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1953 Nash-Healey Roadster

By Jeremy Wilson

Nash-Healey was America’s first postwar sports car and was marketed by Nash-Kelvinator Corporation for four years, beginning in 1951. The cars were initially designed by Donald Healey, with Nash providing the drive train. Although Healey provided the chassis for all four years of production, Nash contracted with Italian coachbuilder Pininfarina to design and build the bodies for the ‘52-‘54 models.

With the exception of the 1951 model year, each Nash-Healey began its life in Wisconsin, became a rolling chassis in Warwick, England, received its body in Turin, Italy, and was shipped back to the U.S for distribution and sales.

For this particular Nash-Healey, Owners Matt and Karla Hackney have accomplished an extremely difficult task: restoring a car from an unassembled collection of parts, or a “car in a basket,” to a car they drive with pride.

“A friend of ours restored a 1953 Nash Healey Coupe and his business partner purchased a Roadster,” said Matt. “While our friend was working on his coupe, the gentleman owning the roadster was killed. And of course, the knowledge of where all the parts were went away with him. In the excitement of buying the car and starting the restoration process, we weren’t thinking about all the parts that might be missing. We knew some of the stuff was missing, but we had no idea how large the list was.”

The total production number for all model years, coupes and roadsters combined, is just 506, so one can imagine how rare the parts are.

“I continue to have problems getting parts for that car,” said Matt. “There are some I’d like to replace and others we’ll ultimately end up having made. They built 250 of our particular body style, so you don’t just go down to the local junkyard. Fortunately for us, the Nash Club of America has a website with want ads and sale ads, which is a nice feature. I’ve used it to buy and sell parts. Before we started our restoration I had a year of being on the phone every day, chasing down every possible lead I could get until I was exhausted or could see it was a dead end. In some cases it didn’t lead to a part but it did lead to somebody else, another connection. Eventually I located a coupe for sale in Huntington Beach, California. I drove down with a friend and picked it up as a parts car. It was really in poor condition but restorable. I felt guilty about taking it apart, because the coupes are rarer than the roadsters, but I had waited a long time to get a convertible and that was first and foremost in my thoughts. So my father-in-law and I took a lot of parts off the coupe for the roadster, and of course it was nice to have an unmolested car we could use to see where and how things were mounted. It helped in putting our roadster back together.”

In the long run, Matt and Karla ended up trading the coupe parts car for a roadster parts car.

“I actually ended up trading the coupe for a roadster parts car to a gentleman up in northern Washington. That was kind of fun because we had to winch it into the trailer because the wheel cylinders were frozen and it wasn’t rolling anywhere. We pulled it out of the trailer when we got it home and the frame literally broke in half. It was really a sad car but I still needed some roadster parts like the chrome caps that go over the ends of the upholstery strip that wraps around the cabin of the car.”

The added benefit of purchasing the parts cars was selling parts to other Nash-Healey owners.

“I sold a lot of parts; I mean a lot of parts,” said Matt. “I sent parts all over the United States and into Canada. I figure the more of these cars that get completed and are on the road, the better it is for the actual value of the car.”

The Nash-Healey is in great shape with its rebuilt engine, new paint and interior, replated chrome, and new wiring loom (purchased from YnZ’s Yesterdays Parts).

“All of the parts are on the car now but if I really want to make it show quality, I’ll have to redo one of these days,” sad Matt. “But for now, I’m just driving it and enjoying it.”

Matt and Karla like their Nash-Healey because one just doesn’t see them every day and they like the fact that it is a big sports car.

“Because of its size, it’s not feather light and it’s not power steered. It feels pretty stiff for handling. I would never drive it in the manner that they were designed as sports car or race car. And the shift lever is positioned forward and very short. Unless you’ve got very long arms, which wouldn’t make sense because you have to be fairly short to drive it (at 5’8”, I barely fit in it) you have to lean into it to shift.”

Before wrapping up the interview, Matt said he wanted to make a disclosure regarding the cars ownership.

“It’s technically my wife’s car. When we made the purchase, Karla said, ‘We can buy this car, but it’s mine!’ Before we bought it, we were visiting a friend in Ridgecrest, California. He put brochures and literature about Nash-Healey’s on the bed Karla and I were going to sleep in that night, so he kind of set us up. By the time Karla went to sleep, she had all these wonderful thoughts about this car. She said, ‘We can do this but it’s my car.’ I want to make that clear, it’s HER Nash-Healey.”

The Hackney’s future plans include improving the front suspension and restoring the side curtains.

“There are also some things we just need to replace, but I’ve tracked most of those down,” said Matt. “I can now take our borrowed hubcaps off and replace them with our own hubcaps. Those were the result of a trade. We had some ’54 Coupe hubcaps for a Nash Healey and someone needed them in Vancouver, BC. He had the wire baskets that I needed for the Roadster, so we were able to do a swap. That’s kind of how you do it, you acquire one little part at a time. I enjoy that part--looking for the parts and talking to people and hearing their stories.”

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R.M. Clarke
Nash 1949-1957 Limited Edition Extra
Brooklands Books, Paperback, 2004-09-30
A portfolio of automotive articles drawn from contemporary magazines covering road and comparison tests, new model introductions and updates, driving impressions and performance data on Nash vehicles between 1949 and 1957. Models covered are the Ambassador, Statesman, Rambler, Airflyte, 600, and the Anglo-American Nash-Healey sportscar.

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Storied Independent Automakers: Nash, Hudson, and American Motors
Wayne State University Press, Hardcover, 2009-11-15
This book explores the business history of the Nash Motor Company, the Hudson Motor Car Company, and the American Motors Company. In Storied Independent Automakers, renowned automotive scholar Charles K. Hyde argues that these companies, while so far neglected by auto history scholars, made notable contributions to automotive engineering and styling and were an important part of the American automobile industry.

The Hemmings Book of Nashes
Motorbooks International, Paperback, 2002-09
This book examines more than a dozen Nash examples from 1929 to 1962, including distinctive prewar models, such the Special 8 convertible, to the lovable Metropolitan.

American Motors: Nash-Kelvinator, Hudson Motor Car Company, Jeep, Renault, Chrysler, Eagle
Alphascript Publishing, Paperback, 2009-11-26
This book covers the history of American Motors Corporation, which was formed by the 1954 merger of Nash-Kelvinator Corporation and Hudson Motor Car Company. At the time, it was the largest corporate merger in U.S. history. American Motors (AMC) purchased Kaiser’s Jeep operations in 1970 and partnered with France’s Renault, from 1980 to 1987, when Chrysler purchased AMC.
History and Production Notes

After World War II, race car driver and RAF pilot Donald Healey founded the Donald Healey Motor Company in Warwick, England. He began producing “Healeys”: four-seat coupes, convertibles, and a sports car called the Healey Silverstone, after Britain’s new Grand Prix race track.

From ‘46 to ‘54, about 800 Healeys came off the line, approximately 100 were Silverstones. The Healey Silverstones did so well on European race tracks that race car driver Briggs Cunningham asked Don Healey to customize a Silverstone with Cadillac’s new 1949 overhead-valve engine. The Cadillac-powered car was such a success that Healey traveled to America to purchase more engines from Cadillac, but Cadillac refused.

While on board the Queen Elizabeth ocean liner, Healey met George Mason, Chairman and CEO of the Nash-Kelvinator Corporation. Sharing an interest in photography, the two men struck up a friendship. Mason proposed Healey build what was to become the Nash-Healey: Nash running gear on the Silverstone chassis with body by Panelcraft Sheet Metal Ltd.

While the 1951 Nash-Healeys were in production Nash contracted with Pininfarina of Turin, Italy to design and produce the second generation body: one that would more closely resemble the rest of the Nash lineup. The 1952 Farina-bodied Nash-Healey was a significant improvement over the 1951 Panelcraft design. The headlights were incorporated into a Nash-style grill, the split windshield was now one piece, and small tailfins were added.

To establish the Nash Healey race-car image, Don Healey entered two cars in the 1952 24-hour race at Le Mans. One was a 1951 prototype coupe, remodeled into an open car. The engine was also modified to generate 200 horsepower, 50 percent greater than production models. Drivers Leslie Johnson and Tom Wisdom saw speeds of 140 mph on the straight-aways, and finished third overall and first in class, defeating Jaguar, Talbot, Aston-Martin, Cunningham and Ferrari.

This was Nash-Healey’s finest hour in racing and led Nash to name their new 1953 coupe the “LeMans.”

The combined total production for the 1953 convertible and coupe was 162 cars. In January of 1954 Hudson agreed to a friendly merger with Nash, the largest corporate merger to date. Focused on survival, the resulting American Motors Corporation dropped the Nash Healey in August bringing the 1954 production total to 90 coupes.

According the The Milestone Car magazine (Summer, 1973) the Nash-Healey’s short life was due to limited-production manufacturing and price.

Any limited-production car, without a huge financial empire backing it, cannot be promoted to the degree necessary for lasting market penetration. With so few of these cars to sell, the dealer organization obviously could not vigorously cultivate much buyer interest in the product. The Nash-Healey was entering the 200 bhp V-8 era with a six of 135 or 140 bhp. While this was definitely adequate, it was just not what the car-buying public was demanding in the sporty car field. It was during 1953 that the Corvette was first produced, and by early spring of 1954, it was a well-known fact that by autumn Ford would have a sporty car available. Another factor was the price. All of the shipping charges that had to be reflected in the price of the Nash Healey brought the port-of-entry price to slightly over $5100 [Price to the public was closer to $6000 compared with Corvette ($3500) and the Thunderbird ($3000)].

PRODUCTIONNOTES Production Notes...

Year Production Model Specifications
1951 104 Convertible 234.8 cid Six, 125 bhp
1952 150 Convertible 234.8 cid Six, 125 bhp
1953 162 Convertible 234.8 cid Six, 125 bhp
Convertible 252.6 cid Six 140 bhp
Coupe 234.8 cid Six, 125 bhp
Coupe 252.6 cid Six 140 bhp
1954 90 Hard-Top 252.6 cid Six 140 bhp

Source: The Milestone Car magazine (Summer, 1973)

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