Bonhams puts it right

Following up to my recent post on the topic.

Bonhams was not concealing the history of the Macklin Austin-Healey. It just didn’t draw attention to its role in the Le Mans disaster straight off. Managing director James Knight points out its press release describing, “An extraordinary ‘barn find’ sports car with works racing pedigree, which survives today as an immensely significant reminder of an event that changed the entire course of international motor racing.”

It is more interesting than that. It illustrates how old racing cars, like a Tower axe (three new heads and five new handles but still the Anne Boleyn axe) have been taken apart and put together many times. A lot of this car competed at Le Mans not once but twice. Bonhams has gone to the trouble of engaging authority on Austin-Healey Special Test Car and 100S models, Joe Jarick to research its catalogue.

Donald Healey’s deal with BMC for the Austin-Healey 100 included producing Special Test Cars for racing and record breaking. They had to look exactly like production and while there was little time to modify the Austin A90 4-cylinder engine there were radical differences underneath.

For Le Mans 1953 journalist Gordon Wilkins co-drove Special Test Car NOJ 391 – chassis No SPL 224/B with Belgian Marcel Becquart. However, just after scrutineering it was rammed by a truck, suffering damage impossible to repair in time, so its engine, brakes and all scrutineer-stamped components were transferred to spare Special Test Car, NOJ 393 - chassis SPL 226/B - brought to Le Mans “as insurance”.

Registration and race numbers were repainted, so running as NOJ 391, in effect masquerading as the car that had just cleared scrutineering, Wilkins and Becquart finished 14th and third in the class. It says a lot for the solidarity of the British motoring press that none reported the subterfuge.

In 1955 entries by owner/drivers the factory regarded as mediocre made Donald Healey uneasy. He felt they could discredit his brand so the factory’s best driver, Lance Macklin and French Austin importer AFIVA persuaded the Automobile Club de l’Ouest (ACO) to accept a private entry. It was really a quasi-works entry, and the car selected was NOJ 393/SPL 226/B for its second 24 Hours at Le Mans.

BMC specialist Eddie Maher tuned 393’s engine, achieving 140bhp with high-lift, long-period camshaft and two SU HD8 carburettors. Formula 3 star Les Leston was taken on as co-driver. Geoffrey Healey explained: “We had no hope of winning with a basic production car, but had a good chance of a high placing with the train-like reliability of the big Austin four-cylinder engine…” Marcus Chambers of BMC/MG ran the pit, accompanied by Le Mans veteran and former Bentley winner, SCH ‘Sammy’ Davis.

The Austin-Healey was struck by Levegh’s 300SLR on the left rear, spun to the right, and bounced off the pit-counter before slewing to a halt. Macklin escaped but NOJ 393 was impounded by the Le Mans police. It was not until September 1956 that the Donald Healey Motor Company was able to negotiate its release. The worst damage was to the left rear and left-hand side, the impact against the pit wall having affected the same bodywork area struck by the Mercedes.

By 1957 Healey was busy with the 100-Six (this is a later 3000), so wanted rid of NOJ 393. It had been as advanced and fully-developed as any 100S but it was repaired in haste, so the left front wing, door and rear wing are steel, whereas the rest of the body is aluminium. It looks as though by 1957 Healey had exhausted its stock of alloy 100S panels and replaced the damaged wings and door with steel ones prior to selling.

Bonhams believes NOJ 393 retained the original engine SPL 261-BN as it has a rare works angled cylinder head along with evidence of scrutineering security measures to prohibit tampering. The original buff logbook records the Austin Motor Company, Longbridge, Birmingham as original owner, the first change date-stamped 28 February 1957 alongside Donald Healey Motor Co Ltd, The Cape, Warwick, made on completion of the repair following its return.

Big Healeys could be cads' cars. This 3000MkII belonged to Train Robber Bruce Reynolds