'NOJ 392' - The Ex-works Mille Miglia and Le Mans 24-Hours 1953 Austin-Healey 100 Special Test Car Registration no. NOJ 392 Chassis no. SPL 225B Engine no. 1B136876
This remarkably well-documented ex-Mille Miglia, ex-Le Mans 24-Hour race Austin-Healey works car began life as one of the Donald Healey Motor Company's pre-production competition vehicles. It was custom-built for this purpose under the direction of their chief engineer, Geoff Healey, and experimental engineer Roger Menadue in their famous factory at The Cape, Warwick, during the early months of 1953.
This was only the sixth Austin-Healey built there and it is properly referred to as one of the company's immensely rare, now legendary, and much-coveted, 'Special Test Cars'.
These vehicles differed in many respects from what became the standard production Austin-Healey 100 models. These Special Test Cars were in effect 'silhouette' competition versions of what would become the production 100 looking essentially identical while in reality being significantly lighter, more carefully built and faster in competition. This was achieved by comprehensive use of Birmabright aluminium alloy-paneled bodywork and bulkheads in place of production-type pressed-steel plus many other detail modifications, even including polished aluminium lightweight bumpers masquerading as chromed steel units. Had these Healeys been Ferrari 250GTs they would be described as alloy-bodied Competitizione models. They were and remain today very, very special indeed (and far more rare than their latter-day Italian counterparts).
Of the four Special Test Cars built by the Donald Healey Motor Company in 1953, NOJ 392 is the sole remaining car in original 100-Specification guise.
The engine of 'NOJ 392' was built originally in the Austin Motor Company's experimental 'shop. It featured a nitrided crankshaft, special camshaft, lightened flywheel, double valve springs and ¾-inch SU carburettors, plus a specially-developed exhaust manifold. The gearbox was a heavy-duty variant of the Austin taxi transmission. Suspension improvements included modified shock absorbers and springs. During its later restoration in the 1990s, a slightly uprated camshaft was fitted since the car was to be used in moderately competitive track events and road rallies. The special exhaust manifolds and the correct SU carburettors were refitted. The car's interior was also completely re-trimmed.
By February, 1953, Donald Healey had three of his first batch of 20 pre-production Austin-Healey 100 cars ready for publicity purposes including motor shows in Europe and the USA, including his very successful promotional tour of that country.
Four of the pre-production cars were carefully built at Warwick to a detailed competition specification. Roger Menadue's brief was to build cars which would look like the new production 100 model, but which were to be significantly lighter and faster. These 'Special Test Cars' were destined for use in International motor races and world-class distance and speed record attempts.
The cars' Birmabright aluminium-alloy body paneling was painted in a pale metallic green livery. This batch of Special Test Cars comprised chassis serials SPL 224B, 225B, 226B and 227B. The first three were, respectively, road registered 'NOJ 391', '392 and '393 while the fourth car chassis 227B remained unregistered as the endurance and speed record car.
The only one of these Special Test Cars which left the Healey factory in its original form is the example now offered here, chassis SPL 225B, UK registration 'NOJ 392'. Its sister 'NOJ' cars were in contrast all rebuilt into 100S models at the Warwick factory before eventually being sold, while the endurance car was broken up. Experience with these NOJ cars promoted Healey's 'Le Mans Kit' and their later '100M' model.
In 1953, 'NOJ 392' offered here was the car crewed in the round-Italy Mille Miglia road race by pre-war Austin works racing driver Bert Hadley and Flt Lt Bertie Mercer of the Royal Air Force. The car wore start-time number '548' in that event but suffered throttle-jamming problems as the linkage's spring-loaded brass ball joints failed before Ravenna on the grueling event's southerly leg, which saw no fewer than 63 other retirements amongst the 488 entries which had set out from Brescia.
While the Special Test Cars had worn full-width windscreens and carried hoods in the Mille Miglia, for the following Le Mans 24-Hour race the hoods were set aside as three of the cars were fitted with stark aero screens, a mandatory bonnet strap and two Lucas supplementary driving lamps, while a larger-capacity fuel tank was shoe-horned into the tail. A competition side-exhaust system was used. The driving lights were widely spaced, while the alloy bumper carried no over-riders.
In their original configuration the Special Test Cars such as '392' offered here used Girling 11-inch x 2¼-inch twin trailing-shoe Al-Fin drum brakes. On the Austin Motor Company test-bed that year's Le Mans Austin-Healey engines developed some 103bhp at 4,600rpm. The higher-compression piston design later used in the marque's 'Le Mans kit' and 100M model was as yet undeveloped and was not used in this 24-Hour race.
Dutch rally star Maurice Gatsonides and well-known racing motor-cyclist Johnny Lockett co-drove this car, 'NOJ 392', at Le Mans. It wore start number '34' and Gatsonides/Lockett brought it home in a thoroughly respectable 12th place overall, and second in its class the sister car of Gordon Wilkins/Marcel Becquart finishing in '392's wake, 14th.
In fact 'NOJ 392' had completed no fewer than 2,153 miles in the Le Mans 24-Hours, had been timed at 118.2mph along the Mulsanne Straight and averaged a very respectable 89.59mph for the full duration. It had been an exceptionally punishing event, not least for the Austin-Healey team mechanics who had all been laid low by a race-weekend stomach bug. Geoffrey Healey attributed their continuing fitness to work for brief periods to copious doses of Dr J. Collis Brown's Chlorodyne and charcoal powder...
After its Le Mans success, this Special Test Car was adapted to match standard production road trim. Bumper over-riders were added together with a tailpipe exhaust system while both the aero screen and Le Mans-regulation bonnet strap were deleted, and a normal full-width windscreen refitted. The car's twin driving lights were more closely spaced, it is assumed in order to clear the newly-fitted bumper over-riders.
In this guise 'NOJ 392' was then road tested by both 'The Autocar' and 'The Motor' magazines, representing 'NOJ 392' at that time as a 'standard' Austin-Healey 100. In modern times the Trading Standards authority might have something to say about that... Acceleration time from 0-60mph was published as 10.3 seconds, standing-start quarter-mile 17.5 seconds and top speed runs as much as 119mph.
This Austin-Healey then entered a third phase of factory use, being used from mid-1954 as a development vehicle. Its most significant modification during this period was the mounting of a special, hand-made set of Girling disc brakes in place of its original drum system. The Girling discs were tested on '392' for direct comparison purposes and must be viewed as differing distinctively from the rival Dunlop disc-brake equipment later standardized upon the production Austin-Healey 100S model. These Girling brakes were the first disc-type to be fitted to an Austin-Healey, and became the only Girling set-up to be used until the marque's 3000 Mark I model finally entered production with front discs by that company. Geoff Healey was later to acknowledge regretfully that the Girling brakes were the better choice on a number of fronts, particularly from a servicing point of view.
During its protracted factory career, old 'NOJ 392' was employed by Donald Healey's son Geoffrey and new wife Margot as their European honeymoon car, and it was then used for several years by Donald Healey's longest-serving employee Roger Menadue as his company car.
In formal terms its ownership was registered to the Austin Motor Company of Longbridge, Birmingham until August 8, 1958, when ownership was transferred to the Donald Healey Motor Company, Millers Road, Warwick. They retained the car for a further four years, until February 19, 1962, when it was registered to Verdon Garage of Desford Road, Newbold, Verdon, Leicester. It was then sold on June 1 that same year into the private ownership of John David Berry, of Verdon, Leicester.
On May 13, 1966, the car's ownership passed to John Shuttlewood of Marston Road, Leicester, and on June 6, 1967, it is recorded as having passed to Jonathan Roberts of Lodsworth, Petworth, Sussex. From September 4 to October 1, 1967, ownership was registered briefly to Geoffrey Orme of Tapton, Chesterfield, Derbyshire before being returned to Mr Roberts in Petworth. He then sold it almost immediately on October 10, 1967 - to Malcolm Hay of Hurstpierpoint, Sussex who then retained the car for three years until October 14, 1970 when it was re-registered to Brian Dermott of Henley, Oxfordshire.
Mr Dermott then retained British ownership until 1979 when 'NOJ 392' was acquired by John Gray, of Melbourne, Australia. We understand that he retained it for some 14 years, before on February 2, 1993, passing it on to Warwick and Cameron Sell of Winmalee, New South Wales...
Mr Warwick Sell then had the car painstakingly and most sympathetically - restored by world-renowned Austin-Healey specialists, The Healey Factory (of Melbourne, Australia) in 1994-95.
At the beginning of restoration 'NOJ 392' as offered here already retained all of its original panels and mechanicals, including the original taxi gearbox with overdrive. Rob Roland, proprietor of The Healey Factory has been quoted as saying "It had not been previously restored and was in amazingly original condition". He added that the car exhibited..."some floor/sill and chassis rust and very minor body damage to the left-hand front that had caused it to be off the road for some time prior to 1970". John Gray had initiated restoration before selling-on the car to Brian Dermott and later Warwick Sell. In preparation for its Australian restoration Mr Warwick Sell decided to have 'NOJ 392' rebuilt to its 1953 Le Mans configuration with the exception that its later disc-brake system would be retained in place of the period drums.
This decision actually complicated restoration because, while the rear Girling disc system had survived in situ, the front discs had been replaced by 3000 Mark I-type components. With the assistance of both Geoffrey Healey and Roger Menadue, the original specification was then defined and a reproduction pair of Girling discs and calipers were produced and mounted at the front.
Included with this Lot today is a substantial documentation file including a report by Austin-Healey authority Nick Howell, with assistance from Special Test Car/100S expert Joe Jarick, in which he confirms Joe's high opinion of the car's originality and the quality of its Australian restoration. In this report, commissioned by the current owner shortly after acquiring '392 in the UK in 2009, Mr Howell emphasises how: "Competition cars, by their very nature and use, are very often subject to major changes in the components during their career. The vehicle examined...'NOJ 392', not only has its original and unique very early chassis, but also a large number of original major and minor components".
In this document Mr Howell then provides photographic evidence confirming the presence of the car's correct and original chassis plate, which is attached to the frame as distinct from the bulkhead manufacturer's plate. The car's chassis frame was identified by the firewall plate serialled 'SPL225B' while the engine number is 'IB136876'. The car's correct engine number, and "most probably" all of its original aluminium body and bulkheads, are also confirmed as being the originals.
The car also featured the correct 'taxi' gearbox with overdrive, complete with its original mounting brackets. Even extra-large holes found beneath the boot lining and fuel tank were believed to have been drilled during fitting of the larger fuel tank deployed at Le Mans in 1953.
During restoration the car was fitted with new but correct-style pre-production flat floor pans and new sills. All associated original components were then refurbished rather than replaced during this restoration process. While it would have been simpler and cheaper to fit heavy chromed-steel bumpers, it would have been period incorrect, so new aluminium bumpers were manufactured at great expense.
In late 2009 the present owner commenced an eighteen-month refreshment of the Australian restoration with the remit to be make NOJ 392 as it appeared at the start of Le Mans in 1953. The entire body and chassis were stripped and repainted in the correct shade of cellulose paint, the engine and gearbox were rebuilt, suspension re-bushed, brake pipes renewed and the interior re-trimmed. Whilst it would have been simpler and cheaper to fit the standard, heavy chromed steel bumpers they would have been incorrect for the car so new aluminium bumpers were manufactured at great expense.
This exceptional and historically important Special Test Car has a wonderful provenance as an extremely important 'works' Austin-Healey, having finished 12th at Le Mans in 1953 and having also competed in that same year's Mille Miglia road race around Italy. It has the extra cachet of having featured as the works road test car immortalized for posterity in both 'The Autocar' and 'The Motor' magazines. It has retained all its major components to this day. It has never been substantially crashed or damaged, nor modified, nor abused.
It is a simply lovely full factory team car from the 1950s, certain to command entry into all the available major International Historic events now catering for its age and type, and a car whose potential for circuit, rally and concours competition alike is sure to be instantly appreciated upon sight.