This Austin-Healey 3000 MkII had been abandoned to a muddy grave. It took a mountain of effort, skill and money to make it perfect again
The fellow who took his part-dismantled Austin-Healey 3000 to JME Healeys around 1990 would kick himself if he could see it now. Trouble is, company founder Jon Everard never heard from the man again and the ’Healey just sat outside JME’s former Leamington Spa workshop under a tarpaulin, slowly sinking into a sloping grass bank surrounded by stacks of similarly dead cars and bodyshells.
Left to its own devices, the 1962 3000 MkII BT7 with triple SU HS4 carburettors would surely have returned to nature. But it was too complete a car and too nicely unmolested to deserve that fate, so after 17 years Jon checked out its ownership status, given that all attempts to contact its former keeper had drawn a blank. The legal view was that the ’Healey had by now become Jon’s. That will do nicely as a retirement project one day, he thought. Besides which, by then it owed around £30,000 in rent…
Dan Everard, Jon’s younger son, takes up the story: ‘We tried to move it, but when we tried to jack it up the jack went straight through the front crossmember.’ Blame years of mud and damp for that. Older son Chris (pictured above) continues: ‘It was in a bit of a sorry state. The front brakes had stuck on and we couldn’t unseize them. We eventually managed to get it on to castor wheels and drag it off the bank with a winch and into a container. Then dad built racking all around it and there it stayed for a few more years.’
Unfortunately, Jon, who served his apprenticeship at the Donald Healey Motor Company and knew the cars like almost no-one else, never did get to start work on the ’Healey. He died – too young – in 2010. By then his sons had been spending more and more time in the business, ‘Our parents wanted us to have lives of our own, but we’ve been immersed in it all our lives.’ So they took a leap into the future and pledged to keep JME Healeys as the mecca for ’Healey restoration it has been since 1978.
Thirty years after JME was founded one of the former Healey factory buildings in The Cape, Warwick (by then a carpet warehouse) became available. Here the ’Healey 100S models had been built, and later it was the special tuning department. Clearly JME Healeys needed to relocate to the most appropriate building there could possibly be, and it happened just before Jon so sadly died.
Chris and Dan decided the thing to do would be to take on the restoration their father never had a chance to start, so they dragged the 3000 back out of the container and transported it to the new workshop. That was 18 months ago, and now the ’Healey is finished.
‘We did it between other jobs,’ says Chris. ‘Normally we’d do a customer’s car in six to eight months.’
Which, when you read what chassis number HBT7L/18164 needed to get from sunk-in-a-bank to ’Healey-shaped perfection, would have been quite an impressive feat.
CHASSIS AND BODY
Does the ’Healey have a separate chassis? It’s a semantic point. The chassis can exist on its own as a functional, structural unit, but the body is welded to it – and once that’s done it’s effectively a unibody with stout chassis rails. But whichever way you look at it the inner panels of ‘VSU 901’ were pretty rotten. The bonnet was missing, but all the other panels were present and most were original – a big bonus, reckons Chris, ‘If you can work with a car’s original panels, it goes together really well.’ One unoriginal part was a right-hand drive dashboard fitted as the start of a drive-side conversion shortly after this US-market car arrived back home in 1989. The Everards decided to reinstate the original left-hand drive configuration.
So the stripdown began of a car which looked, from a distance, a whole lot better than it was. The outer panels were all delicately soda-blasted. That meant drilling or grinding off some of the fixing bolts, but the hardest part was prising off the front shroud where it was stuck to the skeletal steel scuttle panel with mastic.
The stripdown confirmed the extent of the underside rot. The floors and footwells were holed, as were the fronts of the inner sills, the boot floor, and the boot ‘boxes’ with attachments for the rear leaf springs. JME replaced all these plus the inner and outer sills and the A- and B-pillars. ‘If more than a few inches are missing I put in a new panel,’ says welding maestro Dan Everard (pictured above). The front wings were deemed fit for re-use, as was the front valance, but the door bottoms and the lower sections of the rear wings were for the chop. ‘Dave Hardwick in Leicestershire makes panels for us and they’re absolutely superb.’
With all the panels removed, rusted sections cut away and mechanicals stripped out, all that remained was the chassis with its two bulkheads left attached to maintain their alignment, the front one with a jagged hole on each inner side panel where speakers had been crudely installed. Sandblasting followed. It was a chassis worth using, ‘Other restorers might say you’d need a new chassis,’ says Chris, ‘but do you really? The chassis is the birth of the car, and having the original one adds to its value. And in this car, especially, we wanted to use as many original parts as possible.’
Dan set to work on the inner structure, replicating the stitch welds between new floors and chassis rails, invisibly welding steel into the speaker holes and replacing the front crossmember. As the welded outer panels went on, Dan seam-sealed where Austin-Healey never bothered: sills, pillars, even the rolled edges of the inner and outer wheelarches. That should keep the water out. A new bonnet came from AH Spares. The chassis got its paint and mechanicals, then panels were trial-fitted and adjusted for perfect gaps. When refitted they will ‘just click into place’, says Dan. Next, paint.
‘It’s best to mount the body back on the chassis after you’ve done all the mechanical work and refitted the components,’ Chris advises. ‘It allows the chassis to settle first, which can affect the door gaps.’
Paul Robbins – he’s been with JME since 1984 – first gives the rebuilt body and chassis a coat of Rustoleum, a tough coating used on oil rigs. ‘Even a sandblaster won’t take it off,’ says Chris. Next, Paul paints the chassis and inner structure in the main body colour. This done, the Healey’s hidden bits can be built up and the body tried for size. Only then can the body be painted.
Paul begins with three coats of very high-build polyester primer-filler. ‘I’ll probably sand two coats off, but it helps get all the swage lines and gaps perfect. Next come three coats of high-build primer, followed by a light guide coat. That’s sanded down, stopper used on any pinholes or scratches, then it’s re-primed.’
Next come three more coats of Colorado Red direct-gloss two-pack, after which Paul searches for imperfections and finds none. ‘Then I sand it with wet-and-dry until it’s matt, apply three more coats and sand again using finer and finer paper up to P2000 grit.’
The insides of the doors, bonnet and bootlid have also been painted by now, so all the panels are wiped, gone over with a tack-rag and degreased before masking up to apply the Old English White on the flanks. The car was all-red, but the creamy-white flanks were popular in 1962 and look fabulous. Opening panels are painted off the car, but the doors have to be fitted to get the masking lines right. Then they’re taken off again.
After Paul has applied, flatted, re-applied and re-smoothed the OEW, it’s time for three coats of high-solids lacquer. No ’Healey had this in period, but it gives an extra-deep, lustrous finish. Paul wet-flats the lacquer with P3000 then spends two days machine-polishing with Farécla G3 compound.
‘It would have been done in cellulose originally,’ he says, ‘but it fades and goes chalky, takes six weeks to harden and is brittle. Two-pack is easier to work with.’
‘There were animals in the seat foam,’ Chris reports, ‘probably mice. All the panels with a card or thin plywood backing were in a sorry state. And there was that right-hand drive dashboard.’
But it wasn’t all for the skip. The front seat frames and rear seat pans could be re-used, and ‘our lady trimmer’ re-trimmed the front seats. JME makes new door trims, while the rear seat and side panels are outsourced. The instruments are reconditioned by a specialist, the steering wheel is new because the old ones crack, and new carpet is cut and laid.
There’s a tailor-made hood and tonneau but the frame is original, as are the windscreen pillars and their chrome trims. The aluminium moulding which defines the cockpit edge is, importantly, also original albeit beautifully re-anodised.
As found, VSU 901 was complete and the crankshaft turned freely – so it must have been very tempting to see if it would fire up and run. ‘Yes, we were tempted,’ admits Chris, ‘but with those triple carburettors and lots of scope for trouble… So we said, “let’s just strip it.”’
With the engine apart, it was good news. The crankshaft was in extremely good condition, and the whole engine was suitable for a problem-free rebuild. JME’s engine whizz, Carl Mason (pictured above), had the cylinder block bored to +.030in (it was already at +.020in), the ’head skimmed and fitted with new valve guides and hardened seats, then fitted new pistons, camshaft, tappets and bearings, and new anything else not fit for re-use. The gearbox needed new baulk rings and one synchromesh hub but was otherwise fine, helped by the oil that had stayed in all those years. The overdrive needed a light refettling, which JME did on site. The back axle was pleasingly low on wear and just needed new bearings and re-shimming. As for the steering box, a left-hand drive unit and complementary idler box were found to allow VSU 901 to return to its original configuration. ‘It was in pretty good nick,’ Chris says. ‘We just changed the peg – the worm was fine – and the bushes and seals.
‘When the car was stripped we had a huge pile of suspension bits for powder coating: springs, uprights, arms, brackets and more. We used all the original springs; the rears can sag, but these hadn’t. AH Spares reconditioned the lever-arm dampers and we reassembled it all with rebuilt kingpins, new wheel bearings, new rubbers and new brake hydraulics.’
The 72-spoke wire wheels are the originals.
Building a reliable, durable engine is vital for JME, and a unit’s age is no excuse for bad mechanical behaviour. The cylinder block and ’head are acid-dipped, crack- and pressure-tested, and treated to ‘space sealing’ – a two-coat ceramic sealing process that fills any light cracks or porosity in the waterways. ‘We do that because these engines are getting no younger and the castings aren’t great,’ says Chris. Thus oil and water are kept strictly separate.
All the electrics are the domain of Mick Wood (left), who refitted components rebuilt by ex-Lucas expert Terry Dodds, who also made the wiring loom. As with the cockpit moulding, so with the front grille whose surround was originally fitted and tweaked for each individual car. JME rechromes this as one unit rather than dismantling it.
The bumpers, however, are new stainless items which have been chromed. Asbestos was common in 1962, but this time around the heat shields in the engine bay have been remade in modern builders’ insulation board.
Only in its electronic ignition, negative-earth polarity, larger radiator core, 70-profile tyres and hidden 12V sockets does VSU 901 depart from mechanical originality. It even has an original 1962 handbook. ‘But we still need to find a 1962 toolkit,’ adds Chris.
‘It took us 18 months because it was our own car,’ Chris reflects, but when there’s such a high flow of cars – 114 came through the doors last year – it’s hard to devote time to your own project. We did nearly everything in-house, so we could keep control and maintain quality. It probably took about 900 hours.
‘If we’d charged a customer for it that would have been £25,000 in labour and £26,500 in parts. Plus you need the car in the first place, say £18,000 for one in the state this was in.’ On that basis the £75,000 asking price seems very fair. JME is a business and the ’Healey must be sold, but the Everard brothers definitely have a sentimental attachment to it.
I can report that this 3000 is now a delight to drive, taut, torquey, tuneful, just a little bit vintage and feeling like a brand new car – which it virtually is. A brand-new car, built in an original ’Healey factory building. Perfect.
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We recommend you check your tyre pressures weekly if your car is in regular use. If your classic has been in storage over the winter period, over-inflating the tyres to close to the tyre manufacturers maximum recommended pressure will help prevent a flat spot forming on the tread of the tyre. This is a common problem when cars are stood for an extended period and leads to unpleasant vibration when the car is driven.
Of course you must remember to reset the tyres to the recommended pressures before you use the car!
Tyres obviously wear. UK law states that passenger car tyres must have a minim of 1.6mm of tread across the centre ¾ of the tyres tread. In reality we would recommend at least 3mm of tread as an absolute minimum for good wet weather grip. Under normal use they should wear evenly across the width of the tread. The pattern of wear is a good diagnosis tool when trying to identify issues with wheel alignment and suspension geometry. Excessive wear on the centre of the tread pattern is often indicative of over inflated tyres for instance. Wear to the edges can be caused by under inflation or if only present on one edge of a tyre, excessive toe angle or camber issues possibly caused by wear in the suspension.
Good suspension geometry is essential to tyre life and the road holding of your car. Having your cars suspension geometry checked and adjusted as part of your normal maintenance schedule will not only help preserve your tyres but will enhance your driving experience by keeping the car handling as its designers intended.
Tyres not only wear but they degrade with time. There are currently no laws in the UK concerning passenger car tyre age other than the condition of the tyre, cracks, perishing and tread depth. However as a good rule of thumb even if a tyre appears to be in good condition, 10 years would be a good point to replace with new.
There are two main types of tyres used on classic cars. Radial and the older Cross-ply type. These descriptions refer to how the carcass of the tyre is constructed. Radial tyres have a stronger more ridged construction which in turn produces a tyre which runs cooler, lasts longer and ultimately gives significantly more grip and predictability. Very often Radial tyres can be retro fitted to older cars fitted with cross-ply tyres and can provide significant improvements in road holding and safety however some consideration must be given to the extra loads that these tyres are capable of inducing in the cars suspension and steering.
It is not unusual to see wider tyres fitted to classic cars that were originally fitted with “skinny looking” cross-ply or narrow radial tyres. This can increase the amount of available grip but again caution is required and other modifications may be required to get the best out of the tyres and maintain the handling characteristics of the car.
Looking after your tyres is one of the simplest and most effective maintenance items you can invest time into. And better still, in most cases, the air that fills them is free!
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The cardinal rule of carburetor tuning is Ignition First. Once the static ignition setting and the ignition advancing mechanism in the distributor is correct, the air-fuel mixture can be tuned for full power and fuel efficiency.
High-performance carburetors, intake manifolds, cylinder heads, camshafts, and other tuning components are all dependent upon correct ignition timing; if the spark is not delivered at the proper time to the combustion chamber, the quest for optimum power or economy is impaired.
But the distributor has vanished! Tuning contemporary hot rods involves electronics and computer software. Sensors abound. They sense Manifold Absolute Pressure, Mass Air Flow, crankshaft position and so on. They report to an ECU (engine control unit) that constantly ascertains all the variables and tells each spark plug when to fire. Where there was once a distributor, multiple coils now exist, often one on each spark plug.
Still, what a joy it is to understand the psychology of the hot rodder who lusts for a carburetor and a distributor. And, ironically, older vehicles can be simpler to tune. They require no fancy equipment or computer knowledge, often just a timing light, a screwdriver and a few wrenches.
Background on points-and-coil ignition
Before sophisticated electronic management systems arrived, we used the points-and-coil ignition system that first appeared on the 1910 Cadillac. A distributor was employed to determine when each spark plug should fire. An engine-driven mechanical cam in the distributor rotating at camshaft speed operated a set of breaker points. The points switched electrical current to the coil which converted it to high voltage required to fire spark plugs.
The high voltage was delivered from the coil to the center of the distributor cap via a high-voltage wire. Inside the cap there are small metal tabs, one to serve each spark plug. A rotor mounted on the upper end of the mechanical cam and functioning within the distributor cap routes the high-voltage impulses to the correct spark plug. A condenser has the dual function of extending the life of the points by quenching the arc across the points and forming a resonant circuit with the coil that boosts peak voltage.
The rotor is connected through the high-voltage coil to the battery, and the small metal tabs in the distributor cap are connected via spark plug wires to the spark plugs. As the rotor spins, the current jumps across the tiny gap to each of the small metal tabs, completing the electrical circuit and sending short-duration, high-voltage currents to each spark plug on time.
Timing the ignition
Ignition timing is affected by a host of elements including fuel type, mixture strength, combustion chamber shape, compression ratio, temperature and humidity. Furthermore, the ignition is always timed to fire the spark plug before the piston reaches Top Dead Center (TDC) in the cylinder. Firing before TDC is necessary because of the time it takes for the flame front to ignite the air-fuel mixture in the cylinder
The two elements of ignition timing: static or initial timing and progressive timing
When you combine static or initial timing with progressive timing the result is total timing. Static timing can vary from as little as 8 degrees before TDC to over 40 degrees depending upon the engine. Tuning the static or initial timing is achieved by simply twisting the distributor body in relation to the rotor. Consequently, either the points or an electronic pickup will be triggered earlier or later.
Progressive spark advance is conducted by either mechanical means or by vacuum or both. Its function is to increase ignition timing beyond that of the static setting. As engine speeds increase the spark is required to fire earlier because there is less time for the air-fuel mixture to burn.
Mechanical spark advance mechanisms consist of weights on springs that are hurled outwards under centrifugal force within the distributor. As engine speeds increase, the weights progressively rotate on a wider radius, advancing the rotor relative to the cap and consequently advancing the ignition timing. Vacuum advance, on the other hand, accelerates the ignition timing by responding to low pressure in the intake manifold. The task for the engine tuner, therefore, is to fire the spark at exactly the right time throughout rev range.
Tuning the vacuum advance mechanism is achieved by use of an adjustable vacuum advance or changing the location where it senses the vacuum in the intake manifold. Tuning the mechanical advance mechanism is accomplished by replacing the springs or weights or both.
The most common symptom of inadequate ignition timing
Often highly tuned engines, those with high performance camshafts, cylinder heads, and intake manifolds exhibit a lazy response or, worse, hesitate under acceleration or die at idle. The solution is to increase the static timing and decrease the progressive timing (mechanical or vacuum) thereby limiting excessive total timing at high engine speeds. Carburetor tuners regard this as their most abiding problem but one that is easily cured by distributor modifications.
Using a standard timing light (a non-dial-back type) connected to the number 1 cylinder and to both battery terminals and with the engine running on idle this engine is firing about 20 degrees before TDC. This ignition timing event is known as the static or initial timing and is a good starting point for high performance engines, particularly those with aggressive camshafts.
Firing at 10 degrees before TDC is a good initial ignition setting for a mildly modified engine.
Firing at 5 degrees before TDC is a typical initial ignition setting for a stock engine.
Firing at TDC or just after, as shown here, will probably cause the engine to stop. Engines, particularly high-performance engines are allergic to retarded ignition timing. Because of the time required to ignite the air-fuel mixture in the cylinder they need correctly advanced ignition timing to run properly.
How to check static and total ignition timing with a dial-back-style timing light
Using a dial-back-style timing light, you adjust the dial until the line on the crankshaft balancer aligns with the TDC mark on the tab. Thus, at idle the number on the dial would represent your initial timing. Total timing is determined similarly, except the engine speed is increased, usually to 2,500-3,000rpm at which speed the weights and springs will have moved to their maximum advance position.
The advantage of the dial-back-style timing light becomes clear when determining total timing. In this example total timing is recorded at 38 degrees before TDC. With the standard non-dial-back timing light, 38 degrees will be a far distance from the tab and requires some form of measuring.
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