1956 Austin Healey 100-4: Chance Encounters of the British Kind
The mid 1980s were an interesting time in the collector car world. Barns everywhere were littered with “old” cars long past their expiration date. This was a time in which restorations were exceedingly difficult; we were yet to have the burgeoning restoration industry that exists in modern times, yet new old stock parts supplies were quickly becoming depleted. Many cars considered rare today seemingly vanished into a cloud of iron oxide, if not donated their hearts to keeping similar models on the road.
It was during this time that Team Principal Jeff Francis’ father, Ben, was pursuing what was perhaps the ultimate pony car: a 1969 Ford Mustang Boss 429. Travelling just a few miles from his home in Oakhurst CA, the elder Francis unfortunately missed the opportunity by a few hours. While conversing with his friend and fellow car collector, the silhouette of a car was spotted under some blankets in the garage. When the covers were removed, there sat a complete basket case of a 1956 Austin Healey 100-4. Most importantly, the British roadster happened to be for sale.
Upon further inspection, the car was far from a lost cause. It was actually in the midst of a restoration; the body had been stripped to bare metal and disassembled, and the interior and driveline were cautiously removed and catalogued. While perhaps not the best way to present a car for sale, the Healey’s state was exactly the type of project Ben regularly sought.
A deal was quickly made and Ben retreated home for his trusty truck and trailer. His mountain home encompassed a couple of acres, of which there were no less than a score of automobiles awaiting reconditioning at any given time. After sitting idle for six months, Jeff had begun doing some research into Austin Healeys to aid his father in deciding how to proceed. In 1956, the factory produced a very rare “M” model. Celebrating the factory’s 1953 LeMans success, the 100M was an uncompromised race car in street trim. The engine featured higher compression 8.1:1 pistons, high-lift camshaft, twin 1 ¾” SU carburetors, redesigned intake manifold and steel head gasket. Upgrades were also made to the suspension in the way of stiffer dampers and anti-roll bars. The package was rounded out with a LeMans-spec louvered bonnet, two-tone paint, and the requisite leather bonnet strap. At the end of the 1-year production run, only 640 examples of the 100M were built, and to date, there were only a few hundred that had survived the test of time. The deadliest race accident in history which took place during the 1955 24 Hours of Le Mans, involved one of these rare Austin Healeys.
There was strong evidence pointing to this example being a legitimate 100M. While some Healeys had various 100M parts added after the fact, all the requisite parts seemed to be present. Luckily, Heritage Motor Center in England had a service to which they could certify the provenance of many British marques, Healeys included. This works much in the same way as the infamous “Marti Report” available for vintage Ford vehicles. The car’s chassis number and a check were sent off to Heritage in exchange for their “Heritage Certificate” in an attempt to confirm the car’s information.
It took three months to hear back from Heritage, which certainly proved to be worth the wait. Not only was this specific Healy a 100M, but it was now worth twice what Ben had originally believed. Unlike most British cars of the era, the Healey was ordered in a beautiful Red/Black over Red, as opposed to the more traditional British Racing Green over Biscuit. A rare example indeed.
Upon learning of the car’s heightened status, it was time to move forward with a proper restoration. In order to bring the car back to its former glory, only the best restoration would do. That expert was found in Ken Jenkins, both an accomplished restoration expert in British cars, but a concours judge to boot. Under Ken’s supervision, the 100M was rehabilitated to the highest of standards; ensuring that every last nut and bolt was 100% correct.
The restoration, while painstaking, proved to be well worth the effort. The Healey was graced with numerous first place awards over the years, beginning with the Greater Valley Concours d ‘Elegance. It later went on to win “Best Overall Sports Car” at the Cherry’s Jubilee Car Show in Monterey, located at the famed Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca. Ben was even honored with the privilege of driving the track to celebrate the victory.
While those accolades would be enough to pacify any car collector, the best was yet to come for Ben and his 100M. At the Visalia Motorsports Festival, the duo was given the highly prestigious “Meguiar’s Award,” which was provided by Barry Meguiar (CEO of Meguiar’s car care and host of the “Meguiar’s Car Crazy” television program) for the best owner/car combination.
The 100M went on to win countless awards at a myriad of local and regional shows. Far from a garage queen, it was regularly put through its paces in the foothills of Central California, just as Donald Healey and the British car gods had intended. It takes a certain kind of passion to exercise a concours-winning automobile in the manner in which it was designed, and Ben had that passion in spades.
Unfortunately, all good things must come to an end. The Francis collection had simply grown too large, and it was time for a few treasures to be passed on to new caretakers. As expected, the little Healey found its way to a good home of collector car enthusiasts. They have since campaigned it at a National Level and achieved some of the most prestigious awards given to restored Austin Healeys.