1949 Healey Silverstone. Click image to enlarge
Article and photo by Bill Vance
Donald M. Healey was an intuitive engineer, a man blessed with natural mechanical talent and insight. Although he didn’t graduate from a university, many cars he designed, and on which his name appeared, did much to popularize English sports cars.
Healey was born in the coastal village of Perranporth, Cornwall, England, in 1898. His first love was airplanes and he became a fighter pilot during the First World War. When peace came he hoped to get into aircraft manufacturing, but with the industry in a slump he turned to his other love, automobiles.
In the 1920s Healey opened an automobile repair shop in Perranporth, and began participating in motorsports with small cars like Ariels and Triumphs. He gradually worked up to the powerful Invicta, in which he won the prestigious Monte Carlo Rally in 1931.
Healey joined the Riley company to assist in preparing their rally cars, but soon moved on to Triumph where he designed the Gloria and Dolomite models. This included a double overhead cam, supercharged, straight-eight Dolomite that was a knock-off of the Monza Alfa Romeo, but it didn’t reach production. He remained Triumph’s technical director until it was taken over by the Standard Motor Company at the end of the Second World War.
After the war, Healey formed the Donald Healey Motor Company, based in Warwick, and began producing a Healey two-door sports sedan with a 2.5-litre Riley engine. Its top speed of over 161 km/h (100 mph) made it Britain’s fastest car. Other models followed, including the 1949 Healey Silverstone, a sleek, cycle fendered roadster with its headlamps behind the vertical-bar grille. The horizontally mounted spare tire acted as the rear bumper.
Other Healey models were introduced, but it was becoming harder for the small company to survive. Then, in 1950, during an ocean crossing on the Queen Elizabeth, Healey met George Mason, president of the Nash Kelvinator Corporation, which included the Nash Motor Company. The conversation naturally turned to cars, and it emerged that Healey was travelling to Detroit to try purchasing new Cadillac overhead valve V8 engines for his sports cars. Mason told him that if Cadillac couldn’t supply them, Nash certainly could.
It turned out that Cadillac needed all the engines it could produce, so Healey contacted Mason and took him up on his offer. By fitting a big, overhead valve, six cylinder Nash Ambassador engine to a Healey chassis clad in a two-seater roadster body, he created the beautiful Anglo-American hybrid Nash-Healey. It was a lucky break for Healey, because the Nash contract saved his business.