1954 Austin-Healey 100

1954 Austin-Healey 100

Get yourself a car that can do both. Clive Kelsall loves classics that pair engineering brawn with undeniable beauty. Will a day driving a dream 1954 Austin-Healey 100 uncover his perfect polymath?


Photography IAN SKELTON

‘Listen to that exhaust – the acoustics are phenomenal’

Our reader spends a day getting to grips with this Austin-Healey 100/4

The List Reader Clive Kelsall enjoys a sunny day’s drive with an Austin-Healey 100/4

So this is it?!’ Clive Kelsall asks as he bounds towards the 1954 Austin- Healey 100 that gleams outside Leatherhead transmission specialist Hardy Engineering. He doesn’t wait for an answer, all but abandoning his Porsche 996 Turbo as he swoops in to examine his dream machine. ‘Isn’t this so much a Fifties sports car? I’m taken aback by how small it seems – how compact yet purposeful it manages to be – which is so perfectly exaggerated by the rounded outer edge that lips the entire cabin. I love the ’Healey as a piece of art but I’m wondering whether it has the performance to match.’ He’s about to find out – we’ve arranged a day behind the wheel.

Get yourself a car that can do both. Clive Kelsall loves classics that pair engineering brawn with undeniable beauty. Will a day driving a dream 1954 Austin-Healey 100 uncover his perfect polymath?

Michelle McDonough appears from the building, brandishing the keys. When she’s not at the workshop, which focuses on classic car transmission rebuilds and today holds both a ‘Frogeye’ Sprite and an eye-searing Tropical Green 3000, the Austin-Healey Club member takes her four-cylinder 100 all over the map. ‘My dad founded the family business and raised me around ’Healeys, then helped me set mine up when I bought it 28 years ago. Since then I’ve been to Italy, Switzerland and Germany, with a trip to Norway planned for European Healey Meeting 2023. I could never sell it. My 100 holds a lot of memories and I get something special out of every drive.’

1954 Austin-Healey 100 - DRIVEN

Over the years, she’s tastefully upgraded her early BN1 roadster in a nod to the 100M and 100S performance models that topped the early A-H range. ‘The engine is to high-output 100M specification, connected to the four-speed transmission from the facelifted BN2 model and a long-legged 3.54:1 final drive. It’s a pleasure over long distances and I can’t forget the side exhaust we fitted, which adds a very distinctive soundtrack. Other changes include adding front disc brakes, removing the chrome bumpers and installing the 100M louvred bonnet.’ Clive grins. ‘The pseudo racer specification really appeals. Some enthusiasts want originality but I just like having fun. Modifying adds to the enjoyment for me – I tuned my first cars and put a smaller supercharger pulley on my current R53 Mini Cooper S to give it some pep. A car doesn’t need to be perfect or period-accurate when you start making changes, it just has to be right for you. And come on – tell me a side-exit exhaust isn’t cool.’ Michelle invites him to climb aboard, offering advice as she drives the pair out of Leatherhead. ‘The indicators are in the middle and the crash first gear is something to watch. Don’t just stay in top, either. The Healey really wants you to get engaged.’ When we arrive on Ranmore Common, lanky Clive slips behind the wheel. ‘I’ve never experienced the like! The steering wheel is so close up, no matter how far I try to push myself back in the seat. Not that I’m complaining. I’ve never driven a Fifties roadster before and I wanted a culture shock. Changing the driving position to suit modern tastes would be like trying to shop at Tesco when you’re on holiday in France.

1954 Austin-Healey 100

‘I have to consciously force my legs over to the right. The pedals are heavily offset, so my right foot is going to the brake as I’m trying to prime the throttle. But I love the driving position. I am sat close, upright and slung so low I could almost reach my arm over the door and touch the road, the bodywork washing away behind me to make me feel like I’m deep inside the car.’

He twists the key, thumbs the starter button and pulls tentatively away. ‘Woah, this isn’t what I expected. The front end is wandering and jiggling all over the road, so I’m constantly adjusting the steering wheel just to keep us in a straight line. I don’t think the lumpy road surface is helping but the chassis feels incredibly jittery and nothing I do seems to smooth it out.’ Pulling over in a nearby layby, he consults with Michelle. ‘Drive the car more positively,’ she advises. ‘I can hear you’re cruising in fourth; it needs to be driven assertively in third.’

1954 Austin-Healey 100

Sage suggestions onboarded, we accelerate back onto the undulating blacktop in search of a better second impression. ‘Oh yeah, this is much nicer. Just shifting down a gear or two gets the car working harder, which helps it pull through most of the oscillations.’ He loosens his grip on the steering wheel. ‘The cam and- lever feels light when it’s not under load and loses a lot of its feedback around the straight ahead. I’m beginning to realise that lack of communication is prompting me to make excessive corrections, not the car itself. Recognising its limitations and driving within them makes for a nicer experience.’

‘The engine just keeps pulling and I love every note of the soundtrack’

‘If the roads were less broken, I suspect I’d have no problems at all,’ Clive reflects as his confidence grows. ‘The chassis is still unsettled but there are hints of control underneath when cornering. It turns predictably and the steering becomes much heavier as I apply more lock.’ As the road twists and tightens, he also acclimatises to the brakes. ‘Even with aftermarket front discs, the pedal demands a recalibration and needs a shove. It’s completely unlike my modern cars. I like that but I’m relearning that stopping is proportional to how hard I push.’

1954 Austin-Healey 100

He can’t conceal his fly-eating grin when bursting out of the bends and he cracks open the throttle. ‘All I’ve got to do is twitch my foot and we’re off,’ he laughs. ‘The engine is so responsive from low revs and the torque keeps coming, never feeling like it’ll drop off. A ’Healey can cost £20,000 more in 100M specification but the instantaneous power is worth the premium! Accelerating is so addictive, with the rorty, rhythmic side exhaust providing a stirring and very noisy soundtrack.’ ‘I don’t want to push too hard on roads like these but that just gives me more opportunities to finesse the gearshift. I’m increasingly sensing the way and the time to shift, which makes me feel part of the machine and shows the four-speed isn’t the challenge I feared. I almost have to hit the tactile spherical gearknob to make it move, wrapping my entire hand around the wand and tugging back through its long, notchy movement without rushing it. I’m experiencing the mechanical ’Healey ethos in spades – it just wouldn’t be the same if Michelle’s car still had its original column change.

‘I doubt it was designed to be ergonomic but the seat is starting to hurt my back,’ Clive cautions. We pull over and take a moment to appreciate the 100 at rest. ‘It sometimes feels like there’s a graph between time and automotive artistry, and its line only seems to be falling. The ’Healey turns 70 this year and epitomises the peak. I love the way the outer body lip curves in towards the cabin, with the doors rolling in to match. It’s so evocative of uncompromising early 20th century machines, like Thirties speedboats or very early Ferraris.’

Clive takes his time, savouring every line, but he’s almost vibrating with self-restraint by the time we circle back to the cabin. He’s here to drive and the sun-kissed Surrey Hills are calling. ‘There’s so much more to discover and I’m gaining confidence with every minute behind the wheel. I can’t wait to learn more about it.’ Folded back into the bucket seat, he prods the starter button and zips back onto the common.

‘Feel the whizz-flick as we leave this car park! The ’Healey creates fun in places my Porsche just couldn’t. Get up beyond 4000rpm and there’s nothing the Turbo can legally offer on the public road, which makes the 100 an exciting contrast. Cars need the right environment to offer the most enjoyment. On these twisting roads I just want to buzz about and the ’Healey is brilliantly matched to the job!’

Ranmore Common can only satisfy Clive for so long. ‘We’ve run back and forth over this winding, bumping route this morning and the chassis never feels settled here. It’s forever being knocked by the road below, pushing back in response and demanding correction. Well, now we’re going to make a change! I want to find the car more freedom, to sniff out a space where I can wind out the engine.’ We plunge down through the tree line, pick past urban Dorking and spear onto a fast but curving dual carriageway.

‘Just listen to that exhaust,’ he shouts as the tacho spins past 3500rpm. ‘The acoustics are phenomenal, blending throaty tones with all sorts of mechanical noises and just a bit of bass underneath. The whole engine feels so solid and has such depth here, as if the car is finally entering its optimum operating space.’ Unbroken tarmac also reveals the secure roadholding Clive suspected. ‘Cornering is so much smoother on these roads. The steering still feels light but the chassis jitters are gone, which works with my growing familiarity to make the ’Healey far easier to drive.’ He pours the car into each turn with confident, fluid movements, though the blunt initial response remains a culture shock. ‘I can turn the rim a full 20 degrees before the road wheels start to move. It’s less obvious than earlier but, for me, it’s still the biggest downside of the driving experience.’

Not that he can bring himself to complain. ‘I’m loving every second. The sun is out, the sky is blue and I’m relishing the opportunity to extend the 100 a little. I’d say I’ve progressed to maybe step four out of ten in discovering the car. Every mile is a learning opportunity where the ’Healey teaches me a little more about the right outline to each action, from timing gearshifts to mastering our position on the road. It’s exactly the car I hoped.’ All too soon, Leatherhead reappears. ‘Today has lit a fire in me. I’d love to dart off down the next likely-looking B-road and speed off towards the coast, just for the chance to keep driving. I’ve found the car behind the jitters and feel so confident with it now. For years I’ve considered buying a Lancia Fulvia but the ’Healey offers such range of experience and sense of power that I’m tempted to change tack. There’s still so much more to discover, which is why the 100 keeps a place in my top ten.’

Clive would happily carry on driving and never look back

TECHNICAL DATA FILE 1954 Austin-Healey 100

  • Engine 2660cc inline-four, pushrod ohv, twin SU HD6 carburettors
  • Max Power 109bhp @ 4500rpm;
  • Max Torque 160lb ft @ 2500rpm
  • Transmission Four-speed manual gearbox with overdrive (this car), rear-wheel drive
  • Steering Cam and lever
  • Suspension Front: independent by double wishbones, coil springs and lever-arm dampers with anti-roll bar. Rear: live axle
  • with leaf springs and lever-arm dampers
  • Brakes Front: discs. Rear: drums
  • Performance 0-60mph: 10sec.
  • Top speed: 105mph
  • Weight 953kg
  • Fuel consumption 22mpg
  • Cost new £1063
  • Classic Cars Price Guide £30k-£65k

100M-spec engine is just part of modified drivetrain… ...and Clive is in awe of its mechanical symphony

Clive’s initial Austin-Healey infatuation was for a 3000. Clive loves the driving position, despite heavily offset pedals. Big wheel is intimate; cam and lever system less attentive.

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