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Bill Vance: Despite success at Le Mans, Nash-Healey sales never took off

George Mason, president of Nash Kelvinator Corp., was pondering how they could sharpen up the image of the company’s cars. Aware of the sporty roadsters that were popular in Europe, he wondered about something like that for Nash.
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A 1953 Nash-Healey. The Nash-Healey was introduced in 1950 and received moderate acclaim, but in spite of a creditable sixth place at the Le Mans, France, 24-hour race in 1951, Nash sold only a handful. BILL VANCE

George Mason, president of Nash Kelvinator Corp., was pondering how they could sharpen up the image of the company’s cars. Aware of the sporty roadsters that were popular in Europe, he wondered about something like that for Nash.

By a stroke of luck, serendipity entered the picture. While returning from a visit to Europe in 1949 aboard the Queen Elizabeth, Mason had a chance meeting that would fulfill his wish sooner than expected. On board, he met Cornishman Donald Healey and the conversation naturally turned to cars.

Mason expressed his interest in sports cars and as it turned out Healey was a sports car builder in Warwick, England. Since he couldn’t afford to make his own engines, he bought them from other companies and was travelling to the United States to try purchasing Cadillac’s new overhead valve V-8s. Mason told Healey to let him know if he couldn’t get Cadillac engines.

When Cadillac couldn’t spare any engines, Healey contacted Mason. An agreement was reached in which Nash would supply Healey with Nash Ambassador engines and drivelines. In return Healey would build sports cars for Nash. Thus the Anglo-American, Nash-Healey three-passenger roadster was born. In the process Healey’s financially struggling Donald Healey Motor Co. was rescued.

Nash engines and drivelines soon arrived in Warwick where Healey craftsmen began hopping up the Ambassador’s sturdy seven-main-bearing 3.8 litre (234.8 cu in.), overhead valve, inline six from 115 to 130 horsepower.

They fitted dual S.U. carburetors, a hotter camshaft and aluminum cylinder head. It was installed in a Healey chassis with a lightweight aluminum roadster body built by Coventry-based Panelcraft. As a test they courageously entered their prototype in the 1950 Le Mans, France, 24-hour race.

It finished a remarkable fourth, one of 29 survivors out of 66 starters. The Nash’s three-speed-plus-overdrive transmission, the first use of overdrive at Le Mans, was critical in helping the big six survive the long gruelling hours.

To capitalize on this fame, Healey quickly prepared a production model. Nash identity was achieved with a 1951 Nash Airflyte grille, headlamps and bumpers. Alas there was no tachometer.

The Nash-Healey was 4,318 mm (170 in.) long with a 2,591 mm (102 in.) wheelbase, close in size to the Chevrolet Corvette due to arrive in 1953. For production, the Le Mans engine, still with twin carburetors, was slightly detuned to 125 horsepower. The aluminum bodied roadster weighed just less than 1,225 kg (2,700 lb).

The Nash-Healey was introduced at the London and Paris Auto Shows in the fall of 1950 and Chicago Motor Show in February, 1951. It received moderate acclaim, but in spite of a creditable sixth place at Le Mans in 1951, Nash sold only a handful.

Resistance centred on the somewhat bland styling and relatively high price of over $4,000, the same range as Jaguar’s sensational XK120 roadster.

While the Nash-Healey was spirited it couldn’t match Jaguar’s performance. In a Nash-Healey test Road & Track (6/54) reported zero to 60 mph (97 km/h) in 11.5 seconds and top speed of 104 mph (166 km/h) for the overdrive equipped roadster. A Jaguar sprinted to 60 (97) in 10 seconds and topped 120 mph (193 km/h). R&T summed up the Nash-Healey as “a comfortable high performance roadster.”

In an attempt to improve sales, Mason engaged famed Italian designer/coachbuilder Pinin Farina who had restyled the Nash sedans, to liven up the Nash-Healey’s appearance and build the bodies.

Farina relieved the slab-sided appearance and added “kick-up” rear fender accents. A one-piece curved windshield replaced the two-piece, and headlamps were incorporated into the two-bar grille. The body was now steel.

To reinforce the competitive image two Nash-Healeys contested the 1952 Le Mans. Unfortunately for Nash this was the year Mercedes-Benz brought its sensational new 300SL Gullwing coupes. A Nash-Healey finished third behind the invincible Gullwings, the high point in its life.

In spite of Le Mans successes sales still lagged. The new styling pushed the price to nearly $6,000, and although the “Le Mans Dual Jetfire Ambassador Six,” now had two American side-draft Carter carburetors and was up to 4.1 litres (253 cu in.) and 135 horsepower, only 150 1952 models were sold.

For 1953 an attractive “Le Mans” coupe was added, but production stayed almost the same. A Nash-Healey again contested Le Mans, finishing a creditable eleventh.

With preparations taking place for the Nash-Hudson amalgamation into American Motors Corp. in 1954, the Nash-Healey took lower priority. It was discontinued in 1954 after a total of only 506 had been built. Some were sold as 1955 models.

The Nash Healey was a victim of several factors. A high price and strong competition from cars like Jaguar, Austin-Healey and Chevrolet Corvette. Although not a commercial success the Nash-Healey had an enviable competition record.

bvance1@cogeco.ca