1960 MkI Austin-Healey BT7: Living the dream
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Daydreaming can lead to an empty wallet, as Brian Strahan found out after helping a neighbour fix his Triumph Stag.
“I can just see you in one of these,” said his neighbour.
That started Brian thinking. “Things clicked over, and I did decide a classic would be okay. And in the realms of affordability, I could see myself in a Healey.”
So Brian talked to the Austin Healey Club, and was told about this car that was in bits in an Onehunga warehouse.
That didn’t deter Brian as he was an A-grade mechanic and had served his apprenticeship in the era when this car was new. He bought the 1960 MkI Austin-Healey BT7 bits and got to work.
That was back in 1998 and, judging by Brian’s photos, the car was a basket case when the restoration began in 2001.
The Austin Healey MkI is a British sports car that was launched in 1959 with bodywork by Jensen Motors. It was assembled in BMC’s Abingdon factory in England alongside MGs.
The two variants were the two-seater BN7 and this one, the BT7, with two tiny rear seats. Initially the model had some racing success, so there’s pedigree there.
Not that it was obvious, when Brian looked at the “junk” he had bought. But it wasn’t long before the body was at a specialist and the engine was at a reconditioner, while Brian got stuck into the mechanicals.
“The bodywork took an age,” he said, “And I had to import a new bonnet, a boot and a couple of guards from the UK.”
Initially he planned to restore the car to the original specifications, so he painted the restored chassis Healey blue. However, he didn’t like the blue, so he went to some trouble to obtain exactly the shade of silver he liked.(Ironically on the day Driven photographed the Healey, the silver paint reflects the clear skies, giving it a blue tint.)
He decided to make a few more compromises. The suspension is slightly modified, as are the brakes. “This never came out with a booster and the brakes were always a bit heavy, so I put a booster in,” Brian says.
As for the 2.9-litre in-line six-cylinder engine, the original is complete, and still in his possession, but it topped out at around 183km/h. Brian wanted a bit more performance, and with this set-up, he has it.
It still uses an Austin-Healey block, but with high-compression alloy heads, racing pistons, a lightweight flywheel, a high-lift cam and the twin SU carbs replaced by triple double-choke Webers.
Brian has never really opened it up, but he reckons it’d reach around 193km/h. The Healey sounds fabulous — smooth, yet purposeful — thanks, in part, to the full-flow exhaust he fitted.
The four-speed manual is enhanced when cruising by the overdrive switch, and swooping along a few curving Far North back roads under the winter sun seemed an ideal way to spend a Saturday.
The wind was riffling our hair but the rest of the snug cabin stayed warm and calm. The original seats and the new upholstery were supportive, and the original instruments glinted from their nest in the refurbished dash.
The car was finished two weeks before a Healey rally in Hanmer Springs, in 2003, and Brian drove it all the way from Pakaraka, in the Far North.
“I took a bit of a chance it would hang together,” he says.
Since then he has taken it to a Healey club rally in Wanganui, and around the East Cape, among other destinations.
There’s not much boot space alongside the rear tyre. Thank goodness for the small rear seats under the tonneau – and the fabric roof. “If you see rain way, way ahead you stop, as it doesn’t go up quickly,” he says.
Brian might have rebuilt a classic, helped set up the Bay of Islands Classic and SportsCar Club, and sat as its president for five years, but he’s not a fanatic. He says he’d sell this Healey if the price was right.
His wife, Fredi, disagrees. The couple met through the car club, and she sold her E-Type Jaguar not long ago.
“I think you need a classic car,” she says, suggesting a few alternatives to the Healey. Brian may be prepared to see the old car go, but I doubt Fredi would let that garage space stay empty for long.