 ran at 111mph in Belgium confirming what were then sensational performance figures, but 1502 slipped out of the history books.

Thanks to the work of Jack Ogden and Bryan Spiers (the club historian at that time) in the 1960s we know some more.

1502, recent history

Jack bought 1502 as a complete rolling chassis in 1961 advertised in the Motor Sport by a Mr Leslie Walters from Bridgend.  At this time spares were becoming hard to find, Jack had a Tickford and an Elliott so was keen to secure some.  It was the usual sad story, the ash frame had rotted and so the owner had scrapped the panels and the cloth/leather interior with the idea of building a fibre-glass body.  As with many such projects nothing happened, and now he needed the space.  Mr Walters had owned the car since 1959, and so we can surmise 1502 had moved into neglect long before that.

Jack’s immediate need was for a new engine for his Tickford, and so the rolling chassis, interior woodwork etc were stored and the engine transplanted.  Just about this time Bryan Spiers tracked the car down and told Jack what she was.  However, in the 1960s it was unthinkable to restore 1502 in that condition.  Indeed, the poor quality steel chassis problems of 1502’s sibling ‘the horror’ were probably also in 1502 and with the early aluminium problems of the body panels, it is likely 1502 started to deteriorate quite quickly in her life.

The years passed.  The chassis of 1502 was stored in damp conditions and deteriorated still further, the parts were in dry store, and the Tickford was happily using the engine.  Jack noted at the time that the engine was surprisingly standard for a speed trial car.  Even the inlet valves were the small type.  The only change seemed to be the light type of flywheel and the Lucas special equipment dynamo and starter.

By the time Jack sadly passed on, Jack’s complete cars (a very late Elliott C type and the Tickford) both needed restoring.  Jack’s son Dave decided to fully restore the C type Elliott (it was the car his mother learned to drive in) and sell the Tickford.  John Japp of the Healey Association bought the Tickford and started the long restoration process.

Dave approached Warren Kennedy of Classic Restorations in Marston Moretaine to restore his C type Elliott.  Warren has restored a number of these early Healeys, including a very early A chassis Westland.  This car had shown the signs of the early aluminium problems as every panel when stripped had gone porous and needed replacing.  A good indication of what 1502’s body must have been like.  We know from the condition of 1947 B chassis cars that their bodies are in generally good condition, so these aluminium problems seem to be thankfully short lived.  But back to the story …. Dave told Warren about 1502 and Warren realised that although in very poor condition, parts of the chassis could be saved and other replacement sections folded, if only the engine and other parts could be located.  Dave indicated he thought John Japp’s Tickford might be fitted with the engine and the other parts would be in his garage.

John was approached over the engine in his Tickford, and as luck would have it the engine was out of the car and awaiting restoration.  It also turned out John’s engine was in Dave’s garage, so a happy John will be re-uniting the correct engine to his car - and 1502 was now a viable restoration project.  The amount of surviving parts of 1502 were surprising, all mechanical components, instruments and even much of the interior woodwork — even the dashboard.  Thanks to the care Jack and Dave had taken with their storage.

However, it wasn’t simply a case of starting work.  It was important to validate that the chassis was indeed 1502.  The engine was simple, as the numbers matched.  The other parts came from the same rolling chassis, so if the chassis was correct, they would be too.  This is where Police forensics came in!  The nice men in blue agreed to do a special ‘homer’ using the same techniques they use to identify stolen vehicles number stamps.  Apparently any number stamped on a car leaves a bruise in the metal deep below, so even if a number is angle grinded off and a new number stamped on, it will show up under analysis.  The challenge with 1502 were the layers of rust on the chassis.

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Look hard, (colour helps) and you will see what they saw:

A 15?2

At no time were they told what to find and the analyst was confident in his report to go as far as A 15 ‘curved bottom number’ 2 - A15?2

So 1532, 1552?  Luckily we do know from surviving cars that the chassis details were matured quickly.  Indeed, the chassis of 1502 is the only one to ever be seen with rivets and plates where others have welds — all of which align it with its prototype status.

Now the hard works starts.  Not only will 1502 be restored to its former two tone grey glory, but it will be tested to show it is still capable of its top speed!  Perhaps even by a visit back to Italy.

References

The Healey Story — Geoff Healey pp 22 - 26

Riley, the legendary RMs, by John Price Williams pp 60-61

The Motor Nov 20th 1946

The Motor Dec 4th 1946

Safety fast May 1967 ‘The Very First Healey’

Jack Ogden — to the Healey Association correspondence

M Trott — forensic analysis report

 

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