The postwar six-cylinder, two-seat American sports car did not, contrary to conventional wisdom, begin with Chevrolet’s Corvette in 1953. Because in 1951, Nash, by arrangement with Donald Healey, introduced its Nash-Healey, a limited-edition true sports car. Benefiting from an Anglo-American alliance that gave it solid performance and excellent handling plus a swoopy roadster body, it was an archetypal “halo” car. It was just something to talk about and never a real sales contender, as it shared showrooms with the fuddy-duddy big Nash Statesman and Ambassador as well as the economical Rambler.
But on the racetrack, it was a different story. Healy’s prototype finished fourth at Le Mans in 1950, and Nash was embarrassed into greenlighting the series production. Le Mans became a virtual proving ground for Nash-Healey with a first-in-class finish (third overall) in ’52.
Healey made the chassis, featuring a trailing link/coils spring set up in the front and a solid rear axle with coils in the back. Nash sourced the motor from the Ambassador, and the aluminum body was hand-formed by Panelcraft Sheet Metal just down the way from Healey’s Cape Works in Warwick . After a limited run of Panelcraft bodies, Nash turned to Pininfarina in Turin , Italy , in successive model years so their flagship sports car would echo the Farina-penned themes seen in big Nashes. Apart from hoods and trunk lids, these roadsters and later, coupes, were all steel and breathtakingly beautiful in an early ‘50s sort of way. The coupes, especially, hark to the American-flavored Farina-bodied Ferraris of the day. Like those Ferraris, the jewel-like design was produced in relatively limited numbers and is as exciting to look at today as when it was introduced.
First edition N-H’s were fitted with 3.8 liter (234 cubic inches) motors and twin S.U. carburetors, while all but the first few Farina-bodied cars carried a bored-out 4.1-liter version of the same motor with dual Carter carbs good for 140 hp. The Nash engines are very straightforward and, unlike Ferraris, can usually be rebuilt at the corner service station. Curiously, they were all fitted with three-speed transmissions with overdrive – not too sporting, but yards ahead of Corvette’s Powerglide.
The Corvette analogy may be a bit far-fetched in light of the fact that Chevy’s roadster was born, bred and built entirely in the U.S. Perhaps it’s fairer to compare the Nash-Healey with the AC Cobras that mated American brawn with a lightweight British chassis. If you accept that premise, the purchase of a Nash-Healey even at a top-end price – assuming you can find one for sale – is a beautiful bargain.
WHAT TO PAY: $25,000–$40,000
BODY STYLES: Roadster, coupe
PRODUCTION: 1951: 104 (English aluminum body by Panelcraft); 1952–54: 402 (Italian steel body by Pininfarina, 90 of which were ’54 hardtops)
WATCH OUT FOR: Aluminum-bodied cars are delicate, and steel ones can rust; body parts are scarce and expensive for both editions.
READ MORE: Nash & Nash-Healey Limited Edition: 1949-1957, R.M. Clarke (Brooklands Books); The Healey Book, Bill Emerson (Coterie Press)
CLUBS: Nash Car Club of America, Glen llyn , IL www.nashcarclub.org; Nash-Healey Car Club, Trafford , PA
PARTS: Blaser Auto Nash, Rambler, AMC , Moline, IL (309) 764-3571 , www.blaserauto.com; Y n Z’s Yesterday’s Parts, Redlands, CA 909-798-1498 , www.ynzyesterdaysparts.com; A1 Classic Car Parts Finder, Inc., Galesburg, MI www.classiccarpartsfinder.com.