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Nash-Healey, or, The Car That Was Almost The Cobra | by sfisher71
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Nash-Healey, or, The Car That Was Almost The Cobra

Donald Mitchell Healey (DMH to friends and fans) was, by all accounts, one of the truly great characters of the motor industry. A pilot in World War I, DMH took to motor racing and rally in the '20s. By the mid-1930s he was designing and driving rally cars for Triumph, and won several important international events. When war broke out in 1939, he devoted himself to the war efforts.


At the conclusion of hostilities, DMH and family (especially his sons, Geoff and Bic) resumed making sports cars, this time under the Healey name. Their first effort, the Healey Silverstone, had an advanced chassis design and simple, aerodynamic bodywork. Lacking the resources (spelled "cash") to develop their own engines, the Healeys used the interesting and reasonably sporting Riley 2-liter twin-cam OHV engine. (Yes, you read that right: two cams, down in the block, each operating a separate bank of pushrods working the rockers of overhead valves.)


But like all racers, DMH wanted more power. The biggest news in the motoring world in those days was the 165-bhp Cadillac OHV V8, a comparatively light-weight and high-revving engine with great low-end torque and tremendous potential for making a light, good-handling chassis go very fast. DMH built at least one prototype, using a privately purchased Cadillac V8, which fitted nicely into the Silverstone chassis. (I have been fortunate enough to see this car. And again, that's not "one of these cars," it's "this one.")


So DMH took a steamship from England to the U.S., intending to strike a deal with Cadillac for several V8 engines.


On the way he met George Romney, president of the Nash Motor Corporation based in Kenosha, Wisconsin. George and DMH hit it off from the start, and Romney said that if things didn't go according to plan, he should look him up.


Well, Cadillac didn't give DMH the time of day—too busy (and too important) to sell motors to some tinkerer. DMH decided that rather than make the trip a total loss, he should look into the Nash connection.


Well, Romney was as good as his word, and a deal was struck not only for engines, but for some development of a sports-racing car. The Nash-Healey ended up taking 2nd overall at the 1950 24 Hours of Le Mans (an amazing achievement for a six-cylinder pushrod block, in spite of Nash's disappointment at not winning against the highly developed twin-cam racing engines).


The final piece in the puzzle was the acquisition of bodywork from Pininfarina, Italy's premiere coachbuilder at the time (and my own Pininfarina car is at my elbow, urging me to delete "at the time").


500 Nash-Healeys were built, in coupe form as shown here but more popularly in a roadster. The five cars shown at Forest Grove therefore represent one percent of all Nash-Healey production; no one at the concours knew how many still remain.


Classic film buffs may recall the original Sabrina, with Humphrey Bogart, Audrey Hepburn, and William Holden. Bogart is the sober-sided chairman of the board of a wealthy family's financial institution, and younger brother Holden is the fast-living cad who romances Hepburn. The car in which Holden drives her home from the train station is a Nash-Healey roadster.


Oh, and about that title: In 1959, DMH tried again to secure V8 power for his sports cars, and once more crossed the Atlantic, this time to meet with his longtime friend and fellow racer Carroll Shelby (who had just won the 24 Hours, driving an Aston Martin). DMH got the same response from Chevrolet as he had earlier received from Cadillac, and furthermore was chastised by British Motor Corporation (BMC) management for attempting to go outside the firm's own engine sources. So sadly, Shelby had to look elsewhere for the Anglo-American hybrid he was working on... a little car known as the Cobra, and a story that might have started as early as 1950 if General Motors had not already perfected the art of sticking their heads up their uncommonly tight fundamental apertures.

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Taken on July 14, 2007