In these days of the classic car cult, a lot is written about restoring and preserving interesting vehicles, less about how they perform and behave on the road. Perhaps actually driving them is becoming unfashionable.
The Rolls-Royce-engined Healey 4000 has suffered this treatment. Geoffrey Healey in his book has recorded how the Donald Healey Motor Company built the car in 1968 as the successor to the Austin Healey 3000 by widening a 3000 chassis some six inches and installing a four-litre Rolls Royce all-aluminium engine and automatic gearbox, the same unit and box as that used in the Princess R Vanden Plas saloon. Austins liked the car and commissioned a batch of prototypes, but the then British Motor Corporation cancelled the Project for various reasons after only three cars had been built, one automatic and two with manual Jaguar gearboxes. The three cars were sold by the Healey Motor Company; all exist – one belonging to John Gray in Australia, in the process of a total rebuild. TNX 65G went to Bristol, where quite by chance my son heard of it and we were lucky enough to acquire the vehicle in 1974.
It is not surprising that with only three prototypes built, all disappearing for a number of years, few people have had a chance to find out how the 4000 compares with its predecessor on the road. TNX 65G is, as far as I know, the only one in use. The only road impressions written that I have come across were in a publication called “Auto” in August 1973, when it described and tested the manual car before it was sold to Australia. Obviously there are certain differences between the auto and manual cars, but allow a biased owner to compare the 4-litre with the production 3000. It is, in fact, very different.
The 3000 has definite appeal, because it is a powerful, noisy narrow and twitchy sports car, but by 1968 its road manners were without doubt dated for the mass market. It is a loveable (or for that matter, equally hateable) animal, epitomising what 1950’s/1960’s sports motoring was all about.
The Rolls 4-litre is altogether different – more powerful, quieter and smoother, with much greater comfort and much improved road-holding, due largely to the extra width – all the factors required to be a successful successor to the 3000. It is not a sports car in the true sense of the phrase, but a fine, high speed grand touring car in the Jaguar E-Type vein. Indeed, it has often been said that in 1968, it would have presented such a challenge to the E-Type market that it signed its own death warrant. The automatic transmission obviously swallows considerable power and loses “the punch” of the manual from rest. However, its mid-range acceleration is still outstanding and I particularly enjoy the ability to “kick down” into intermediate at between 60 and 70 mph for passing. The suspension configuration is standard Mk.III but the extra width does make for greater stability and enhanced road-holding. This is helped considerably by the extra torsional chassis strength provided by the “welded-in” transmission tunnel. As the 4-litre engine is aluminium the overall weight is little more than that of a 3000 Mk.III. The real difference is the incredible smoothness of the Rolls engine which gives its power (approx. 180 bhp) in a great, smooth surge all the way up the revolution range, peaking at about 5,500 rpm, without any mechanical fuss or noise. Twin electric cooling fans are fitted and the engine, of course, uses hydraulic tappets. The wider body and better seats and upholstery with which TNX 65G is fitted, together with the small adjustable steering wheel, help to bring the car up to date and make it more habitable for fast touring. Wheels are 5½” x 15 using 175 or 185 tyres. I prefer it on 175 tyres, which give good steering sensitivity.
I have not taken any stop-watch performance figures, as what is does is less important than how it does it. I suspect that the acceleration figures and top speed would be about the same as the 3000 because the extra Power is offset by some extra weight and greater frontal area. Its best point is the high speed cruising ability, matched with precise cornering in spite of the vintage Healey suspension).
It is a great machine on a sunny clay with the hood down, sweeping effortlessly across the Cotswolds with only the purr of the exhaust in your ears. Rolls Royce touring without all the expense. But think what the production model could have been. Improved suspension, a GT coupe body and the engine fitted with the twin-cam head de
veloped by Rolls Royce for this car and built experimentally, producing some 300 brake horse power. That would have been a Healey! Sadly Jaguar had it all their own way.
1 June 1981
Note: TNX 65G now resides in The Healey Museum