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The Austin-Healey No. 1 will be on display at the Austin-Healey 34th Annual International Conclave in Kingston, Ont. June 21-26.
The Austin-Healey No. 1 will be on display at the Austin-Healey 34th Annual International Conclave in Kingston, Ont. June 21-26.

Car Enthusiasts

A British classic gets a master's touch Add to ...

Normally when collectors acquire a rare piece, they uncrate it, place it on a suitable pedestal, stand back and admire it, but when Blair Harber hauled home the first Austin-Healey 100 to roll off the production line, its elevated display involved a set of workshop jack stands.

And instead of standing around looking at it, Harber rolled up his shirtsleeves. What followed was the three years of painstaking and at times tedious, dirty hard work it took Harber, plus a team of Canadian-based craftsmen, to bring the historic Austin-Healey to the pristine award-winning perfection it enjoys today.

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And if you go to the Austin-Healey 34th Annual International Conclave in Kingston, Ont., June 21-26, you will be able to view the results.

The Austin-Healey No. 1, along with a couple of other rare Healeys owned by Harber, will join more than 200 of the "Big Healeys" - the dramatic-looking 100-4s,100-6s and 3000s - and undoubtedly plenty of their cheerful little Sprite siblings, driven by enthusiasts of the marque from across North America.

Events begin Monday, June 22, with a track day at nearby Shannonville Motorsport Park, with a car show in Kingston's City Park on Tuesday, followed by tours of the region, rallies and other events culminating in a banquet Thursday night.

Guests of honour at the event will be Ann Wisdom, who co-drove with Pat Moss (sister of racer Sir Stirling Moss) often in Austin-Healeys to many rally wins in the 1950s, and her husband, ex-British Motor Corp. works test driver and rally competitor David Riley, who scored the Austin-Healey 3000's first international win in the Liege-Rome-Liege rally of 1959.

Also on hand will be John Sprinzel of rally and race fame; his name is closely linked to the Sebring Sprites of the early '60s.

The lead-up to Harber's car emerging as the first production Austin-Healey to drive through the gates of Austin's Longbridge factory in 1953 begins a few years earlier, with Britain and car-guy Donald Healey bootstrapping themselves out of the dire days of the Second World War.

Healey, born in 1898, had already survived being shot down as an aviator in the First World War before going on to race bikes and cars and play various roles in the British auto industry of the 1920s and 1930s.

While serving in his second war, he became determined to establish himself as a car maker and the first creation of the Donald Healey Motor Co. was revealed in 1946. It was later followed by the cycle-fendered Silverstone and the Nash-Healey (a collaboration with the U.S. car maker of that name).

That car appears to have really opened his eyes to the potential of the American market - a virtually broke Britain was involved in a sort of reverse Lend/Lease program at the time, shipping as many sports cars as it could to the United States to help rebuild its economy - and the result was the Healey 100, first seen at the 1952 Earls Court Motor Show.

It not only impressed the punters, but more importantly Leonard Lord, who headed newly formed (from Austin and Morris) BMC. He approached Healey and soon struck a deal that would see the car renamed the Austin-Healey 100 and mass-produced based on Austin A90 components, including the 2.6-litre, four-cylinder engine.

Nineteen aluminum-bodied prototypes were hand-built first, of which Harber also owns and has restored AXH 12 (rebuilt as a racer and used in the Targa Newfoundland Rally) and AXH 14.

Harber, who was born and grew up in Fort Erie, Ont., began his lifelong affair with old automobiles with a little prod from his father, who, after founding metal fabrication firm Harber Mfg. Ltd., wanted him to become an engineer. In 1961, at age 14, young Harber acquired a 1929 Model A Ford Roadster and he had it restored in time to drive when he turned 16 (he still owns it).

Following high school, he enrolled in the "ME Hot-Rod" program - more formally known as mechanical engineering with the automotive option - at the General Motors Institute in Flint, Mich. He worked for GM for a time afterward and then went into the family business.

His interest in British sports cars was born after spotting a 1955 AC Ace - the British sports car Carroll Shelby later based the Cobra on - behind a farmhouse while driving to start his sophomore year at GMI.

It turned out to be the first of its kind to come to Canada. Initial plans to stuff a V-8 into it were later reconsidered. He says he was standing torch in hand, but, already feeling himself a restorer, couldn't face cutting it up.

It was subsequently restored and joined by a 1957 AC Aceca Bristol coupe, also the first of its type here.

A Jaguar "period" followed and he still has a 1956 XK140 Drophead Coupe to show for it, but while attending the Canadian International Auto Show in Toronto in the mid-1990s, he fell under the influence of Austin-Healeys and, shortly after, acquired the two preproduction prototypes.

The historic first production car was purchased from a U.S. enthusiast in the late 1990s. As it had spent its early life in California, it proved a "pretty solid" car that was back on the road in 2002 (coincidentally firing up for the first time on June 11) in time for the 50th anniversary of the model's introduction celebrated at an event in Lake Tahoe.

The restoration process, which Harber was actively involved in, was both challenging and meticulously carried out (it is fascinatingly documented on Larry Varley's A-H 100 restoration website at acmefluid.com.au/larry).

"For me, with restoring cars, it's the journey that's the most intriguing. When it's done, it's done," Harber says.

Harber is currently embarked on a restoration voyage of a different kind. He's renewing a historic Loyalist Georgian house built in 1827 while getting ready to launch yet another project, the Ravine Vineyard Estate Winery, on his wife's family farm in the village of St. Davids, near Niagara-on-The-Lake, Ont. But you get the sense these aren't likely to displace his enthusiasm for his cars.

"It would be difficult to top how I feel about the Austin-Healeys."

globeauto@globeandmail.com

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