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History of Le Mans Elliott 1949 and 1950 - JGO 892

The First Healey

In 1946 the First Healey motor car was announced.  A tourer bodied by Westland and a saloon were publicised, though in reality the saloon was simply a model.  The tourer was nicknamed the ‘Horror’, heavily tested and after its chassis could take no more tweaks, was cut up by the factory in 1948.  However, closely following this first prototype was a second.  The Saloon, bodied by Elliott.  This car, though also strictly a prototype, was the first truly finished car.  It was driven to Italy in late 1946, scrutineered and proven to average over 104 mph over 100 miles on poor roads which were still in use.  This car, chassis 1502, secured Healey the accolade of ‘the fastest production car in the world’.  A title which was reinforced when another Elliott achieved over 111mph in Belgium the following year.  A title Healey would hold until the 1950s.  1502 was subsequently sold, making it the first Healey saloon, the first Healey registered on the road and the first sold.  A mere 39 chassis later the Le Mans Elliott was made.  This is the story of that car and in particular of one of the most historic of the Le Mans races, the first after 10 years of war, the 1949 Le Mans.

Le Mans Healey

[reference ‘The First Healey’, By James Watt]

‘Le Mans 24 hour’, the name stirs up such imagery.  Perhaps the most famous of all the races.  Certainly one with a huge following today, as it had then.  Memorabilia and nostalgia over Le Mans abounds.  Programmes and tickets from the immediate post war period sell today for hundreds of pounds simply because of the images of the cars and the drivers they conjure up.  We all have our favourites of the period, the pre-war Bugattis and Bentleys, the post war Astons, Allard, HRG – the adrenaline flows just to mention the names.  Then there are the forgotten cars.  Produced by small manufacturers in low volumes, typically only ever making a few appearances.  No big works teams backing them up.  Often the cars were simply private entries.  These were the underdogs taking on the big organised manufacturers and their teams, often these were the most intriguing stories of them all.

Le Mans Healey

[reference Les Healey au Mans 1949-1970 by Herve Chevalier]

It was the summer of 1949.  Almost 4 years had past since the end of WW II and the World was struggling to recover its balance.  Rationing was widespread and most people were making do with cars and household objects dating back to the early part of the century.  Motor sport had started up again and this was the first year since 1939 for Le Mans.  Before the war Britain had done well here, winning outright on 6 occasions.  Fifty two entries were accepted for this first race.  15 cars from the UK, 33 from France, 2 from Czechoslovakia and one from Belgium.  There were 3 distinct races.  The Grand Prix d’Endurance divided into the capacity classes and judged on how far the vehicle could travel in 24 hours between 4pm on June 25th and 4pm on the 26th.  The Biennial Rudge-Whitworth Cup race (for which the entrant had to qualify by his car finishing in the previous race, in this case the 1939 race), and the Annual Cup race decided on a formula based ‘mileage covered’ balanced against engine size.

At a huge cost for those days, of £130,000, the Le Mans circuit had been restored and improved.  A quarter of a mile of new pits stood alongside the track next to the ruins of the old.  On the gallery above, 250 flags of the competing nations fluttered under the blazing summer sun.  New concrete grandstands and a 1,000 seater restaurant had been made ready for the event.

Le Mans Healey

[reference Les Healey au Mans 1949-1970 by Herve Chevalier]

Le Mans track measures 8.68 miles (14km).  The races were strictly for sport cars, but for 1949, approved prototypes were allowed – to give some leeway to the developing post-war motor industry.  As usual, repairs could only be carried out using spares and tools carried in the cars and then only by one assistant to the driver.  Fuel tanks were sealed and only allowed to re-fuel after 25 laps since the last refuel (210 mile range).

Le Mans Healey

The UK line up included teams from Aston Martin using their new ‘aerodynamic saloons’, deploying both a 6 and two 4 cylinder cars (2 ½ and 2 litre respectively).  Then there was a team of three lightweight bodied 1 ½ litre HRGs.  Three further Aston Martins were included.  These were pre-war cars and private entries.  A 4 ½ litre aerodynamic Bentley was also running, a re-bodied MG TC, a high speed 2 litre Frazer Nash, a 1 ½ litre Riley, a Singer nine and the Healey Elliott.  The Elliott was referred to at the time as ‘a well tried design’ having made its debut in the market in late 1946, so a virtual old timer compared to some others there.

Other cars included Talbot, Delahaye, Delage, Ferrari, Alvis, DB, Delettrez, Monopole, Simca-Huit, Simca, Renault and Aero-Minor.  A variety of sizes shapes and ages that must have been very exciting to watch.  Many well known pre-war and to become well known post-war drivers were on the line up.  According to contemporary reports the atmosphere was ‘carnival’.  ‘From an early hour people streamed to Le Mans… gay flags floated in the breeze… the sun shone from a torrid sky so the tar became sticky on the roads. …the loud bands, the scantily-garbed girls in the depots… all the ingredients of a first class continental motor race’.  [1]  ’Ladies in the longest of New Looks perambulated with others in the briefest of shorts, the most dashing of beach ware….. the traditional air of carnival had returned.’  [2]

The Motor Sport’s account of the start of the race is equally evocative: ‘A hush fell as the drivers lined up opposite their cars and Charles Faroux instructed the timekeeper to raise the tricolour.  As it swept down the line of men broke and, in what seemed like a moment, Chaboud’s Delahaye, a vicious two-seater with vast aerodynamic wings, swept off into the lead, followed by Paul Vallee’s Talbot……….Slow to move off were Villeneuve’s Delehaye and Walker’s Delehaye driven by Tony Rolt. Hemard had to ease his Monopole out to clear Flahault’s stationary Delahaye, while the Singer and Fairman’s H.R.G. were very hesitant and poor Jack Bartlett in the Healey saloon didn’t get off until the car had been rocked to unglue the starter and then pushed, some three minutes being lost thereby.’ [1]  For those of us who have had Lucas starter motors – I think we have all been there.

Le Mans Healey

[reference Les Healey au Mans 1949-1970 by Herve Chevalier]

Two cars retired within an hour.  The first car to retire was an Aston, needing water, which was judged illegal at such an early stage.  The Alvis retired on the same lap.  Next was an HRG, again with radiator problems.  By this point two Delahayes had first and second place and a Ferrari was third and this position stayed for another hour.  Another Aston retired after 26 laps.  A Delage ran out of fuel and had to be pushed to the pits before it was off again.

By 9pm cars were showing signs of trouble, tyres were giving in, a number of them caught fire, engines were refusing to start again after re-fuels.  All the symptoms of cars being pushed hard and getting very hot indeed.

At this stage Ferrari were first and third with a Delehaye second.  Before 10pm one of the Ferraris overturned.  By 10pm a Talbot was now in the lead with a Ferrari and a Delage 2nd and 3rd.  As midnight came in the Ferrari was back in front and maintaining its lead.

After 1am the Talbot retired letting the Frazer Nash into 3rd position.  One of the HRG’s was on its last legs and managed only one more lap.

By 2am the Ferrari was a lap ahead of the Delage and the Frazer Nash a good third.  The Delahye retired about 3.30am.

Le Mans Healey

During all this time the only other record of the Healey we have was when it was passed by the Bentley and a reference to an uneventful re-fuel.

‘The crowd on the balcony clapped – at 4.26am, mark you! – as Selsdon took over the leading Ferrari from Chinetti, who had driven the car continuously up to this point.’1

At 5.03am an Aston Martin came in and the starter stuck (Lucas?), the stop eventually losing them over an hour of time.  By 6am the Ferrari was being chased by two Delages.  They were catching up.

With the return of daylight the race average had leapt up to nearly 90mph.

By 7am cars were suffering again.  A Delage had lost all its water, a Delahaye had its brakes on fire, various radiators were failing.  The Delage came in again and caught fire badly, the extinguisher being empty and delaying the rescue.  The slower cars were now flagged off as not having done the qualifying distance.  The MG was one such casualty.  Before 11am a Delayhaye was pushed to the car park.

Now a Delage was in dire trouble.  The Ferrari needed work to the engine and chassis.  The Fraser Nash moved up the field.  The Frazer Nash clutch now refused to operate, requiring clutch less gear changes, but this fixed its self and this new car did well keeping third.

By 10am it was reported ‘Circulating as strongly and quietly as ever the saloon Healey the Bentley and the Astons drew applause all round the circuit….2

An Aston was now beginning to press the Fraser Nash, but at 1.05pm reports came in of it having overturned and that the driver was seriously hurt.  He tragically died in hospital the following morning.  It turned out his car’s brakes had been absent for many laps.  The position was still Ferrari, Delage and Frazer Nash.  By 2pm the Delages became more unreliable.

The crowd was now 200,000 strong and waited for the President to arrive.

In the last hour the battle now lay between the crippled Ferrari with the cockpit swimming in oil and the clutch slipping.  Louveau’s Delage, Aldington (Frazer Nash) looking over his shoulder now and unable to go much faster, and Gerard (Delage), running on 5 cylinders and not gaining very much.  At 3.15, with 45 mins, to go.  The car was at the pits, smoking, and restarted after a long stop, going very slowly, touring to finish, while Louveau was going  fast, fighting to narrow the gap, and from 2pm to 3pm he gained 2 laps, so that with an hour to go he was only 17 miles behind.  How the crowd loved it.  Roaring with excitement… There was 35 minutes to go.  Jones in the other Aston saloon found the starter motor defective (the switch), and therefore, as the car must have its engine stopped at the pits, he had to continue the drive instead of handing over to Haines, and as there was plenty of fuel he sat back and motored on to finish.  The Frazer Nash which has done so well was reduced to touring speed.

The last half hour was terrific, Louveau, driving in Grand Prix style, was flashing past slower cars, sliding the curves, braking at the last moment, and really motor racing in pursuit of Chinnetti, cruising as best he could with the slipping clutch and now 12 miles ahead, and Louveau was lapping at just over 87 m.p.h.  There was just a chance he might steal the race.  Then Gerard had valve trouble in a big way, paused a long time, and left Aldington to tour gently along in third place unchallenged.

With 20 mins. to go Louveau, driving magnificently, was only nine miles behind, attempting the impossible with fine spirit.  And the quiet Bentley went up to 8th place, just ahead of the starterless Aston.  At 3.58 Chinnetti entered into his last lap, still touring and just a little anxious, watching his mirror all down the straight, and Louveau taking his bends in 4-wheel slides tore after him into the same lap, but it was impossible, and as the flag went up and fell on the finish of this murderous “Le Mans” Chinnetti came in at a canter, winner’. 2

So, at 4pm it had all ended.  The V12 Ferrari came first driven by Chinetti, average speed 82.31mph.  Second came the Delage driven by Louveau with an average speed of 81.84mph.  Third was the Frazer Nash driven by Culpan at an average speed of 78.53 mph.  Only 16 other cars were still running.  The Healey was one of them coming in 13th position (not 14th as reported in the Motor Sport).  The only other comment being that it appeared too ‘flexibly sprung’, something that would be addressed the following year.

It is worth noting that the Healey was driven to the race and then driven home again.

Le Mans Healey

[reference Les Healey au Mans 1949-1970 by Herve Chevalier]

Jack Bartlett, the owner and driver of the car, was a car dealer, keen enthusiast and race driver.  He bought/sold and raced Bentleys, Aston Martins – all manner of performance vehicles.  In this first race N H Mann was Bartlett’s co-driver and was obviously sufficiently taken with the Healey that he bought it off Bartlett to use in the following year’s Le Mans.  This makes JGO 892 the only Healey to run at Le Mans not just once, but twice!  Clearly reading the reports of the race one gets the feeling that the Healey was taking it slow and steady to test the car and secure a position in next year’s race for Mann.  We know JGO was a silver colour at this time and although an early 1947 chassis car she sported later wings which had the headlights in the wings, and the spotlights in the side valences.  It is also likely she had the enlarged fuel tank at this point, to cope with the touring distance, and this might have caused the ‘lively’ springing referred to.  However, the 1950 Le Mans was likely to have even harder competition as the big marques would have had a whole year to develop their cars and ideas.  An aging private entry would need to do well just to complete.

We don’t know what happened to JGO in the intervening year, except that this time, as Geoff Healey[3] recollected in the 1990s, she was prepared for the race by Bartlett again and the famous riley mechanic ‘Freddie Dixon’ who carried out various modifications.  The car then went to the Cape Healey works and was checked and strengthened with the latest production modifications alongside the works Le Mans Nash Healey.  Indeed the history of JGO both before, between and after the Le Mans races is positively patchy.

Why does an early car have the later wings – does that imply simply a road accident or competitive use or was the higher headlight position considered an advantage for the night racing at Le Mans?  Where did Jack Bartlett get the car from?  Unfortunately only the continuation log book survives which picks up the story one year after the second Le Mans race.

The car has a long list of modifications from standard.  We don’t yet know what was done to the engine, though a ‘hot cam’ and high compression pistons are obvious.  A lightened flywheel, better balancing, port polishing?  Certainly the carburettors were modified from standard, a tuned manifold fitted and we will find out whether a higher rear axle ratio was added in due course.  External brake adjusters were fitted, a larger fuel tank, adjustable rear suspension bump stops (probably after the comment on the flexible springing) as well as the latest production strengthening points and suspension modifications.  Which mods were for the 1949 race and which for the 1950 are hard to tell.  We believe, based on evidence from Geoff Healey, that the carburettor mods, chassis strengthening and production mods were all for the 1950 race.  Certainly photos of the 49 race show the twin fuel filler caps, though whether this was to the standard tank and the larger one fitted for the 50 race – who knows?

So, we do know the car was worked on and re-entered by Nigel Mann and accompanied by ‘Mort’[4] Morris Goodall. Anyone who has driven one of these cars at night will know even with the spotlights on, the illumination isn’t that good, so for the 1950 race the standard small spots were taken out and larger spots bolted in their recesses.  The colour had also changed from silver to a darker colour, believed to be green, and she was now sporting number 23, rather than 20 on her grill.  How would she do?  The design was now 4 years old, but very rooted in pre-war running-gear components, all be it with innovative suspension and steering.  Even Healey had moved to more powerful engines and allied with Nash for their first works entry at Le Mans.

The 1950 Le Mans was hailed as a striking victory for British cars.  However, Louis Rosier, Champion of France won at an average of nearly 90 mph, in spite of a pause to change a valve rocker, lapping at over 102 mph in a French Talbot.  Clearly popular with the locals!  It was claimed that the Talbots, which won first and second, were well driven, but actually G.P. cars.  It was also claimed the first true sports car to finish was the 5.4 litre Cadillac engined Allard, and that with only top gear left.  The first ‘catalogue’ sports car to finish was the Aston-Martin  DB saloon in 5th place, though 4th went to the Nash Healey.  6th place also went to an Aston DB, a Bentley 8th, a Frazer Nash 9th (and winner of its class), a Jaguar 12th, a Bentley 14th, another Jaguar 15th, and Jowett Jupiter 16th, a 2 ½ litre Riley 17th, a special TC MG 18th, the Healey Elliott 19th and a Frazer Nash 20th.

Le Mans Healey

So a fine result for Britain.  The Elliott came 5th in its class, beaten by the two Aston-Martins, a Delage and the Riley.  31 other cars failed to finish the race.

Le Mans Healey

[reference Les Healey au Mans 1949-1970 by Herve Chevalier]

Again the Healey Elliott drove there and drove home again.  One can’t help but wonder what the Elliott would have been capable of if driven as hard as the leaders, who inevitably seemed to loose certain functions – like the ability to change gear!  An Elliott was shown to be capable of 111mph average in 1947 without the modifications of the Le Mans car, and if she was sporting the higher rear ale ratio would have been good for almost 120 mph.

Le Mans Healey

[reference Les Healey au Mans 1949-1970 by Herve Chevalier]

Only one embarrassing incident occurred for the 1950 race for the Elliott.  A hub cap came off and the stewards would not allow the car to restart the race without all 4.  Some time was lost looking for the cap, until it was suggested the other 3 were removed.  This was deemed acceptable and the Healey re-joined the race.

Le Mans Healey

Le Mans Healey

Clearly Nigel Mann was much taken with the Aston Martins as Geoff Healey particularly remembered that after the race he traded the Healey in again with Bartlett for an Aston!

History then goes blurry.  We know the Le Mans Elliott appeared again in 1951 owned by a Mr James.  It is likely he bought the car from Bartlett due to the short time elapse between Mr James appearing on the continuation log book in August 1951 and the 1950 Le Mans.  Though it could be that Bartlett instead agreed to sell JGO on behalf of Nigel Mann and that Bartlett did not become the registered owner again.  When Mr James bought the car it was known as the Le Mans Elliott and our first recorded information on its history was of Mr James buying the car from the Midlands without a number plate, but with its Le Mans plaque and story of its history.  He proudly hung the plaque on his wall at home.  However, when Mr James first came to collect the car, as it had no number plates, he borrowed trade plates – which was illegal as he was not an employee of the garage to which the plates were registered.  He was stopped by police and lost his licence.  This he suspected was because an irate Jaguar dealer had notified the police of what he was doing due to a complaint Mr James had levied at the dealer’s business ethics!

The Healey then had another unfortunate event.  Mr James needed to borrow a van and swapped the car for the day with his friends who owned a nearby garage.  It was a wet night and the Healey slid off the road.  One can imagine 4 people in an ex-Le Mans car on a wet road who were not used to such vehicles.  The damage was mostly body work and the car was taken back to Healeys for full repair though more tragically one of the passengers broke his back in the accident.  This all happened around April 1952, with the car again on the road by June.

According to a friend of Mr James we know JGO did not race again, with him, or thereafter.  Its days of modifications and high speed performance were over.  The next owner was Harry Walker who bought the car in 1957.  The car now enters living memory of the Healey Association members.  The recently retired Healey Historian Bryan Spiers still has the notes he wrote on the car.  The most noticeable features being the twin external filler caps and large tank.  Again, its Le Mans history was well known though Mr James had put on its new registration number EO 9664.  Bryan went on a number of drives in the Healey and his friend allowed him to drive it, ‘a fine car, in good condition’ then.

The Elliott was sold to Donald Heyworth in 1971 and his grandson fondly remembers the collection of 6 Healeys Donald had, ‘one for each of his grandchildren’.  He put on the number plate DRH 100, a plate which the family still own today.  The Le Mans Healey, because of its history, held a special place.  It was last on the road shortly after Donald bought it.  In May 1971 on the A1 she caught fire.  Not serious, but serious enough to mean she was transported home, and has never been on the road since.  Donald sold the car in 1978 to Jack Scott who sold her on again in 1989 to Mike Cullingworth who started an extensive restoration, but by 2005 still had a long way to go.  Clive Randall bought the car at this point, and intends to have the car back on the road for the 2010 classic Le Mans, so the story is not over.

 

References:

[1] July 1949 Motor Sport

[2] The Motor June 29th 1949

[3] Private correspondence

[4] Ref the British racing Drivers’ Club Silver Jubilee Book: Mortimer Morris-Goodall… a driver pleasantly beset by the most curious hoodoo that ever monkeyed with man….. he tripped over an electric bollard in France and cut himself to the bone… he received a direct hit in the eye from a bumble bee.  On one occasion his team patron and its Chief were discussing matters at a hotel miles from the circuit on which Mort was supposed to be testing, suddenly the welkin was riven by a tremendous crash followed by the noise of many tins rolling down the pavement amid yelps of anguish.  Said the patron to the Chief, ‘that’s Mort’.  He had fallen out of the equipe lorry along with all the filling churns.

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