I remember having a big grin on my face as I charged south on the A1 highway towards my home in London with the roof down, flicking in the overdrive and listening to the exhaust note while changing up through the gears.
In November 1988 I had taken the plunge and purchased the car of my childhood dreams, a 1965 Austin Healey 3000 MK III recently imported from Farmers Branch, Texas. This BJ8 model had been the smart choice because it had wind-up windows, an easy-to-operate convertible top, and two, small rear seats for my growing family.
And now, all these years later, I’m driving this car towards Le Mans, France. It’s a pilgrimage to the place where sports cars were born, a celebration of the famous 24-hour endurance race that began in 1923 and since then has been the center of the sports car universe.
Just another Brit headed for the Continent
In the English way, this Austin Healey 3000 is known by its license plate, which has become a sort of name for the car: 171 YNO. Over that first winter when damp, cold weather prevailed and icy UK roads were covered with salt, I planned the first of many adventures in the Big Healey. It was a 2,000-mile trip following the former route of the Rallye Monte Carlo, when I went to Monaco to photograph the auction of a Bugatti Royale.
Since then, 171 YNO has become almost part of the Goddard family. My daughters enjoyed being strapped into the back of the open car despite a tradition that the convertible top went up only in the most inclement conditions! These days, cars with 2+2 passenger accommodations are thought to be useless and silly, but the Healey helped all of us enjoy driving adventures together.
And so in March 2015, this 1965 Austin Healey 3000 Mk III turned 50 years old, and I thought it deserved a special outing. It’s one of 42,926 Austin-Healy 3000s built between 1959 and 1967, and one of the 17,712 BJ8s built between 1963 and the end of 1967. Beverly and I decided to hit the country roads to France, which all Brits do on a regular basis. And we thought we’d go to Le Mans and celebrate in our own way the place where sports cars were first developed into the fast, roadworthy and even safe vehicles they are today.
But instead of going to the race itself (all those drunken Englishmen!), we would make our way over in the spring to visit the Hotel de France in La Chartre-sur-le-Loir. This is not your average two-star hostelry; it’s a legendry accommodation with a who’s who list of former guests that have driven in 24 Hours of Le Mans, including Mario Andretti, Derek Bell, Jacky Ickx, Stirling Moss, Carroll Shelby, Jackie Stewart, and even Steve McQueen.
Swimming the English Channel
The sun was rising as I fired up the big six-cylinder motor for a 5:30 a.m. departure, and this OHV 2.9-liter inline-six clattered in the cold. Our little country house is just 23 miles away from the white cliffs of Dover, where you can see coast of France across the English Channel, and we drove down to the port with the top down, which is our default setting. I soon was reminded that I was driving a 50-year-old rear-wheel-drive sports car, as the road was damp and the tail twitched sideways out of a roundabout. One shouldn’t expect too much of a body-on-frame car with a short 92.0-inch wheelbase and a crude live-axle rear suspension.
We came upon the port as the morning began and it looking like a scene from the early 1800s by JMW Turner, who actually used to paint not far away in Margate. It’s good to be driving something interesting when you’re crossing the Channel, as the check-in agent at the ferry terminal made a call that put our classic car in pole position for loading. The journey was off to a good start as we drove up the ramp of the P&O Pride of Canterbury.
One great advantage of importing this American-spec Healey from the U.S. is its left-hand drive, so for once I was sitting on the correct side to drive on the Continent. This meant I was able to take the ticket at the tollbooth for the Autoroute from the driver seat instead of jumping out of the car to pay and causing a scene.
Traffic was almost non-existent on the A16 towards Rouen, so driving in France was a pleasure. The Healey was responding to the freedom of the road by cruising at 75 mph in fourth-gear overdrive with ease at 4,500 rpm, and the passengers were able to hold a conversation about the delights of the open road. But it wasn’t all sweetness and light, as the wire wheels were way out of balance at 65 mph, producing teeth-rattling vibration.
The classic tree-lined roads of France
After negotiating the center of Rouen with the aid of our smartphone-based GPS, we were able to peel off the layers of jackets and sweaters at a service station in the spring sunshine. My car has not had its 12-valve cylinder head modified to run on lead-free fuel (sans plomb in French), so I added a supplement before filling up the Healey’s 14.5-gallon tank.
South of Alencon we turned onto the old N138, a classic Route Nationale highway, just the type of road for which Donald Healey designed his sports car when he introduced the Austin Healey 100 at the 1952 London auto show. Miles of straight tarmac unrolled across the landscape, and there were places where we were shaded by trees just like you see in pictures. Popular wisdom says that Napoleon commissioned these straight roads so his troops could march in the shade, but in reality they date to a civic plan of the early 1700s.
Several times I was able to drop down to third gear and accelerate past slow trucks with a terrific exhaust rasp echoing off the nearby medieval buildings. All this fun required a coffee stop in the immaculately preserved town of Beaumont-sur-Sarthe, just 30 kilometers north of Le Mans. As the waiter served our grand cafe au lait, he commented about on our car parked beneath the terrace. “Tres bon auto,” he said.
Steve McQueen slept here (and so did Carroll Shelby)
After a drive of 380 miles, we arrived in La Chartre-sur-le-Loir in the sunshine as if we had planned it. There was a parking space outside the legendary Hotel De France and after taking the obligatory photograph we checked in at 20 Place de la Republic. The front desk was covered in snapshots from the 1960s of Ford GT40s being prepared in the hotel courtyard, so we knew we were in a special place.
We settled into the Alexandre Pasteau suite, which overlooks the passageway where generations of Aston Martins, Ford GT40s, and Porsche 917s were prepared for the 24 Hours of Le Mans. It all started in 1952 when Madame Pasteau took a £100 deposit from John Wyer, the team manager for Aston Martin, who had decided to take over the entire hotel for the next year’s race. When the Aston Martin team arrived in 1953, the patron was still clearing out guests reluctant to vacate their rooms. The hotel was to become John Wyer’s base for many campaigns at Le Mans until the 1970s, as he became associated with first the Ford GT program, then the Gulf Oil-sponsored Ford GT40s, Porsche 917s, and Mirage GR8s.
At breakfast, Christophe, the friendly bar manager, invited us to look around. (He arrived for a job over the holidays in 1983 and never left.) There were signed photographs from Derek Bell, Jim Clark, Graham Hill, Phil Hill, Stirling Moss, Jochen Rindt, and Jackie Stewart. Carroll Shelby famously stayed here in 1959 when he won Le Mans for Aston Martin, and he spent most of his off hours playing cribbage with co-driver Roy Salvadori. (Shelby always won at cards.) Steve McQueen stayed here during the making of his movie, “Le Mans.” The new proprietor Martin Overington has certainly captured the hotel’s motorsport heritage with his recent restoration of the building.
It’s really all about Le Mans
Wet weather had set in, so driver and passenger were decked out in waxed-cotton coats and relied on the speed of the Healey to deflect the water droplets over our heads for the 30-mile cross-country journey. We’re English, so we’re used to it. In its day, the Big Healey’s 148-hp engine with its twin, constant-velocity SU carburettors helped this 2,549-pound car to 60 mph in 8.4 seconds. The top speed was supposed to be 122 mph if you could wait long enough.
We headed north up the D304 towards Le Mans and Le Musee des 24 Heures Circuit De La Sarthe. Piloting 171 YNO on the deserted arrow-straight highway on May Day, a holiday in France, we imagined a trio of Aston Martin sports cars convoying on this same road towards the racetrack. The museum is at 9 Place Luigi Chinetti, recalling the three-time Le Mans winner and famed Ferrari importer in New York City who also was an honorary citizen of Le Mans.
First we headed straight for the main entrance of the circuit, since I have endured photographing this race three times. Run by the municipality, the building in which the museum is contained has been split into six sections. You start at Heroes Alley, where I learned that legendary Tazio Nuvolari only entered the race once in 1933 and won.
Sadly this is where our story takes a disappointing turn. In the museum car park, I had noticed a rainbow-color trail along the wet asphalt that led to our car, which was not good. A look under the car led me to believe that the leak was coming from a flexi pipe that connects the oil pressure gauge. A check of the dipstick indicated the engine had used a half-gallon of oil, so I black-flagged it right there for the sake the engine, not to mention other road users.
It likes France so much it doesn’t want to leave
After lunch, I made a call to Depannnage Repannage 3j, an assistance company that sent a flatbed truck accompanied by a driver who appeared unimpressed by being called out at lunchtime. He took a look at the offending pipe connection and indicated for me to load the car for the short drive to a workshop where the Healey could be put on a lift. Despite fitting a new copper gasket at the garage, the oil still streamed out like a Texas gusher. With a French shrug of the shoulders, we were told the car would have to stay overnight and in the morning the mechanic would hopefully effect a repair.
The next day our mood reflected the dull wet weather and after making many a phone call to both the garage and the European assistance operator, we learned that French garages are closed over the weekend and no repair could be made until Monday. So as responsibilities beckoned us, we returned home to London via the TVG high-speed train. Our car would eventually follow by car transporter in 10 days or so. I reflected on competitors at 24 Hours of Le Mans whose race can come to an untimely end for the want of a cheap component failure, all the effort of preparation for naught.
The parts required to fix our Austin Healey 3000 Mk III came to $40 (unknown to us at the time, he simply welded up the fitting), but the result of the pipe failure was a DNF for our road trip to 24 Hours of Le Mans.
1965 Austin Healey 3000 Mk III Specifications
- Price: $3,565 (1965)
- Engine: 2.9L OHV, 12-valve I-6/148 hp @ 5,250 rpm, 173 lb-ft @ 3,000 rpm
- Transmission: 4-speed manual with electric overdrive
- Layout: 2-door, 2+2-passenger, front-engine, RWD convertible
- EPA Mileage: N/A
- Suspension F/R: wishbones, coil springs/solid axle, leaf springs
- Brakes F/R: Discs/drums
- Tires F/R: 185/70R-15
- L x W x H: 157.5 x 60.6 x 48.8 in
- Wheelbase: 92.0 in
- Headroom: N/A
- Legroom: N/A
- Shoulder Room: N/A
- Cargo Room: 5.3 cu-ft
- Weight: 2,549 lbs
- Weight Dist. F/R: N/A
- 8.4 sec
- 1/4-Mile: 16.3 sec @ 85 mph
- Top Speed: 122 mph (est)