In January 2022 I received an email from Larry Paterson, a Canadian subscriber to the www.carsceninternational.com website. The reason for the contact was for Larry to inform me that he and three other Canadian Austin Healey enthusiasts were planning to visit the U.K. in early April and that they would like to take in the Healey Exhibition at the Warwick Market Hall Museum.
Unfortunately, I had to inform him that the Healey Exhibition would have been dismantled by the time they arrived in the U.K. However, I said that I would ask Rob Eyre, Senior Archivist at the Warwick County Record Office, if the group could look at some items from the Healey Motor Company archive that is held at the Record Office.
Rob replied that although most of the Healey Exhibition, in the Market Hall Museum, would be taken down by the 21st March, some items would remain on display until June when replaced by a display dedicated to cycling, celebrating the forthcoming Commonwealth Games being held in nearby Birmingham. He also told me that the small “cinema” section in the museum would continue to show historic Healey videos. On that basis Rob suggested that it would still be worthwhile for the group to visit the Museum, in addition, he would put on a display of material from the Healey archive, at the Record Office, for the group to look at.
I passed that information on to Larry and at the same time suggested that they might like to visit JME Healeys, the Healey restoration specialists that occupy part of the original Donald Healey Motor Company ‘Cape Works’. He replied that he thought that was a great idea, so, I put all those plans together for Wednesday 6th April.
The Day of the Visit
Market Hall Museum
The great day arrived and at 10.00 am I was waiting at the Market Hall Museum in Warwick’s town centre for the group’s arrival. I saw this black Citroen SUV pull up and three spritely gentlemen alight from it. I thought “this must be them” and of course I was right. I introduced myself to them but before we got much further it became apparent that the driver of the Citroen, who I discovered was Jean Caron, was having a little difficulty parking it; not because of any limitations in his driving skills but purely because suitable parking spaces were hard to find. So, I dashed out to see if I could assist Jean to find a suitable space, which we did, eventually. It was good to meet with Jean because he and I had exchanged a number of emails in the past, mainly about Classic Roadsters Saxon and Sebring MX cars, “Big Healey” fibreglass replicas (see link below).
So, now we were all assembled in the Museum ready to look at the one display cabinet that remained from the Healey Exhibition that had run from May 2021 to March 2022 (an unprecedented amount of time for a dedicated exhibition, by Market Hall standards). In a reconnaissance that I had undertaken the previous day, I had noticed Barry Bilbie‘s signature on an early Healey chassis layout drawing that was pinned to the back of the display cabinet. I started my working life as a draughtsman at Jensen Motors, which is where I first came across the “Big Healey”, so I always pay particular attention to “engineering drawings” when I come across them. But this one, with Barry’s signature on it, had more significance than just any old engineering drawing – to my mind Barry Bilbie was one of the unsung heroes of the Donald Healey Motor Company story. He was probably the only person who was associated with all Healey badged cars, from Westland to Jensen-Healey right to the end. Donald and Geoff had bailed out of the Jensen-Healey contract before the end, Barry survived them in that connection. He had a design input into all the Healey chassis including the Jensen-Healey and the SR/XR37 Le Man race cars. I conveyed that information and my esteem for Barry Bilbie, to my Canadian companions, I hope that they were suitably impressed :-).
We then moved on to the “mini cinema” facility that had been set up during the life of the Healey Exhibition, to show a number of Healey related videos covering all the phases of the Healey Motor Company’s existence. Although I was familiar with the existence of the facility and the videos, I had never sat down to watch them all, from beginning to end, before. I must say I was very impressed, as were the guests.
The ladies on duty in the Museum Cafe that day were delighted that the visitors stopped off to buy one or two Healey logoed momentos of their visit, key rings, mugs etc. We said our goodbyes to the staff and all five of us clambered into the Citroen to drive the short distance to the Record Office.
The Warwickshire County Record Office – Healey Motor Company Archive
Even just pulling on to the Record Office car park turned into an “occasion” when I pointed out that this was the site of “Warwick Priory” dating back to the 12th century – “The Priory of Saint Sepulchre was founded here by Henry de Newburgh, the first Earl of Warwick, at some date between 1114 and 1119. It belonged to the order of the Canons of the Holy Sepulchre, who had the special duty of caring for pilgrims to the Holy Land. After the fall of Jerusalem in 1188, the house became indistinguishable from an ordinary Augustinian priory. The house was surrendered to the crown in 1536 by the then prior, Robert Radford, and three canons.”
Wherever you go in Warwick you are never far away from the shared history of the world’s English speaking people.
We proceeded to the Record Office where Rob Eyre was waiting for us; he had laid out a number of very interesting documents and photographs taken from the Healey Archive. After looking at those and Rob answering a number of questions from the visitors, he took us on a tour of the vaults where all the Record Office material is stored. The Canadians were fascinated to hear that some of the oldest documents stored there go back to at least the 12th Century. Rob was keen to point out that the Healey Archive ranks as “mid range” in size compared to other notable family or company archives stored by the R.O.
We thanked Rob for his time and his enthusiastic presentation of both the Healey Archive and the Record Office’s facilities. He had another meeting to attend but we said that we would pick him up at 1.00 pm for lunch.
Blue Plaque marking the site of the Healey Showroom and workshops at Coten End –
Next on the itinerary was a visit to ‘Healey Court‘ a block of flats for retired people built on the old ‘Warwick Cinema site which from 1963 to 1974 was home to the Donald Healey Motor Company, having moved there from the ‘Cape Works’. Last year after much hard work by David Matthews and others, Warwick Town Council were persuaded to erect a “Blue Plaque”** acknowledging that this was the site of the Donald Healey Motor Company. Members of the group took the opportunity to take photos of the Plaque and the surroundings.
As we were in close proximity to the very impressive Warwick Castle, members of the group expressed the wish to take photos of it. By coincidence, last year a friend had given me some documents, including drawings, relating to Mill Street, Warwick. The drawings depicted parts of the castle rarely seen by visitors and Mill Street itself is very picturesque, I had resolved that my wife and I would visit it sometime this year. Now, here I was within a few yards of it! decision made. Some of the houses in Mill Lane sell for £M2 plus and you can see why. We got to the bottom of the street where the famed (in local parts) Arthur Measures’ Garden is located, close to the River Avon that runs by the castle. The view of the castle’s towers was exactly what the Canadians were looking for and cameras began to click. Here is a photo that I took –
Lunch at ‘The Cape of Good Hope’
This pub is on the side of the Grand Union Canal towpath and just around the corner from Healey’s ‘Cape Works’ part of which is now occupied by JME Healeys, the renowned Healey restoration company. Due to its location, it was frequented by DMHCo. employees and is, therefore, an integral part of the Healey story. The current owner, Steve Jury, hails from New Zealand and together with his wife Emma and cousin Steve Reynolds, is making a really good job of managing the pub, offering a good cellar with a good choice of locally sourced food. We certainly enjoyed our lunch there.
After lunch, we strolled the few hundred yards to the JME Healeys premises in Lock Lane. As I said above, these premises are part of DHMCo.’s ‘Cape Works’ so, again are a very important part of the Healey story. The company is owned by Chris and Dan Everard, sons of the founder Jonathon Everard who had served his apprenticeship with DHMCo. in the early 1960s. I had arranged this visit with Chris and Dan so when we turned up we were expected. It was Chris who greeted us first and encouraged us to “have a look around” and to ask questions as they occurred to us. The Canadians were in “seventh heaven” and had lots of questions which Chris answered openly and thoroughly, no one could have wished for more. I was with Jean Caron when he was chatting to Paul, JME’s long-serving body preparation and paint expert. Like Chris, Paul was very forthcoming with information which Jean, who operates his own Healey restoration company, near Winnipeg, Manitoba, found of great interest.
Halfway into our tour, we were joined by the American Austin Healey fan group (four of them) who the Canadians had bumped into at the British Motor Museum the previous Monday – smiles and banter all around! I have since obtained the names of three of that group – Jeff Johnck, Dan Powell and Scott McQueen, all from Minnesota and members of the Minnesota Austin Healey Club, which is affiliated with the Austin Healey Club of America. Not long after the Americans’ arrival, Chris Everard had to leave and Dan took over the mantle of “tour guide”, his enthusiasm for the company and Healey cars was palpable and much appreciated by the North American visitors.
I began to sense a degree of unease in my group, I had forgotten that they were travelling to Malvern that evening (for a visit to the Morgan Motor Company the next day) and that they had hoped to call into another restoration company on the way. It was getting late and together with the possibility of heavy traffic it was putting the second visit in some jeopardy. So, we said our goodbyes to Dan and the Minnesotans and headed for our respective cars. I then said goodbye to my new Canadian friends and wished them well for the rest of their trip, which, as well as the Morgan tour, would take in the National Motor Museum at Beaulieu, Hampshire, later in the week.
What a fantastic day that was, much seen and much knowledge gained. If we could bottle such an experience I am sure that we could find a market for it…… food for thought!