Many cars have some degree of logic to their creation—a new design to take current styling features to the next level, the addition of new features to an existing vehicle, etc., but a few just seem to happen without rhyme or reason. There may not have ever been a car that had as improbable a beginning as the Nash Healey. It was a result of a chance meeting between two camera buffs on board a ship in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. In a short lifetime, the Nash Healey achieved remarkable notoriety from its competition successes at Le Mans and the Mille Miglia, and from being featured in a popular 1950s Television show driven by a famous high-flying owner.
The Superman character was created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster in 1932 and first appeared in Action Comics #1 in June of 1938. The character has thrived since creation, appearing in various print media, movies and television. The Superman legend was heightened recently when a mint-condition Action Comics #1 sold at auction for over $1M.
In the Superman story, Kal-El (who would later become Superman) was born on the planet Krypton to parents Jor-El and Lara. Shortly before the planet Krypton exploded, Jor-El sent his son off into space in a small rocket ship. Fortunately for all of us, the rocket ship was spotted by Jonathan and Martha Kent as it crash-landed outside of Smallville, Kansas. The Kents saw that the lad was still alive and decided to raise him as their own, naming him Clark.
An improbable beginning certainly, but improbabilities in fiction are part of what makes the story interesting. When such improbabilities happen in real life, the story becomes positively intriguing.
In England shortly after World War II, Donald Healey designed and built two-seat sports cars that carried the name Silverstone. The Silverstones were powered by four cylinder Riley engines and acquitted themselves quite well in racing competition. So well, in fact, that it was noticed by sportsman/racer Briggs Cunningham who commissioned Donald Healey to build a special Silverstone powered by one of Cunningham’s Cadillac V8 engines.
The performance of the V8 powered car was sensational, but production of others was impossible due to the lack of Cadillac engines. To try and secure a supply of V8 engines, Donald Healey arranged for a meeting with the brass at Cadillac Motor Car Division and booked passage on the Queen Elizabeth bound for the US.
A Chance Meeting
While aboard the Queen Elizabeth, Donald Healey engaged in another of his interests, photography. He had the latest in cameras and equipment that attracted the attention of another camera buff on board and the two struck up a friendship. It wasn’t long into the voyage before Donald Healey told his new-found friend about his quest to obtain engines for his sports cars. The friend was quite interested—he was George Mason, president of Nash Kelvinator Corporation, maker of Nash cars. Mr. Mason told Mr. Healey that, if his meeting with Cadillac was not successful, he should come see Mr. Mason at Nash.
In the post WWII car boom, Cadillac had all it could do to produce enough engines for its own cars and did not have the extra production capacity to supply engines to Donald Healey. Rebuffed by Cadillac, Mr. Healey went to see Mr. Mason and the two reached an agreement whereby Nash would supply engines, transmissions and other drivetrain components to Mr. Healey for a new car to be named the Nash Healey. Although Nash did not have a V8, they provided 6-cylinder Ambassador engines which Healey modified to produce 125 hp.
The new Nash Healey, a two-seat open sports car, debuted in December of 1950. It had a Nash drivetrain mounted in a modified Silverstone chassis, and an all aluminum body built by Panelcraft of Birmingham, England. All told, 104 Nash Healeys were built in 1950 and 1951.
For 1952, the body was redesigned by Sergio Pinin Farina in Italy and the output of the Nash engine was bumped up to 140 hp. The body retained its open-top design and was greeted with much acclaim. A handsome coupe version expanded the Nash Healey offerings in 1953.
1954 proved to be the last year for the Nash Healey. The logistics of shipping engines and transmissions from the United States to England, shipping bodies from Italy to England and then shipping completed cars from England back to the United States drove the cost of the Nash Healey to over $5,000. At a time when the average price for a new car in this country was $1,700, the Nash Healey was a tough sell. The merger of Nash Kelvinator with Hudson in 1954 to form American Motors brought the production of the Nash Healey to an end after a total of 506 had been built.
Nash Healey Meets the Man of Steel
The famous high-flying Healey owner, Superman, came to television in 1951 in The Adventures of Superman with George Reeves in the title role. The program ran until 1958 and featured a continuing cast of characters including Lois Lane as a reporter for the Daily Planet, cub reporter Jimmy Olsen, editor Perry White and inspector Henderson of the Metropolis police department.
George Mason of Nash Kelvinator was ahead of his time when it came to what is now known as product placement in TV shows and movies. The Adventures of Superman in the early 1950s featured Nash cars. Clark could be seen driving his Nash Healey, Lois could often be viewed driving her spiffy Nash Rambler convertible and inspector Henderson would arrive at the crime scene in his Nash Ambassador police car.
While not faster than a speeding bullet, the Nash Healey did quite well in racing during its short existence. In an auspicious racing debut at LeMans in 1950, the #14 Nash Healey driven by Tony Rolt and Duncan Hamilton finished 4th overall and 3rd in Class S5.0. In 1951, the same drivers drove the # 19 Healey to 6th place overall and 4th in class.
Nash Healey’s finest hour at LeMans was in 1952 when car #10 driven by Leslie Johnson and Tommy Wisdom finished 1st in class and 3rd overall behind two Mercedes Benz 300SLs. In its last year at the Circuit de la Sarthe in 1953, Leslie Johnson and Bert Hadley drove car #11 to 7th place in Class S5.0 and 11th overall.
The Nash Healey also proved adept at rally competition, entering the 1951 and 1952 Mille Miglias and finishing both times—not an easy feat. In 1951, Donald and Geoffrey Healey finished the 1,000 miles in a time of 15 hours, 5 minutes and 30 seconds, good for 7th in class and 30th overall. The following year, Leslie Johnson and W. A. MacKenzie finished 7th overall and 4th in Class S+2.0 with a time of 13 hours, 11 minutes and 59 seconds.
The Nash Healey has been called the most improbable car ever built. It owed its life to a chance encounter in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean between an American industrialist and an English sports car maker with a mutual interest in photography. It’s almost as improbable as the survival of little Kal-El from the planet Krypton.
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