Neil Bacon’s Austin Healy 100 (BN1) “Le Mans”
Neil first contacted me, via a speculative email, in April 2019. In the email, he told me that he owned an Austin Healey 100 which he believed had previously been associated with Sir Sidney Oakes in Nassau, Bahamas. He also said that he was in possession of numerous documents relating to the car, was I interested? I couldn’t quite make out what he meant by “was I interested?”, interested in what? Interested in knowing more? Interested in lodging all the documents he had on the car in the Healey Motor Company archive held by the Warwickshire County Record Office? Interested in writing a story about his car and publishing it on my website? Interested in buying his car?
I wrote back to Neil asking what he meant by his question. I think that the answer that came back was, “are you interested in learning the story of my car and most importantly are you interested in helping me to prove its provenance?”.
Over the next few months Neil shared with me all the information that he had collected on his car, which, incidentally, he was owning for the second time.
Here are the key details –
One of the previous owners had written to the British Motor Industry Heritage Trust, in October 1988, to get a profile of the car. Some of the information they came up with is as follows: –
Build Date (at Austin’s Longbridge, Birmingham factory) – 8th February 1955
Chassis No. – BN1/223802
Engine No. – 1B/223802 – M (M for Morris Engines, the BMC plant that produced the 2,660cc four cylinder engine used in the Austin A90 and Austin Healey 100)
Steering – RHD
Paintwork – Healey (Ice) Blue above Old English White.
Destination – Australia.
It is an interesting fact that Neil’s car is three chassis numbers earlier than Larry Varley’s reconstructed BN1, GKD 766 which was built on 11th February 1955. (See the link at the bottom of the page).
Provenance – The things that are definitely known about this car,
The car exists.
It has a factory fitted “Le Mans” kit. (See photos and notes below.)
It was originally destined for Australia.
Instead, it went to the Bahamas.
It returned to the U.K. in 1958 with the last port of call, on its return journey, logged as Trinidad.
When it was first built it was painted Ice Blue over Old English White. During the short time that it was in the Bahamas it was painted Goodwood Green over Canary Yellow.
Photographic evidence in support of the factory fitted (DHMCo., Warwick, U.K.) ” Le Mans” kit on Neil’s car –
The Austin Healey 100M series production and the “Le Mans” kits.
This is one of the most discussed topics in the Austin Healey lexicon and as the asking price for genuine AH100Ms has increased in recent years, one that is hotly debated.
Series production of the factory built 100 Ms, of which 640 were produced, began in September 1955 and they were derivatives of the later version of the Austin Healey 100, designated BN2. Prior to that, “Le Mans” kits* based upon the specification of the 1953 Le Mans 24 hour race Healey Works Team cars, had been supplied to dealers for them to fit to customers’ cars, or, to supply to customers to fit themselves. Prior to the launch of the 100 M some cars (BN1s) were transported from Longbridge to Warwick to have a “Le Mans” kit fitted by the DHMCo. These cars were then shipped back to Longbridge to be despatched to their designated destinations/dealers. This same process was followed for the 640 100Ms.
*The engine modification kits comprised, 8.1:1 Compression Ratio, 1¾-inch SU H6 carburettors on an aluminium intake manifold, a carburettor cold air box and a high-lift camshaft, stiffer valve springs and modified distributor. Collectively, excluding the high compression pistons, these items were sold as part number P.280.
In researching this article I came across this description of the DHMCo. “Le Mans” kit conversions of brand new cars before they were shipped to dealers. It is on page 12 of
‘Austin Healey 100/1006/3000 Restoration Guide’ by Gary Anderson and Roger Moment.
“In addition, DHMCo. began working with BMC to modify cars after they had been assembled at Longbridge but before they had been shipped to dealers. This process started in late 1954 or early 1955. Healey BN1s would be shipped from Longbridge to Warwick, where the hood (bonnet in the U.K.) would be removed and sent to Jensen for louvering. At the same time, DHMCo. would install the components of the LeMans Kit and the high compression pistons, then reinstall the hood and the hood strap. The cars would then be returned to Longbridge for shipment to the dealer. There are no records on the Austin build cards of these modifications, so the only indication that a BN1 had been modified before purchase would be on the dealer invoice, if at all.”
Additional information –
Additional modifications were also carried out with the installation of the kits. A special bracket was used to clear the cold air box where the left side support riser attached to the shroud at the bonnet opening. Initially, in order to swap out the cam, the engine mounts were unbolted from the chassis so that the engine could be raised and shifted so that the camshaft could clear the left front “X” brace as it was withdrawn or inserted. Later they discovered that by putting a slight bend in one arm of the “X” the cam could be withdrawn while leaving the engine bolted in position. The one complication to DMH’s modification program (which was available as early as 1954) was that if the customer wanted a louvred bonnet, the original one had to be returned to Jensen, where the under-skin bracing was removed (by drilling out the spot welds) in order to stamp louvres into the skin. Then the bracing was re-attached into place (some examples of this work have been found with brazing, though welding is another possibility) and the bonnet was repainted before being shipped back to Warwick where it was re-installed on the car. Interestingly, as Roger Moment has pointed out, bonnets that were louvred in this manner can be identified because the original body number stamped into the left-rear flange of the bonnet would be partially obliterated when the brace was rewelded (or brazed) back in place.
The Bahamas Connection
When Neil’s car was first assembled at Austin’s Longbridge, Birmingham, plant, it was destined for Australia but after it had returned to Longbridge from Warwick, with the “Le Mans” kit fitted, including a louvred bonnet and leather retaining strap, the destination had been changed to the Bahamas. Or…
This is what Neil believes happened to his car.
There is speculation that the car was assigned to DMHCo. and it was from Warwick, not Longbridge, that the car was shipped to the Bahamas in readiness for the 1955 “Speed Week”. This was not an unusual situation, it followed a regular DHMCo. pattern, although there is no documentation to prove that this was the case for this car.
The story goes like this –
A Dr. Pryor, a U.K. resident, was holidaying in the Bahamas in 1957 and came across this “abandoned” AH 100, near Nassau. He took a fancy to it and made enquiries as to its availability. This led to him purchasing the car and having it shipped back to the U.K. where it arrived, via Trinidad, in 1958. It was at this point that it gained its current Registration Number of URK 397.
When Dr. Pryor first saw the car it had Green over Yellow paintwork. The story also records that the car had been raced in the Bahamas (Speed Week?, who knows) and suffered a rear end shunt during a race, that’s why it had been abandoned. The explanation that Neil gives is that it was more economical for Healeys to abandon cars, in these circumstances, because if the cars were returned to the U.K. purchase tax would have had to be paid. At the time, purchase tax was levied at a rate of 60% of the sales price. It had been set this high by the U.K. Government in order to encourage exports. There was also the shipping costs on top of that and in this case the cost of repairing the damage to the bodywork. So, one can understand why abandoning the car would make economic sense.
It is not known who owned the car in the Bahamas but it this period of its life which gave rise to the speculation that it had been owned by, or, at least used by, Sir Sydney and or, his wife, Lady Greta Oakes.
Sir Sidney Oakes and the Bahamas Speed Weeks
The real motorsport action in and around the Caribbean at that time was taking place in Nassau, Bahamas and Sebring FL, USA. Austin Healeys, both 100s and later, Sprites, acquitted themselves well at these venues, driven by works team drivers, including Stirling Moss, Lance Macklin and Peter Collins, together with talented amateurs, mainly from the USA. The Bahamas, or Nassau, ‘Speed Week’*** series of races was inspired by a Captain Sherman ‘Red’ Crise, a “larger than life” American, assisted by a local land owner, Sir Sydney Oakes.
Sir Sydney and his wife Greta became good friends with Donald Healey as a result of the latter’s visits to Nassau in connection with the ‘Speed Weeks’. Sydney and Greta both ended up owning or at least driving their own Austin Healey 100s.
Somewhere, during the telling of the story of Neil’s AH100, it was suggested that his car could have been one of the cars owned by Sir Sydney or Greta Oakes. Because it had been in the Bahamas at the same time, I guess. It was this idea that was exercising Neil when he first contacted me. I am a sucker for a good story and I started doing my own research on Sir Sydney Oakes and his family. What a fascinating story it is, especially the part that features Sydney’s father, Harry, an American who made his fortune as a gold miner in Canada. The research led me to Terry O’Neil, an author specialising in motor racing topics; Terry has written a book (tome would be a better description) on the Bahamas Speed Weeks. With the help of Reid Trummel, editor of the Austin Healey Club of America’s magazine ‘Healey Marque’, I was able to contact Terry and get him interested in Neil’s story.
By coincidence, Terry and I are supporters of the Rootes Group Archive Trust who have recently acquired their own premises near Banbury, Oxfordshire. There was to be a special ‘Sunbeam’ meeting at the Trust in September last year and the three of us, Neil, Terry and myself, arranged to meet there. Neil brought with him all the documents relating to his car. Terry was very enthusiastic and encouraging, he was very happy to help Neil in his quest.
However, after a relatively short time, his eagle eyes spotted significant differences in the cars shown in photos of Neil’s car and photos of both Sidney and Greta with their Austin Healeys. Not least being that their cars were L.H.D. and Neil’s has always been R.H.D. Terry was kind enough to say that either one of them may have driven/had access to another Austin Healey 100 other than the ones shown in the photographs. He said that he was still in contact with people in the Bahamas and he would make enquiries with them.
Almost immediately after our meeting, Hurricane Dorian hit the Bahamas and any contact with people there, on such a relatively trifling matter, was out of the question. So that particular line of enquiry has gone cold for the moment.
Returned to the U.K.
After Dr. Pryor had repatriated the car in 1958 and owned it for a few years, he had a nasty accident in the car which resulted in his daughter being badly injured. After that the car was locked away, in its damaged state and never used again by the Doctor. It was eventually sold, to a Mr. Alan Davis, in 1971. It has had numerous owners since, owned twice by Neil Bacon, its current owner. During Neil’s first ownership, 1980 – 85, the car was restored, including repainting in its original colours, by Victor (Jim) Smith. One of the other owners was Tony Elshof who raced Austin Healeys in the 1970s and 80s. During the ‘80s and 90’s Tony assembled an incredible collection of cars, including some very famous Austin Healeys. He was the competitions secretary of the Austin Healy Club Great Britain in 1986 – 88. He died in 1999 and his collection was auctioned off. I believe that URK 397 had been sold before that. The point is, that this discerning collector of historic Austin Healeys thought that URK 397, with its intriguing history and specification, was a worthy addition to his collection.
We may not (as yet, hope springs eternal!) have been able to prove that Neil’s car was owned and or driven by Sir and Lady Oakes but we have been able to prove, beyond all reasonable doubt that this car was fitted with its “Le Mans” kit at the Donald Healey Motor Company, Warwick, works. For me, that in itself has been worthwhile, it confirms Neil’s car as having a special place in the rich Healey history.
*** Nassau Speed Week was an annual festival of motorsport, held in Nassau in the Bahamas, between 1954 and 1966. It was traditionally held during the off-season. It was organised by Red Crise and Sydney Oakes, the millionaire president of the Bahamas motorsport association, and a sometime racer. Although it was never part of any official championship, it attracted large entry lists, which included the big names of the era. Stirling Moss, Masten Gregory, Alfonso de Portago, and other stars of the international racing scene, were regular entrants. This was due to its generous prize fund and starting money, provided by a Bahamian government subsidy. The rest of the field tended to comprise of American drivers in the higher echelons of national racing, plus a few local racers.
Most of the races were for sports and production vehicles, but there were also some single-seater events. The Nassau Trophy was its “blue-riband” event.
If you have any information on this car, especially concerning its period in the Bahamas, please get in touch – firstname.lastname@example.org
Link to Larry Varley’s article on the reconstruction of A.H. 100 BN1 GKD 766 –
My thanks, for enabling me to write this article, to –