My Austin Healey has been with me for a long time. In 1972 my secretary told me that she and her husband were soon going to have a baby and that meant their 1959 Austin Healey 100-6 was going to have to be replaced with a vehicle that had doors that locked and windows that would roll up and down. Out in the high plains altitude in western Oklahoma and Kansas, it gets cold in the winter and hot in the summer. If you have to get to someplace important with a child, it would be better to do it in a pickup or a traditional Ford or Chevrolet, according to her. Apparently her husband agreed. I had seen my first Austin Healey about ten years before in North Africa while serving in the Air Force. In 1961 a fellow medic had gone to pick up a brand new Healey in Tangier, and it was parked outside the base hospital when I first saw the British racing green roadster with hissing carburetors. I loved that car from that time on, so it did not take me long to offer to buy the Healey out in Oklahoma.
It ran like a new car even though it already was about 12 years old. Its history has never been researched, but it had spent time in the hands of a young rancher and cattleman who worked on his family ranching and farming land in the Oklahoma panhandle. It is not rough country like you would find in the mountains to the west, but it was dusty and there were very long distances involved, even if you were just going to town to buy groceries. I was told that the car had already undergone an engine rebuild and that it otherwise was just a little dirty underneath with no evidence of rust. It ran very well, but the silver flake, California style paint just had to go. Other than that it was just a stock Healey roadster with about 65,000 miles on the odometer, even though the odometer didn’t work at the time. I have never known what the actual mileage of the car was and still don’t to this day, some 43 years later.
Fast forward 46 yrs to 2001. I now was living in Kansas City and had retired from my law practice completely. The Healey had been repainted twice since I bought it. It now had a professionally painted body and still was running very well on the originally overhauled engine. When I first acquired the car I knew very little about it. I now had joined the Kansas City Austin Healey Club and had the advantage of associating with people who, like me, had a passion for Healey cars. I now knew that my car had come to the U.S. as a very modest basic sports car. It ran on steel wheels and only had a four-speed transmission with three gears forward and a reverse gear for backing up. I had taken the car on long trips in the past to the mountains or to Topeka while I served in the state Legislature. I realized that the RPM rate was rather high when driving the long and tiresome state highways. My Healey Club friends had been very helpful in making me aware of the joys of a four speed transmission with the auxiliary overdrive transmission. In fact I longed for the feeling of the overdrive kicking in while wrapping the engine up on a long and open road. The trouble was that I often saw my car club friends working on a balky overdrive switch that frustrated many of the car owners.
The talk sometimes would lead to discussions of putting in a transmission that contained five forward gears and eliminating the overdrive all together. There was talk of exotic five-speeds that cost a lot of money, but there also was talk of Toyota. In those days an ad in the Club magazine offered a kit for converting big Austin Healeys to a straight five-speed transmission. I went in search of a 1984 Toyota Supra five speed transmission and finally found one in the field out behind the barn on a very strange farm in Missouri. There were donkeys, peacocks, mules and all sorts of chickens around the farmstead. What I was interested in was the shells of old Toyota cars that had been assembled by the farmer and which contained parts that were for sale. I found the five-speed that I was looking for and soon had it in the back of my pickup. I headed for home with visions of driving on the roads at 70 MPH and with the engine tachometer resting in a quiet, comfortable mid-three thousand range. I had new seals put in the transmission, had the driveshaft shortened and began the conversion very soon after the purchase.
It’s been many years now since the conversion. There have been long trips to the Ozark Mountains and to many places of interest here in the Midwest. A few years ago my son and I trailered the Healey to Maine and then left the trailer with my daughter and took the very pleasant drive up into Canada. Five days later we returned to the States and drove around the Rocky Coast of Maine while enjoying time with my daughter and my two grandchildren. The transmission didn’t make that all possible, obviously. But it sure did make our driving much more pleasant.
The electric switches and the recurring problems of the original overdrive were passed over. I knew that the five-speed was something that would allow me to enjoy the open road even better. I realized a dream I first had in Africa and which still lives today. That green Healey was an inspiration, and my red and black Healey now delivers the joy.