Two 1953 Le Mans 24 Hour Austin Healey Works Specials meet again at Bonhams.
On Wednesday 8th May the Bonhams headquarters in London saw the unveiling of ‘NOJ 393’, the ex-Works 1953-1955 Austin Healey Special Test Car/100S, after its comprehensive restoration by marque specialists. The car realised a world record £843,000 at a Bonhams auction in December 2011, despite being in ‘barn-find’ condition, having been untouched since the 1960s.
Joining ‘NOJ 393’ at the unveiling was its sister car – ‘NOJ 392’ – which Bonhams is to offer for sale at this year’s Goodwood Festival of Speed on Friday 12th July.
NOJ 393 became perhaps the most infamous car in all of motor racing. Considered a factory “special test car” that would ultimately serve as the prototype of the Austin Healey 100S, NOJ 393 was raced at Le Mans beginning in 1953, as well as in the Carrera PanAmericana, at Nassau and at Sebring. It will be forever remembered for a tragic incident in the 1955 24 Hours of Le Mans, where the car triggered an accident that killed 84 people and injured some 120 others. Many refer to this as racing’s darkest day, but the accident prompted changes that ultimately improved safety for drivers and spectators alike.
Together the two cars formed the Works entry into the 1953 Le Mans 24-Hours but for one – ‘NOJ 393’ – it was so nearly not to be. Originally journalist Gordon Wilkins had been assigned to co-drive ‘NOJ 391’ alongside Belgian Marcel Becquart but, on the drive back from scrutineering to the hotel, the car was hit by a truck and suffered severe damage that would prove impossible to repair in time for the race.
Consequently the team set about transferring the car’s engine, brakes and all scrutineer-stamped components into the spare Special Test Car – ‘NOJ 393’ – which had been brought to the race “as insurance”. The necessary registration and race numbers were painted onto the car and it competed in the race masquerading as its compatriot.
Both cars finished strongly, with ‘NOJ 392’ coming in 12th overall, second in class, and ‘NOJ 393’ finishing 14th, third in class.
Registration number NOJ 392 is the only Austin Healey that remains in “special test car” trim, and it represents the sixth car built (of 19 total) at Austin Healey’s Warwick facility before production was moved to Longbridge. Of these 19, only four were constructed as “special test cars,” intended to form the basis of a winning race car. Though the cars looked as much like production Austin Healey 100 models as possible, alloy bodies covered lightened (but strengthened) frames, and even bumpers were made of polished alloy and not chrome-plated steel.
Engines were hand-built and used strengthened crankshafts, racing pistons, custom camshafts, strengthened valve springs, up-sized SU carburetors and a lightened flywheel. Output from the 2.7-litre inline-four was said to be in the range of 103 horsepower, and a four-speed transmission with overdrive was fitted.
Following the 1953 Le Mans race, only NOJ 392 remained as a “special test car” while the other remaining examples were converted to 100S specifications and sold. Controversy ensued when NOJ 392 was represented as an Austin-Healey 100 in road tests by Motor and Autocar magazines; given the car’s lighter weight, stronger engine and overdrive transmission, performance was quite a bit better than could be expected from a production Austin-Healey 100.
Used for disc brake development work by Girling in 1954, the car was also reported to be the one used by Geoff and Margo Healey on their honeymoon in Italy.
Still wearing its Dockers metallic green paint and carrying its 1953 Le Mans number 34, NOJ 392 has been through just a handful of owners over the past four decades. Though bidding likely won’t match the number put up by its sister car (due largely to its tragic history), Bonhams still estimates that NOJ 392 will sell for £500,00 to £600,000.
James Knight, Group Motoring Director of Bonhams, handled the sale of ‘NOJ 393’ and will preside over the sale of ‘NOJ 392’ in July. He said:
It suddenly dawned on me that these cars had been like two comets, each in their orbit since the ’53 Le Mans race – and we now had an opportunity to bring them together. For many years both cars had pretty much languished in garages at either end of England, with ‘392 then heading off to Australia. I think it is great we can re-unite them here today.
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