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FWM 237/B1666 'The Praying Mantis' - A very special Healey Westland.

This article was written by the owner Clive Randall.

Healey, the technical bits and short history:

In 1946 a new high performance sports car was launched from a rough site in an industrial estate in the Midlands, the Healey.  The first car was a prototype and was a Westland bodied tourer. The first ‘production’ car (the first car produced of a quality to sell and be registered on the road) was an Elliott and in a timed run on the Milan-Como Autostrada in November 1946 the Elliott stunned the motoring world by achieving an average speed of just over 104mph, winning the Healey the title of ‘fastest production car in the world’.

Donald Healey built a strong reputation in pre-WWII rally driving and in his creativity and leadership working for companies like Triumph.  Healey’s aim was simple, he wanted to produce the fastest and best handling car he could, a world beater.  He believed he could do this by making a car which weighed a ton and had a 100bhp engine.  What Healey actually managed was 2.5cwt over his target, but the big Riley engine made up for it with an extra 4bhp.  The engine is a 2.5 litre twin cam overhead valve Riley unit with 4 huge cylinders.  The twin SU carbs opened directly to the air to maximise air flow.  These cars have an exceptionally strong but light (160lb) box chassis made from 18swg sheet steel with 6 inch deep side members.  Independent front wheel suspension with trailing arms and Girling piston-type hydraulic dampers and coil springs were used all round, (the Aston Martin DB2 copied this later!).  At the rear a conventional Riley spiral bevel axle, located by torque tube and Panhard rod was used.  The steering is subject to a Healey patent and does NOT use the rack and pinion principle.  The motion from the steering box is transferred to the wheels via a swivelling plate and link rods – a design giving precise movements but minimum road shocks and maintaining correct camber irrespective of wheel position.  The downside is when parking, as these cars are very heavy, but at speed they are a pure delight.  The bolt-on steel wheels used were the smallest available at the time with 5.75 by 15in tyres.  Lockheed hydraulic brakes were fitted, with 11in dia twin leading shoe at the front and 10in at the rear to give effective braking in reverse.  The body design was tested in the wind tunnel of Armstrong Whitworth.  The rigid streamline wings weigh only 8.5lb each.  The body is panelled in aluminium alloy over an ash frame.  The speedo and tacho are chronomatic which gives them the characteristically jerky movement, and the dashboard is… wonderful!

The Elliotts and Westlands were made for only 5 years (1946 – 1950), 70 Westlands and 104 Elliotts.  It was in 1952 that the first Austin Healey was launched. From 46 until 52 Healey offered 13 different models including the big Nash Healey and the ‘bullet like’ Silverstone.  Just under 1,300 cars in total were produced.  They were exceedingly expensive; in 1946 the Westland cost £1,500 plus £835 purchase tax - equivalent to a fleet of Austin 7s!

These cars were used in serious competition and did well:

1947 Alpine rally - a Westland won the 2.3 litre class

1948 Targa Florio – an Elliott won the unlimited touring cars class

1948 Mille Miglia – an Elliott came first in the touring cars and the Westland second in the unlimited sports class

1948 Spa 24 hour race – an Elliott came 2nd in the 2.3 litre class

1948 Alpine rally – a Westland came 1st in the 2.3 litre class

1949 Mille Miglia – an Elliott came 1st in the touring class

Healey himself drove three of these wins.

There was a successful private entry in Le Mans, two years running in 1940 and 1950 and even Monte Carlo entries, though none of these completed the Monte.

When the Austin alliance started Healey stopped all but a few remaining special projects to focus on the Austin Healey.  Features which were not continued into the Austin Healey range include twin high pressure switchable fuel pumps (for back up and high altitude cruising when both are used together) and a reserve fuel reservoir. The author can testify that both features are extremely useful…

FWM 237 The Praying Mantis

Not a lot is known of the early history of this car.  She was first registered in June 1948, but as with many cars of this era only the continuation log book survives.  This found the car in the 1960s in Liverpool, then Blackpool and by the end of the 1960s in Preston.  Here she stayed decaying slowly, but a picture survives of her in the 60s taken by the Healey Association Historian, Bryan Spiers.  By that time she had lost her original grey/green and was of course – red (second car in the line-up).

FWM237 The Praying Mantis

She then turned up in Reading in the early 1980s and in Bury in 86 where the classic car price bubble meant she was worth restoring.  Now things started moving.  A new ash frame was made, the chassis stripped, new aluminium panels made, mechanics overhauled, but the bubble burst.  The Ferrari garage which was restoring her found they had a client who was losing interest, progress slowed and the Westland ended up in a damp lock-up.

The garage advertised the Westland and in 1996 she was bought by Clive Randall.  Panels were in primer, and loosely assembled, the block was cracked due to frost damage, no wiring, the new radiator core had rusted through, no interior other than the alloy front seat frames and localised rust has started to get a grip.  A year later she was on the road, sporting her original grey over green colour scheme and going though the many teething problems which always accompany a restoration.  By 2001 she was well proven, and every year went on a road rally involving demanding roads over Scotland and had developed a reputation for speed and good road holding, being nicknamed ‘The Praying Mantis’ due to the image drivers would see in their rear view mirror when she accelerated up behind them!

FWM237 The Praying Mantis

2002 is when the Westie’s adventures really started.  She was shipped to the US to take part in a convoy of Austin Healeys travelling from Baltimore in the East to Lake Tahoe in the West.  On the way she took a trip 14,000 feet up Pike’s Peak, a detour to Salt Lake City and after about 3,000 miles Lake Tahoe was reached.  The east coast convoy joined a few thousand other Austin Healeys to celebrate 50 years of the Austin Healey.  Then the adventure really got going.  The next 6,000 miles the Westland went solo driving through Yosemite, down to Las Vegas (after catching fire in Death Valley), up to Yellowstone, through the bad lands, mount Rushmore, Colonial Williamsburg and back to Baltimore.  Over 9,000 miles in 5 weeks.  A book was written about it all, ‘A very British Crossing of the USA’ available from Amazon.

Healey Westland

But that wasn’t the end.  She was back on the annual rallies after a few minor repairs, and after a particularly nasty collision with a large sheep, she was shipped with two Austin Healeys at the end of 2005 off to Buenos Aires.  Here in the good company of her descendants she covered another 9,000 miles in 6 weeks.  She drove the length of Argentina, down to Tierra del Fuego, up Argentina again, crossing into Chile up to Santiago for Christmas, across Paraguay to Southern Brazil and Iguaçu for New Year, down through Uruguay and back to Buenos Aires.  A book is in the pipeline!

Healey Westland

This time she did not get off so lightly.  Patagonian winds and a weakened bonnet catch (remember the sheep) tore the bonnet off hitting the driver on the head and smashing the windscreen.  Driver was ok, the Westie’s bonnet was then held down for the rest of the trip by a riveted leather belt!  The gravel roads blasted the inside of the wings, popping paintwork and the constant pounding loosened the joints in the ash frame so the passenger door was held closed by an elastic strap.  Mechanically she suffered some damage due to a large pothole, but nothing a home repair wouldn’t fix, but the body and paintwork….. She is now at a specialist garage for this type of work and will see the light of day for another adventure, maybe Australia?

 

Note:  Further details of the US journey can be seen on http://www.easterton.com/open_roads.htm

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