Is this one of the most underrated muscle cars ever?
Years ago Donald Healey called me to ask if I’d help him set some speed records on the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah.
Back then in 1954, Donald had already recruited Captain George Eyston, Mortimer Morris Goodall and Roy Jackson-Moore to drive the Healey 100S in standard and supercharged trim for records all the way from 25 kilometres to 24 hours, and we had to get to Bonneville before rain ruined the same salt bed where Eyston set World Land Speed records in the late 1930s with his eight-wheeled British ‘Thunderbolt’.
Donald’s call had come right after I’d spent time with John Wyer and the Aston Martin DB3, so my name was known in England and would add an American driver to Healey’s mission, and that’s what he wanted. We made a deal and I flew up to Utah and met them at a desert tank town called Wendover that wasn’t much good for anything but cheap rooms. The salt was just right and Donald went out and set a string of new records, then George did the same. This was in late August. We all got into it for the International Class D records, changing drivers about every three hours for 24 hours straight.
I goosed the 100S up to 157mph and then did 186 for an hour in the supercharged car. Donald ran the blown Healey up to 200 in the traps. In the end we set 53 International and American records with those four-cylinder cars and still got around 27 miles to a gallon of gas. My British friends went home happy.I was glad to get off the flats, shake the salt out of my clothes and rest up. In November I was back in an Austin-Healey for the five-day Carrera Panamericana race the length of Mexico. My co-pilot, Roy Jackson-Moore, and I decided we would leapfrog, flying ahead each day, so that I would drive one leg and he would drive the next.
He never got a stint because on that first day out of Tuxtla Gutiérrez I was chasing the big American Lincolns and about to catch Ray Crawford’s when I smacked a rock in the road outside Oaxaca that sent our Healey end-over-end four times. Roy was lucky. If he’d been riding along it might have killed him – the Healey’s passenger side was wiped out and both wheels ripped off.
Some Mexicans put me on a blanket and fed me homemade beer, and a couple of girls on their way to Guatemala gave me brandy. I was feeling no pain, but my left arm looked bad and I was covered with cuts and bruises. When the road finally opened to traffic again an ambulance showed up carrying another Carrera driver in misery with his hide scraped off, and it was a hundred miles before we got to the hospital in Puebla. The doctor there told me my arm was badly broken and to get back to the States as soon as I could and have it set.
The problem was, the Mexican authorities said I could not leave the country until the Healey was ready to take back across the border in one piece, the way it had come in, but some Mexicans overnight after the crash stole everything on it that would unscrew. It was three or four days later when the American Embassy got me rubber-stamped to fly home, where my shattered elbow was operated on and put in a cast. It wouldn’t heal for almost a year, and meantime I had races to drive.
My friend to this day, at 83, Dr Hal Fenner from Hobbs, New Mexico, the orthopedist who was the Snell helmet doctor for 50 years, would go to the races with me and take off my plaster cast and put on one made of lightweight fibreglass so I could drive. After the race he’d put back on a new plaster of Paris cast, and I won a lot that way, including Pebble Beach with the 750 Monza that Phil Hill and I had driven at Sebring and thought we were first there until a scoring error put us back to second.
For the 1955 Carrera, Ferrari built two 24-plug, 4.9-litre cars called 410 Sports. The Mexico race was cancelled and I wound up later driving the 410 that was made for Fangio. But I’ll always remember those Austin-Healeys at Bonneville and in Mexico. Eyston was one of the finest gentlemen I ever knew. He had a lot to do in those early times helping me not only in my racing career with Aston Martin, with Castrol a sponsor, but also during the Cobra days when we won the World Championship using Castrol – all thanks to Captain George Eyston.