By Patrick R. Foster
Believe it or not, Nash had a reputation as an automotive innovator during the 1950s. Nash innovation really began in 1938 when the company introduced its greatly superior Weather Eye heating and ventilating system, the basis of all automotive heaters used today. In late 1940 came the revolutionary Unibody Ambassador 600 and since then, Unibody construction has become the standard for car construction around the world. March 1950 saw the arrival of the Nash Rambler convertible, America’s first compact, and the car that eventually led a major shift to smaller cars.
And then Nash unveiled its new Nash-Healey sports car.
The Nash-Healey came about in an unusual way. While traveling aboard the Queen Elizabeth in 1949, Nash-Kelvinator chairman and CEO George Mason bumped into Donald Healey, owner of the Donald Healey Co. in Warwick, England. Mason was returning home from a business trip in Europe while Healey was on his way to Detroit, hoping to purchase engines from General Motors’ Cadillac Division. Healey had come up with an idea to install a big American engine into a lightweight British chassis, thereby creating a car of extraordinary performance — the same route Carroll Shelby would take in the 1960s.
Mason, a dyed-in-the-wool sports car enthusiast, told Healey that if for any reason Cadillac was unable to supply him with its V-8, Nash-Kelvinator would be pleased to sell him as many Nash Ambassador sixes as he could use. The big Nash engine was a good performer and had the additional benefit of offering bullet-proof reliability.
As things worked out, Cadillac was unable to supply engines to Healey, so he hopped back into his car and drove across town to Nash-Kelvinator headquarters on Plymouth Road to speak once again with Mason. Out of their meeting came a greatly expanded plan in which the Donald Healey Co. would produce a small number of sports cars utilizing the Ambassador six-cylinder engine and driveline mated to a Healey chassis. One car was entered in the 1950 24 hours of Le Mans race where it did surprisingly well, placing fourth. It was an unusual and very impressive feat for a newcomer, particularly one powered by an American-made six. The Nash-Healey’s racing success led Mason to give Healey a contract to produce a limited number of cars that would be sold through the Nash dealer network in America.
Donald Healey quickly devised a production version of the sports car, had it approved by Mason and began producing them in December 1950. Debuting as a 1951 model, the new Nash roadster was stylish, fast and very roadable.
Healey came up with an attractive body design featuring a classic British sports car profile. The body, along with some structural members, was built of aluminum to offset the weight of the heavy Nash six. In the end, Healey managed to keep the cars’ weight down to about 2600 lbs. The production design included rounded front fenders, a long hood with a stylish scoop fronting an attractive hood blister marred only by a somewhat bulky two-piece windshield. Unlike the senior Nash cars, the Nash-Healey’s wheel wells were fully open, and in front, a stock Ambassador grille helped identify the new sports car as belonging to the Nash family. The swoopy little sportster was low-slung: a mere 38 inches from the road to the top of the hood. Overall length was 170 inches, and width was 66 inches. The 102-inch wheelbase provided plenty of room under the hood for the big Ambassador six-cylinder engine while also providing generous leg room inside the cockpit.
The Nash-Healey was a true roadster with Plexiglas side curtains rather than conventional roll-up windows. Unlike the soft plastic side curtains used on most British cars of the day, the Nash-Healey’s clever side windows slid up from the doors to provide better weather protection than soft side curtains could ever hope. Although its often referred to as a two-passenger sports car, early product information from the Donald Healey Co. called it an “Open Sports 3-seater” because, although a tight fit, three people really could squeeze onto the well-padded bench seat, which featured foam rubber cushions.
The engine used in the Nash-Healey was Nash’s best, the well-respected Ambassador inline six. Boasting a sturdy seven-main-bearing crankshaft, the overhead-valve Ambassador mill was smooth and reliable. Displacing 234.8 cubic inches and rated at 115 hp in stock form, the big six was modified by Donald Healey to produce more power via a hotter camshaft, aluminum cylinder head and twin SU carburetors. In this form, it was conservatively rated at 125 hp at 4000 rpm. The engine was hooked to a Nash three-speed manual gearbox with overdrive, which came as standard equipment. An automatic transmission was never offered. The drivetrains were shipped from Nash’s main plant in Kenosha, Wis., to Great Britain for installation in the Healey chassis.
That Healey chassis utilized a Nash-style torque-tube drive and rear coil springs while the front suspension was an interesting Healey-designed trailing link setup. The only body style available that first year was an open two-seat roadster. Body and chassis were both produced by the Donald Healey Co., which also assembled the cars. Only two exterior colors were offered for 1951; Champagne Ivory and Sunset Maroon.
Interior fittings were traditional English sports car. The bench seat was upholstered in leather and the instrument panel was also covered in leather. Because of its low seating, an adjustable steering column was included as standard equipment. Other standard features were full wheel discs, five 6.40x15 four-ply wide whitewall tires and directional signals. Fuel tank capacity was 20 gallons.
In that era — two years before Corvette debuted and four years ahead of Ford’s Thunderbird — the arrival of the Nash-Healey was a revelation. At the time, the only American-branded sports cars were the tiny Crosley Hot Shot/Super Sports and a small number of specialty cars virtually hand built in small numbers by previously unknown companies. Nash, by comparison, was a big company with hundreds of dealers, thus assuring easy access to parts and service, eliminating one of the major pitfalls of foreign cars at the time.
If you’ve never seen one of these fine-looking first-year Nash-Healeys, it’s not surprising. Not many cars were built during that initial model run. During the first month of production in December 1950, some 36 cars were built. Then, between January and March 1951, an additional 68 cars were produced, bringing the grand total for the first series of Nash-Healey to a mere 104 cars. That makes them very rare and highly desirable.
The new car took the sports car scene by surprise and quickly won many fans. Former racing champ Wilbur Shaw tested the new Nash-Healey for Popular Science, writing “This car’s got sass. There’s plenty of power…..a Nash-Healey averaged 89.2 mph for 2143 miles in the 24-hour race at Le Mans last June. The Nash corners well, too — there’s little sway despite all-around coil springs.” His best run in the N-H was 0-60 mph in 8.6 seconds. In the same article, Shaw tested two other sports cars, a Muntz Jet powered by a Lincoln V-8; it needed 8.9 seconds to reach 60 mph. Also tested was a fancy new Jaguar XK-120. Like the Muntz, the lithe Jaguar required 8.9 seconds to reach 60 mph.
Consumer Reports, however, didn’t like the Nash-Healey. After praising its engine, chassis and performance potential, they sniffed that an open sports car “… seems to us as much an anachronism as an open cockpit racing plane.” As might be expected, they loved the grossly underpowered VW Beetle tested in the same issue. It was their sort of car.
Nash probably lost money on every 1951 Nash-Healey, but the little car won new respect for the company along with a tremendous amount of publicity, and that’s mostly what Nash was looking for.
The first-year Nash-Healey was destined to be a one-year-only model. George Mason had an eye for styling and, since he already had the master Italian designer Pinin Farina under contract, assigned him the task of designing a new body for the Nash-Healey. Mason wanted more than just a fast sports car: he wanted a car with modern, unsurpassed beauty, something that would show off Farina’s design expertise and throw a halo of distinction over the other Nash cars. Pinin Farina not only received the design job, his shop was allowed to build the bodies and handle final assembly. Donald Healey would continue to assemble the chassis with the drivetrain. Thus, the Nash-Healey would again use a Nash engine and transmission installed in a Healey chassis, but for 1952, it would also feature gorgeous new Pinin Farina coachwork. That styling was retained for the remainder of Nash-Healey production, which ran from 1952-’54.
So, the 1951 Nash-Healey ended up as a car offering a pleasing mix of American and British influences to make it one of the rarest and most desirable sports cars of the ’50s. Is it a British car or an American car? Is the second-generation Nash-Healey an Italian car? Quite simply, the Nash-Healey was an international car.