As perspiration drips down my face, all I can think about is the day when I’ll sit behind the wheel of my Big Healey and roam the streets. In my daydream, her engine purrs and the dual exhaust pipes roar when we accelerate. It’s easy to imagine the wind nipping at my face and more than anything the joy of feeling the torque from her hefty six-cylinder pulling with every shift of the gears.
After a tough six months of work, the restoration is complete. Both of my hands are bruised and one has stitches. There is also a hole in my wallet the size of a rhino. Nevertheless, when I drive the Healey out of the garage and onto the street, yes, there is a broad smile on my face.
However, it quickly becomes apparent the Healey’s appeal extends to an audience that I did not anticipate. It seems every time I take the car out to roam the streets or just show it off a little, a young person typically in his teens asks me this question, “Hey, old man, you wanna race?” It’s probably the only downside of owning an Austin-Healey 3000, but with a little creativity I manage to turn this weird phenomenon into fun.
Before we talk about that, let’s back up a little. Prior to telling you more, let me introduce you to the British-built 1965 Austin-Healey 3000 MK III. This car, in my opinion, is not enjoying the appreciation it deserves. People undervalue it even today. Don’t misunderstand me you’ll pay dearly to own one in good condition. These cars are collector cars. My 1965 Austin-Healey restoration is ringing in at $32,500 and the engine in this car only needs minor work and a tune up.
What I’m talking about is the appreciation for the experience of driving a Big Healey roadster. The car gets kudos for its appearance; those side coves are fabulous when painted black on a red car, but the driving is underappreciated. Taking it out on the road and putting it through the paces is what I’m talkin’ about!
You sit low and slide through its four gears while listening to the exhaust rumble – that’s the good stuff! Take a right and then a left turn at high speed with hardly a bit of body roll, it’s a wonderful experience. Note how the long hood with its classic lines catapults you back to a bygone era; it’s priceless.
I know other cars of the period can do that, too. However, an Austin-Healey 3000 has something special that other cars cannot match. It’s difficult to put into words. You simply have to get behind the wheel and experience it. This intangible “it” radiates from the car. Although, it is not understood fully until you drive the car on a winding road upshifting and downshifting as you go. It seems to have a “siren” like effect on large numbers of people, especially one particular group of people.
There isn’t one testosterone infused male teenager with a car that can resist pulling up to the Healey and asking “Wanna race?” If he is a little more mature, he’ll first ask, “Hey man, what’s under the hood?” followed by the inevitable question, “Want to race?”
This has happened to me so many times I now simply laugh and say “Sure.” Then I rev the engine a few times so they can hear the dual exhaust notes (each muffler has its own note so, yes it’s plural). I grin and make an effort to be obvious that I’ve put the shifter in first gear. Teenage boys get so excited when they hear the engine rumble they sometimes wiggle in their seats. They grab the steering wheel, look ahead intently, and wait impatiently at the red light. When the light changes, I stay motionless and watch them peel away.
They look back at me with confusion. I can almost hear them say, “What the…?”
I laugh again. Then I go about my business. I think aloud, “They’ll never learn?”
Today is no exception. A 1990s era Ford Mustang convertible, top down and going in the opposite direction, makes an abrupt U-turn. The two young men in the car race to catch up to me and then ask (you guessed it), “Hey man, what’s under the hood?” followed by the inevitable question, “Wanna race?” I look over at the driver’s smiling face and his anxious need to make the “old guy” eat his dust.
This time I accept the challenge, but with a stipulation. Leaning toward him I say, “Okay, but under one condition.”
He looks puzzled, but he replies, “Okay, sure what’s the deal?”
I say, “You’re driving a standard five speed, right?”
He smiles and says, “Yup.”
Continuing I say, “Well, I only have four gears and my first gear is giving me trouble.” (This is a white lie, which I will explain to you in a minute). “So, I’ll race you if you are willing to limit the race to three gears, 2nd, 3rd, and 4th only.”
He hesitates for a minute and looks over at his pal in the passenger seat for guidance. They both shrug their shoulders and then he says, “Okay, we’ll give you a break, are you ready now?”
The car does have only four gears and first gear is the most likely to be problematic, but my first gear is working just fine. What they do not know and what you may not know either is the Healey’s second gear is so short it works like a first gear. In fact, if you over rev in first gear and shift into second, it feels like you’ve downshifted rather than upshifted. Of course, these two kids have no clue about an Austin-Healey’s gear ratios and they accept the challenge.
In addition to my car’s super short 2nd gear, the Ford’s 2nd gear is long and without the use of its 1st gear the Mustang is going to have a heck of a time launching from a dead stop. I lean over and say, “You guys do the countdown, we’ll go on three, is that okay?”
They give me two broad smiles and a thumbs-up. You could almost see the synapses in their brains firing out of control. I imagine a silent text bubble above their heads with the words, “We got’cha now, old man.” The countdown begins, “One,” engines rev, “Two,” shifters put into second gear, then loudly, “Threeee!”
My tires screech then firmly grip the blacktop. In a fraction of a second, the Healey is propelled forward in a race car like fashion. The Mustang lunges forward and stalls not enough rpms for a second gear takeoff. I hear shouting and the sound of the Ford’s engine starting again. It’s doubtful they use second gear to get off the starting line this time. After crossing the prescribed finish line, I slow to a stop.
Once they catch up to me, they begin whining. “Hey man, you tricked us.”
Looking at them, now with my own broad smile in place, I say, “How so? We agreed on the conditions, did we not?”
They pout and then drive away. There is chatter about a next time, but it isn’t all that clear. It’s not long after they leave and we – the Healey and I – drive off that another teen-filled car (it appears to be a Honda Civic) passes us going the other way. Within a few seconds, I hear the distinct sound of hard braking and tires squealing. With a pat on the Healey’s dashboard, I say aloud, “Oh no, we’re not doing that again.”
As quickly as possible, we make a right turn and then a sharp left. We pull into a parking lot and we are soon lost in a maze of cars. The Healey sits low making it hard to see even behind a compact car, especially when the top is down, which is how I always drive it. We pull out of the parking lot down a back street and make a sharp turn onto a narrow side street. After a few more turns, we finally make our way back to the relative safety of the garage. We have had enough “fun” for one day.