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Perranporth is a long way from Warwick, and yet Donald Healey would regularly drive between his home in the Cornish town where he’d been born and the factory where his eponymous sports cars were conceived.
Often he would use his stunning 100S coupé for the 250-mile blast across Bodmin to Exeter, then onwards via Somerset and Wiltshire to pick up the Fosse Way for the final stretch over the Cotswolds.
For a keen driver who’d had an impressive competition career – including a win on the 1931 Rallye Monte-Carlo – it must have been a fabulous run.
“He tended to use the coupé for longer journeys because he enjoyed its performance,” says Donald’s grandson Peter.
“There were fewer speed restrictions then, and much less traffic, of course, so he used to set quick times.
“I don’t think it took him any longer than it would today – even when you take into account the fact that he’d have been doing it before motorways.”
The story of this car brings together various strands.
As well as being Donald’s personal transport, it was one of two subtly different coupé proposals that designer Gerry Coker came up with for the Healey 100 and, as one of the factory’s development cars, it played a vital role in evaluating the mechanical upgrades that were used on the 100S.
At Warwick, it gained various modifications, such as the Le Mans engine kit for the 2660cc ‘four’, plus improved springs.
It then went to Dick Gallimore’s experimental department at Austin, where it received its final conversion into a coupé via the incorporation of that hardtop.
It was registered ONX 113 in December, the original entry on the logbook listing it as a ‘saloon’. The other coupé – which was based on a chassis built later in 1953 but converted at roughly the same time – was registered OAC 1.
In Healey: The Specials, Geoff Healey wrote that ‘most of [ONX 113’s] early life was concentrated on brake development and general development as an addition to the model range’, and it played a vital role at a busy time.
“It was very much part of the Special Test Car programme, right from its initial build,” says 100S guru Joe Jarick, “and received upgrades as they became available for testing.
“With his extensive engineering background, Donald was very hands-on. There was a constant flow of ideas and feedback between him and Geoff Healey, who in turn fed it back to Austin.”
Four Special Test Cars were built for 1954, following the quartet used the previous year.
Their specification formed the basis for the 100S, announced at the ’54 Motor Show and built through ’55 in a run of only 50 examples – all of which were hand-assembled at Warwick using the trimmed body/chassis unit that had been received from Jensen.
First up for the coupé was the fitment of Dunlop disc brakes. Next came adjustable Armstrong rear dampers, before a 100S engine and gearbox were dropped in.
It wasn’t just any old 100S engine, though.
Used in the Special Test Car programme throughout 1953 and ’54, this powerplant had even temporarily found its way into the 100S Earls Court display model.
It later received a pre-production Weslake four-port aluminium cylinder head that had been used on another engine at the Bonneville Salt Flats in ’53 – the one with which Donald himself recorded 142.64mph for the mile.
With a busy schedule of competition and record-breaking, not to mention the ongoing pressure of keeping up with demand for the production roadsters, this was a fraught time for the small development team at the Cape works.
To make matters worse, the supply of upgraded parts from Austin and Dunlop was sporadic.
In the meantime, both Donald and Geoff continued to put serious miles on ONX 113. At that stage, the company founder was still an active driver in his own right.
He and Stirling Moss used it to carry out a recce of the Mille Miglia course – Moss readily remembered the car when reunited with it many years later – and Geoff once ended up going through a hedge and into a field during enthusiastic testing. Fortunately, the bodywork was only lightly damaged.
As things turned out, of course, the coupé remained one of only two that were completed in period.
Donald was keen to expand the partnership with BMC by offering different models, but the coupé would have constituted so small a percentage of sales that it simply wouldn’t have been economically viable.
It appears that Jensen, for a start, wasn’t keen on building the closed version on the grounds of cost.
Donald kept ONX 113 until 1962, by which time the firm had long since been forced to switch to BMC’s C-series for the 100-Six and 3000 – despite Donald’s preference for sticking with a ‘four’ and simply uprating the standard production car’s 90bhp unit to 100S spec.
The coupé was sold to Alexander Hamilton, then, 10 years later, it was bought by Healey collector Arthur Carter, who has owned it ever since.
“I can’t remember how many I’ve had,” says Carter with a laugh.
“Fourteen, I think. I just liked the look of them, and my first was an early BN1 that I bought in the 1950s.”
“I always fancied having an S, though, and looked at all of the magazines to read up on them,” he continues.
“I once bought a huge job-lot of 100S spares. The chap who owned ONX 113 used to ring me every year to buy parts. Eventually, he called asking for a head gasket, then said: ‘Actually, do you want to buy the car?’ So that’s what I did.”
When the coupé had first been built, it was two-tone, black over red.
“I had it resprayed all-red because I didn’t like the black roof,” says Carter. “It made it look like a hardtop. Gerry Coker saw it and didn’t like it at all, though!”
Far be it from me to disagree with the man who styled such a pretty car as the Healey roadster, but I’m with Carter on that.
The solid red does give it a more coherent look, as proven by the fact that an enthusiastic and knowledgeable chap approaches as we arrive in Bosham harbour. “I saw you drive past,” he says, “and I thought: ‘Nice Healey – but that’s not a hardtop…’”
And that gets to the heart of this car’s aesthetic appeal. It is at once familiar and recognisable, but subtly and perplexingly different.
It is certainly no lash-up, no hastily finished ‘mule’.
The Healey looks best in profile, the rear side glass and roofline working supremely well over the muscular rear haunches.
There are hints of the later fixed-head MGA, but it’s bigger and more purposeful, although the boot now seems very large when viewed from directly behind.
The keener-eyed among you might have noticed one particular difference in detail.
“As a coupé styling exercise, it provided an opportunity for a higher level of security over the 100’s soft-top and side curtains,” says Jarick.
“The sliding windows were lockable from inside, so without external doorhandles it would be difficult to enter – the 100’s internal cord-pull would not have been accessible when the windows were locked,” he continues.
“Therefore, handles were incorporated inside and out.”
“Also, the ‘anti-burst’ door locks fitted are of a type that was not introduced on a production Healey until the 3000 Sports Convertible almost 10 years later!
“In a similar vein, the rear chassis modification to allow greater suspension travel did not appear on a production car until the 3000 Mk3 in May 1964.”
Inside, it’s all recognisable enough – the upright bucket seats and steering wheel, the gearlever that’s a reach away on the far side of the transmission tunnel – but ONX 113 boasts a satisfying patina that can be achieved only on a genuinely unrestored car.
“I did clean up the interior,” says Carter, “and I rebuilt the engine with the help of a mechanic I employed on my farm [none other than Rick Hall, who went on to establish Hall & Hall], but that was about it.
“I really enjoyed tinkering with it – that’s what I loved to do.”
“To drive, I didn’t find it to be as well balanced as a normal 100S,” he continues. “It was carrying a bit more weight, I guess.”
Maybe so, but in many ways the different body style transforms the Healey’s road manners, and this coupé should not be considered in any way portly. It’s far more rigid than an open car, for a start, and doesn’t rattle or crash its way down the road.
It rides well, too, and is remarkably civilised until cockpit temperatures start to creep up. If you’ve been in a Healey, you’ll know that it can soon get warm in there; imagine what it’s like in a closed example.
Jarick estimates that ONX 113 has “no more than 140bhp”, and it’s a gruff, willing unit. The BN2 four-speed gearbox features a long throw, and is matched to the 100S’s 3.66:1 differential – the optional ‘short circuit/hillclimb’ ratio.
That gives the Healey strong acceleration, its big ‘four’ spinning enthusiastically to 4000rpm, the popping on the overrun being distinctly audible thanks to an exhaust that exits beneath the driver’s door.
Carter once took the coupé back down to Cornwall to visit Donald Healey, who unsuccessfully offered to buy it back.
The car has been little seen over the decades, and now Carter has decided that the time has come to sell.
“Appearing on rare occasions seems to have only added to its mystique,” says Jarick, and expectations are that it will command a healthy six-figure sum when Bonhams offers it in December.
“It has an appeal beyond the usual marque enthusiasts due to its styling and history. By any standards it is a handsome car, but then you add in its famous owner and the fact that it incorporates the pick of the Special Test Car programme with components that have a history all of their own. Where does it stop?”
“I was quite young when Donald sold the coupé,” concludes Peter, “but I do recall it.
“He talked very fondly about the car, and I think he enjoyed it more than any other Healey. It’s a great shame that it didn’t go into production.”
Surely he would have liked nothing more than for his old favourite to once again be seen on the road.
It would be a star at any concours, but it would be even better if the new owner were to drive ONX 113 down to Perranporth, chart a route that avoided motorways, reset their stopwatch and set their sights on Warwick.
Images: Malcolm Griffiths
Thanks to: Joe Jarick; Jamie Knight at Bonhams; Arthur Carter; Peter Healey
This was first in our December 2015 magazine; all information was correct at the date of original publication. This car sold for £639,900 with Bonhams on 6 December 2015