This beautiful Nash-Healey Le Mans coupé sold at Bring-a-Trailer in October, 2019 for $93,500. (This photo and several others below are from Bring-a-Trailer)
The story of the Nash-Healey sports cars has an unlikely beginning, and that beginning makes for a great story. The car was the result of a chance encounter between George Mason and Donald Healey about the liner Queen Elizabeth.
George Mason was the Chairman of the Nash-Kelvinator Corporation. Mason had come to Nash Motors from appliance maker Kelvinator when Nash acquired Kelvinator in 1937. Mason was born in 1891 in Valley City, North Dakota. He became a visionary industrialist. When he came to be the head of Nash-Kelvinator, he was constantly looking for ways for the company to distinguish itself in the marketplace, often thinking “outside the box”.
Mason was also an avid amateur photographer. Aboard the luxury liner Queen Elizabeth in 1949, Mason encountered Donald Healey, a builder of British sports cars who also had a keen interest in photography. Healey was intrigued by the camera Mason had. Their conversation about photography evolved into a discussion about sports cars.
The cigar-chomping Mason, looking for a niche in which Nash could distinguish itself, saw a project between Nash and Healey as being just the ticket.
George Mason – with his ever-present cigar.
The Nash-Healey sports car was the result of a chance meeting between Donald Healey and George Mason aboard Queen Elizabeth.
Donald Healey had been building sports cars since 1945 in an abandoned Royal Air Force hanger at Warwick with Ben Bowden and chassis specialist Achille Sampietro.
The upshot of the meeting between Mason and Healey aboard Queen Elizabeth was that Nash supplied Healey with the Nash 6 cylinder engine and with transmissions. Healey and his crew assembled two seater open cars around the Nash running gear and shipped them to the U.S. Sales commenced in 1951.
Healey’s encounter with Mason had been fortuitous. He had been trying to buy the Cadillac V-8 for his sports car but General Motors refused to supply him with the engines. With the rugged Nash six cylinder engine block in hand, Healey fitted it with a hotter camshaft, a better-breathing head and dual carburetors.
The prototype Nash-Healey was campaigned in the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1950 where it surprised and delighted both Mason and Healey by finishing fourth in its maiden outing.
That first production Nash-Healey was fitted with an aluminum convertible body, the Nash three-speed manual transmission (overdrive optional) and was trimmed in a leather interior. It debuted in late 1950 as a 1951 model at the Paris Auto Show – and at the Chicago Auto Show in early 1951.
Only 104 of the 1951 models were made because the car’s $4,063 price was high and most Americans were unfamiliar with sports cars. They certainly couldn’t understand a sports car called a Nash-Healey that was sold by conservative Nash dealers.
However, veteran road tester Tom McCahill wrote in a national well-read U.S. magazine that he’d “never driven a sports car that handled better or gave the driver so much control in a (deliberately provoked) power slide or spin.”
1951 Nash-Healey, one of 104 built. In addition to the Nash running gear, it used a grille and emblem from the regular production Nash,
Mason wanted the Nash-Healey’s styling jazzed up, so he asked Italy’s Pininfarina, which did Ferrari bodies, to change it for 1952. Pininfarina also contributed to the design of the regular production 1952 Nash. The resulting Nash-Healey was a steel-body two-seater with a lower windshield, rear fender bulges with small tailfins and a plain oval grille encircling the headlights. Mason wanted the Nash-Healey to improve the image of regular Nash family cars, so a regular Nash eventually had a Nash-Healey style grille/headlight arrangement (1955).
The Nash-Healey grille was adapted to the regular production 1955 Nash cars.
Fitted in the Nash-Healey with Donald Healey’s engine tweaks, the Nash six produced 140 horsepower.
The restyled second-generation model made its debut at the Chicago Auto Show. However, this 1952 convertible cost much more than a 1952 Cadillac convertible, which sold for $4,163.
The Nash-Healey was costly because Nash sent drivetrains and other parts to Healey’s outfit in England, which completed rolling chassis which were then shipped to Italy, where Pininfarina fitted the bodies and completed final assembly. The cars then were shipped back to Nash in the United States.
Despite high shipping bills, 150 Nash-Healeys were sold in 1952, and 162 found buyers in 1953, when a sleek Pininfarina-styled coupe joined the convertible model. But the convertible’s price totaled $5,908, and the coupe cost a staggering $6,399.
Full-page advertisements for the Nash-Healey appeared in popular national magazines such as Life and the Saturday Evening Post. The car was racy, comfortable and reliable, and had no competition from Detroit until the first Corvette arrived in late 1953. The six-cylinder Corvette was pretty, but had only an automatic transmission and flopped when they raced it on tracks. Some consider the Crosley Hot Shot (1949-1952) as being the first American two seater sports car. If we discount the Crosley, the Nash-Healey beat the Corvette to the market by two calendar years and the Ford Thunderbird by four years.
Both the original Corvettes and Thunderbirds were hardly more than boulevard cruisers. The Nash-Healey had won its laurels at the world famous, prestigious 24 Hours of Le Mans.
Nash reportedly lost more than $9,000 on each $5,000 Nash-Healey made, largely because of low production numbers. Sales fell to 90 units in 1954, when only the coupe was offered and had the lower price of $5,128. A few leftovers were registered as 1955 models.
A total of 504 Nash-Healeys were produced. More than half are said to survive, although most are usually seen only at classic car shows.
The visionary Mason had Nash build the only successful early-’50s compact car and was the motivator behind the two-seater Metropolitan. It was George Mason who realized that the post-war sellers market would eventually come to an end and there would be a shakeout among the independent auto manufacturers. Mason was determined that his company would be among the survivors and he is widely regarded as being the architect of what became American Motors. His vision was to fold his Nash along with Hudson, Packard and Studebaker together to become the fourth full-line manufacturer.
Mason’s American Motors would model itself after the General Motors hierarchy of stepping-stone makes: Studebaker in the low price field, Nash and Hudson in the lower and upper mid-price field and Packard as the luxury make.
Mason’s addiction to cigars led to him contracting a severe case of pneumonia. He died in October, 1954 before his full vision for American Motors could be completed. Nash had acquired Hudson. Packard had acquired Studebaker, but Mason’s death put an end to the completion of the merger. Mason’s successor, George Romney, had a very different vision for American Motors. For Romney, that vision meant the end of the full-size Nash and Hudson cars, the end of the Nash-Healey sports car, the end of the Hudson Italia sports coupe. The compact Rambler was the ticket for Romney and, as we know, that ticket excluded Packard and Studebaker from joining American Motors.
Donald Healey launched his own long-lived Austin-Healey sports cars in 1953 and later he was instrumental in the Jensen-Healey cars. Donald Healey died in 1988.
Portions of this post were sourced at and adapted from THIS ARTICLE.
Packard aficionados still regret that the Predictor-inspired ’57s were never built. Quaker State Oil, though, used the Predictor to promote their motor oil.
Image posted at PackardInfo