The Austin Healey 4000
From the August 1991 "Classic and Sportscar Magazine" article featuring commentary by Healey guru John Chatham.
To keep the Big Healey in production, the Healeys re engineered the 3000 to take a Rolls-Royce engine. Jon Pressnell tells the story of this sadly aborted project, and John Chatham reports from behind the wheel.
Need the Big Healey have been discontinued in 1968? Could it have stayed in production into the seventies in modified form? It's a question that has animated many a debate among Austin-Healey enthusiasts. But the Big Healey nearly did survive and a revised model powered by the Rolls-Royce engine from the Vanden Plas 4-liter R, was once slated for 1968 production.
By 1966 the 3000's future was looking pretty shaky. The old C-series engine was nearing the end of production and US safety and emissions regulations were looming and would apparently not be met by the 3000 as it stood-in particular proposed regulations stipulating a minimum width between the steering wheel and the door.
The answer Donald and Geoffrey Healey came up with - given that they had no intention of using the lack-luster MGC engine - was simple: adapt the 3000 to take the inlet over-exhaust 4-1litre Rolls-Royce engine.
Rolls-Royce had set up lines capable of turning out an annual production of 5000-6000 of these engines which were used solely in the Vanden Plas 4-litre R, yet over the period 1964-68 BMC only made a paltry 6555 of that model in total. Soaking up this excess capacity by putting the engine in the Austin-Healey was sure to appeal to BMC bosses acutely embarrassed by their failure to honour the engine supply deal they'd signed with Rolls-Royce.
Contrary to some stories the power limit tagged FB 60, was not a military engine although it derived from the B40/B60/B80 family of Rolls-Royce military power units used in applications such as the Austin Champ (B40), Humber 4x4 (B60) and Saracen and Saladin armoured vehicles (B80).
In essence the FB60 was an alloy-block version of the B60, with a different bore and stroke, and was first seen at the end of the fifties in a prototype monocoque Bentley intended to replace the S1/S2. This project eventually evolved into the V8-powered Shadow/T-type cars. Subsequently, The engine was schemed into a collaborative Rolls-Royce/BMC car based on me six-cylinder Farina saloon or, as plans progressed, on the Issigonis 3-litre. These seriously undertaken joint projects for a new cheap Bentley ultimately faded out, hut prompted the FB engined 4-1 litre R.
Fed by twin 2in SU carburetors, and with hydraulic tappets and a low compression ratio of 7.8 to 1, the FB engine delivered 175 bhp at 4800 rpm, with maximum torque of 218lb ft at 3000 rpm; in comparison the C. series BMC engine in the 3000 Mklll pushed out 148bhp at 5250rpm and 165.2lb ft at 3500 rpm. Weight was 450 lb, as against 550 lb or so for the C-series.
"It was a delightful engine, and would run up to high revs very easily if you didn't watch it-you didn't realise it was a 'big six' four-litre," recalls Geoffrey Healey.
"But the breathing on an inlet-over-exhaust engine is limited by the compression ratio- you can't go very high. And although with the 'F' head you can get a lot through the inlet valve, you can't get it out, as the exhaust gases have so far to travel from the combustion chamber to the exhaust valve.
Despite such shortcomings, the Extra power and reduced weight of the FB60 made it look ideal for the Healey. Tantalizingly, Rolls-Royce had evolved a twin-cam head for the engine, giving around 268bhp in triple-SU form, and with the potential for an easy 300bhp. If this engine could be winkled into the Healey, as was envisaged, Jaguar would be severely embarrassed!
So in 1966 the Healey team in Warwick set about sawing a British Racing Green 3000 shell in two and adding a six-inch fillet down the middle to give the extra interior width supposedly required by the Americans, and to suit the 6 in wider 4-Litre R rear axle to he used. To eliminate the 3000's scuttle shake the glass fibre lift-out transmission tunnel Was replaced by a steel unit welded to the front and rear bulkheads.
The chassis was then re-made to accommodate the widened body and the 4-litre engine, and a former test-bed Vanden Plas engine fitted, in conjunction with its Borg- Warner Model 8 automatic transmission. Geoffrey Healey reckons this sapped the engine of about 15 bhp, but estimates that this was more than made up for by the 4000's more efficient exhaust system.
"It was Considered that there was a great market in the US for an automatic Healey - and it would also use up BMC's stock of transmissions as well as of Rolls-Royce engines," he says.
The car was given a standard 3000 grille in a narrowed aperture in the newly-widened shroud, and there was a special aluminum Bonnet with a power bulge. At the rear Morris Minor lamps were used, and other details included BMC 1800 bumpers, TR4A parking lights, and an MGB scuttle grille to improve cockpit ventilation.
Inside there was a black-crackle dash, because of fears that US Iegislation would outlaw the 3000's wooden panels, and the seats were to a special pattern, better upholstered and with more rated backs, there were more elaborate door trims, too, with pleated cappings and hockey-stick armrests. Crucially a collapsible steering column was fitted, with two universal joints, and this brought the steering wheel forward, giving a much better driving position and allowing an extra inch of legroom for the rear child seats.
"It all came together very quickly. It was amazingly easy to cut the body and put six inches in; the chassis was a bit more complicated, but you really just position the engine and then build the frame around it. 'The whole job took well under six months-probably a lot more like three months," remembers Geoffrey Healey.
"One of the biggest delays was deciding what to do with the bonnet. We tried various things and ended up with the bulge. We never liked that grille on the 3000's bonnet, and it didn't let any air in anyway - it tended only to let it out."
On standard 3000 springs and dampers, the car had better ride and handling than its parent, and the performance was impressive - although the top speed, at 125mph, was much the same as on the 3000.
The Healeys took the car to BMC's 'Kremlin' headquarters in Longbridge, and management were so taken with the car that in February 1967 they ordered it to be productionized immediately, for launch in January 1968.
The prototype was given the Austin designation ADO 24 and MG's Syd Enever brought in to oversee the car's further development In the meantime, Healey were instructed to build six pre-production cars - two with automatic transmission, two with the four-speed Jaguar E-Type manual 'box and two with a Jaguar overdrive 'box.
Six modified chassis were thus put together by regular Austin-Healey chassis supplier John Thompson Motor Pressings. and dispatched to Jensen which built the 3000 bodies; Rolls-Royce busied itself modifying the engine to meet the US emission requirements, and in designing a suitable bell-housing for the Jaguar gearboxes.
And then, in April 1967, with two cars-one manual, the other manual-plus-overdrive- nearing completion, BMC reduced its requirement for pre-production cars to just these two. Not long after. it canceled the whole 4000 project, with the two cars still left unfinished.
"Unbeknown to us and to BMC, Rolls Royce had suspected that BMC wouldn't he taking its full allocation of engines, and had got rid of a lot of tooling, so it wasn't really in a position to start immediate production of the engine - certain critical castings weren't available," says Geoffrey Healey.
"Also BMC was running out of money. It was in a very bad way. When it found its commitment to the engine disappear, and discovered there would be additional expenditure on tooling needed..."
"There was also the question of in-house rivalry between the putative Austin-Healey 4000 and the E-type Jaguar, and it's probable that Jaguar's Sir William Lyons weighed in against the car, just as he was to do with the mid-engined Rover BS. They had good reason to be worried about the 4000, as it would have offered strong performance at a price well under that of the E-type-as Geoffrey Healey emphasizes:
"BMC did a complete costing of the car and the engine, so we knew what the 4000's price would be. It would have been very much cheaper than the Jaguar (In January 1968 the 3000 cost £ 1126, and the E-Type convertible £1967) The engine was not that much more expensive than the 3000's - I don't know why, but the t -series was a very costly engine. It was later found to be more expensive to make than even the aluminum alloy Rover V8!"
The Healeys were thus left with two part built 4000s-both left-hand drive-and four chassis frames. The cars lay around at the Warwick works for some while, and were ultimately completed at Donald Healey's home in Cornwall, on the way being converted to right-hand drive. The cars differed in various ways from the prototype but most mainly in the use of normal steel bonnets widened to suit. These, and the widened boot-lids, were made up by welding together two cut-down standard items. The dashboards also differed, both using the standard 3000 instrument panel. without the wood and with a new center section incorporating-as on the prototype- eyeball fresh-air vents, both with one of the cars not having a glove box.
"I think the differences on these later cars were mainly a matter of cheapness," says Geoffrey Healey "It was rather a messy end to the pro ject..."
The prototype car, which is the one featured here, was sold in 1969 to an old friend of Donald Healey, a Mr Andrews of Bristol. The first pre-production car was apparently sold the same year to a Welsh fudge manufacturer, and ultimately ended up in Australia, where it is today owned by Austin-Healey enthusiast John Gray. Finally, Donald Healey ran the last of the pre-production cars for a while-six months or more, reckons Geoffrey Healey-and then it was sold to Austin-Healey collector Arthur Carter, who still owns it.
Carter also bought three 4000 chassis-begging the question of what happened to the fourth, as Geoffrey Healey is convinced Carter bought at the same time all remaining parts from the 4000 project.
"We may have carved one up for some reason, or one may have gone to MG or been used for torsional testing somewhere. Or maybe one chassis was cut up and used to repair an existing 3000-that sort of thing used to happen," he says.
The prototype was found in 1974 by Joe Cox former national chairman of the Austin-Healey Club. Still belonging to Mr Andrews, it was languishing at a Bristol auto-electrician's, awaiting parts.
Apparently previously kept in a steel store at Mr Andrews's works, it had been damaged by steel stock falling on it, and in addition had suffered paint problems on the bonnet and boot, owing to some sort of chemical reaction with the welding: or so it appeared-in any case both panels had somewhat bizarrely been covered with leather cloth. Joe persuaded his father Peter to buy the car and it was fully restored at John Chatham discovered c 1976-7 period.
But how good a car is the 4000? Would it have been a worthy replacement for the 3000 or was it an unfortunate move in the wrong direction to find out who better to ask to sample the Cox car than long-established Healey specialist and leading Big Healey racer John Chatham? Especially as Chatham had made a point of not buying the car when it was on the market before Peter Cu took the plunge and bought it
I knew of the car from day one but was totally against its concept. I thought they did it all wrong with that lazy four litre engine and that bloody terrible auto 'box. The car's much as it was then, but I think I've mellowed-I've actually rather enjoyed driving it. You just lollop along, it's so easy to drive...
"One thing that strikes you immediately is how solid it is compared with the 3000. You'd have thought that when you go larger there'll be more 'flop' .somewhere - but they've certainly stiffened the chassis, and it doesn't have the scuttle-shake that all 3000s always suffered from.
"The next thing is that it has a decent driving position. You've got arm-room, you've got leg-room... and the car seems totally different. I've never owned a Mklll for very long, because after one long journey in the car I never want to drive one again .. I end up with dreadful backache, and I find the driving position totally unacceptable. I need working space to drive a car-unless you get your arms out straight you can't control a 3000, and if you get the thing sliding you'll be all over the place.
"It's flatter and more stable than the 3000 through corners, and the suspension doesn't seem softer-although it may ride slightly better because of the car's extra weight on the standard springs. "But it lacks grunt and because it doesn't have enough punch you can't push the rear out. It just underscores and scrubs the speed off. On the Mklll you plant the throttle and slide the back out-the 3000 is faster round corners and more en enjoyable to drive.
''With The 4000 you'd have to throw the car at the corner, wrenching the wheel round, rather than sliding it and controlling it on the throttle. And you wouldn't have the power to pull it out. If you just went in faster, you wouldn't make the corner-you'd understeer off the road."
"The engine has a good amount of torque, and pulls very strongly. It may be deceptive, because the car is so quiet. The 3000 sounds crisp and sharp, and feels quicker, but the sound might be deceiving you: the extra speed might be an illusion.
"They are terribly different cars and for the fun of it, I'd much rather be driving a 3000 MkIII than the 4000. With its automatic the 4000 really is an older man's car. It's leisurely to drive, and the sort of thing you'd expect from Daimler - a gentleman's carriage rather than a sports car.
"It should have come out with a proper all-singing-and-dancing engine. Had it been developed with the twin-cam it would have been a different story altogether-the car really could do with sharper power, and then it would handle better through corners. As it is, it isn't a car for driving briskly. It's a car for leisurely motoring, and that's not what Healeys are about."
What does the 4000's most regular driver, Joe Cox, think of the car he and his father have owned for the past 16 years?
"The performance isn't as startling as it ought to be, although I think that in a straight line you'd probably out accelerate a Mklll. On the road you have to work at driving it hard, too. It just lacks that finesse it would have bad if it had been developed properly for production.
"For instance, the steering is a little vague, and doesn't fill me with confidence. It also seems to lack a bit of castor angle. With more self-centering the whole feel of the steering would be a bit snappier.
"The car's a contradiction, because it's got the smoothness the big-car feel, of a grand tourer but at the same time the crude suspension of the Big Healey. You notice road bumps more. You expect them in the 3000, but not in the 4000. But it's tremendously effortless as a long-distance cruiser. Most Big Healeys are a cursed nuisance on long hauls, and you can get dreadfully tired driving them a big distance.
"I think the concept is absolutely right but the power unit is a waste of time. The problem was that Donald Healey didn't have at his disposal a really good in-line 'six', and he had a thing that he wouldn't use American engines. That's why he never built a car with a V8. If a sensibly developed Rover V8 had been available in 1966/67 the 4000 would have been a Better car.
"But the MGC was what it was about monocoque construction, and easy to make.The Healey was by then proving difficult to put together and difficult to service, and I think production of the car would have been fraught with perils.
"I do believe, though, that the 4000 was a progressive step forward. I agree with John's reservations about the chassis behavior, but I'm sure that in manual form all that would go away. I love the car, and think it was a tragedy in some ways that it wasn't produced."