Caton’s born-again Healey is an intoxicating twist on a British classic

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Caton

Here’s a thought. If you were to design your perfect Healey, what would you give it? More power? Of course! Proper gearbox? Harsh, but yes, probably. Better brakes? Goes without saying. More legroom? Absolutely! Restyled bodywork? Hmm, maybe.

Well that’s basically the thought process Caton went through to arrive at this, its first model. And it did all of the above, including a restyle, building what’s effectively a brand-new car. Up to thirty-five of them will be offered, at more than £400,000 (~$482,500) each. There’s only one so far, and this is it, the development car, looking remarkably good under sunny U.K. skies.

Let’s dispense with the small talk and get on with it. Push the starter button once to prime the fuel pump, then, with foot on the brake, again. Four big cylinders thrum into life. The exhaust, which exits pretty much directly below my ear, immediately sounds wonderfully throaty. There’s a two-hour odyssey of fast A-roads, busy Cotswolds towns, and bumpy back lanes ahead. Let’s go!

The Caton name is derived from the name of the family that owns the Envisage Group, a Coventry automotive engineering tour-de-force that you’re unlikely to recognize unless you’re involved in car manufacturing. It covers coachbuilding, design, interior trim development, engineering … you name it. That includes numerous recent continuation-car projects by the way.

Caton Healey front three-quarter dynamic action
Caton

The Caton brand was born out of this and the early Healey 100 was chosen as its first subject because it represents the classic British sports car—and let’s face it, it would be daft to start with an E-Type when there are so many sublime modified examples around. Even Jaguar Classic offers in-house upgrades and restorations.

Caton’s Healey runs on mostly original running gear, save for a Tremec five-speed gearbox, but the bodywork has been lightly reworked to rid it of the seams and awkward fits that came of small budgets and low-volume pressing tools when the Healey was created in the 1950s. It’s just one of the ways technology has made such changes possible.

So the seams along the front and rear panels have been removed, the rear wings subtly reprofiled, the external boot hinges banished, the front grille completely remade, and various other neat touches applied. If you don’t know Healeys well, you wouldn’t notice the difference, but when you see this out on the open road there’s a fluidity to the lines that even the ever-pretty original 100S doesn’t have.

Caton Healey engine bay
Caton

It doesn’t take long on the road to work out that the engine is sublime. That big, BMC-derived Healey four-pot, which originally displaced 2660 cc, has been bored out to 2954, lightened, and equipped with a steel crank and high-compression pistons and a hot camshaft. It’s sweeter than any long-stroke four-cylinder of such large capacity has a right to be. If it weren’t for the occasional whiff of unburnt fuel at idle, you’d assume it was running on modern throttle bodies and mapped ignition—but no, it’s on larger-than-standard twin SU H8 carburetors and conventional points and distributor. Remarkable.

From the woofling idle, it pulls cleanly right through but really starts to sing above 3000 rpm, the point at which a slightly annoying buzzing through the floor that starts just above 2500 rpm smooths itself out. Later my guess that the vibration is from the exhaust is confirmed; it’s currently solidly mounted to the chassis and will soon be tried with a rubber mount. This is the prototype after all, and this drive is a small part of early shakedown testing.

Caton Healey rear three-quarter driving action
Caton

Although the original four-cylinder engines of the first Healeys are basic in the extreme, they also far sweeter than you’d expect. The Caton’s engine is a step on from that, though, and is happy revving to 5500 rpm even though peak torque is developed at 2900. With 182.5 hp instead of the original’s 89 (the 100S was 130 hp), and lightened to weigh 2028 pounds, it doesn’t hang around either.

What lets the original down is the gearbox: The initial batch of Healey 100s were fitted with four-speed gearboxes from the Austin A90 with the super-low first gear blanked off and overdrive on third and fourth, on a side-exit shifter that blighted the 100 with an unsportingly long gear lever. Later cars had a conventional four-speed, again with overdrive, but still not the ideal choice.

The Caton addresses that head-on with its Tremec five-speeder tucked beneath the transmission tunnel. Funny thing is that the gearing is so high and the engine so flexible that it barely needed fifth gear on the A-roads, except on a long stretch of fast dual carriageway. On a motorway though, fifth will be a godsend, taking the revs right down to just above 2000 rpm at 70 mph. The gearshift could be tweaked to feel a bit more direct, more classically mechanical, which apparently is already being investigated.

What’s clear is that the ratios are perfect, though with all that torque it’s not like the engine is too fussy about which gear it’s in. All the same, leaving it in third through sweeping bends and fast blasts along the straights keeps the engine at its best, as the air rushes past you in the neat little cockpit.

That beautifully formed, low glass screen doesn’t look like it should work. I’m 6-foot and generally prefer a coupé to a convertible, yet the Caton never felt uncomfortably blowy even a high speeds. There’s no weather protection other than the screen, though—customers will be able to order a tonneau or perhaps take the bespoke nature of the Caton a step further with a modern take on the classic Works hardtop.

That’s jumping the gun, though. Let’s stick to this prototype for now. The further I drive, the more I appreciate the new touches. The ride, for example, is excellent for a sports car of this era: there’s nothing clever about the suspension, it’s just been honed and tweaked with uprated springs and dampers by the clever guys at JME Healey, whose experience Caton has sensibly called upon for help developing the new car.

Caton Healey front three-quarter driving action
Caton

Same goes for the brakes. No tricks, just straightforward, straight-line, wheel-locking stopping power, with the feel aided by the modern, custom pedal-box that gives a much-appreciated improvement to the action of all three pedals. If there’s a weak link it’s the steering, with it’s slight vagueness around the straight-ahead position that no amount of tweaking can disguise. Blame it on the steering box, which could in theory be swapped for a more modern rack, but not without significant engineering—and the risk of removing a little character. Instead, you take up the slack rather than applying too much lock, because past the play there’s a responsive steering action to be found; it’s all too easy to think that the steering wheel isn’t having enough effect and turn in unnecessarily hard.

There’s never a time when the Caton doesn’t feel like a true Healey. Sure, the interior, with its Bridge of Weir leather, its cosseting seats, and its generous legroom makes for a big change, but it just feels like a Healey always should have.

Does it justify the price? This is effectively a brand-new car, built to personal specifications and extremely low numbers—just 35 are planned, so it doesn’t take long for the numbers to stack up. If you’re paying such serious bucks for a bespoke car, you’re able to choose the color you want, the interior you want, the headlights you want (not everyone appreciates the current LED projector units), and even the mechanical set-up you want.

If you’re likely to spend time in town then maybe consider mapped ignition—perhaps injection, too—but bear in mind that those masters of updated, useable classics at Eagle E-Types stick with carburetors on their considerably more expensive creations. Sometimes, original spec is best. Especially when combined with comfy seats, a five-speed gearbox, and a stunning drive …

Via Hagerty UK

 

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