The Austin-Healey 100 Buying Guide – Reaching 100mph in the 1950s
The first of the ‘big Healeys’, the Austin-Healey 100 remains a charming British classic with its well-balanced handling and stunning lines.
The Austin-Healey 100 was the first in the line of the ‘big’ Healeys, the 100 in its name signifying its capability to reach 100mph. With its mechanicals based on the Austin A90, the 100 had an uprated 90bhp 2.7-litre inline four–cylinder engine and streamlined body giving it spirited performance, and it became an instant hit both in the UK and the US.
The Austin Healey 100 – An excellent driver
The 100 may not have all the refinements of the later larger-engined versions but its honest nature, excellent driving characteristics and eager drivetrain make it a very desirable classic sports car today.
Approximately 14,000 Austin-Healey 100s were produced, 10,000 of which were the earlier BN1 cars while the balance was made up of the updated BN2s and 100M and 100S performance variants.
The running gear of the first BN1 cars was based heavily on the Austin A90, a sports saloon from the late ‘40s that failed to capture the buying public’s imagination. Nevertheless the basic engine and suspension were well suited to the Austin-Healey and these early cars are enjoyable to drive. A three-speed manual with overdrive and a 2.7-liter engine producing 90bhp meant that 100mph was possible and the cars sold well from the outset.
The major change came in 1955 when the second series BN2 models were introduced. An uprated four-speed gearbox and new rear axle improved the overall package, and this was also the first model to start sporting the distinctive two-tone paintwork that was to become such a feature on later cars.
1955 also saw the introduction of a limited edition 100M high performance model, with large carburettors, high-lift cams and other detail changes that increased power to 110bhp. Such was its popularity that the majority of the 100M components were offered to existing owners of both BN1 and BN2 cars in the form of a Le Mans Engine Modification Kit.
With approximately 50 cars built, the 100S is the rarest and most sought after of the early Austin-Healeys. These cars were competition versions with major changes to the running gear and chassis to help produce 132bhp and reduce weight by 90kg. The majority were painted white on blue and all featured Dunlop disc brakes all round. There are a number of M and S replicas out there so check your potential purchases history well to ensure you are getting the real deal.
Having said that, a number of the earlier standard cars have been fitted with the upgraded components from the 100/6 and 3000 models. This is not necessarily an issue unless originality is a must and it can improve the overall performance of the car. Generally, it is best to go for a later car, however both BN1 and BN2 models are great to drive and your decision may come down to condition and price rather than specific model years.
Austin-Healey Engine and gearbox
Engines tend to be reliable if regularly serviced but it is always wise to carry out a full inspection for perished hoses or suspect leaks.
The four-cylinder motors are known to leak a bit of oil and can also leak water between the head and block. There are fixes for both but neither should be a big concern unless the fluids are pooling on the garage floor.
Clutch actuation is on the heavy side; unless the gears struggle to engage this is normal for these cars.
The overdrive on three-speed transmissions can stop working but is usually traceable to faulty wiring. The later four-speed units did not have synchro on first so crunching it into gear is your fault not the car’s.
There are many modifications out there for the Austin-Healey range with some being more successful than others. Toyota gearboxes, uprated brakes and various engine modifications are common.
Austin-Healey Suspension and brakes
The 100 was the only Big Healey with drum brakes all-round and some have been converted to the front disc set-up that was standard on the 3000 MkIIIs from 1959-on, though drum units should work well if set up correctly. The ultra-rare 100S had discs all-round.
Steering boxes can leak and if the steering feels loose the kingpins may be worn. A sagging rear end means worn rear springs; parts are reasonable but the entire rear axle and suspension needs removing to replace them so labour costs are high.
Greasing the steering and suspension joints at every oil service is recommended.
Austin-Healey Bodywork and interior
Rust is a problem on vehicles from this era as no rustproofing was carried out, so check the car over thoroughly in all the usual areas, paying particular attention to the floorpan, wheelarches and rear boot cavity. A badly rusted bodyshell may spell the end of an otherwise solid car.
The ladder-frame chassis is susceptible to damage and is also prone to corrosion. It is highly recommended that you have a specialist give the car’s bodywork a once over as an otherwise pristine looking car can be hiding all manner of evils just out of sight.
The earliest BN1 models (up to July 1954) had aluminium bonnets and boots, which lowered kerb weight but are very easily dented.
The majority of cars will have been retrimmed by now. Most parts are available, but they can be pricey and off the shelf trim pieces may not always fit due to small differences between cars. Sun damage and missing trim are two common issues so make sure you factor in the cost of getting that
Model History of the Austin-Healey 100
1953: First Series ‘BN1’ Austin-Healey 100 launched. 90bhp 2.7-litre inline 4–cylinder engine. Three-speed manual transmission with overdrive
1954: Cars built up until July featured aluminium bonnets and boots
1955: Second series BN2 Austin-Healey launched. Four-speed manual with overdrive replaces old unit. Limited edition 100M model introduced with 110bhp – 640 units produced. Le Mans Engine Modification Kit made available for both BN1 and BN2 cars. 100S racing spec cars introduced with lightened weight and increased power – 50 units built. The majority were painted white on blue
1956: Austin-Healey 100 production comes to an end with a total of 14,634 cars built
Which Austin-Healey To Buy
These cars have an enthusiastic following. Parts and spares can be sourced from a number of specialists, just don’t expect 1950s prices. Joining one of the classic car clubs and Austin-Healey enthusiast sites can make your purchasing and ownership experience a far more pleasurable one.
Restoration projects can make financial sense as long as the major components are intact and the body has not suffered too much corrosion. For everyone else, a highly original car (with documentation) or a professionally restored one is the best way to ensure an enjoyable Austin-Healey 100 experience.
All are pleasurable to drive but the later cars featured a few desirable updates and had a bit more power. The rare 100M is pricey and always in demand, but be aware that many standard cars have been converted with the period Le Mans modification kit to 100M spec. This can enhance the driving experience but a verifiable history is essential. The ultra-rare 100S models command the highest prices, especially ones with a racing history.
An absolutely stunning bit of design with underpinnings that enhance the overall package, the early Austin-Healeys are a quintessentially English motoring icon. Whether purchased as an investment or to be driven, they are a fantastic classic sports car.
Austin-Healey 100 Specifications
2.7-litre OHV Inline-four
Top speed: 115mph+
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