Article by Rob Ransom
For many car enthusiasts the ‘Big Healey’, the Austin-Healey 3000, epitomises the British sports car - rugged good looks, powerful engine and macho handling. The story of the 3000 is a fascinating one but the story of the man behind the car is one of even more interest as Donald Healey was one of the great entrepreneurs who, if he hadn’t built cars, would have succeeded in any venture that required an eye for a market and inspired salesmanship.
Donald Mitchell Healey, or DMH as he was, and still is, known was a Cornishman, born in 1898 in Perranporth. His father was a shopkeeper, a shop owner and latterly a builder and developer. His son became interested in all things mechanical at an early age, most particularly aircraft and after leaving school he joined Sopwith Aviation where he learned to use machine tools. The war came and DMH joined the RFC training as an air mechanic and learning to fly. He served on anti-Zeppelin patrols and also as an instructor.
His flying career however came to an end in 1916 when a crash resulted in him being invalided out of the RFC. He returned to Cornwall and took a correspondence course in automobile engineering whilst experimenting in radio transmission, obtaining a licence to transmit radio signals prompting a successful foray into the design of radio receivers - the Perraphone.
Having put his first love, aviation, to one side he turned to his second - automotive engineering and opened a garage in Perranporth, financed by his father.
In the early post-war years cars were few and far between and DMH supplemented the income from the garage by running a charabanc and hire car service. This business prospered and the young DMH was able to indulge his interest in motor sport buying an ABC with a horizontally opposed, air cooled flat twin engine. This car is reported to have had a dummy radiator that contained the fuel! He participated in many hill climbs and trials including one from Land’s End to John O’Groats, this in 1922 when roads were no more than tracks and cars were crude, unreliable and only for the hardy being almost exclusively open tourers.
Through motor sport Donald met and often developed a lasting friendship with the motoring names of the day- the Riley brothers, Cecil Kimber who was to start MG - amongst others. He was becoming quite successful in rallies and trials and in 1929 entered the Monte Carlo rally in a little Triumph Super Seven family saloon. The car was late at the finish and was excluded but the bug had bitten. He entered the following year and came seventh overall. He was getting himself noticed and forging links that would ultimately result in the production of sports cars admired the world over.
In 1930 he was approached by Noel Macklin (later Sir Noel) to drive an Invicta in long-distance competitions to publicise the marque. The combination was an instant success culminating in a win in the Monte in 1931 despite having damaged a linkage en-route that resulted in three-wheeled braking!