The Nash-Healey was the first postwar American sports
cars made by a major automaker. It beat the Corvette,
Kaiser-Darrin and Thunderbird to market.
It is the almost-perfect collector car, and Jim Rugowski’s love affair with the Nash-Healey started long before he owned one. In 1954, Jim took a photo of a Nash-Healey LeMans coupe at the Lincoln Park Field House, in Manitowoc, Wis., the town he grew up in. He still has the faded, curly edged, black-and-white Brownie print showing the coupe that imbedded itself in his psyche 50 years ago. For the past few years, Rugowski has had a real car to go with it.
Rugowski’s white Nash-Healey roadster features a great combination of American power and running gear, Italian design and British chassis construction. He can take it to an American car cruise, an Italian concours or a British car rally and feel right at home at all three events.
Unlike many other sports cars, the Nash-Healey is roomy and provides ample trunk space. With its big Nash Ambassador six, it can really move; with overdrive it cruises at 55 mph on the highway, turning only 1,600 rpm while T-series MGs — their engines spinning at 4500 rpm — struggle to keep up with it. The overdrive also produces excellent highway mileage, bettering that of many smaller four-cylinder cars.
Rugowski knew that he wanted a Nash-Healey the day he took the photo of the coupe back in 1954, but he never came across one while building up his car collection. He did manage to pick up a ’65 Mustang, an Avanti, a 1933 Chevy street rod (five-window coupe), a Fiat-based 1936 Simca Cinq, a 1951 Fiat Topolino, a 1954 Kaiser-Darrin, a 1950 Austin Atlantic A90 convertible, a 1960 Triumph TR3A roadster, a ’69 Camaro Indy Pace Car, three Cosworth Vegas (currently) and other cars. But his dream machine had always eluded him until the fall of 2003, when he went to the Labor Day auction in Auburn, Ind. There, at the stand of St. Louis car dealer Mark Hyman, he spotted the Nash-Healey hidden behind two other cars.
In a sense, the roots of the Nash-Healey story can be traced back as far as World War I, when Royal Air Force pilot Donald Healey developed a taste for speed. By the end of World War II, Healey was managing director of the Donald Healey Motor Co. of Warwick, England — a firm that produced limited-production sports-racing cars. The Riley-powered Healey Silverstone was racking up victories on European racing circuits. American sportsman Briggs Cunningham, who wanted to win Le Mans with an American entry, took a liking to the Silverstone and commissioned Healey to build him one with a Cadillac V-8.
Cunningham’s car came out terrific and Healey decided to travel to the United States to visit General Motors in a quest to purchase engines for a new series of cars. While sailing aboard the RMS Queen Elizabeth, Healey struck up a conversation with a man who had a mutual interest in cameras. That man turned out to be George Mason, the president of Nash-Kelvinator Corp.
Mason invited Donald Healey to come to his cabin that evening for a cocktail. Naturally, the reason for Healey’s trip to America came out. Mason offered to let Healey stay at his Detroit home while he was in the area. He also told the British car builder that Nash would be interested in supplying engines if General Motors wasn’t.
In Detroit, Healey met with Ed Cole, general manager of Cadillac, and his request to purchase engines was denied. Cole said the Cadillac could hardly build enough of the hot new V-8s to meet its own needs. Healey contacted Mason to discuss his offer and found him anxious to do extra business. In fact, Mason told Healey that Nash Motors would not only supply engines, but would take a number of the cars to sell through Nash dealers.
Arriving as a 1951 model, the original Nash-Healey featured aluminum coachwork turned out by the English body builder Panel Craft. Under the hood was a sturdy 234.8-cid Nash inline six with seven main bearings. The overhead-valve engine cranked out 125 hp — more than the standard Nash engine, thanks to modifications, such as a higher-lift camshaft. An aluminum cylinder head and twin S.U. carburetors (mounted on a sealed-in-head intake manifold) were other upgrades. A prototype car was actually constructed in the fall of 1950 for exhibition at the Paris Automobile Show. Series production began in December 1950.
The original Nash-Healey had a 102-inch wheelbase and a 170.8-inch overall length. Front and rear track widths were 53 inches. The weight was 2,400 lbs. The car sat 7 inches off the ground and had a 17-ft. 6-inch turn radius. Other details included torque-tube drive, rear coil springs, a 20-gallon gas tank and 6.40 x 15 white sidewall tires. Leather upholstery, an adjustable steering wheel, directional signals, chrome wheel discs, foam rubber seat cushions, a folding top and Plexiglas side windows were standard equipment. Only two body colors were offered: Champagne Ivory or Sunset Maroon.
By beating the Corvette, Kaiser-Darrin and Thunderbird to market, the Nash-Healey made history as the first postwar American sports cars made by a major automaker. The car could speed down the straightaway of a racetrack and handled well on curves. For $3,982 delivered ($96 more with optional overdrive), the Nash-Healey was a steal, but only 104 were sold. Thirty-six cars were constructed in December 1950 and 68 additional units were made over the next three months.
Racing versions of the early Nash-Healey finished ninth in their class at the Mille Miglia and fourth overall at Le Mans in 1950. The next year, a Nash-Healey racing car ran sixth overall at Le Mans. Though the production car’s styling was quite British, the vertical-bars grille and the front emblem were lifted directly from the contemporary Nash. Other styling details included a long hood scoop and a two-piece windshield.
Manufacturing of Nash-Healeys was suspended from April 1951 until January 1952, when a heavily restyled model made its debut. The new body featured a total redesign by Pinin Farina of Turin, Italy. Characteristics included a horizontal-bars grille that encircled the headlights, rounder front fenders, more pronounced rear fenders, vestigial tail fins and a more massive bumper with heavier over riders. The divided windshield of the early cars was replaced with a one-piece type. The body was now made of steel, but the hood, doors, trunk, all interior panels and the floor pans were aluminum.
A total of 150 of the roadsters were assembled in Italy. Although the new roadster body looked quite different, initially the underpinnings were virtually unchanged. After serial number N2250 and engine number N1163 the engine grew from the previous 3.8-liter job to 4.1 liters.
The bigger inline six had a 3.50 x 4.37-inch bore and stroke and displaced 252.6 cid. With its 8.25:1 compression ratio, it developed 140 hp at 4,000 rpm. Starting with serial number N2310, the British S.U. carburetors were replaced by a pair of Carter YH sidedraft carbs, somewhat like those used on 1953-1954 Corvettes and, later on, Corvairs. The engine was linked to a three-speed manual gearbox. Nash stuck to a 6-volt electrical system.
The dimensions of the Pinin Farina-styled cars were very close to those of the aluminum-bodied Panel Craft models. The roadster or convertible’s wheelbase was 102 in. Overall length was 170.75 inches, width was 64 inches and overall height was 48.65 inches. The front tread remained at 53 inches, but the rear tread was widened to 54.87 inches. Coil-spring independent suspension was used front and rear. As in the past, Bendix hydraulic brakes and 6.40 x 15 tires were used.
By this time, the manufacturing methods had changed to the point where the Nash-Healey’s country of origin was difficult to determine. The engine and most parts were made by Nash in its Kenosha, Wis., factory. These were shipped to Donald Healey Co., in England, where the trailing-link front suspension was added. The powered chassis was then shipped to Italy where Farina hand-built the custom body. The Pinin Farina model was officially introduced at the Chicago Automobile Show in February 1952.
A Nash-Healey roadster driven by Leslie Johnson and Tommy Wilson captured a first-in-class race win at Le Mans in 1952, behind a Ferrari and a Talbot. A modified-body Nash-Healey came in third overall behind a pair of Mercedes-Benz 300SL coupes. The racing car tried out an experimental aluminum cylinder head with hemispherical combustion chambers, inclined valves and transverse pushrods in the BMW manner. This setup produced about 175 hp.
The Nash-Healey was one of only 17 cars finishing the French Grand Prix out of a starting field of 58 entries. This was an impressive performance, with the “Kenosha Cadillac” besting most of Europe’s leading marques.
The Le Mans coupe, added in January 1953, was a larger car and did not perform as well in racing, despite its competition-inspired name. It did, however, embody a beauty of line that few other cars of the era could match. The overall look had some Mercedes influence combined with aspects of contemporary Ghia-bodied Chrysler show cars.
With a 108-inch wheelbase, the Nash-Healey Le Mans stretched 180.5 inches end to end. It was wider (65.87 inches) and taller (55 inches) than the roadster, though the track widths of both models were identical. The closed car was heavier, of course, weighing 2,990 lbs. versus the later roadster’s 2,750 lbs. The gorgeous coupe was awarded first prize in the Italian International Concours D’Elegance held at Tresa, Italy, in March 1953.
During 1953, a total of 162 roadsters and hardtops were built. By this time, the delivered price in the United States was up to $6,200. Sales of both models continued into 1954, but no roadsters were actually built that year. A total of 90 coupes were built between January 1954 and the following August. The 1954 version featured rear window pillars that sloped forward. Production records show that 506 Nash-Healeys were made in all. This includes 104 of the early roadsters and 402 roadsters and coupes with Pinin Farina bodies.
According to All The World’s Cars 1954 by John Bentley, the 1954 Nash-Healey could do 0 to 60 mph in 9.5 seconds and had a top speed of 120 mph. Braking to a stop from 30 mph required 37 feet. Fuel economy was published as 14 mpg, which seems a little low.
Rugowski’s white 1953 roadster is of the second-generation type. It has serial number 421, engine number 1421 and chassis number 2404. The car has the beautiful aluminum cylinder head. According to the history he received, the car is unrestored. It had 82,000 miles on the clock when Rugowski bought it and he has several thousand more miles driving it to events in the Midwest. He said when it was his newest “toy,” he drove it a lot, taking it on such excursions as a Lake Michigan ferry ride on the way to the Classic Car Club of America’s Grand Experience in Kalamazoo, Mich.
Rugowski says that he likes the fact that the car has an all-American drive line and that it’s a ’50s-era sports car. “I don’t know which of these points I like best,” he admits.
He also does a lot of touring with the Fox Cities British Car Club based in Oshkosh, Wis. The Nash-Healey has also put in appearances at Road America and at the British Car Field Days in Sussex, Wis.
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