HEALEY AND OTHER FINE CARS NEWS BULLETIN
During the HMCA Bulletin series I often mentioned that in addition to compiling the Wawick Healey Motor Company archive catalogue and making it available ‘online’, the Warwickshire County Record Office also initiated an ‘oral history’ project. The aim of this project, which is ongoing, is to record the memories of people who worked for Healey, one of its suppliers, raced its cars or just had fond memories of owning a Healey, Austin Healey or Jensen Healey car.
Todate just over twenty recorded interviews have taken place with several more in the pipeline. These recordings are available to listen to at the the Record Office in Warwick. For those who cannot get to Warwick, transcripts have been made of the recordings and these will be progressively put onto the Warwickshire Heritage & Culture website. There are about sixteen on there at the time of writing.
In my opinion the transcripts are not easy to read, National protocols established for such transcripts insist that they should record, accurately, what the interviewer and interviewee actually said; every erm, ur, repeated words or phrases and even every cough or dog bark, if the interview was conducted in a home where there was a dog:-)
I thought that it might be a good idea to present these fascinating stories in a more readable format. In doing so I would like to acknowledge the fantastic job done by the people involved in the original transcriptions. I have been involved on the fringes of this work and know what very hard work it is, only someone with the required skill and infinite patience could do it. I would not have had the platform on which to build these stories if it wasn’t for their hard work.
So, I suggested to Rob Eyre the R.O.’s senior archivist and the Healey archive project team leader, that I should attempt to tidy up the transcripts in order to make them more readable. I was delighted when he said that he thought that it was a good idea. Only the original transcripts will be available on the Warwickshire H & C website, my “tidied” versions will be available via the Healey News Bulletin published on the carsceneinternational.com website.
Another benefit of me “tidying up” these transcripts is that I can shed light on some things mentioned by the interviewee that might need some explaination.
I have read a number of these stories and many of them contain real gems relating to life with Healey and or its cars (I say many because I acknowledge that not everyone will share my view but to me all of them contain gems, I hope that at the end of the series you will agree with me).
My plan is to publish more of these stories in the Healey News Bulletin but only if and when the interviewee concerned has agreed to me doing so.
Dave Unitt’s Story based upon the transcript of an interview conducted and recorded by a WCRO Healey archive volunteer.
My name is David Unitt and I used to run the Wedgnock Garage in Warwick which was just around the corner from the Healey Works in Lock Lane, Warwick. I would describe myself as a Healey enthusiast. When I ran the garage we had various dealings with a lot of Healey employees but not very much with the Donald Healey Motor company itself until they moved to the old cinema on Emscote Road, Coten End, Warwick. Then we used to take cars to them to have MOTs done, also to purchase various spare parts etc. We didn’t undertake many repairs to Healey cars. Most Healey owners who came to Warwick had their cars repaired or serviced at Healey’s.
I didn’t have any really early experiences of driving a Healey. I always liked the look of them and even when I was a schoolboy we used to look out for and admire people that owned Healeys. I was interested in Classic cars and I had one or two ordinary ones (while writing this story I had the pleasure of visiting Dave at his home and I was able to ask him what these other cars were – the two that stand out are, a Berkley T60 and a Humber Super Snipe, see photos below Ed.) and then I decided that I had got to have an Austin Healey. Before deciding I looked at various other cars –Triumphs and different things, but I still came back to the Austin Healey. Once you saw them you knew you wanted one.
I don’t go that fast in it. They were road tested at just over a hundred miles per hour. That’s where the Healey 100 name came from but I’ve never been that fast. I went on a rally some time ago and we went to Castle Coombe race circuit, not just Healeys, there were all sorts of sports cars there. When we got there they said we could have three parade laps of the circuit. So, we all lined up and your heart is pumping, a Marshall comes round to say “now this isn’t a race, it’s a parade lap, don’t overtake the pace car”. He repeated “don’t overtake that!” So, we pulled up behind the pace car and we all set off. The chap in the pace car, I suppose he was used to racing cars because he disappears into the distance. So, the plan of not overtaking him was irrelevant, we couldn’t even keep up with him! But it was quite amazing to go round a racing circuit in it and I’ve been on various other rallies since, including Silverstone.
On one of those occasions I was going round Silverstone and all of a sudden the engine died on me as I’m going down the straight. An announcement came over the loudspeakers, “Healey broken down, end of the straight” but it was a quick jump out, tapped the petrol pump and it was off again. It worked perfectly all the rest of the day.
The interviewer asked – “And is it a reliable car generally?”
Yes, it’s pretty reliable. When I first had it I went out, it hadn’t been on the road for a long time, I used it a bit and then I realised that the brakes needed looking at. I came back and did those and then next time I went out it needed the steering looking at. But after about six months, I think, I’d done everything and then it was quite reliable. I have been some quite good distances in it. I always have my fingers slightly crossed.
The interviewer asked – “What’s it like on hills?”
It’s a very powerful car on hills because you’ve got a lot of low down power so hills and things are absolutely no problem at all; you can storm up them, go past anything. It will keep up with modern traffic, obviously drivers, white van men*, can probably overtake you on the motorway, but it is a really good strong performance car. You feel you can select top gear and still pull away and get up anything. * white van man is a somewhat degrogertary term, used in the U.K., for local delivery drivers. They have tight schedules to keep and tend to drive with a certain abandonment.
The interviewer said – “I imagine it’s the sort of car that attracts a lot of comments?”
Yes, it does. I’m quite elderly now and even though I’ve had it thirty years I wasn’t in my youth when I bought it. Once, when driving out from a rally at Coombe Abbey, a child of about six remarked, “oh look mum, there’s James Bond’” But I think he was more referring to the car!
Once, going through Henley on Thames, I pulled up and a lady in the car by the side, wound her window down and said “oh what a beautiful car”, so, it does attract quite a lot of attention.
The interviewer asked – “Do you attend rallies much then, is that something you still like to do?”
I used to go to them a lot more, I should go to more, but I go to a few now. When I was at work full time I seemed to have more time to go to rallies than I do now that I’m retired. So, I only seem to have gone to local things lately, but I did used to go to further afield things.
The interviewer asked – “You touched a little bit upon your job and the fact that you ran a garage, at Wedgnock. Could you say a little more about your connection with the Healeys in that context?”
Yes. We used to take our cars down to Healey’s at Coten End where Geoff Price, a fairly elderly chap then, was the Service Manager. Some of the other people used to think he was a bit grumpy but I always thought he was really a good, efficient, Service Manager. When I was reading a Healey book, I found out that he was Donald Healey’s riding companion at a lot of big rallies. After that I used to look at him in a different light. In one of the books I was reading it said they were on a rally, it might have been Le Mans (unlikely, Le Mans is a circuit race not a rally Ed.) or some other really big league rally. It said they were eating oranges with really oily hands so they were eating engine oil covered oranges, racing along at high speed, studying rally books all at the same time. That caused me to view Geoff in a new light after that.
The interviewer asked “Were they very forthcoming with tales like that?”
Yes. We used to have quite a lot of Healey employees coming into the garage. One day a chap came in, he was a carpenter, he worked on the early Healey speedboats, the later ones were made of fibreglass.
I didn’t visit the Cape works when it was occupied by the DHMCo. However, I did go down there after it closed because I thought I must go and see where it all happened. I remember some time before my visit a chap coming into the garage saying “oh, I’ve just seen a really strange thing – a coach pulled up at the top of Lock Lane and a lot of people got off. They appeared to be Japanese. They disappeared down to where that old factory is”. He continued, “then half of them came back carrying bricks”. I said to him “well it was the Healey factory and now obviously Healey enthusiasts, probably from Japan or somewhere, are seeking some kind of souvenir, even if it’s only a brick.”
This was just after Healeys had moved to the cinema at Coten End.
We continued to deal with Healeys right up to the time when they sold the old cinema premises to Hamblin even though we had started to do our own MOTs by then.
At one time, they had a big showroom built on the front of the cinema and they were Rolls Royce agents at one time, Rolls Royce and Bentley.
I’ve enjoyed working on my own Austin Healey 100. it’s a car that I can understand; if that sounds weird, what I mean is, on a modern car everything is electronic and you can’t do anything on it. Whereas, a Healey is very basic and is quite easy to work on. I’ve done quite a lot of assorted conversions on it. The works originally did a Le Mans conversion (the M derivative, Ed.), they did a different head and larger carburettors which made the Austin Healey 100 more powerful. Over time I’ve converted mine to the Le Mans spec which should make it faster but I don’t drive it that fast because it’s more than sixty years old. But it’s still a fantastic car to drive, in one of the books there is a quote, which I feel is very appropriate, it said, “you can’t get out of a Healey and walk away without looking back at it’. I think that is very true.
The interviewer asked “What’s the most exciting rally that you’ve been on?”
I went on the Norwich Union Rally and that was quite good because you went to exotic places that you wouldn’t go to normally. It started in Cheltenham and then you went to Prescott Hill Climb and you could go up ‘The Hill’. Then it went on to the Lucas test track just outside, Lapworth I think (it was at Honiley and after being owned by Prodrive, the Rally Car preparation company, it is now Jaguar Land Rover’s development centre, Ed.) There was an oval test track there where they tested Lucas (Girling) brakes. You could have two circuits of that and then from there you went on to Silverstone where we had two or three circuits of that track. So, that was really exciting with lots of places where you normally wouldn’t have the possibility of driving round.
The interviewer asked “Where you a fan of motor racing before?”
Yes, Classic car racing. When I was younger, we went to all the Classic Car meets at Silverstone and some other circuits.
At one time the Austin Healey Club did a Healey Driver International which was really good and if you became a member you could go to all the Healey races – not to take part in them, but to spectate, so that was really good. I think it is still going strong now but I’m not in it any more. (Yes, the Healey Driver International events still take place under the auspices of Healeyport.org a subsidiary of the AHC. Ed.)
The interviewer asked “And what are your memories of the (Healey) family, I think you said you didn’t really meet Donald, but you met other members of the family.”
No, I was really only on a nodding acquaintance with them. I didn’t know them well, only just to say hello. I can’t even remember the family coming to the garage but people like Geoff Price and other employees came for petrol etc. I remember Geoff saying to me “oh your father was very good to us when there was petrol rationing.” He said that Dad could always find an odd bit of extra petrol when required. At that time my father had a garage on the Coventry Road, Warwick and obviously had much more dealings with Healey.
I retired from running my garage about ten years ago. I phased myself down gradually, my mechanic, Robert Boswell, wanted to start by himself so I hired him the workshop. I was left just selling petrol plus the used car showroom and then Robert wanted to sell cars, so I rented the showroom to him as well as the workshop. Then I stopped selling petrol and I rented the whole garage to him. A few years later he offered to buy the whole enterprise, it still all exists (since the interview Robert Boswell has sold the garage to Enterprise Car Rentals, see the link at the end of this article, Ed.) Robert told me a story that when he was a youth, he and his friend used to live in the Cape just by the Healey works. They used to climb over into the compound, a lot of times there were cars parked in the yard with the keys left in them, although the front gate to the yard would be locked. This was before the Austin contract, these would have been Healey cars. He said that they used to get in them sometimes and drive them to the end of the yard and back again. Now days youngsters doing that kind of thing would probably crash the cars into each other and wreck them all. But he said we used to just have a careful drive up and down and park them back in their original position.
I did something similar. Nothing to do with Healeys, but one day, when my father had the garage on the Coventry Road, we had Monty’s (Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery an Allied Forces Commander in WWII Ed.) staff car – Monty’s Desert staff car (a converted Humber Super Snipe Ed.) left with us overnight on its way to the Beaulieu Museum, it was going to be driven there. The driver lived in Warwick and new my father, it was more convenient fro him to set out from Warwick rather than go back to Coventry. I thought the same as Robert and his friend – I thought, well, I must take this opportunity to say I’ve driven Monty’s staff car. I just drove it across the garage, about twenty foot, and reversed it back again. So, that’s my claim to fame – I drove Monty’s staff car!
The interviewer said “This has been a fantastic interview, are there any other stories that you can think of?”
Oh yes, I used to see Margot Healey (Geoff’s wife), they used to live in Barford but after Geoff died she moved into Warwick and I often used to see her shopping around Warwick.
Interviewer asks “Were they well-known locally, outside of car people?”
Yes, I think so. They would have been. There was a sort of car community because when Donald lived in Leamington Geoff lived in Barford. Also the Rileys – Peter Riley from Riley Cars, Coventry, also lived in Barford. The first Healeys, when they were just Healeys, had Riley engines. Apparently – I only heard it through the “grapevine” – they all used to meet on a Thursday night in The Millwright Arms pub, Coten End, Warwick. There would be the Healeys, the Rileys and Frank ‘Lofty’ England (see note below*) of Jaguar.
The interviewer said – “Summing up the car then, you’ve had it for thirty years, so I guess it is probably your favourite?”
Yes, it is. Yes, I’ve had one or two different cars but the Austin Healey 100 is a fantastic car. When I was thinking about buying one, you see a lot advertised as being 98% complete, or something like that. Then you discover that the 2% that’s missing is something that nobody can possibly obtain. It’s like saying, “well, everything is there but it doesn’t have a steering wheel and you cannot source a steering wheel that fits”. I thought, I’ll go to AH Spares in Southam and ask the chap what parts are available for the Austin Healey100? I didn’t want to buy one and then find out that you couldn’t obtain something like the steering wheel that I have just mentioned. I was telling him why I was asking and he said “well, I’ve got a catalogue here, I’ll give it to you and you can look through that, then if you look at a car and you find it’s got weird springs or something, you can see whether it is possible to buy replacements”. Then a chap in the queue behind me said “oh, do you want to buy one? my mate’s selling one’” It was as easy as that! The chap who owned it lived in Solihull, he had re-imported it from the States that’s why it was left hand drive. He was a road racer – he raced Sunbeam Tigers but he was going into Austin Healey racing as well so he bought it to convert it to racing specification. However, a personal arose and he was forced to sell the Austin Healey.
The car had come from one of the Southern States, maybe Tennessee. I should know because you get a customs certificate with it. At that time, apparently, there was always a bit of a fiddle on. They were selling them for some ridiculous price because you paid less import duty if it said on the customs certificate “Healey – Sold For Parts”, or something like that. Of course it wasn’t sold for parts but it’s got this customs certificate to say that it was. When I got it, I started to clean underneath ready for repainting. I found lots of little muddy things on the chassis, like little cocoons. I got them off and afterwards found out that they were the nests of mud wasps. There weren’t any mud wasps in them but I saved some of the nests and keep them in a box at home.
The interviewer observed – “A lot of them, I believe, were sold to the military”.
Yes, American service personnel could order them here and take them back with them and I think Bic Healey organised that side of the business. Yes, because at Upper Heyford (U.S. Air Force base in the 1950s and 60s. Ed.) for instance, there was a large number of Americans employed there and three other bases in England.
By the way, on another Healey subject, I read in a book somewhere that for Donald Campbell’s water speed record, they used Healey chase boats. It was a good publicity stunt for Healeys. When Donald Campbell was killed in his water speed record attempt, the back up boats were supplied by Healey Marine.
The interviewer asked – “Have you actually been in one of the boats?”.
No. I’ve seen one, I saw one at a boat show. Oh, and I’ve got a Dinky model of one of them, it’s still in its original box. They made lots of Dinky Healeys, but there is a little boat, probably quite rare. I’ve got two or three Dinky models of Healey cars. There are lots of different Healey models but they’re not in mint condition. The boat’s a good one, because I bought that from new, but the others are old ones. But in the Healey 100 that I’ve got, there are two model people, one is a mechanic and another has got a cap on.
* Frank ‘Lofty’ (6ft. 5Ins.) England was the Jaguar team manager invloved with Jaguar’s successful racing campaigns (Le Mans etc.) in the 1950s. He was made C.E.O., under British Leyland, in 1972.
Wedgnock Garage – https://www.warwickcourier.co.uk/news/end-of-an-era-for-warwick-garage-owner-1-8107342
The Warwick Healey Motor Company archive at the WCRO
I have found this link to be of most use as regards researching the Healey Archive –
For instance if you wanted to know more about what is in file number CR4804/2/35 then you would insert that number into the Doc.Ref. No. Box on the form revealed by the link.
The items (marked thus** in some images shown in this post) are credited on the website as ‘Part of the Warwick Healey Motor Company Archive held at Warwickshire County Record Office.’
For guidance on ordering copies visit – http://heritage.warwickshire.gov.uk/warwickshire-county-record-office/county-record-office-services/county-record-office-copying-services/