Healey Duncan
Patrick Quinn


Some months back the US Austin-Healey Magazine ran an article of mine about the original Warwick built Healeys. Those 1,185 cars that were produced at the Donald Healey Motor Company ‘s Warwick factory without any input from Austin from 1946 through to 1954. Yes it is sometimes forgotten that the DHMC were building Healeys at the same time as the Austin-Healey was being built. Perhaps first of all I should qualify what was actually built back then by the DHMC. To be perfectly blunt the DHMC were assemblers of components brought in from outside suppliers as about the only component of the early cars that was produced in-house was the chassis. Everything else was manufactured elsewhere either to the specifications of the DHMC or to the suppliers.

The production of the Nash-Healey is perhaps the most extreme example of the DHMC’s production methods. The chassis was manufactured at Warwick and fitted with the engine/gearbox came from Nash in the US. Then with the earlier cars it was all transported to Coventry to have the body fitted and then returned to Warwick to be completed before being shipped to the US. When Pininfarina became involved it became even more circuitous as the whole chassis/engine/gearbox or rolling chassis was shipped to Italy to have the body fitted and then shipped to the US. No wonder the cars were so expensive.

Anyway what I’m leading to is that the DHMC never made the body or coachwork for the early Healey cars just complete rolling chassis that could be fitted with coachwork to the buyer’s wishes. However certain ‘off-the-shelf’ bodies were offered and these complete cars became known by the name of the Healey combined with that of the body manufacturer. Hence the Healey Elliott, Healey Westland, Healey Tickford and Healey Abbott. These models were all fitted with Riley engines and when other engine/gearboxes were used they were known as the Nash-Healey and Alvis Healey. There was also the Healey Silverstone and Healey Sportsmobile, both also Riley powered and bodied away from the DHMC for the two extremes of early post WW2 motoring with the Silverstone being a racing sports car and the Sportsmobile offering the height of luxury.

Healey Woody

Healeys production records indicate that some 123 were sold purely as rolling chassis with a whole range of different bodies fitted. Most were English and included saloons, tourers and even station wagons or shooting breaks as the British like to call them. The Southampton coachbuilder Hobbs produced shooting breaks that featured a heavy use of exterior timberwork not unlike the Woodies being manufactured in the US at the time. There were a number of European coachbuilders who also used the Healey chassis, such as the Swiss company Beuttler with a number of highly fashionable open and closed bodies but once again were very expensive.

For such a small manufacturer the variations on offer from the DHMC were really quite amazing and something to look back with a degree of respect. However with Editor Greg’s indulgence I would to focus on just one of these body manufacturers. A company that besides building bodies for Healeys and other marques was also pushing the envelope of motor vehicle design. This long gone company was known as Duncan Industries (Engineers) Ltd and if you were to look through the Healey build records you will see that a total of thirty-nine Healey chassis were clothed in Duncan bodies.

Now before we go on to the Healey connection it’s worthwhile to have a look at Ian Duncan himself and what else he was involved with, plus he does play a very small but important role with the Austin-Healey some years later.

Following the completion of his mechanical engineering studies Ian Duncan went to work for the Bristol Aeroplane Company who at the time were the largest single aircraft manufacturer in the world. In 1940 with Europe at war he was promoted to the position of chief technical assistant to Roy Fedden, the company’s chief engineer. In 1942 Fedden left the company and travelled to the US to study aero engine production methods on behalf of the British government with Ian Duncan accompanying him. On their return they established Roy Fedden Ltd with a view of designing a new flat six aero engine, a small gas turbine engine and the first Fedden car.

Turned Turtle

Given their experience with radial aero engines it comes as no surprise that the eventual engine for the new Fedden car was a rear mounted air-cooled three-cylinder radial driving the rear wheels through a torque converter. The end result was a highly advanced vehicle with chassis-less construction and rubber suspension. Unfortunately the engine position way out the rear set up a highly undesirable balance problem with the vehicle. During early testing the car objected strongly to being driven with any enthusiasm and turned turtle by flipping on to its roof. Work began on a replacement but there was a distinct lack of enthusiasm.

Ian Duncan soon left the company and commenced working with his brother’s canning machine company. By the end of the war Duncan was established north east of London in Norfolk with his mind focused in producing his own car. Duncan Industries (Engineers) Ltd was formed and ex Fedden staff like Frank Hamblin soon joined.

Right from the start Duncan had intentions on building a small car and it wasn’t long before the project was given the name of Duncan Dragonfly. Both Duncan and Hamblin agreed that while it was to be a small car, the Dragonfly was in reality to be a small car in miniature and must be able to carry three persons. Strangely the team first turned their minds to the wheel size as a small car had to have small wheels and at the time small cars had 16 inch wheels which would have look ridiculous. Ian Duncan promptly ordered five 12-inch wheels and tyres from Crosley Motors of Cincinnati, USA. Eventually they turned to Dunlop who offered to manufacture the wheels and tyres.

Front Wheel Drive

A number of engines were considered for the Dragonfly with a BSA 500cc overhead valve air-cooled twin decided upon. The team wanted front wheel drive and with the BSA powerplant the gearbox was in unison with the engine. With the engine way forward of the front wheels drive was via a chain driven differential and half shafts complete with French designed Tracta constant velocity joints. Like the Fedden the Duncan Dragonfly was also fitted with rubber suspension designed by Alex Moulton. To students of automotive history this arrangement is quite fascinating as it pre dates a far more famous ground breaking car by some thirteen years. It wasn’t until 1959 when BMC introduced the new Mini that was also front wheel drive with an engine and gearbox in unison, fitted with constant velocity joints and Moulton designed rubber suspension.

It was important to Duncan Industries that the Dragonfly was to be completed and driven on the road. The end result was a perfect car in miniature weighing 1,064 lbs, 10ft 9 ½ in length, 4 ft 1 ½ tall and able to sit three abreast. It also had a reasonable turn of speed being good for 65mph making other small engined cars of the period look rather pedestrian.

Now don’t think that Duncan industries were only involved in the construction of the prototype Dragonfly. Yes it was a pet project of Ian Duncan but it didn’t put bread on the table. The company needed cash to continue with the Dragonfly and it was fortunate that the UK was starved for new motor vehicles. It may come as no surprise that in the immediate post WW2 period the British motor manufacturing industry was a particularly close net group with most major players being in good relations with each other. Enter Donald Healey who was a friend of Ian Duncan.

Healey chassis were prefixed by letters with the A-type being the earliest and so on working up to the G-type that were used in the Tickfords in 1954. Three A-type chassis were ordered from the DHMC and the first one fitted with a Hillman Minx body suitably modified to take the Healey kite shape grille. While that was strange enough the next two were even more so with first a Ford Anglia followed by a Prefect body being fitted. The next body was completely new and fitted to a Alvis TA14 chassis and it was clear that the new design came from the same mind that designed the Dragonfly body. Not a car in miniature but full size. As was common practice of the time these limited production bodies were built using the coachbuilt methods or aluminium panels attached to a timber frame. Interestingly the timber frames were built by local boatbuilders.

Drones and Spivs

So started a range of Duncan bodied Healeys and Alvis cars which were in constant demand to those who could afford the exorbitant prices. It turned out that Duncan Industries were the first British coachbuilder that offered the same body to various manufacturers and over time there were also Duncan bodied Daimlers, Bentleys and Allard. They were also involved in general fabricating and continued to manufacturer canning equipment.

Small British motor manufacturers were hit a body blow in 1947 when the British government increased purchase tax to 66 2/3 % on cars costing more than 1,000 Pounds. This proved particularly difficult to Duncans but over a drink with James Watt of the DHMC one evening, Ian Duncan came up with the answer. It was to offer a very basic body on a Healey chassis for less that 1,000 Pounds where even such things as the windscreen, passenger seat and spare tyre became an optional extra. This car became known as the Duncan Drone and also christened Spiv by some unkind souls. Owners were free to use their new car as is or fit a brand new body to be then a second hand car and therefore escape the hefty purchase tax.

The thirty-nine Duncan bodied Healeys comprised of twenty-three saloons, one convertible and fifteen drones. In total there were thirty Duncan bodied Alvis cars as well. At the company’s peak Duncan Industries were employing close on to 120 people.

Defeated by Taxes

While the future looked rosy for Ian Duncan it was the hefty 66 2/3 % purchase tax that was to sound the death knell of his company. In the end Duncan Industries owed so much money to the British Government that they had no choice but to sell off their assets and close the doors. About the only tangible asset held by the company was the Dragonfly, so Ian Duncan set about trying to interest various vehicle manufacturers in the little car. Neither Jaguar or BSA were interested but Ian Duncan approached Leonard Lord of Austin and he agreed to buy the car for 10,000 Pounds providing that Duncan would also come and work for him.

So both the Dragonfly and Ian Duncan set off for Longbridge. At that stage Austin was not producing any smaller cars so the Dragonfly created quite a bit of interest. It can’t be said that the company was the most farsighted organisation and it wasn’t long before all the innovative ideas were iron out and the result, the Austin A30 while cute was strictly conventional.

Ian Duncan left Austin in 1951 when rumours of the merge with Morris were in the air. The little Dragonfly had long since been relegated to a storage area and was damaged to such an extent that it was eventually cut up and sold for scrap.

After Austin Ian Duncan stayed in the motor industry for a few years but then pursued his other passion by starting a photographic business where he stayed until he retired. During this time he remained friends with the Healey family and took quite a bit of interest when the new Healey 100 was being designed. While Geoff Healey was perplexed with the low geared four-speed gearbox supplied by Austin limiting overall top speed. It was Ian Duncan who suggested they could try the new Laycock de Normanville overdrive to provide a higher top speed.

Tale of One Healey Duncan

Time has certainly taken its toll on the Healey saloons, as it’s a fact of life that unless cared for wood will warp, crack and rot. With their timber framed coachbuilt bodies many Healeys were not destined to last which is sad, as they are extremely quick and stylish motor cars. The Healey Silverstone is in a vastly different situation as being alloy on a steel frame it has stood the test of time.

Records indicate that of the thirty-nine Healey Duncans produced, some eight still exist in various states of repair. There is one Drone, one drop head coupe and six saloons. I understand that the Drone is very much running as is two of the saloons and the drop head coupe is coming to the end of a long restoration. The other four saloons are in various states of decal depending on the owner’s optimism. All are in the UK except for one of the saloons that’s in Australia and lucky not have been scrapped many years ago.

Raced in New Zealand

Chassis number B1647 was bought new in 1947 by a Mr Yelverston, a New Zealander working in England. On a trip back to the antipodes in 1948 he bought the car with him via Australia. On landing in New Zealand that Healey caused quite a stir amongst the motoring fraternity as while most had heard of the new Healeys, but having one in the country was something else again. Contemporary New Zealand magazines featured this new English sporting saloon in which testers were impressed at its speed.

Mr Yelverston returned to the UK and left the Healey in the hands of Fred Sharman who with permission raced the car in 1948 on airstrip circuit at Ohakea on New Zealand’s North Island. It is not known how the car then ended back up in Sydney, Australia a couple of years later. However it has recently found out that it was put on consignment at the long defunct Neutral Motors in the Sydney suburb of Double Bay. Sydneysiders would now laugh at the thought of a car dealer in the genteel and well-to-do suburb of Double Bay.

The next mention of the Healey was in 1956 when it was found looking rather forlorn and damaged in a wrecking yard in Sydney’s western suburbs. Then over a period of five years its chassis was rebuilt along with the engine, gearbox and suspension. However it is assumed not completed as the vehicle was advertised in 1961 for 345 Pounds in Australian Motor Sports as still slightly accident damaged.

The trail then goes cold until 1977 when Healey and Austin-Healey enthusiast Keith Bagnall heard about a strange Healey in the west of Sydney. Keith tracked it down and subsequently bought it to keep his Healey Westland and Austin-Healey 100 company. Sadly Keith died last year but I had been a friend since the early 1970s and we would often chat about the local Healey scene. On the very day he brought the Duncan home I asked him for first refusal should he ever decided to part with it – he agreed.

Ten Year Wait

It took some time and a number of reminders but in 1987 Keith asked if I was still interested in the Duncan. I didn’t have to think too long about it and luckily we were flushed with funds at the time following the death of an aunt.

So the Healey Duncan was now mine and safely tucked up next to the BN3/1. I would be fantasizing to say that was in anywhere near going condition as I suspect that it hasn’t run under its own power for close to fifty years. It wasn’t the easiest car to move when we moved into the mountains west of Sydney in 1992 and it now sits patiently waiting its turn after various pergolas, fountains, extra bedrooms and the like. However I have tracked down quite a bit of the car’s history and definitely become immersed in the history of the DHMC and its products, both Healey and Austin-Healey.

There are pieces missing, the engine to be rebuilt and so on. Plus I have to find the knowledge of what goes where. However it is part of the amazing history of the DHMC and something I am passionately interested in. So let’s see where we go.

Happy Healeying

Patrick Quinn
Sydney, Australia

patrick.quinn@det.nsw.edu.au