Members Motors
Former Northern Centre Director, Denis Austin

Article extracted from Classics magazine. December 2003 and reproduced here with their kind pemission.

"When the engine was lifted out the mountings fell off the chassis."

Denis Austin went from building model traction engines to restoring an Austin Healey and found several trials and tribulations along the way, as David Bowers reports.

Denis Austin was finishing a model traction engine when a friend suggested restoring a car would make better use of his talents. Denis pictured himself in an Austin Healey 3000 with the long bonnet stretching out ahead as the car ate up the cross-country miles.

He was cautious in choosing a car; "I spent 12 months travelling up and down the country looking at expensive heaps of junk, trying to convince myself they were restorable. Then I found this 1964 Mk111 model, re-imported from the United States."

A Heritage certificate confirmed the car's provenance. When exported to Wisconsin in 1964, it had been black rather than the bright red it now wore. It was complete and all the serial numbers matched the documentation, impressing Denis; "The rear axle was one digit out, presumably due to a clerical error."

First moves at dismantling were tentative, but Denis was soon contemplating a pile of panels and the enormity of the task ahead. Extensive corrosion was only part of the story; "I hadn't realised the car had been hit on the nearside front and badly damaged. The scuttle support panel was out of shape and the chassis rails kinked. When the engine was lifted out, the mountings fell off the chassis rails. Only its own weight held it in place, you could see where it had been thrown forward bending the cross member. Someone had put on a new front wing but done little else. Imagine using a car in that condition."

The car was sent away for the chassis to be jigged into shape and on its return Denis put welding skills learnt at night school to use. To stop the body from sagging, it was braced with two-inch angle iron supports, transversely across the cockpit and longitudinally along the door frames, followed by welding in new sections, a bit at a time, where the chassis had rotted away. A new nearside scuttle support section replaced the accident-damaged item and the rotted-away bottom half of the pedal boards made way for new metal. New floor panels and a back seat support panel were welded into position. Removing the inner and outer sills proved a struggle, but the new ones easily slipped into place.

Repair sections were needed along the front chassis rails where the suspension, steering and engine mountings attached. The new mountings had to be precisely located so Denis took dimensions from a workshop manual, then fabricating two jigs to accurately locate the mountings on the chassis rails.

Other welding jobs included fitting a new crucifix support structure in front of the radiator, and a set of door shut panels. "Forget what they say about Stateside cars not rotting," said Denis. "This car came from North Carolina, which is not a dry state. American cars rot from the inside out due to water getting in, ours rot from underneath because of the salt put on the roads."

By now Denis had decided that the aluminium front and rear shrouds required specialist panel beating so they were repaired by Northern Healey of Castleford, Yorkshire.

Completing this stage of the restoration was a major feat, particularly for Denis who as a schoolboy had lost his right leg in a road accident. He doesn't dwell on the subject, preferring to joke about when a splatter of molten weld set his trousers and the foam padding of his artificial leg on fire.

In view of his disability Denis planned a conversion to right-hand drive, hand controls and power steering. But Denis Welch Motorsport of Burton-on-Trent advised that power steering would be prohibitively expensive. Before starting the right hand drive conversion, Denis sat in another Healey, and discovered it was almost impossible to get his artificial left leg into it, so the conversion idea was dropped. The hand controls were installed by a specialist who was similarly disabled.

Denis started to repair the wings, then changed his mind; "I was becoming a perfectionist and they were not up to standard." AH Spares supplied new front and rear wings which with the other panels were individually resprayed before being refitted to the repainted shell. Finding a firm to do the respray wasn't easy, due to the difficulty of getting a perfect black finish. WG Bodies of Stoke-on-Trent achieved a fine result in two-pack, far cheaper than the £3,500 quoted by one firm.

Fitting the trim piping that sits between the steel wings and the aluminium shrouds to prevent corrosion and absorb vibration, provides on of the worst memories. "The piping came with a roll of sticky material to secure it in place. But it adheres instantly, so it's very difficult to make final adjustments between the piping, the wing and the shroud. One area I'm not satisfied with, but no-one else notices."

Suspension work proved refreshingly straightforward. The parts were stripped down an rebuilt with new bushes, the only new items needed a set of rear springs.

After replacing the steering arms, the brakes were overhauled with new front discs and slave and master cylinders rebuilt with new seals, all supplied by AH Spares. Denis replaced the brake lines, fuel pipe and also the tank after a hole was found.

Denis was initially confident that the engine needed little work; "The money had started to run out, so after checking the compression, the bearings, oil pump and other components, I fitted new valves and a clutch, as I couldn't see anything else wrong." But some time later the engine started laying a smoke screen due to piston ring wear. So Northern Healey rebored the block, adding a new crankshaft and oversized pistons, a Kent fast road camshaft and lightened flywheel, and raising the compression by skimming the cylinder head, all resulting in performance much improved over a standard car. The gearbox and overdrive unit needed no work but new universal joints were added to the propshaft.

Denis replaced the wiring loom after removing the dashboard. This was re-veneered by an ex Rolls-Royce employee and the instruments sent to be reconditioned and recalibrated. Willtrim of Castleford did the upholstery; "They made a beautiful job of re-trimming the seats, door cards and dash centre panel in Ambla fabric, as originally fitted. I had thought of going for leather, but they advised not to, as raindrops cause stains."

The final jobs before the MOT included fitting new headlights, fog lights, indicator units, front and rear bumpers and the rechromed badges and trim items.

Shortly after the car returned to the road, disaster was narrowly averted when a stub axle worked loose. "The steering wheel started shaking. I couldn't find anything wrong with the steering or front suspension, but I then discovered a  rear stub axle was held on by a single nut. A few hundred yards more and it would have spun off. Both stub axles were re-secured with special nuts and Loctite glue. When I told other owners they said, 'That happened to us, didn't you check them?' Everyone seemed to know about this but me."

After finishing the five-year project, Denis got involved with the Austin Healey Club events and a highlight was when the car took first prize in the club's national concours at Tatton Park in 1999. He was also at 50th anniversary celebrations at Wokefield Park, Reading last year, featuring more than 700 Healeys. The memorable event included taking the cars round the nearby Thruxton race track.

Denis is Northern Area Director of the Austin Healey Club and with the club has taken the car on tour of Europe including runs on the Spa circuit in Belgium and the Nurburgring in Germany. He rallies the Healey and Avon ZZ tyres were fitted to the replacement wire wheels. They were expensive but provide excellent grip.

Asked whether it was all worth it, Denis has no reservations; "It's a lovely car to drive and has provided lots of pleasure at club events or driving in the Peak District. Performance is excellent and although fuel consumption is only 19 mpg, you have to remember that the engine is a 3-litre. The car has never missed a beat, the shape is in the classic Healey mould - the car I'd always promised myself."