Switching from writing about new cars to the oldies is by no means a straightforward task, even for the most experienced motoring journalist. Keen on the change, Gero Lilleike starts his schooling in the classics with a British icon.
Words and Images: Gero Lilleike
I poked my head into the cabin of a finely preserved 1964 Austin-Healey 3000 Mark III Convertible.
It smelt old.
Where was I going to sit?
By modern standards, the interior is well-and-truly cramped. Scratching my head, I wondered how on earth I was going to fit my frame into this low-slung British sports convertible.
With a huff, a puff and a squeeze, however, I soon found myself behind the thin-rimmed wire steering wheel familiarising myself with all the unfamiliar switches and knobs from a time long gone. It all felt very strange and foreign...
After a few awkward minutes, I pulled the choke switch out, turned the ignition and feathered the gas. The Healey's straight-six, 3.0-litre lump came to life.
It sounded marvellous!
The 4-speed manual is almost as stubborn as I am but I managed to thrust it into 1st and gently set a course towards George along the N2.
My first drive in an Austin-Healey was underway!
Our destination for this drive-out was a roadside pizza joint beyond the picturesque Outeniqua Pass, an excursion hosted by the Austin-Healey Club of Southern Africa.
Knysna town was humming with cars and I wasn’t quite prepared for the stress of driving a classic car in congested traffic. The simplest manoeuvres that drivers of modern cars execute, such as braking, changing lanes, pulling off on an incline etc, all require not only additional planning — but also nerves of steel when you are piloting a classic.
I was warned that the brakes were poor and using the gears for braking proved to be far more effective and forgiving on the car, but that stubborn gearbox wasn’t helping me. The Austin-Healey’s indicator switch is located on the steering wheel, which in this case, requires you manually turn it off. Naturally, I kept forgetting and I was also required to keep a close eye on the water and oil gauges in case of overheating. So much to do! Talk about being spoiled by the conveniences of modern motoring!
Beyond the Knysna Lagoon, I stepped on the gas and was surprised by how tractable the Healey was in 4th gear, even on steeper inclines. No fighting the gear lever here, the 3000 just got on with it!
More so, I was expecting a hard, wooden ride quality but instead, I was being treated to a rather superbly sprung suspension. The sun was out and the air was warm, the perfect day for a drive in a classic car. Everything was going so right, what could possibly go wrong?
Just past Sedgefield, we pulled over for a quick break. I depressed the brake pedal and it went straight to the floor. The brakes were shot! A burnt smell filled the cabin and smoke billowed from the front left wheel well.
My pleasant drive had come to an abrupt end!
Also on the drive was experienced ex-Porsche mechanic, Teengs Snijders. He had a quick look and confirmed that the brakes needed some attention. With a wealth of experience, Teengs volunteered to drive the brake deficient Austin-Healey 3000 to our destination while I was offered to pilot an older but fully restored 1958 Austin-Healey 100-6 with its engine uprated to 3.0-litre (the original specification engine is a 2.6-litre 6-cylinder engine).
I wasn’t going to say no!
Just when I thought the fun was all over, we were back on the road!
Being the precursor to the more modern 3000, this older 100-6 was in fine driving condition. The restoration was completed by marque expert Ben Gerber in 2006 and the car has since completed 4 National Tours without any hassle.
Not only is it lighter and slightly more nimble than the 3000, but with its uprated engine, it was also more powerful and livelier to drive.
Donald Healey was the engineer and creator of the hugely successful Healey 100 which from 1952 was developed for the British and American markets and, following an agreement with Leonard Lord of the Austin Motor Company, Austin-Healey was born and the rest is, well, history.
All Austin-Healeys were built to serve a single purpose — to perform in style, but more specifically to travel at over 100 mph (161 kph), which was the ultimate goal of its day.
Engine performance was paramount and of course, chassis and suspension design was critical too. The flowing design of the sports convertible body is sublime, but the car itself was essentially developed around the engine. It’s for this reason that the cabin design, for instance, is simple and wonderfully rudimentary. No luxuries here, sir!
Conveniences such as wind-up windows were therefore non-existent (they only came later on the BJ7 and BJ8). The benefit of this development approach, however, is that the driver is afforded a more invigorating and visceral driving experience because the road, wind and engine noise flow freely through the cabin. You can, of course, get the full experience by ‘dropping the top’ too, if you wish...
Overdrive, which serves as a ‘cruising’ function on the highway, can be engaged in 3rd or 4th gear and then easily disengaged in urban situations or on steeper inclines with an easy flick of a switch.
The convoy of Austin-Healeys meandered through George and up the scenic Outeniqua Pass where the 100-6 Roadster glided through corners with an air of elegance and confidence with the spectacular Outeniqua mountains as a fitting backdrop. Was I driving in heaven?!
After a pleasant lunch stop, I was eager to get more time behind the tiller! I was now more confident and comfortable than I thought I ever would be and the drive back to Knysna proved to be hugely enjoyable and perhaps more importantly — memorable.
This drive reminded me to appreciate the simpler things in life. I have driven many cars in my career thus far but this 1958 Austin-Healey is the oldest car I’ve driven to date. Perhaps it’s their ability to take us back in time but there’s something so undeniably magical about driving older cars.
I think I can feel a fever coming on...
*Special thanks to Brian Bruce and his team at Classique Edge for the opportunity to drive these special Austin Healeys.