It was irresistible and I just had to have it. Back in 1976, my friend Keith had learnt the whereabouts of a Riley powered 1947 Healey Duncan saloon that had been in Australia since the early 1950s. It wasn’t in the best of condition, but knowing Keith’s skills he was certain that he was going to restore it. I wanted it, so I asked Keith for first refusal should he ever decide to sell it.
I had bought my first Austin-Healey, a ’53 100, in 1971 when just 20-years of age. I had seen a few on the road and liked what I saw. The shape appealed and as a single man in possession of a fortune, I was in want of a sports car. That fortune was $1,295, as back then Austin-Healeys were just old sports cars.
Within a short period of time, I became acquainted with the Austin-Healey lore and even more so about Donald Healey himself and the significant achievements of the small Donald Healey Motor Company, located in the English city of Warwick. When I started, I knew very little about the various Austin-Healey models and, as far as I knew, Healey cars came from a different planet.
However, burdened with a voracious appetite for history, I soon found out that while the first Austin-Healeys were made in 1952, the first Riley-powered Healey was shown to the public in 1946. So for the next 11 years, every time I saw Keith, I reminded him of my first refusal.
True to his word, I was offered first refusal in 1987 and went to pick up the car, or perhaps a better description, what was left of the car. Between 1976 and 1987 the car had sat under a lean-to behind Keith’s garage and gravity being what it is, attracted the car further and further into the bare dirt floor. While the chassis and all the mechanicals were there, half the panel work was missing and, being a coachbuilt car, most of the structural timber was rotten or non-existent.
Was I pleased with what I bought? Yes, I certainly was and had visions of undertaking the restoration when retirement approached. Well, that’s at least what I thought would happen, but if there is one thing I have noticed about owning older cars for 45-plus years is that what was relatively inexpensive back when the cars were built is now probably the most expensive.
So the remains of the car sat in our garage and moved house when we did, which was easier said than done with a car that had no visible means of support between its body and chassis. However, there was time to explore its history, which was interesting enough as while it was sold new in the UK it was shipped to New Zealand in late 1948. While there, it certainly appealed to the car starved Kiwis and featured in a number of publications of the time. It also ran in a race meeting at the Ohakea air force base that is now seen as the inaugural New Zealand Grand Prix.
How the car arrived in Australia is unknown, but there are reports of it being in a Sydney used car lot and then, in 1956, it was seen in a less-than-roadgoing state in a smash repair business. From then until it first adorned my garage it probably went through three or four hands of people who were “gunna restore it!”
Following a highly successful career as a rally and trials competitor prior to World War II, the hostilities saw Donald Healey with the military vehicle arm of the Humber Car Company. Beforehand, he was Technical Director for Triumph and responsible for the design of all their vehicles. While with Humber, Healey met Ben Bowden their chief body draughtsman and Sammy Sampietro who worked with chassis design.
Filled with enthusiasm, the three of them would discuss what would be needed to produce a sports car of their own design. When it became obvious that the war would soon come to an end, that enthusiasm increased to the extent that with the world at peace the three were working full-time on the project. The result was the release, in January 1946, of the Healey 2.4 Liter, which initially was available in open form (Healey Westland) or closed (Healey Elliott).
From then until 1954, a total of 1,287 Healey cars were produced with various bodies and fitted with Riley, Nash or Alvis engines. Included in this were 93 chassis that were supplied to various coachbuilders throughout the UK and Europe. Also included were 39 chassis that were supplied to Duncan Industries of North Walsham in Norfolk, England.
To those among us who are interested in automotive history, this is where the story becomes very interesting and it revolves around a gentleman by the name of Ian Gair Duncan, who was born and bred in Norfolk.
Duncan studied mechanical engineering not long before WWII and secured a position with the Bristol Aeroplane Company, then one of the world’s largest aircraft manufacturers. Heading the engineering side at Bristol at the time was chief engineer Roy Fedden who was somewhat of a legend within the industry. Within a couple of years, Duncan was appointed Fedden’s personal assistant. Also working at Bristol, on engine design, was Alex Moulton who would go on to feature later.
While Fedden’s knowledge of sleeve valve engines had been the mainstay at Bristol since the early 1930s, he lost his position there in late 1942, but was soon snapped up by the wartime British government as a special technical advisor for aircraft production. Ian Duncan left with him and they both travelled to the U.S. to study aero engine production methods on behalf of the government.
On their return, while still involved in government activities, Roy Fedden Ltd was established with Ian Duncan as chief engineer to undertake some projects of their own. These included a flat-six aero engine, a small gas turbine engine and the first Fedden car.
Of interest is the Fedden car that was powered by a rear-mounted 1.6-liter, 3-cylinder, air-cooled engine. The car was also of chassis-less, or monocoque construction, and featured a torque converter and a swing axle at the rear. The Fedden car did not take kindly to being driven with any enthusiasm and on its initial test flipped on its roof! What was the cause of it is not known, but Fedden and Duncan had a falling out.
Duncan headed for the town of North Walsham, where his brother Albert ran Duncan Canning. For a time, Ian Duncan undertook some design engineering for the company, but at the back of his mind was the prospect of producing a car using the design ideas he had developed. This led to the establishment of Duncan Industries (Engineers) Ltd, in late 1946, where Duncan was soon joined by Frank Hamblin, Alan Lamburn and William Renwick,all of which had been involved, either directly or indirectly, with Fedden.
Both Duncan and Hamblin had the same idea that their new car was to be a large vehicle in miniature. It was Hamblin who came up with the name – Duncan Dragonfly.
While it would have been optimal for Duncan to design and build an engine for the Dragonfly, the cost would have been prohibitive. So a successful approach was made to BSA for a 2-cylinder, air-cooled motorcycle engine. Where it continues to get interesting was that when supplies were received, modifications were made so that the crankcase of the engine was cast as one piece with the gearbox casing, but while the gears were still separate, the common casing eliminated any alignment problems. The Dragonfly was front-wheel drive with the engine just above and forward of the driveline, with drive to the 12-inch wheels (originally sourced from Crosley Motors in the U.S.) by the use of twin driveshafts and constant velocity joints. The suspension was double-wishbone at the front, with trailing arms and Panhard rod at the rear. The springing material was by rubber designed by Alex Moulton.
Such a project then, as it would be now, was prohibitively expensive. To help fund the Duncan Dragonfly it was also Duncan’s intention to offer a coachbuilding service. Ian Duncan had a friend in Kay Petre, the well-known pre-WWII racing driver turned motoring writer, who was also at the launch of the new Healey 2.4 Liter.
In that immediate post-war period, there was an acute shortage of cars available to those members of the public who had the funds to buy one. Petre was well aware that rolling chassis production at the Donald Healey Motor Company far exceeded the ability of both coachbuilders Westland and Elliott to meet the demand and so passed on the message to Ian Duncan.
The designer of the Dragonfly body then found himself deigning bodies for full size cars and in particular the Healey chassis and before long Healey rolling chassis were being delivered to Duncan Industries. At the same time, Alvis cars had released the TA 14 and they too were having difficulties in that they were building more chassis than they could find bodies for.
Duncan Industries then had the unique situation of offering the same bodywork for differing makes of motorcars and in particular for the Healey and Alvis chassis, albeit with a very differing frontal treatment. Petre in the September 8, 1947 issue of the “Daily Sketch” published an article saying that this included Daimler as well.
North Walsham is not located in a part of England that is renowned for its automotive industry so the panels required by Duncan Industries were hand formed in Coventry, by Motor Panels. However, there were a number of traditional boat builders close by and these were relied upon for the supply of the coachbuilding timbers.
The style of the Duncan bodywork could be called striking, especially that fitted to the Healey chassis. One example was shown on the Healey stand at the Paris Salon in 1947 where it was greeted with significant positive comment from the motoring press of the time. Many praised the aerodynamic styling and pillarless construction, commenting on how different it was from the “perpendicular” designs that were coming out of England at the same time.
Then, in June 1947, disaster struck in the form of a government tax edict that all cars that cost in excess of £1,000 would be subject to a double purchase tax levy of 66 2/3%. This made the total purchase price of a new Healey Duncan Saloon a cool £2,876 (about US$148,000 today).
In response, Ian Duncan did something rather clever and offered a very different and basic body on the Healey chassis, where even the spare tire and passenger seat were optional extras. However, the style of this bodywork was not what most would call attractive and was in some ways looked similar to that of a Cord 810. Some called the new car the “Spiv” but they were eventually named the Healey Duncan Drone. The total cost of this new car was less than £1,000. Once purchased, the owner could keep the car as is or could have another body fitted for which no purchase tax was payable.
While accurate figures are not known it is thought that 20 Alvis T14 chassis received Duncan bodywork, while either 39 or 41 Healey chassis were fitted likewise including 21 saloons, two drophead coupes and the remainder as Drones. Duncan bodywork was also fitted to an unknown number of Daimler chassis and to at least one Allard chassis. When Duncan Industries were operating at full steam it employed close to 120 people.
Unfortunately, the long arm of the taxman eventually caught up with Duncan Industries and Ian Duncan for unpaid purchase tax on new coachbuilt cars. Ian Duncan had to liquidate the company’s assets, which included the incomplete cars, the Dragonfly and parts. Approaches were made to BSA and Jaguar to buy the car and design, but both declined. The next approach was to Leonard Lord at Austin.
Lord liked what he saw and offered to pay Duncan £10,000 for the Dragonfly and enough spares to almost make a further six cars on the proviso that Ian Duncan would work for Austin for a period of three years.
Duncan would spend the next three years at Austin where he was involved in the design of the Austin A30. The Duncan Dragonfly would be destined for the experimental department at Austin and it’s said that it would eventually be relegated to the disused air-raid tunnels that crisscrossed underneath Austin’s Longbridge facility at the time. Eventually, it was broken up and scrapped, except for a few small parts.
It was the sad end for a car that was leap years ahead of anything being thought of within the British motor industry at the time. Almost ten years later, a new car would enter the market from Longbridge that also had its engine coupled with its gearbox, drove through constant velocity joints and relied on rubber for its springing. That was, of course, the Mini, but Alec Issigonis said there was no connection.
Fast forward to August 2013 and I had learned what I could on the history of the Healey Duncan in my garage. I had some years earlier dismantled the car completely and had sent the chassis away to be stripped, repaired and repainted. That was small beer compared with what lay ahead.
Then a friend mentioned that there was a Healey Duncan Sports Saloon listed for auction by Bonhams at their Beaulieu sale in the UK on September 7th. That piece of information certainly sparked my interest as in 40-plus years of Healey and Austin-Healey ownership, I had never seen a Healey Duncan up for public sale beforehand.
By that stage, the 21 Healey Duncan Saloons built, had dwindled down to six, and of these just three were going and all in the UK including this one, chassis B1761. I kept the news under my hat for a time before letting my wife Caroline know, who I can honestly say was just as enthusiastic about the prospect of buying it as I was. Frankly, our earlier car, while having been in the antipodes since the late 1940s was beyond me, both technically and financially to restore back to its original splendor.
Needless to say I was quite taken by the photos used for the auction, especially those taken in front of Blenheim Palace. Actually, I thought the car was painted metallic pale green because of the reflection of the grass. Some of the first Healeys were painted in metallic paints, as Donald Healey was an early adopter of the new medium.
So September 7th came and we were ready. Actually, due to the time difference the auction started late on a Saturday night here in Sydney, Australia and Lot 327 was due around 1:00 am on the Sunday in between a rather nice 1947 Allard M1 and a 1951 Lagonda 2.6 Liter Drophead Coupe.
To cut a long story short, by 1:10am we were the owners of a 1948 Healey Duncan Sports Saloon. Then started the lengthy process of getting the car to Australia, but of course first of all we had to pay for it. We had three days to organize the money, which we managed to achieve and then we had three months to remove the car from the UK or else we would not be eligible for a refund of the Value Added Tax (VAT). We made that too, thanks to fellow members in the UK-based Association of Healey Owners but not before the paperwork was done. You can’t import a car into Australia unless you have an import permit and you can’t apply for it until you have paid the money. Nowhere does it say on the government papers what happens if the permit is not received.
Finally, the car arrived in Australia in early January 2014 after a sunny sea voyage via the Suez Canal and Singapore.
It looked to be in good condition and sure enough the body and trim were in excellent condition. Unfortunately, the body was damaged at the very front and rear when it was being towed across Sydney, but thankfully it carried insurance. The insurance company came to the party and agreed to have the whole car repainted except for the doors. At the front there are no joins in the bodywork from the very front to half way up the windscreen pillars and at the rear, the single sheet of aluminium extends from under the bootlid right through to the top of the front screen. Thankfully, I had the doors painted too because there was evidence of woodworm meaning that the door structural timbers were about as useful as tissue paper.
The car arrived with a small number of documents and an album containing photos of when its body was restored in 1996. The photos also showed that at least then it had been finished in Russet Red. Somehow, I prefer the silver paint and red trim. Mechanically, I can’t say that the car was in wonderful condition. The brakes were non-existent, the wheel bearing grease was a gooey mush, the steering loosely connected to the front wheels and the engine mounts were spongy. On top of all that was that it was fitted with four different brands of cross-ply tires, the youngest of which was 32-years old!
However, the biggest challenge came from, when sometime in the car’s past, someone had fitted steel nuts to the exhaust manifold studs. After using penetrating oil for a week or so I managed to break five of the eight studs and that’s when I found out that the manifold itself was rusted frozen to the studs. Removing the 38-kilogram cylinder head was quite straightforward, as was the machining to extract the old studs.
Spares for Riley cars aren’t widely available in any parts of the world, but thankfully the Riley Club has an excellent spares service. That the Healey is screwed together with British Standard Fine (BSF) fasteners just increased the challenge. So various gaskets, studs, bolts and nuts were ordered.
The car has now been back on the road for about 18 months and our earlier Healey Duncan was sold to someone who I am pleased to say is restoring it as a saloon. After the major mechanical problems were rectified, I turned my mind to the inside and gorgeous Jaeger chronometric gauges set in the reverse painted Perspex dash. It’s wonderful to watch the tell-tale needles flicker through their arches. A couple of good, clean and new cables later, both the speedometer and tachometer are working as they should. Everything else works just as well, but I have still to come to grips with the pull cable marked “Ignition” that rotates the distributor slightly. All Healeys were also fitted with dual SU fuel pumps – sea level and alpine. Don’t know if they are both working.
The car, along with its UK registration number DCL 274, is listed in Bill Emerson’s celebrated publication “The Healey Book,” but unlike the others that are marked with the bodystyle it is shown as “Special or Duncan Saloon.” It is also the last Duncan-bodied Healey noted. All of which indicates to me that it lay unfinished at North Walsham when the taxman came knocking at the door and then sold off. There is, however, a small badge next to the glovebox marked Reliance Garage, Heighham Street, Norwich. No 345. A distance of just 15 miles, Reliance Garage was an Alvis agent and it was they who suggested to Ian Duncan that Alvis chassis would be useful for the Duncan bodywork. Reliance Garage still exists and at the same address.
After 65 five years of living in an English climate, I don’t know if the car has yet fallen for the warmer Australian weather. The radiator has been removed a few times and the cylinder block cleaned as best I could, but the car is not ready to be used in our summers. Conversely, it has never been fitted with a heater, so there are things to be attended there. Interestingly, there is no gearbox tunnel which is standard with early Healeys, allowing engine heat and fumes into the car. It might take the place of a heater in colder climates, but not in Australia.
So lots to be done including the investigation of some strange noises in the driveline. The rear end is located by its torque tube, Panhard rod and an A-frame. The front of the torque tube sits within a couple of trunnion bushes and between the tube and the gearbox are twin universal joints. I’m sure there will be excessive wear within all that.
I can’t yet say that it’s a delight to drive, but just yesterday we took it to the annual All British Day here in Sydney, along with another 1,500-plus British cars and the drive in the early morning Sunday traffic was the best one yet. Keeping within the speed limit is easy and I can imagine trying out the claim that the Healey was the world’s fastest car in series production. The four-wheel drums are more than suitable, as long as you remember that the car is nearly 70-years old and the same goes with the four-speed gearbox.
However, it’s when it’s on display that it comes into its own. One young bloke came up to me and raved how all the curves were just like a woman. Most can’t believe that it was made in 1948 and, like me, they just love the pillarless construction and curvature of the rearward opening doors. The women just sigh when I point out the recess in the back floor for their feet and a larger recess in the inside of the roof for their hats. The wicker picnic basket looks perfect sitting on the back seat along with the woollen rug in grey tones of course.
Next year, the odd noises will be addressed. Looking forward to that!
Remember the small part that was left over from the Duncan Dragonfly? It was the Duncan Industries badge and while I had one, I really wanted another. Then, through the wonders of the Internet and eBay in particular, a badge came up for sale in England.
It turned out that it had been owned by a gentleman who used to work for the experimental department at Austin. While there, he had removed it from the Dragonfly prior to it being destroyed and eventually gave it to his next door neighbor along with a very early Mini. Thanks to eBay I have the two badges that I needed and these were fixed to the car when it was painted in Australia.
Body: Aluminium body over wooden frame • Chassis: Steel box section • Wheelbase: 8ft 6in • Track: Front 4ft 6in – Rear 4ft 5in • Length: 15ft 5in • Width: 5ft 5.5in • Weight: 2,840lbs • Suspension: Front–Independent by trailing link, coil springs and lever arm shock absorbers Rear–Coil springs, lever arm shock absorbers, Panhard rod and A-frame • Engine: Four-cylinder Overhead Valve • Displacement: 2,443cc (80.5mm x 120mm) • Induction: Twin SU Carburettors • Power: 104bhp at 4,800rpm • Transmission: Four-speed synchro (not on 1st) and reverse • Brakes: Hydraulic operated Lockheed drum brakes on all four wheels