The Ex – Works Rally Team, Le Mans, ‘The Chairman’s Car’ 1956 Austin Healey 100/6

The Ex – Works Rally Team, Le Mans, ‘The Chairman’s Car’ 1956 Austin Healey 100/6

Having flirted with competition at Le Mans in 1953, the BMC Competitions Department was set up at the Pavlova Works in Abingdon at the end of 1954. Headed by Marcus Chambers, the competition rally cars were prepared on one corner of the site, and eventually it became a self contained operation, only needing the services of the main factory for things like paint and trim.

Tommy Wisdom, the long time friend of Donald Healey, experienced driver and national journalist, had been persistent in convincing BMC’s Chairman and Managing Director Sir George Harriman, that in his opinion the 100/6 could be successful in rallying. Harriman agreed and gave Wisdom the use of a 100/6 BN4 for the 1957 Sestriere Rally, which would be prepared at Geoff Healey’s race department in Warwick.

With the team there not having any prior experience of preparing a car for rallying, let alone a 100/6, Wisdom led the effort. Although Wisdom, co-driven by his daughter Ann, had no great success in Sestriere, he submitted a report evaluating the possibilities for the 100/6 upon his return. The report must have been convincing, as he was able to continue the program, upgrading the engine of to that of a 100/6 BN6, and went on to finish the 1957 Mille Miglia, the final edition of the great road race.

When Wisdom again campaigned the 100/6 at the 1958 Monte Carlo Rally, it made the Chambers of Abingdon rally department take note. Although they previously hadn’t shown much interest in the goings on at Warwick, things were to change. After several years of being directed by the marketing department to campaign the various unsuited and mundane production cars, in 1958, the Competition Department at Abingdon was allowed the freedom to choose the basis they wanted for the works rally team.

Chambers’ team set about modifying and improving the 100/6. Amongst the changes were a redesign of the rear springs and the addition of disk brakes, front and rear, with this actually having been developed by the team at Warwick. After a strong performance in the 1958 Tulip Rally, where Wisdom ran second in class behind a Mercedes 300SL, BMC were suitably convinced to authorise a more substantial program with the addition of other cars into the works team. The development of the 100/6, led to what would become effectively the first ‘homologation special’, the 3000.

The first full works multi car effort came at the 1958 Coupe des Alpes rally, where five 100/6s were entered. Having at first anticipated running MGA Twin-Cams, there was a rush to prepare the five works 100/6s in time. The five cars were made up of three cars already at the Competitions Department, the Healey Company’s demonstrator which had already been campaigned by Wisdom, and the Austin Motor Company’s demonstrator, TON 792.

TON 792 is the Austin Healey 100/6, chassis number BN4-22881, which you see here. Built in 1956, it was the first  right hand drive and only the third of any 100/6 built, finished in Reno red and black with a black hard top. Used as a demonstrator for the Austin Motor Company as well as featuring in Bill Boddy’s 1957 Motorsport Magazine road test, TON 792 also became Sir George Harriman’s personal transport, which is where it picked up the nickname ‘The Chairman’s Car’.

As detailed in the earlier paragraphs, TON 792 was then requisitioned by Marcus Chambers of the Competitions Department, to become part of the works rally team. In 1958, it was a works entry to the Coupe des Alpes for Nancy Mitchell and Anne Hall, fitted with all of the developments from Wisdom’s car including the BN6 engine. Mitchell and Hall went on to take 2nd in the much publicised ladies category and 12th overall.

Following the Alpine rally, the team at Abingdon hastily readied four of the cars for the upcoming Liège-Rome-Liège  rally. The Competitions Department are recorded as stripping the cars as much as conveniently possible between rallies, inlcuding removing body panels. TON 792 was prepared for Mitchell and Hall to again campaign at the Liège-Rome-Liège rally. ‘The Liège’ had a reputation as a gruelling rally. Over four days and four nights, competitors had to stay awake while trying to maintain the highest average target speeds of all European events.

While the Big Healey’s proved to be tough, they weren’t air tight, water tight or comfortable on the rough surfaces, particularly in the depths of Yugoslavia. Mitchell and Hall were one of three from the four entries to make the finish, and classified 15th. The success of the three finishing cars meant that BMC won the Manufacturers’ Team Prize, cementing the Big Healeys as the BMC works weapon of choice. The rest, as they say, is history.

At the end of 1958, TON 792 was sold to private hands. Bought by Lancashire based John Clarke, he proceeded to race the Big Healey as in the Reno red over black, before painting it all black with a 12” white stripe when the Cambridge Racing team was formed following the CUAC Sprint at Snetterton where Clarke finished 2nd in the 3-litre class. After campaigning TON 792 through 1959, Clarke got married which as he recalls, ‘rather put a stop to motoring’. By the end of 1960, normal life had returned and someone within the Cambridge Racing Team thought it’d be a good idea to go to Le Mans as a competitor, rather than spectators.

Clarke agreed, and a plan was swiftly made to give TON 792 a complete sorting out before the next June. Clarke went down to Abingdon to meet with Chambers at the Competitions Department. After three hours of discussing, including lunch, Clarke recalls that he came to the conclusion that he needed TON 792 to be updated to the same specification of the car which was in build there for David Dixon ahead of Le Mans, DD 300. Clarke requested if Chambers’ Competition Department could do this for him, however with the commitments of the rally team, they were unable to. Chambers’ did offer to help where possible though, and Clarke upgraded TON 792 in to a specification listed by him in his 1966 letter to then owner Martin Williams.

At the conclusion of the four month rebuild, TON 792 was painted British Racing Green while retaining the 12” white stripe. The final week apparently resulted in limited sleep, and TON 792 was still being run in by the time they left for France. At that stage, they were still 5th reserve, but on studying the drop-out rate from previous years, the team were confident of a start.

Entered for Le Mans as a 3000, the engine which TON 792 received from the Competitions Department was of 2,992cc with triple S.U. carburettors, aluminium head, high lift camshaft, and nitrided crankshaft. In practice, TON 792 ran very well and Clarke was very pleased to set an equal time to DD 300, driven at Le Mans by Dickie Stoop and John Baerkert. By the time the race came, TON 792 was the first reserve and ended up sitting on the line waiting for a car to drop out. When a car did drop out, the organisers wouldn’t allow Clarke to start because they had been on the starting line after the prescribed time.

The team then ended up at the Autosport caravan, and after nearly drinking it dry, they persuaded Gregor Grant to get them an entry with TON 792 at the Snetterton 3 Hours. They made the trek back to Lancashire, sad but with the great hope of the 3 Hours. At Snetterton, a great finish was had, taking 4th overall after 3 hours. Clarke recalls that they could have done even better, if they had remembered to change the long axle ratio which was fitted for Le Mans.

In 1962, amongst the usual club and national meetings, Clarke and his team entered TON 792 for the Tour de France. In preparation for the event, they obtained a new redesigned gearbox and special NiMoNic 90 valves from the Competitions Department and Engine Development Department respectively. Figuring that the Ferraris would walk the circuit stages, Clarke fitted a very low axle ratio to TON 792 in the hope of performing well on the hillclimbs.

Clarke recounts that the recce they did for the Tour was the best week he ever had in the Healey. Having posted good  times on the circuits of Pau, Brussels and Rouen, and performing well on the rougher road stages, they were positive about their chances as they returned to Nice for scrutineering. However, at 9am on the morning of the start, news came through that Clarke’s co-driver’s father had passed away. The Tour had to be abandoned in order to return to England.

After the expenses of the two seasons which didn’t yield the desired results, Clarke made the decision to sell TON 792. He sent the Big Healey to David Hiam’s garage in Minworth near Birmingham. After three months, TON 792 sold to Clive Baker, successful Austin Healey Sprite racer, who in turn sold it on to David Villing in 1965. In 1966, Villing sold TON 792 on to Martyn Harfield, and then to Martin Williams.

Williams undertook research on the early history of TON 792, writing John Clarke and to the Austin Healey club. The responding letters still accompany TON 792 today. Williams raced TON 792 around England at circuits including Brands Hatch, Castle Coombe, Llandow and Silverstone. Williams then sold TON 792 to Dick Slaughter in 1971. Correspondence from Slaughter to Duckhams in October 1971 describes how he found TON 792 in a garage in South Wales having not been used for the previous three years, and requests some more oil for the remainder of the racing season.

Slaughter raced TON 792 in Modsports throughout 1971 and 1972 before leaving it unused for the next six years. In November 1977, the Big Healey was bought by Jim Story. Story set about fully restoring TON 792 over a four year period, and fully documented the process in a photographs. It’s clear to see the Le Mans livery underneath the later red paint. When completed in 1982, Story entered a selection of events including club meetings at Goodwood, and the Brighton Speed Trials where it won the Southern Carburettors Trophy.

By chance, Nancy Mitchell was reunited with  TON 792 at a club meeting in 1982, and even taken for a test drive, 24 years after their works campaign in 1958. A highlight of Story’s time with TON 792 was winning the class in the 1985 RAC Historic Rally.

In 1987, TON 792 was bought by Tim Rogers in Bristol, who immediately had the engine and drive train rebuilt by John Chatham. As then owner of DD 300, Chatham was one of the leaders in Healey preparation. Rogers and TON 792 then competed in many events including the International RAC Historic Rally in 1991, where they finished 2nd in class.

In 2001 after many other seasons of racing, TON 792 made it’s first return to Le Mans. Rogers and TON 792 then raced there again in 2002, 2003, 2004, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, and 2012. Amongst these Le Mans outings, TON 792 competed in many other historic events including the Healey Driver International Race Series and then Spa, Donington and Brands Hatch.

At the end of 2012, Rogers sadly succumbed to a long illness and TON 792 was bought by the current owner. Having helped Rogers prepare the car, and co-driven with him over the previous five years, the current owner knew TON 792 very well and didn’t hesitate in taking on the tenure.

In 2013, TON 792 won the Fordwater Trophy at the Goodwood Revival with the current owner behind the wheel, after catching and passing Jochen Mass’ Mercedes 300SL. TON 792 has also revisited Le Mans again in 2014, and ran in the Kinrara Trophy at the 2016 Goodwood Revival before retiring with a head gasket issue.

As the car sits today, the engine is freshly rebuilt and retains original Le Mans details like the high strength nitrided crankshaft. TON 792 is accompanied by 2016 FIA HTPs and in date safety equipment. A wonderful opportunity not to be missed, TON 792 along with DD 300, are the only Austin Healey 100/6 which can run the 2,912cc engines with aluminium head due to their Le Mans history. One of the most versatile cars you could hope for, it’s an exciting ticket to a plethora of the best events world-wide.