Reader dream drive: Austin-Healey 3000

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by Ben Field |

Classic Cars reader Malcolm Fortnam sent us a dream-drive wishlist packed with multi-cylindered greats. Would an Austin-Healey 3000 live up to his fantasy?

It’s the kind of day open cars were made for. The seaside postcard-blue brilliance of the sky frames the green abundance of early summer. The roads are dry and empty. The air is still until the ripe, ripping, palpable exhaust note of an Austin-Healey 3000, barely silenced from inline six to side-exit exhaust, bursts forth from a barn.

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Malcolm has always longed to drive a Big Healey ©Richard Parsons

On choke, the Austin-Healey wolfs petrol through two rotund SU carburettors, rudely combusting it and running fast. There’s a brief hint of the car’s better manners as the choke is slid home and the engine settles into a mellow idle. The car emerges, flirting with the sunlight, then disappears on a lap of neighbouring barns only to reappear like a Sixties supermodel, composed in the frame, an icon in two-tone and chrome.

The ignition is switched off, the driver’s door opened and then shut with a satisfyingly solid clunk. Footsteps retreat. Silence returns. Into this silence walks Malcolm Fortnam, Classic Cars reader and provider of a list full of sixes and eights. The Austin-Healey 3000 MkIII is one of them. This beautifully restored example belongs to Rawles Motorsport of Upper Froyle, Hampshire. But today its keys belong to Malcolm.

Malcolm's wishlist Bentley R-type Continental Austin Healey 3000 MkIII Bristol 411 Gordon-Keeble AC Aceca Bristol Jaguar XK 140 AC Cobra 289 Morgan +8 TVR Chimaera Jaguar XK8

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Handling is sweet, despite that hefty straight-six ©Richard Parsons

‘Just seeing the car sitting here in the sun brings back a wave of nostalgia for that heyday period of British sports cars in the Fifties and Sixties,’ he says. ‘It has those beefy good looks without looking aggressive. As a schoolboy, when I drew a picture of a sports car it looked just like this. It is one of the few sports cars that actually still looks very good with the hood up – but I don’t think we’ll need to worry about that today.’

With that, Malcolm doesn’t leap straight into the driver’s seat and find the first road out of here; instead he steps back to further appreciate his charge. ‘Some sports cars became a bloated caricature of the pure original with each generation, but the 3000 didn’t grow in size, it didn’t lose its character, it improved on it,’ he says. Leaning over the gently curved screen to appreciate the interior he adds, ‘I can understand some people preferring the more minimalist trim of early models, but I have always been a fan of wood and leather. I think the MkIII looks superb inside and out.’

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Malcolm was pleased to find plenty of vim and vigour in the 3000 ©Richard Parsons

Malcolm swings the door open, steps inside and sits down. He takes his time to make fine adjustments to seat and mirrors, rests his hands on the wheel, presses pedals (‘closely spaced, offset to the right’), notes the position of dials and switches (‘indicators on the wheel boss, overdrive switch close to the wiper switch’). Thirty-five years teaching car craft as a driving instructor makes this routine second nature. I’ve got a feeling I’m in for a comfortable drive.

The engine, which was so thoughtfully warmed up for us earlier, stirs back into that mellow idle on the first turn of the key. We’re off. Malcolm sets off out of Upper Froyle. ‘It’s great to be in an open car again,’ he says with a smile. ‘First gear is long, and the steering is quite heavy at low speeds.’ We just catch second at the end of a lane then turn right on to the A31, mellow changing to bellow as engine speed rises. ‘This is such a torquey engine,’ says Malcolm. ‘Road-tests said it would do 60mph in less than ten seconds, and 100mph in 23 seconds. The 0-100mph figure is still impressive today.’ Malcolm’s clearly been doing his homework and this freshly rebuilt and balanced engine isn’t about to disappoint. There is some dispute that all original 3000 MkIIIs could deliver on the quoted 162lb ft of torque and 150bhp promise straight out of the factory. But there’s no doubt that a well-sorted one will give that and more, with some race-spec cars closing in on 260bhp.

‘Second, third and fourth gear ratios are all very close,’ says Malcolm. ‘This keeps the engine speed right in the torque band so it will still easily keep up with most modern cars.’ He flips the far-right switch on the facia down from normal to overdrive, deftly avoiding the wiper toggle in the process. Overdrive cuts in smoothly, the engine speed drops and the car changes character from hard-charging sports car to journey-consuming GT in an instant.

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Taking in the ’Healey’s details took Malcolm right back to his past ©Richard Parsons

Peeling off towards East Worldham, Malcolm doesn’t touch the gearstick for the necessary downchange. ‘It’s really useful to be able to change ratios just by flicking out of overdrive,’ he says. Small stones ping off the exhaust as the road surface deteriorates from fine to patchy with outbreaks of potholes. There’s the briefest shimmy where quarterlights and windscreen meet as it rides the rougher sections, but that’s it for scuttle shake. It’s a condition that spoils some Sixties sports cars, but not this one. ‘It’s clear that this car has been restored to a superb standard,’ says Malcolm. ‘Apart from the mild scuttle shake, there are no annoying rattles or squeaks.’

South towards Liss and across to Midhurst the road climbs, dips and curves its way across the South Downs. ‘The steering has plenty of feel to it – tactile and satisfying. It allows you to form a close relationship with the car,’ says Malcolm. ‘The brake pedal is heavy but, like the steering, it gives feedback. And the brakes work well.’

A fast run on the unrestricted sections between the villages that lie between Midhurst and Singleton, and we jink left and roar up the hill to Goodwood Motor Circuit. After tea in the Aero Club Café I’m in the driver’s seat and quickly reminded of the relatively high driving position. On the road there’s no buffeting; driving caps and hair stay in place, conversation isn’t a problem. Like the steering and the braking, the clutch also demands full driver involvement. The clutch pedal is weighty and expects to be properly pressed to the floor before allowing a gearchange. On the move, first gear is incredibly long – one contemporary road-tester squeezed more than 40mph out of it. I’ve no intention of repeating that, but change up at 15-20mph and it’s only the torque of the engine that prevents a lull in performance. I learn to hang on to first a little longer and bask in the closely spaced sportiness of the remaining ratios.

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All that wood and leather marks this out as a 3000 MkIII, the most luxurious of the Big Healeys ©Richard Parsons

A thin-rimmed Moto-Lita wheel, all rivets and polished wood, jiggles as the road wheels fidget over imperfections in the road. On straights, in bends, accelerating and under braking, the steering wheel is the consummate communicator.

The ‘Big’ in Big Healey is the 2912cc engine, an enormous in-line six-cylinder. Its weight over the front wheels adds to the steering feel, but Austin-Healey got its position in the chassis spot-on. You can feel the weight of the engine out front, but the car won’t plough a straight line when you show it a fast corner. The ride is firm, but not uncomfortable. These last-of-the-line cars gained a 25mm ride-height advantage over earlier models and softer springs too. Good damping from lever arms keeps the springs in check and there’s very little body roll.

Malcolm reclaims the driver’s seat and I ask him if it would still make it on to his list. ‘It did everything I hoped it would. It would be wonderful to own this, even just to look at it on the driveway. Taking it out for exercise would need the right day, the right road and a driver in the right mood.’

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Gerry Coker styling defined the archetypal Fifties sports car shape ©Richard Parsons

Some people suit certain cars. Malcolm could have been made for the Austin-Healey 3000. He fits it, he looks right in it and he drives it beautifully, with never a fluffed change or an ill-taken corner. Today we’ve been back in the Sixties, and this fine British sports car is a perfect companion.

Thanks to: Andrew Cluett, Rawles Motorsport, plus Jamie O’Leary and Ian Stevens at Goodwood.

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