Your Cars: After 50 years, Austin-Healeys are still a ‘perfect fit’ for Daniels
Phil Daniels has squeezed more fun out of his two Austin-Healeys – a 1959 BN6 and a ’60 BN7 – than a dog with a bone. And he isn’t finished yet.
“I love Austin-Healeys. They’re beautiful mid-range cars,” said the 68-year-old Daniels, who lives in Onalaska, Wash., about halfway between Seattle and Portland. “They’re really a lot of fun. Cars weren’t made to sit; they need to be driven. And I drive mine a lot.”
Daniels isn’t kidding. “In the late 1960s, I started driving the BN6 like it was a Jeep. I have no problem turning off the highway onto logging roads. I’m an avid fisherman and outdoorsman, so if I think there may be a river or lake up a road, I’ll follow it. The Healey does alright on the logging roads as long as I remember it has only three inches of clearance.”
Daniels’ first car was a 1955 Pontiac; his second was the ’59 Healey. He spotted the two-seat British convertible for sale in a local newspaper ad in 1967 while on leave from Vietnam. Almost 50 years later, he still owns it.
“I’ve rebuilt it twice,” Daniels said, “and I’m working on it again.”
On one of Daniels’ back-road adventures with the Healey, he parked it near a lake and set up camp. After spending the day fishing, he returned to find the car far from where he’d parked it; it was half-submerged in the lake. Daniels knew he’d applied the parking brake, plus there were strange footprints all around, so he surmised that someone didn’t want him there – and the Healey paid the price. Alone and stranded three miles off the highway, Daniels cut logs and used the tire jack to slowly inch the car out of the water.
When he had raised the car enough that the engine was no longer submerged, Daniels turned the ignition key and played with the throttle. Much to his surprise, the Healey sputtered to life. The next day, after spending the night in the car to keep an eye on it, he finished building a log bridge to shore and drove home.
“Healeys may not float, but it takes more than a lake to drown them,” he joked.
Daniels, one of seven children (six of them boys), grew up in a car-loving family. His father, Joe, was a master mechanic, and Phil and his brothers were bitten by the car bug. Between the brothers, a wide variety of European cars rolled into the family garage at one time or another – Jaguar, Lotus, Opel, Austin, MG, Triumph …
“Me and my brothers, we always had cars. We terrorized the neighborhood,” Daniels said. “It started with my father. He had a real passion for cars. He was always showing up with something cool. When I was 12, he brought home an old ’52 Hudson Hornet engine and said, ‘Here. Figure out how it works,’ so we replaced the engine. I still do all my own work.”
Phil and his wife, Beckie, raised two children, a daughter (now 35) and a son (30). Daniels resisted the urge to sell the ’59 while the kids were growing up.
“So many of our friends sold their cars when they started a family, but we parked ours and stored it,” Daniels said. “When the kids were out of the house, we got back into the Healey stuff again. We’ve been rallying and touring quite a bit ever since.”
Daniels added his second Healey, the 1960 BN7, in 2001. He and Beckie now belong to four Austin-Healey clubs – the Austin-Healey Club of America (healeyclub.org), as well as the British Columbia, Washington Cascade and Oregon clubs. Daniels has been president of Cascade club twice.
“There is such a great community of friends in the sports car world, and that’s why we participate in as many things as we can,” he said. “You should never own a British sports car without belonging to at least one club. The support and camaraderie are amazing. If you don’t know how to do something, somebody else does – and they’ll help you with it. When you go on tours you don’t have to worry about your car breaking down; if there are 10 cars on the tour, there are probably 10 pretty good mechanics.”
With that said, Daniels has no problem taking a drive by himself. “I love living in the woods; I can get out on the country roads as often as I want. I drive them year round, just not quite as much when it snows. I hate to see cars sit in a garage and not get driven. I want to say, ‘Hey, if you’re not going to drive it, sell it to me and I’ll drive it.’”
Until that happens, Daniels is content with his two Austin-Healeys.
“I guess we all have to be a little nuts to own cars for as long as we have,” he said. “But Austin-Healeys have always been a perfect fit for me.”