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The Big Green Machine - Le Mans Healey

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Healey’s 1968 Le Mans car was chopped around for the 1969 and 1970 races, so Healey specialist Brian Wheeler built his own replica and invited the original works drivers to help him test it.

Donald Mitchell Healey was a man who built his reputation on decades of successful involvement in international motor sport and hands-on automotive engineering. As founder of the Healey Motor Company he headed the successful Riley- and Nash-engined Healeys in competition and then achieved notable international racing and rallying success with the Austin-Healey Sprite and the Big Healeys in BMC-supported motor sport programmes.

But by the mid-1960s, Donald (or 'DMH') reckoned that the Healey name should occupy a far higher place in the overall finishers' list than 'mere' class winner. In particular, he wanted an overall win at Le Mans. Discussions very briefly centred on the use of a highly modified Sprite, but it was quickly recognized that the requirement called for a purpose-designed and built sports racing car.
Geoff Healey, DMH's son and chief engineer, set to work with chassis designer Barry Bilbie on the design of the car, now designated 'SR'.

A demon on the drawing board, Barry in recent years has been likened to a human version of CAD-CAM and was the interpreter of DMH's and Geoff's ideas, from the earliest days of the Silverstone in the late 1940s right through to the Jensen-Healey of the early 1970s.

Healey and Bilbie created a mid-engined design around a sheet-steel centre section to be made by John Thompson's of nearby Wolverhampton. Meanwhile Climax, another Midlands company, keenly supported Healey's Le Mans project with a loan of a 2-litre V8 Tasman Grand Prix unit, along with the enthusiastic services of engineers Wally Hassan and Harry Spears. The transmission was a five-speed Hewland DG300 with a twin-plate AP competition clutch.

Barry Bilbie and Derek Westwood determined the original body shape, with its Kamm tail. The line of the SR's top structure was dictated by the use of a Lola T70 windscreen, which fixed the side window curvature in the gullwing doors and curved flying buttresses above the engine deck that tapered towards the tail of the car.

The traditional approach to producing the bodywork was adopted, with a body buck made up of accurately spaced and shaped plywood sections. Healey employed the woodworking expertise of the builders local to Geoff and Margot Healey's home in Barford and then it just remained for Bill Buckingham - Healey's 'artist-in-metal' - along with Terry Westwood to fashion the body skin in Birmabright - a corrosion-resistant magnesium alloy with a high strength-to-weight ratio.

The SR looked promising and, after much testing and tweaking, the team made it to the 1968 Le Mans, with Clive Baker and Andrew Hedges driving. But disaster struck when the clutch bearing seized in the third hour - the race was over, and the team licked its wounds and made ready for the 1969 Le Mans.

The 1968 SR was redeveloped for '69 with a longer wheelbase and strengthened transmission. Clive Baker stuck with it, joined this time around by John Harris. And the SR lasted longer - to the fourth hour! Having been caught up in the aftermath of an accident, the car overheated and lost coolant, which regulations dictated couldn't be replaced. It wasn't long before the SR had to be retired.

After the 1969 race the loaned Coventry Climax engine was returned. For the Healey works entry of 1970 the original '68/’69 monocoque was retained, modified and lengthened by six inches. The closed cockpit was dispensed with and a full Lola T70 screen used to produce an open two-seater roadster, named X37. It was powered by a 3-litre Repco Brabham 740/127 E V8, driven by Roger Enever and Andrew Hedges - and sadly again failed to finish, this time due to ignition failure on the very last lap.

This car now resides in Australia, while the various components rendered surplus by the conversion of the closed SR to the open X37 were sold by Healey. They are pictured in Bill Emerson's The Healey Book and comprise a broken Lola windscreen, cockpit, doors, rear engine deck, spare steel cockpit floor, radiator and sundry wheels and tyres. These items were sold to a private UK buyer, then sold by auction to an Australian buyer where an SR was constructed using the various pieces and a freshly moulded windscreen not of Lola origin. This car was given the official plate 'SR2' by Healey in 1970 and is currently being offered for sale in Belgium.

So that left the UK without an SR, and that was a situation that dedicated Healey enthusiasts and specialist Brian Wheeler (of Wheeler & Davies) couldn't bear. 'Building an SR replica was something that I'd wanted to do for a long time,' he explains. 'I'd got my 'works' Sprite pick-up and Dolomite Sprint-engined Sebring Sprite out of my system, my computerised 24in reflector telescope was up and running, and the SR beckoned: more so because it was the last true Healey built at Warwick. It was different from anything else that Healey had done - a true special.

'It would have been ideal to have had a set of drawings, but I resorted to collecting books and pictures of the original 1968 car. We managed to get a good side-on view, which we put into the computer based on the physical dimensions of the original car using AutoCad and a couple of other programme tricks. We then managed to locate some old, very rough drawings with body contours; putting this and all of the other information together meant that we could construct a pretty accurate body buck. Again, we used the computer to generate the chassis/tub detail based on certain dimensions we knew were accurate… I think there must have been more man hours spent doing this than building the car.'

And so Wheeler recreated the SR. The principal structural difference between his car and the original is that the latter was a steel tub with all of the skin panels in Birmabright, whereas Wheeler's car is all aluminium.

And then there's the engine. A Grand Prix Climax mated to a Hewland gearbox was out of the question, not just on cost grounds but also because Brian is determined to drive his SR on the road occasionally. Instead a modified 3.5-litre Rover V8 is mated to a Renault 30 transmission. The Healey SR featured fabricated steel suspension uprights; the Wheeler pieces are aluminium. A modified MG steering rack is used, as on the original. The fully adjustable rear suspension and its components, with the exception of the uprights, are much the same as the original. The cockpit equipment and treatment is near-identical to its Healey ancestor and, after a tight squeeze into the driving seat, proved it could accommodate six-footers John Harris and Roger Enever at a recent gathering at Bruntingthorpe test track.

Yes, Brian Wheeler celebrated the completion of SR with the ultimate shakedown test, in the company of the surviving works drivers John Harris, Clive Baker and Rober Enever (Andrew Hedges sadly passed away in 2005), and Octane was there to record the occasion.

Reminiscences flowed, and Clive Baker recalled the early test sessions in 1968. 'I drove it in its unfinished state at Silverstone and felt that it was underpowered. The SR was quite advanced for its time, but mid-'60s cars of its type and size were running with much larger engines; with a big V8 it would have been competitive with the Lolas.'

John Harris takes up the story. 'We took it to MIRA for the first time on No. 2 circuit. It was the first shakedown on the car so I ran it round for a few warm-up laps and then opened up. I came hammering down the short straight, shut the throttle… and the throttle didn't shut. I promptly switched it off. Switching on again, I trickled it back to the waiting group, which included Wally Hassan, in the control tower compound with what was obviously the sound of bent valves - we hadn't fitted the rev limiter at this point. My first words were 'the throttle stuck open', to which there was a disbelieving chorus of 'Oh, yes?' Geoff Healey dives into the cockpit, pushes the throttle to the floor and fortunately for me it stays there - unfortunately for the project, the engine had to be rebuilt.

'Our next session, with the rebuilt engine, was at Silverstone. We started to use constant full power, running it up to 9000rpm. The session was also used to assess handling and we took the opportunity to tweak the suspension. But there was this awful vibration and the clutch was starting to misbehave. I brought it in and described the effect to the group, at which point Wally Hassan instructed his development engineer Harry Spears to get in the passenger seat and 'do a lap with John'.

Harry climbed into the car, no overalls, no helmet - on a test day, with all of these other cars flying round! One lap was all he needed. Harry's answer was that the transmission was flexing between the engine and the gearbox. Climax modified the sump to increase stiffness and combined this with a new adaptor plate between the engine and the gearbox machined out of a high-strength alloy. Problem solved.'

Back to the present day, at Bruntingthorpe, and Brian's SR is resplendent in its British Racing Green livery and carrying its 1968 Le Mans competition number '47'. It may not have that 9000rpm scream of a Tasman Climax, but it sounds throaty and purposeful with its tried and tested Rover V8.

Messrs Harris, Baker and Enever collectively voiced their admiration for Brian Wheeler's creation and, if Geoff Healey was looking down from the clouds, he would have surely expressed his satisfaction too.

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