The Nash-Healey is a two-seat sports car that was produced for the American market between 1951 and 1954. Marketed by Nash-Kelvinator Corporation with a Nash Ambassador drivetrain and a European chassis and body, it served as a halo (or image) vehicle for the automaker to promote the sales of the other Nash models. It was "America's first post-war sports car", and the first introduced in the U.S. by a major automaker since the Great Depression. The Nash-Healey was the product of a partnership between Nash-Kelvinator Corporation and British automaker Donald Healey, as well as a later restyle by Pinin Farina and subassembly in Italy.
Donald Healey and Nash-Kelvinator CEO George W. Mason met on the Queen Elizabeth, an ocean liner going from the United States to Great Britain. Healey was returning to England after his attempt to purchase engines from Cadillac, but General Motors declined his idea. His idea was expand production of the Healey Silverstone that race car driver Briggs Cunningham had customized with Cadillac’s new 1949 overhead-valve V8 engine. Mason and Healey met over dinner and a production plan ensued during the remainder of the voyage. The two became friends because they were both interested in photography. Mason had a stereo (3-D) camera that intrigued Healey.
Nash Motors supplied the Donald Healey Motor Company with the powertrain components: the Ambassador’s inline six-cylinder OHV 234.8 cu in (3.8 L) engine and three-speed manual transmission with Borg-Warner overdrive, plus torque tube and differential. Healey fitted a lighter, higher-compression aluminum cylinder head (in place of the cast-iron stock item) with twin 1¾” SU carburetors that were popular on British sports cars at the time. This increased power from the stock 112 hp (84 kW; 114 PS) version to 125 hp (93 kW; 127 PS). Compared to other contemporary British sports cars, the Nash-Healey's engine was long, heavy, and bulky yet Donald Healey's original plan was to use an even heavier Cadillac V8 engine. The Nash-Healey was designed with an engine bay that allowed a few later owners to convert their cars to V8 power.
The chassis was a widened and reinforced Healey Silverstone box-section ladder-type steel frame. Independent front suspension, also Healey Silverstone, was by coil springs, trailing link and sway bar. The rear suspension featured Nash's rear end and coil springs replaced the Silverstone’s leaf springs, while the beam axle was located by Panhard rod.
Healey designed the aluminum body, but it was outsourced. Panelcraft Sheet Metal of Birmingham fabricated the body. It incorporated a Nash grille, bumpers, and other trim. Healey was responsible for the car's final assembly.
The car had drum brakes all round. Wheels were steel, dressed up with full-diameter chrome hubcaps and 4-ply es 6.40 x 15 inch whitewall tires. The interior featured luxurious leather upholstery, foam rubber cushions, adjustable steering wheel, and a cigarette lighter. Completed vehicles shipped to the United States for sale through the Nash dealership network.
A prototype was exhibited at the Paris Motor Show in September 1950. The production model debuted at the February 1951 Chicago Auto Show and Donald Healey gave the first example to Petula Clark.
For 1952, Nash commissioned Italian designer Pinin Farina to revise Healey's original body design. One objective was to make the sports car more similar to the rest of Nash's models. The front received a Nash-style gille incorporating inboard headlights. The sides now featured a distinct fender character lines ending with small tailfins in the rear. A curved windshield replaced the previous two-piece flat windshield. The restyled car appeared at that year's Chicago Auto Show.
Carrozzeria Pininfarina in Turin built the bodies which, save for aluminum hood, trunk lid and dashboard, were now all steel. The aluminum panels, plus careful engineering, reduced curb weight. The Nash engine was now the 252 cu in (4.1 L) with American-made twin Carters producing 140 hp (104 kW; 142 PS).
Shipping costs were considerable: From Kenosha, Wisconsin the Nash engines and drivelines went to England for installation in the Healey-fabricated frames. Healey then sent the rolling chassis to Italy, where Pininfarina's craftsmen fashioned the bodywork and assembled the finished product. Finally Farina exported the cars to America. The result was a $5,908 sticker price in 1953, while the new Chevrolet Corvette was $3,513.
The 1953 model year saw the introduction of a new closed coupe alongside the roadster (now termed a "convertible"). Capitalizing on the 3rd place finish at Le Mans by a lightweight racing Nash-Healey purpose-built for the race (see below), the new model was called the "Le Mans" coupe. Nash had already named the powerplant the "Le-Mans Dual Jetfire Ambassador Six" in 1952, in reference to the previous racing exploits of the lightweight competition cars.
Some describe the new design as "magnificent". Some "people didn't take to the inboard headlights". This headlight mounting was described as "Safety-Vu" concentrating illumination, and their low position increased safety under foggy situations. The 1953 "Le Mans" model was awarded first prize in March of that year in the Italian International Concours d'Elegance held at Tresa, Italy.
Leveraging the popularity of golf to promote their cars, Nash Motors and Nash dealers sponsored what the automaker described as "more than 20 major golf tournaments across the country" in 1953, and golfer Sam Snead was shown with his Nash-Healey roadster on the cover of the June 1953 issue of Nash News.
A roadster owned by Dick Powell was driven by George Reeves, as Clark Kent, in four TV episodes of the Adventures of Superman.
Nash Motors became a division of American Motors Corporation (AMC) that was formed as a result of a merger with Hudson Motor Car Company in January 1954. Nash was faced with limited resources for marketing, promotion, and further development of this niche market car in comparison to its volume models. By this time AMC knew that a similar luxurious two-seat Ford Thunderbird with V8 power was being planned. In light of the low sales for the preceding years, Nash delayed introduction of the 1954 models until June 3 and discontinued the convertible, leaving just a slightly reworked "Le Mans" coupe, distinguished by a three-piece rear window instead of the previous one-piece glass.
Healy was focusing on its new Austin-Healey 100, "and the Nash-Healey had to be abandoned." Although the international shipping charges were a significant cost factor, Nash cut the POE (port of entry) price by more than $1,200 to $5,128. Production ceased in August. A few leftover 1954s were sold as 1955 models.
Panamericana pace car
A Nash-Healey served as the course car for the 1951 Carrera Panamericana, described as one of the most dangerous automobile race of any type in the world. Driven by Chuck Stevenson, the Nash-Healey ran ahead of the racers to ensure the way was clear on "the world's greatest road race".
To create a racing pedigree for the marque Donald Healey built four lightweight Nash-Healeys for endurance racing Like the road cars, they had Nash Ambassador engines and drivelines. However, fitting higher-compression aluminum cylinder heads, special manifolds, and twin SU carburetors increased their power to 200 hp (149 kW; 203 PS). The cars had spartan, lightweight aluminum racing bodies. Three open versions were built, and one coupe. These cars competed in four consecutive Le Mans races and one Mille Miglia.
1950 Le Mans
Tony Rolt and Duncan Hamilton debuted the prototype at Le Mans in 1950. It was the first-ever Le Mans entry to have an overdrive transmission. Not only was the car one of the 29 finishers from the field of 66, but also finished in fourth place. This outstanding achievement sealed Healey’s contract with Nash for a limited production run of the road cars. Roger Menadue, head of Healey’s experimental department, played a significant role in the success: He filed slots in the backplates of the brakes and extended the adjusting mechanism to a small exterior lever. Thus in a matter of seconds he could adjust the brakes during pit stops without jacking the car up—an innovation that was said to save as much as half an hour at each stop.
1951 Le Mans
In the 1951 Le Mans race Rolt and Hamilton (who would win two years later in a Jaguar C-Type) took fourth in class and sixth overall behind a Jaguar, two Talbot-Lagos and two Aston Martins. They finished immediately ahead of two Ferraris and another Aston Martin.
1952 Le Mans
In the 1952 Le Mans race, when only 17 of the 58 starters finished, the entry driven by Leslie Johnson—a driver with the flair of Nuvolari, said Louis Chiron—and motoring journalist Tommy Wisdom took third overall behind two factory-entered Mercedes-Benz 300SLs; also first in class, ahead of Chinetti's Ferrari, and second in the Rudge-Whitworth Cup for the best performance over two consecutive years. In addition they won the Motor Gold Challenge Cup. The drivers said the car was more nimble through the corners than its more exotic competitors. It delivered 13 mpg-US (18 L/100 km; 16 mpg-imp) and the engine needed no oil or water during the entire 24 hours. The car had been built from scratch in a fortnight, Menadue and his assistant Jock Reid fabricating the body in less than a week, by eye, without any drawings. Healey said: “That’s an ugly bugger, isn’t it, Roger?”
1952 Mille Miglia
The same year, Johnson raced the car in the Mille Miglia, the thousand-mile Italian road race that would be banned as too dangerous five years later. Daily Telegraph motoring correspondent Bill McKenzie rode as passenger. They finished a creditable seventh overall to Bracco's winning works team Ferrari, the works Mercedes-Benz 300SLs of Kling and Caracciola, and three works Lancias; they also took fourth in class. The coupe driven by Donald Healey and his son Geoffrey crashed out.
1953 Le Mans
For the 1953 Le Mans race the factory partnered Johnson with Bert Hadley in one of two cars with redesigned bodies. Johnson started from 27th place. Although he and Hadley advanced steadily up the race order they were 11th at the finish, 39 laps behind the winning Jaguar, despite an average speed of 92.45 miles per hour (148.78 km/h)—higher than the previous year’s run to third place. However, they beat both of Donald Healey's new Austin-Healey 100s. The second Nash-Healey of Veyron and Giraud-Cabantous retired after nine laps.
This concluded the factory's race program with the lightweight competition cars. The 1952 Le Mans/Mille Miglia car passed into private ownership and raced in America.
In the wake of the heavily publicized 1955 Le Mans disaster, American Motors adopted a new advertising slogan, "Why don't we enter high-performance Rambler V-8s in racing? Because the only race Rambler cares about is the human race!" The automaker abandoned sporting pretensions focusing on its successful compact family-sized Rambler line, as well as its new international-based subcompact car: the Nash Metropolitan.
A total of 507 production Nash-Healeys were built during its four-year model run:
1951 - 104 (roadsters) lhd N-Type plus 1 rhd G-Type G525 (An additional 30 cars were sold with Alvis or 3 L Healey engines.)
1952 - 150 (roadsters)
1953 - 162 (roadsters and coupes)
1954 - 90 (coupes only)
For contextual comparison, the Nash-Healey is framed in U.S. auto history with the 1953 Kaiser Darrin, 1953 Chevrolet Corvette, and 1955 Ford Thunderbird. The 1954 model year Nash-Healey price to the public was close to $6,000 compared with around $3,500 for a Chevrolet Corvette and $3,000 for a 1955 Ford Thunderbird.
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