What if? What if a Texan racer didn’t convince AC to sell him lightweight sports cars and Ford to sell him engines to power them? It almost happened, you know. At stake wasn’t whether AC and Ford would grant Carroll Shelby his request as much as whether he would’ve had to appeal to them in the first place. You see, if he had his first wish granted the legendary Anglo-American hybrid he created would’ve looked a lot like this, a Chevy-powered Austin Healey. That’s right, Cobra fans, the Ford-powered AC was Shelby’s Plan B.
His idea wasn’t exactly original either. By the mid ’50s, enthusiasts restless from going fast in straight lines and circles jumped ship to sports cars in droves. They applied their hot rod know-how in the way they knew best, by stuffing the most powerful engines in the lightest cars they could find. In fact the Stovebolt Special, an English-built HVM Formula 2 raced by a then-unknown Stirling Moss, became in 1956 what may have been the very first subject of a small-block Chevy swap. That Healeys were so common—Shelby even raced one in the ’54 Carrera Panamerica—so lightweight, and so easy to amend with Chevy power meant that countless unions took place in garages across the country. In fact Gary Keyes’ ’55 Healey was one of those cars; it got its 283 transplant in 1962 and was raced on road courses and dragstrips alike.
He bought his 100/4 from Port Townsend’s Jerry Johnson who’d recently bought it from its longtime owner Ben Foster. Foster and Rob Dvorsky equipped the car with what began as a ’70-vintage 350 LT-1 rebuilt by Baca’s Automotive Machine Shop in South San Francisco. From the top down it consists of a Holley double-pumper with an 830-cfm Proform body, a World Products Sportsman manifold, Dart Iron Eagle heads, and forged flat-top pistons.
An additional transmission crossmember bore the four-speed transmission. The front suspension benefits further from a Triumph TR7 rack-and-pinion steering unit and Austin Healey 3000 disc brakes. A narrowed Ford 9-inch axle hangs on the stock leaf springs. It too benefits from discs.
Austin designed the Healey fenders to part from the body by a seam along their topsides. These seams have been filled and the rear fenders pushed out to cover the wider tires. A fiberglass Le Mans–style hood takes the place of the factory piece. The front apron now descends straighter and lower rather than curling under as in the original design. A 10-gallon fuel cell replaces the original tank. A larger tunnel accommodates the transmission and driveshaft. A pedal assembly, brake master cylinder, servo from a TR7, and an aftermarket hydraulic throw-out bearing make the car more user-friendly.
Though a complete car, the Healey Gary bought wasn’t done exactly the way his mind’s eye thought it should look. “I’ve always felt V-8–converted Healeys hold a significant place in hot rod history, particularly in California,” Gary observes. “I felt the car had the foundation to do what I thought was cool and correct from a historical viewpoint.” So he set about reconciling the differences.
They don’t offer as much support as the TR7 seats that came in the car but the stock Healey seats with which he replaced them yield more space in the tight confines. He recovered them and the door cards in factory-type vinyl and the floor in an 80/20 loop-pile carpet. He also lengthened the Hurst shifter’s stalk and modified the boot ring around it.
The rare two-piece dash actually came from a ’53 Healey. He liberated it from exile behind paint, polished it, and replaced the car’s Auto Meter gauges with more historically credible Cobra-style Smiths pieces. He also replaced the indifferent-looking black mirror stuck to the windshield with a stock dash-mounted Healey unit. Finally he swapped the generic foam-wrapped steering wheel with an accessory riveted-wood tiller that he found in an early Alfa Romeo.
The Centerline wheels on the car when Gary bought it didn’t exist until the ’70s. The aluminum Radir wheels he chose approximate the look of the composite ones Dick Rader started making in 1961. These measure 15x4 and 15x8 and sport Mickey Thompson 26x7-15 Sportsmans up front and a pair of vintage 7.75/8.25-15 M&H Racemasters recapped by Towel City Tires out back.
Gary addressed the engine with a set of finned Cal Custom rocker covers and a second-gen Corvette expansion tank. He also solved numerous heating issues and installed SPAL cooling fans. He commissioned Spokane’s Billy Johnson to replace the T10 with a rebuilt Muncie M21, the quiet cousin of the famed close-ratio M22 Rock Crusher. Johnson also swapped the gears for 3.73s and installed a limited-slip gear carrier. Gary turned the car over to Dan Ray who fabricated a 2 1/2-inch-diameter exhaust system to go between the engine’s custom headers and a pair of Supertrapp mufflers.
The car’s earlier transformation left it rather austere. Gary restored some of the charm with a new aluminum trunklid, rear badge, and side spears. Body by Scotty in Post Falls, Idaho, completely re-sprayed the car with two-part urethane.
The sports car market that inspired the original wave of hot rod Healeys may no longer exist in that early form but that doesn’t bother Gary; other things motivated him. For one, “I have a thing for English cars,” he says. “My first car was a ’59 Morris Minor.
“I always thought Austin Healeys were very cool, particularly early hot-rodded Healeys,” he maintains. “The goal was what I thought Carroll Shelby would have done if his original idea would have been realized,” he says.
So would the Cobra have looked like this had Shelby charmed Donald Healey and General Motors? Within reason, yeah. Would it have attained the same popularity as the Ford-powered AC? That’s debatable. Had it done so, however, we guarantee Gary Keyes wouldn’t have as much fun with his example. You can chart his car’s course by the two fat black stripes it leaves.
But his motivations were simpler yet. “I set out to build the coolest V-8 Healey in history,” he says. And as far as we’re concerned, he has.
Rod & Custom Feature Car
1955 Austin Healey 100/4