For the latest classic car news, features, buyer’s guides and classifieds, sign up to the C&SC newsletter here
Picture yourself at the 1952 Earls Court Motor Show.
See past the novelty of the sectioned Austin A30, tromboning apart and back together again to expose its mechanicals, plus the wicked excess of the latest Docker Daimler slowly bankrupting a once-proud firm... and three important episodes in the success story of the British sports car are quietly inveigling themselves on to the international scene.
The same basic engine appeared in Triumph’s 20TS sportster concept of 1952, aimed bravely at the US market, but with toytown round-tailed looks to be overcome before it reached production as the TR2 the following year.
Yet the dark horse was the Healey 100, its voluptuous styling tightly wrapped around Austin mechanicals, shoved nose-first into a corner.
BMC boss Leonard Lord was so captivated that, by the end of the show, he had an agreement for Donald Healey to make and market the car as the Austin-Healey 100.
Hindsight, though, suggests that the two men had been in talks earlier, for the Healeys had used A90 running gear in the sleek two-seater.
After WW2 Morgan reintroduced its 4/4, first powered by an inlet-over-exhaust-valve Climax unit, with a 1267cc Standard ‘four’ from the Mayflower.
This was a result of an old association with Standard Motor Co boss Sir John Black, who as a youth had produced the original patent drawing for the three-wheeler. It drove via a four-speed Moss ’box and 5:1 rear-axle ratio.
But from 1950, Standard’s ‘one-engine’ policy meant that the sub-1300cc motor was dropped, so the decision was made to fit the new 2-litre ‘four’ – a giant leap in power to 68bhp, the Plus 4 spelling the demise of the faithful three-wheeler. Hydraulic brakes appeared for the first time on a Morgan, too.
The price in ’51 was £880 including tax. Acceleration from 0-60mph took 17.9 secs, with a top speed of over 85mph.
From ’54, after the TR2 had arrived, the Plus 4 two-seater became available with the Triumph’s new 1991cc engine, using twin carbs to push power to 90bhp and top speed to 100mph-plus.
There wasn’t room within the narrow bonnet for air filters, but a curved radiator grille better blended the rounded wings and long bonnet.
For Morgan, abandoning the flat radiator it had used since ’33 on the Ford-engined F-type was real progress, and it’s a feature that has survived to this day.
The TR2 was designed to challenge MG in the vital export territories, principally America. Black had tried to take over Morgan and failed, so Coventry needed to develop its own light and simple sports car – and fast.
The Mayflower-based Triumph Roadster was effete, outdated, underpowered – and cost too much to make. Black wanted an affordable sports car, and plundering the Standard-Triumph parts bin was the fastest way to develop one.
The first car was built on a Standard Eight chassis, the Mayflower saloon raided for its coil-sprung independent front suspension and a rear axle, while the 2-litre Vanguard unit provided power.
A two-seater body was quickly created to clothe it all – perhaps too quickly, because the new 20TS didn’t win many fans at the ’52 show.
Body engineer Walter Belgrove, constrained by a tiny tooling budget, had done his best, forming curves by welding panels together instead of using expensive large stampings. Rather than the retractable headlights he had wanted there were ‘frogeye’ pods, which ironically give ‘sidescreen’ TRs their great character. But it was a start.
At the next show the definitive TR2 emerged, with (slightly) better looks, a longer body and a bigger boot. At first, the doors extended to the bottom of the car, but in autumn 1954 this was changed to the short-door style as on ‘our’ Primrose example.
By the time it was replaced by the facelifted and more powerful TR3 in mid-’55, 8628 had been made. In overdrive top (a £56 option on the £900 base price), according to The Motor, the TR could reach 107mph – it was the lowest-priced British car to be able to exceed the ton – and could get to 60mph in 12 secs from rest.
Americans loved its robust feel plus fairly foolproof handling, and were amused by the fact that you could manicure your nails on the tarmac without leaving the driver’s seat. Furthermore, fuel consumption was in the mid 30s.
Counting against it, the stowage of the spare wheel horizontally behind the axle means the boot is shallow – and you need a T-handle to open it, the same as the bonnet. It’s the tool that you always remember you’ve left in the garage just when you need it most…
Donald Healey and Roger Menadue had managed a rather more fully formed car for the 1952 show, creating a single roadster that they named for its ability to top the still magic ‘ton’.
Stylist Gerry Coker had pulled together all the best features of the barchetta school of design and topped it with an ingenious folding ’screen that helped the looks, aerodynamics and top speed, but disconcertingly aimed a flat sheet of glass right at the driver’s throat when lowered.
The big four-banger was yanked straight from the A90, its 2660cc arrived at by well undersquare measurements, as was then the fashion: 87.3mm (3.4in) bore and 111.1mm (4.4in) stroke.
The 7.5:1 compression ratio, pushrod valve actuation and three-bearing crankshaft are absolutely typical of BMC fare of the day as well. Even its looks are uniform with the corporate template.
The A90’s four-speed ’box was lifted, too, but first was redundantly low so, by the simple expedient of having its lowest gear blanked off, it became a three-speed.
Presumably the reasoning was that the Americans – the Healey’s most likely takers overseas – were used to a trio of ratios to choose from, and at least these were sportily on the floor instead of ‘on the tree’ as in the Atlantic.
Credibility was upheld in Euro buyers’ eyes by the Laycock overdrive on second and top, giving five useful ratios.
The purposeful look was reinforced by 11in Girling drum brakes all round behind the painted wire wheels. Even today, if you want to know how potent a car really is, you check out the size of its brakes.
In ’53, The Motor found that the racy-looking 100 could do 106mph, having accelerated from 0-60mph in 11.2 secs – almost a second faster than the TR2.
But at a price. Fuel consumption was in the low 20s, and it cost £100 more than the TR.
A total of 10,030 Healey 100s were built from May ’53 until the BN1 was replaced by the four-speed BN2 in August ’55.
Jensen in West Bromwich built the early bodies before the cars were assembled in Austin’s Longbridge plant alongside the A90. The two firms had previously collaborated on the Austin A40 Sports.
The architecture of these cars is deceptive – as are their sizes.
The Morgan is tall, angular and proud to be British, yet diminutive with it, while the Healey is svelte and Italianate but not as big as it looks.
And the TR2 is well enough packaged to get the job done, with looks a form of its function – but then that worked for the lunar module.
In terms of functionality, the TR has the largest, roomiest cockpit, trimmed in sensible black vinyl. Yet it’s the one in which you feel most exposed, sitting high between cut-down doors, the feeling of altitude increased by having the large, two-spoke steering wheel in your lap and the short, stubby gearlever a stretch away.
Paradoxically, you’re lowest and snuggest in the smallest car here, the Morgan, your right elbow hemmed in by the narrow cockpit’s small door but comfy on the Moseley Float-On air bladders that need to be tailored to the weight of each driver.
“Too much and you roll off them,” says owner Tony Quinn. “Too little and your backside bottoms out.”
The Morgan’s Moss ’box is mounted some way behind the engine and clutch on a jackshaft, ideally placing the short-throw shifter beside you.
The Healey, gorgeous as it is, fits like your favourite old slippers, so that you can forgive it the ‘magic wand’ disappearing into the left side of the transmission tunnel.
The Healey’s the gutsiest, too, as is to be expected with almost half as much engine again as the other two. You engage the clutch before introducing any power, and let the immense torque do the work.
It’s wrong, but this car has a further round to its barrel, featuring a lovely rasp on the overrun that’s down to loose baffles, which owner Jamie Knight won’t have fixed. The Triumph-powered contenders are revvier, busier, but feel just as fast, because they achieve the same 90bhp, merely at higher revs.
The Healey is a truly lazy cruiser, yet its overdrive top gives the same 75mph at 3000rpm as the Triumph. The TR2’s overdrive switch is handier to reach than the 100’s, a dash-mounted box flickable from the steering wheel.
The Healey’s is more sophisticated in operation, though, meaning that the overdrive switch in the centre of the dash can be left engaged, because it has a handy ‘kickdown’ feature that operates when you floor the accelerator, and drops back into overdrive on a light throttle at about 40mph.
It’s a neutral handler most of the time, but push harder and the tail will drift, albeit benignly.
The Morgan is the lightest (by 100kg), but probably has the worst aerodynamics and there’s no overdrive, though a 3.73:1 diff ratio helps to make up the difference.
Tall crossplies aid the gearing, and confer a delicious handling balance. Its steering is pin-sharp, and those tyres make the always-predictable chassis a device of great communication. Like the Healey it’s nicely neutral until extended, when the tail will slide.
The TR’s chassis behaviour comes as a contradictory surprise. As you turn the front tips in, it understeers, and then it settles into the corner, somehow feeling disconnected in the middle.
It’s a supple ride, though also bouncy and tends to hop sideways if the surface is anything other than perfect. Tired dampers could be the culprit here, but push harder and it all comes good, as the TR chassis reveals itself to be a mild oversteerer when pressed.
On the crossplies that these cars all wore when new, the chassis becomes even more forgiving, though they then let go sooner because there’s not so much grip.
The TR has the nicest gearchange with a tight, close action, a short lever and decent synchro on all ratios.
The Healey’s back-to front three-speed pattern is an anachronism that’s awkward, though its saving grace is that you don’t have to use it much.
Both the TR and Healey have fairly long-travel brake pedals, but pull up fine; the Morgan is firmer and has a little less weight to stop, so retardation is more rapid.
Structurally, the Morgan has none of the body shake you expect – a recent new frame helps – but this car also has an extra scuttle roll-hoop that tightens up the whole plot considerably.
The Healey’s all of a piece, and the best-riding car here. Surprisingly, the TR2 is the shakiest.
Sixty years after they appeared, direct comparisons matter less than when they were new.
They still appeal to different buyers, yet any of this threesome will charm you in particular ways and promise you a damn good time, whether rigid traditionalism, perky enthusiasm or lolloping languidity.
Two-thirds of this trio were about defining, if not refining the British sports car breed on a budget; in the Triumph and Healey’s case, built from simple pressings, on a simple chassis, underpinned by simple mechanicals. Tough and with less to go wrong.
Morgan ploughed its own furrow with timber-framed construction, hand-formed bodywork and even more rudimentary ironmongery. But even then history shows that the men from Malvern have never been averse to a sly bit of updating to keep up with the Joneses. Or, in this case, the Blacks and the Healeys.
Taken as a group, I was disappointed by how crudely functional the TR was when, with no comparison, they’re all beautifully enjoyable, but then I’ve been in love with the exquisite Morgan since I drove it recently.
Yet I’d swap them both in an instant for the Healey – for that is where the heartbeat of this story really lies.
Images: Tony Baker
- Sold/number built 1953-’56/10,688
- Construction steel box-section chassis with cruciform centre section; aluminium body with steel wings and doorskins
- Engine all-iron 2660cc pushrod ‘four’, with two SU HS4 carburettors
- Max power 90bhp @ 4000rpm
- Max torque 144lb ft @ 2500rpm
- Transmission three-speed manual, with overdrive on top two, driving rear wheels
- Suspension: front independent, by double wishbones, coil springs, anti-roll bar rear live axle, semi-elliptic leaf springs, Panhard rod; lever-arm dampers f/r
- Steering cam and lever, 2½ turns lock-lock
- Brakes drums all round
- Length 12ft 7½in (3848mm)
- Width 5ft ½in (1537mm)
- Height 4ft 1in (1245mm)
- Wheelbase 7ft 6in (2286mm)
- Weight 2102lb (953kg)
- Mpg 22
- 0-60mph 10.3 secs
- Top speed 106mph
- Price new £1063
Morgan Plus 4
- Sold/number built 1950-’69/6853
- Construction Z-section steel ladder chassis with wood-framed aluminium or steel body
- Engine all-iron 1991cc pushrod ‘four’, with two SU carburettors
- Max power 90bhp @ 5000rpm
- Max torque 118lb ft @ 3000rpm
- Transmission Moss four-speed manual, with synchromesh on top three, driving rear wheels
- Suspension: front independent, by sliding pillars, coil springs rear live axle, semi-elliptic leaf springs; telescopic/lever-arm dampers f/r
- Steering cam and sector, 2¼ turns lock-lock
- Brakes drums all round
- Length 11ft 8in (3556mm)
- Width 4ft 8in (1422mm)
- Height 4ft 4in (1321mm)
- Wheelbase 8ft (2438mm)
- Weight 1848lb (838kg)
- 0-60mph 10 secs
- Top speed 100mph
- Mpg 30
- Price new £801
- Sold/number built 1953-’55/8628
- Construction steel chassis with steel body
- Engine all-iron Standard Vanguard 1991cc pushrod ‘four’, with two SU carburettors
- Max power 90bhp @ 5000rpm
- Max torque 118lb ft @ 3000rpm
- Transmission four-speed manual, with optional overdrive on top three, driving rear wheels
- Suspension: front independent, by double wishbones, coil springs, telescopic dampers rear live axle, semi-elliptic leaf springs, lever-arm dampers
- Steering cam and lever, 2¼ turns lock-lock
- Brakes drums all round
- Length 12ft 7in (3835mm)
- Width 4ft 7½in (1410mm)
- Height 4ft 2in (1270mm)
- Weight 2106lb (955kg)
- 0-60mph 12 secs
- Top speed 107mph
- Mpg 32
- Price new £844