The history of the Austin Healey Club – an article produced by Joyce Pearce and first published in the 1986 International Healey Weekend Brochure
No history of note ever made interesting reading by leaving out the disappointments and difficulties. These are just as much part of history as the successes and the fun. Nothing is ever perfect in this world although we try our very best to make it. A mixed bag is what makes life interesting and gives us the scope for improvement and the incentive to carry on.
The club’s many re-organisations in its early development stages led to inaccuracies and omissions in the records. During the changes from management to management, records did get mislaid or even lost and mistakes were undoubtedly made. It is therefore surprisingly difficult to re-construct the full story, much having to be done from memory. Very few of the early pioneers of the club are still around to tell the tale, though I am fortunate enough to have been around since 1967 and can therefore remember much of what happened.
Today, the confusion has been further fuelled by the publication of many books and articles using a fair amount of ‘poetic licence’ to fill the missing pages, often giving an inaccurate and out of date picture of the club. As the club gets older, its newer members, some born long after the original club was formed, are the ones who are now often faced with the task of providing club history and information to the press, publishers and other members. So it is of concern to us all that we have as accurate a history as possible which can be used for the basis of answering such demands.
Our chequered history, whilst not being easy to understand, provided an immense challenge in the form of problems to be overcome. These in turn, whilst being unsettling at the time, did give members and officials the opportunity not only to learn a great deal from experts both inside and outside the club, but to develop expertise of their own. To learn by one’s mistakes, though seemingly disastrous at the time, is a very good way of ensuring they never happen again.
Having coped with a wide variety of problems and tasks, including how to set up a Limited Company, it should be possible in future to meet any problem head-on and deal with it swiftly and efficiently.
A good, interesting club is run by able, dedicated, if sometimes extrovert people. They would not be there if they did not have the motivation, ideas and convictions that they hold. But each one of them is different and in their own way, like every other person on this planet, want to leave his or her mark, whether winning in the competitive events or implementing a new administration change. It is these different ideas and opinions that form the basis of most of the decisions taken, and some of our most brilliant event ideas have been born out of compromise between the various suggestions. To the onlooker it may appear from time to time that the committee seem to be arguing, but this is really not the case, it is all part of our democratic way of decision making.
To have survived for 25 years is something of an achievement, given the recent worldwide financial climate particularly. It would not have been possible if we had not had a good foundation to build on, and dedicated volunteers and supportive members prepared to give up their time and work very hard for the club.
Formation & Administration
It will, no doubt, come as a surprise to some, particularly our newer members, to learn that there was a Healey Club as far back as 1955. This may lead you now to wondering why we are celebrating 25 years of the Club this year, when it would appear the club is 31 years old! Read on and all will be revealed …..
The first Healey Club, The Healey Drivers Club, was formed long before Austin Healeys were in production, in 1955. This Club was primarily started on the suggestion of Peter Cavanagh, a well-known radio personality of the time, together with Brian Healey, John Langrishe and Mort Goodall. The membership of around 200 consisted mainly of owners of what we today call Warwick Healeys — the Silverstones, Tickfords, Abbotts, Elliotts etc.
As newer marques came off the production lines, so a number of groups and small clubs grew up around this original club. This situation continued until 1957 when BMC took production of the 100-6 to Abingdon.
The first club for Sprites and their owners was formed in 1959 on the instigation of Raymond Baxter, also a well-known media man, Doug Worgan and Derek ‘Willey’ Williams and a group of enthusiasts. The club was named ‘The Southern Counties Sprite Club’.
This initial Sprite Club was quickly joined by an ‘Eastern Sprite Group’ organised initially by Colin Stokes, Gordon Barrett and Maurice Norton, and a ‘Northern Sprite Group’ organised originally by Diana Simpson and her husband together with a group of local enthusiasts.
1960: John Langrishe and John Thornley, both great club enthusiasts, suggested the various groups and clubs should be reorganised along the lines of the very successful M.G. Car Club. Talks were had with BMC (as it then was) and Peter Browning, then a member of the Harrow Car Club, which resulted in Peter being invited to join the team at Abingdon. BMC agreed to provide a HQ and secretarial facilities for the ‘new’ club at Abingdon, together with space for club news in the magazine ‘Safety Fast’. It was not an easy transition from several separate groups to one united club and it took Peter Browning, Brian Healey and John Thornley sometime to convince them all that the ‘new’ club would cater for them all equally, but eventually they all agreed to give it a go.
1961: The first Austin Healey Club Ltd. was born and Peter Browning became its first General Secretary. This new club became the proprietor of all the UK clubs and groups and a number of overseas clubs, which were by now starting up. It exercised basic control, keeping the various groups and clubs in contact with HQ and each other and ensuring that they did not behave in such a way as to bring any discredit upon the Austin Healey name and motorsport in general.
The Healey Drivers Club (the original 1955 club), became Midland Centre, the Northern and Eastern Sprite Groups became Northern and Eastern Centres and the Southern Counties Sprite Club became the Southern Counties Centre. The Healey Register was retained to serve the Warwick Healeys but to be on this register one had to join the Austin Healey Club. The initial 4 Centres were joined by a South Western Centre formed later in 1961 and a Devon & Cornwall Centre formed in 1962. Both centres being founded by Frank & Edna Walker a very successful husband and wife team.
The Healey Register was initially run by Leslie Cato and was later joined by a Sprite Register which was started off by Brian Boughtflower, and much later (July 1968) by a Big Healey Register run by John Pritchard.
Also, in 1961, there was a Scottish Sprite Group, but they resisted attempts to include them as part of the Austin Healey Club and towards the end of the 1960s they ceased contact and eventually disbanded.
A new club badge was designed to replace the old Healey Drivers Club badge which was now not applicable. The castle is symbolic of Warwick, where the old Healey factory was sited, the Union Jack was added because it was popular with the overseas enthusiasts, the long suspension bridge represented the connections with the Longbridge plant and of course the wings came from the Big Healey bonnet flash.
1967: This has been described as the ‘heyday’ of the Club but judging by our successes in the late 1970s and early ’80s we are perhaps experiencing a second flush of this now. However, in 1967 membership of the club was recorded at 5,500 but it must be remembered that this total did include the overseas clubs and many Warwick Healey owners who today have their own separate clubs. 1967 was also the year that Peter Browning took over from Stuart Turner in the BMC Competition Department and thus vacated the post of club general secretary. Richard Shepherd took over for a short while, before handing over to Les Needham, now General Manager of the RAC/MSA. The centres, meanwhile, with expansion in mind embarked on the formation of more group offshoots in areas hitherto not covered by the club. The Berks and Bucks Group instigated by Frank & Edna Walker after a house move saw them in an area without meetings and events, and the New Forest Group founded by Gordon Pearce who found himself in the same situation when he moved up from Bristol.
1968: Perhaps with a certain amount of luck or an uncanny judgement of what was about to happen, the Berks & Bucks Group applied for and got Centre status becoming the Thames Valley Centre.
In November of the same year came the great BMC re-organisation under Lord Stokes. BMC became BLMC and the new company policy was to cease production of the Big Healeys and to boost MG production at the expense of the Sprite. Along with this they withdrew all support and facilities to the clubs, axed ‘Safety Fast’ magazine and put us all out in the cold virtually overnight.
Colin Stokes (not to be confused with Lord Stokes), Doug Worgan and Frank Walker met with officials at Abingdon in the hope of being able to take over the running of the club but it was not to be. Shortly after this it was announced that the control of the club would pass back to the Healey family.
1969: Brian Healey now became the club’s General Secretary. The cessation of BMC support meant the Austin Healey Club Ltd., which was BMC’s company to do with as they wished, was wound up and as at this stage they still owned the rights to the title we had to find another name. However we did go on using the logos and have only just found out recently that we did not have permission to do so. However this has now been amicably agreed by the newer and more interested British Leyland Company.
In April of ’69 it was decided to re-establish and re-register the Healey Drivers Club Ltd. as the control body over the centres and groups. It was at this time that the Healey Register, and the Association of Healey Owners formed at the time, went off on their own with the loss of members to the rest of the club. The Healey Register becoming part of the Historic Sports Car Club and the Association an independent club which catered for all pre-BMC Healeys.
During this year, the New Forest Group applied for centre status, but due mainly to the uncertain future and the way it would affect some other centres membership wise, this was not granted. It was not until 1971 that they achieved their aim and then mainly due to a great deal of persistence and the help and support of Brian Healey and Les Needham.
It became clear also during this time that the effort needed to run the club was just too much for one person and the Healey family came to the reluctant conclusion that they could not operate it under the current system. The very sensible solution was to give the centres more autonomy including control of their own finances and administration, providing they all agreed to set up an overall control body to ensure the rules were adhered to and keep everyone in contact. This control body, known as the National Executive Committee, a title which it still retains today, was duly formed and the members of the Healey family became President and Vice Presidents. The first NEC was chaired by Doug Worgan and it was made up from 2 representatives from each centre who met on a bi-monthly basis to carry out the decision and policy making process for the club.
Colin Stokes took over from Doug Worgan when he retired from committee work later on. Unfortunately, by now the rising costs and lack of any form of sponsorship was causing some problems financially and it was at this time that several Centres were disbanded. Northern, South Western and Devon and Cornwall all disappeared and Southern Counties who were also badly affected lapsed into limbo its affairs just ticking over.
1971: New Forest who had just been granted their centre status were seemingly unaffected by the problems being new and enthusiastic. They also had some very good committee members who could get jobs done very well for very low costs, and one of these was introducing their first newsletter. It was called “Rev Counter”. It had only been in production for three months when the NEC decided that the title would make an excellent choice for the club’s first ever National Magazine, which it hoped would bring about a change in fortunes for the club. Under the editorship of a Thames Valley member. Alan Puzey. it did just that for a short time, but after about 18 months with rising costs and printing problems coupled with Alan’s retirement, we had to cease production.
1973: The Austin Healey marque was now out of production altogether as even the Sprite production line had been closed down. But this event, however sad, was a good thing for the club in one vital way. It caused a sharp increase in the cars’ values and they became more collectable. In turn this increased membership and brought with it an injection of much needed funds.
It was in this year that Dave Hicks of Eastern Centre suggested we have a National Rally. This was called National Healey Day – and was the fore-runner of our now very successful International Healey Weekends.
With the future more secure once again, the centres began once more to expand and form groups. Midland and Northern on the instigation of Cyril Carter, New Forest, a Bristol Group with Mike Gabb, Chris Marks, Joyce & Gordon Pearce and Dave Hicks all having a hand in the formation, and Eastern Centre formed a St. Albans Group.
1974: The Bristol Group’s expansion was rapid and in less than a year they had approaching a hundred members. They asked for centre status and were given it, becoming the ‘new’ South Western Centre. They in turn formed a Devon & Cornwall group or Sub-Centre as they preferred to call it.
1975: Northern Group, who had also progressed quickly, were also granted centre status and they too established Sub-Centres in North Wales and Scotland.
After some six years, the club was back on form and we had come full circle. In 1974 Rev Counter also made a come-back produced on a rota basis with each centre taking it in turns to finance and produce.
1979: Attention turned to the Club’s legal position. Roger Byford of Eastern Centre was now in the chair at NEC. It was discovered that due to confusion when the NEC had taken over as control body for the club, that it had failed to ascertain whether it was also supposed to have taken over the Healey Drivers Club Ltd., or whether control had remained with the Healey family. It was subsequently found out that as no returns had been filed over the years since the handover, that the company had been taken off the register at Companies House. Along with this discovery came the realisation that we were now under-insured and that if a situation arose whereby a large claim was awarded against the club that the funds could not meet, then the officials would be personally liable. This matter had to be rectified quickly. The necessary and long complicated business of forming a Ltd. Company began all over again, and eventually the ‘second’ Austin Healey Club Ltd. was born.
1980: Both Rev Counter and International Healey Weekend were becoming too large a task for single centres to finance and control so it was decided that these two items should come under the control of the NEC and be paid for out of Central Funds. Central Funds were gathered on a per-member basis contribution from centres and thus the costs were spread more evenly.
1981: In late 1981 Joe Cox took over as NEC Chairman and brought with him some new ideas and a fresh approach to management and marketing of the club, coupled with immense enthusiasm.
Between 1981 and 1984 membership increased by 25% to around 2000 and the Centres were much more evenly populated thus making it possible for the first time to introduce a system of proportional voting at NEC. This reduced the length of time it took to make the everyday administration decisions.
Today, still under the chairmanship of Joe Cox, our membership and finances have stabilised. With a very enthusiastic and energetic committee, many of the events of the past which were curtailed because of lack of funds, membership, or organisers have now been re-introduced, including the very successful racing and competition programme chiefly due to the hard work of the current Competition Secretary, Tony Elshof.
Rev Counter has gone from strength to strength evolving out of its past traumas into the magazine we had always wanted but so often failed to achieve. Contact has been re-established around the world, more members are venturing to overseas events and our major UK events are well supported.
This then, is the story of how we come to be here today, celebrating this 25th Anniversary of the Club. But this official story is only the tip of the iceberg. On the other side of the coin are the events and activities, the side of the club which the member sees and contributes to. This is much more entertaining. An opportunity to feature both the history and administration and the entertainment sides of the club together in one publication has never before occurred and it is a great pleasure to be able to do it in this special year. We hope you will both learn something you didn’t know and enjoy reading about all the funny and happy things that have happened.