Even 70 years ago, the coming together of American brawn and British chassis know-how wasn’t a new idea.
The Nash-Healey was very much a car in the tradition of Railton, Allard and Jensen in that its creator saw the virtue of a large-capacity American engine installed into a lighter, more wieldy sort of car.
Intrinsically reliable off the shelf, the benefits of mass-produced American power were well understood, the sheer performance not quite so important as the effortless way these hybrid cars went about their business.
The Nash-Healey was different in two important ways. First, it was a car created at the behest of Americans, to sell to Americans, using American money. When you throw an Italian-made body into the equation, you have an early example of international co-operation that really was something new, particularly for the inward-looking US motor industry.
In that sense, the Nash-Healey is a more significant car than it appears, not only giving Donald Healey the financial stability that would be a turning point in his fortunes, but also marking the beginning of a creative phase that would produce exotic machines such as the Dual-Ghia, the Bertone-styled Arnolt-Bristol and the Vignale-bodied Cunninghams.
The Nash-Healey is also an example of how driven men can make things happen, even in tough times.
It was conceived mid-Atlantic on a New York-bound Queen Mary in the last days of 1949, during a chance encounter between a near-bankrupt British sports car racer and builder – 51-year-old Donald Mitchell Healey – and a cigar-chewing American industrialist: George Mason, president of the Nash Kelvinator Corporation of Kenosha.
For Healey, who was some £50,000 in debt, this deal was the lifeline he needed to save his business; for Nash, the addition of a sports car would be a vital image-booster to its line of worthy but rotund saloons.
Less than five years after the end of the Second World War, and without the benefit of today’s instant communications, the fine detail of these cars’ specifications must have been settled by letter, telegram and the occasional crackly transatlantic phone call.
Little more than six months after this meeting a prototype would emerge, touted as the first true American sports car since the days of the Mercer and the Stutz for a country that was falling back in love with the idea of recreational two-seater, open-topped driving.
Well, in this case three-seater: the Nash-Healey was always a large, sociable sports car, built wide for comfort to satisfy the family values of this most homely of America’s independent car manufacturers.
With rumours that his supply of Riley engines was about to dry up, Healey had been on his way to Detroit to shop for the new overhead-valve Cadillac V8; when it wasn’t forthcoming (Cadillac couldn’t spare any), Mason’s offer of the rugged 3.8-litre Nash ‘Dual Jetfire’ straight-six began to look like a good deal.
Special high-compression, 125bhp versions of this seven-bearing, overhead-valve unit – complete with three-speed overdrive gearboxes – were shipped to England, six at a time, in giant packing cases. All the Donald Healey Motor Co had to do was fit twin SU carburettors, which helped to get a lower bonnet line.
It was then installed into a suitably modified Healey Silverstone box-section chassis, with trademark coil spring and cast-alloy trailing-link front suspension and a new coil-sprung rear end. Nash supplied the propshaft, torque tube, rear axle, wheels and ‘Weather eye’ heater, plus various items of instrumentation and trim.
There was no fancy Italian body at first: Healey and his designer/engineer Gerry Coker conceived an aluminium roadster shell with a split windscreen and a generally wholesome but uninspiring appearance.
It was built locally by Panelcraft, but not with the powered hood that had been a feature of the prototype, and was to be strictly left-hand-drive only, produced as a dollar-earner for Britain (although there would later be 28 right-hooker Healey 3 Litres with much the same body and an Alvis powertrain).
All of the 104 Panelcraft-bodied cars built at Warwick were for America, and exclusively distributed via Nash dealers. Interestingly, the first production Nash-Healey – which was registered PET 1 – was given to 16-year-old Petula Clark as a publicity stunt.
After the Chicago Auto Show launch, Healey was sending 10 cars a week back to Nash and was by now a much happier man. Mason settled his overdraft (Healey paid him back in cars) and he was on his way, no doubt happy with the US reception to the car.
American pundits noted certain detail problems – one of the early cars, incredibly, had a centre throttle – but they loved its torque and ‘European’ handling. The buying public, on the other hand, bridled at the $4063 price. It was always going to be a tough sell compared to the prettier, faster and cheaper Jaguar XK120, and a Nash dealer was not a natural destination for sports-car buyers.
Neither Mason nor Healey had ever been happy with the Panelcraft body, and before long approaches were being made to Pinin Farina about new coachwork for the Nash-Healey. In fact, Mr Farina was already contracted to design the next generation of Nash saloons, starting with the new Ambassador; his craggy, granite face would be used to promote the car on 45,000 giant billboards across America.
With this $5million campaign already under way, it was an easy step to make a ‘halo’ car out of the Nash-Healey, so why not hire Farina to make the bodies in Turin as well as style them?
If his Ambassador saloon was really another giant upturned bathtub, carefully designed not to offend the sensibilities of middle America, the Nash-Healey was something quite different. The outsized dodgem-car look of the Panelcraft body was replaced by a smoothly sculpted envelope that (in profile at least) had almost the voluptuous elegance of one of Farina’s late-’40s 6C Alfas.
With a tail almost as long as its nose, and haunches above the rear wheels that flicked up into vestigial fins to house (fake) vents, this was now an undeniably pretty car.
Its beauty was only marred by heavy-duty bumpers and yet another goofy corporate grille that enclosed the narrow gaze of the big headlights – Nash called them ‘Safety Vu’ lamps, the idea being that, by mounting them low, they shone under fog.
Most of the 150 Farina-bodied Nash-Healeys built in ’52 had a larger 4.1-litre, 135bhp engine. The price went up to $5868, reflecting an even more complicated assembly process: chassis were sent from Warwick to Turin to be bodied and trimmed; Pinin Farina then sent complete cars to New York. The Italian bodies were mainly in steel, but with aluminium boot, bonnet and doors, and were slightly lighter than before.
A further 162 cars were built in 1953, a figure that includes the coupé, built on a 7in-longer wheelbase and called the Le Mans. This fixedhead was pretty enough to get first prize at the Italian International Concours in Tresa, and for Nash the name was a way of extracting maximum publicity from an impressive third (behind two 300SLs) in the previous year’s 24 Hours.
The weight went up, of course, as did the price (to $5899), but even at that figure Nash was said to be losing $2 for every $1 the cars returned. Surprisingly, the Le Mans coupé was proving more popular than the open version, so for 1954 the convertible was dropped.
Even with a $1200 price cut Nash only managed to sell another 90 cars – with a new type of three-piece wraparound back window – and the last was built in August 1954, although sales went on through to 1955.
These machines don’t often appear in Europe, so a chance to see and drive one is not to be missed. Born silver, but repainted 20 years ago, this 1953 example must be one of the last of the convertibles.
In 2012 it moved from Salt Lake City, Utah to Switzerland and was subjected to £20,000-worth of mechanical work in 2016. That included an engine rebuild, and it is now immaculately presented.
The long, tall, unexciting-looking ‘six’ is running the later – and correct – twin Carter YH carburettors (on that curious inlet manifold that’s integral with the alloy head), and the car is still on 6V electrics and standard points ignition.
For me, few cars look good in bright red, but this one does. Equally, I’m no lover of whitewall tyres, but a Nash-Healey appears slightly unhappy without them. Its hood is taut and compact when erected and disappears easily behind the leather seatback.
The sidescreens are stored in the long, shallow boot and there are no outside handles for the low-cut doors. Slide onto the soft black bench and the high seating position, dictated by the tunnel required for the torque tube, leaves you feeling slightly exposed. It’s as if you’re conducting a giant pedal car, looking through a fairly upright windscreen along an imposing length of bonnet and surveying a body-colour fascia that could be that of a coachbuilt ’50s Alfa or Lancia.
The massive steering wheel makes the Nash feel more unwieldy than it really is at first, while the gearlever, tucked up against your right leg, is so stubby that you almost think the car should have a column change, given that it has a bench seat anyway.
Nash was quite specific that the Healey had to have a floor change for sports-car credibility purposes, but somehow it is too comfortable and civilised to live up to the 1950s idiom of what a sports car should be. With its heater, reasonably light steering, decent ride and dignified driving position, you just don’t suffer enough in this roadster.
In a world that was turning increasingly to the allure of the compact, short-stroke V8, this Nash engine was one of the better and more modern US straight-sixes and the only American one with a seven-bearing crank. Hence it is very smooth, the exhaust note a flutter of refinement.
With 230lb ft of torque peaking at 2000rpm, the pick-up from low speeds is unobtrusively impressive in any of the three direct-drive gears. New, it would have been good for 90mph in third and maybe 110mph in overdrive (operated by a switch on the dash on this example – earlier cars had it on the steering wheel). The latter gives a lovely, long 27mph-per-1000rpm stride.
The Nash-Healey is set up to understeer and, with its fairly soft ride, it rolls quite a lot in slower, tighter turns. With no seatbelts or side bolsters to hold you in place, you just hang on to the steering wheel a bit harder. It does not pretend to be a seat-of-the-pants, tips-of-the-fingers instrument but a friendly, well-behaved and fun two-seater that doesn’t care what gear it’s in and just gets on with the job.
Nash boss Mason fitted his personal car with a supercharger and several others got the inevitable V8 conversion, which would have given the model more pulling power both on the road and in the showroom, had an in-house engine been available. Even then it would never have been able to face the challenge from the Corvette and Thunderbird at half the money.
The Nash-Healey is seemingly an obscure car with a significance, and complicated story, out of all proportion to the 506 examples built between 1950 and ’54. A post-war dollar earner for Britain and unlikely hero of Le Mans and the Mille Miglia, it was also a precursor of the trend towards luxurious American-powered Euro sports cars, a decade before the market was truly ready to pay a premium for such things.
Thanks to DM Historics in Hadlow, Kent
Images: James Mann, LAT Photographic