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Some remember Austin-Healeys more for their smell than their looks.

Jud Perkins

Whomever wins the Canadian Grand Prix in Montreal on June 11, the one certainty is that the driver will have crossed the finish line in an Austin-Healey.

Before the race, that is.

Le Club Austin-Healey du Quebec has organized the driver's parade every year since 2000. Elsewhere in the world, the drivers are paraded atop flat-bed trucks or floats. Montreal prefers the elegance of classic sports cars.

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Yet some of those drivers don't really "get" the Healeys.

"You have to understand, some of these guys are 20 years old, they're saying, 'What's the name of this car?' " says Roger Hamel, the club's founding president.

The most recent Austin-Healey 3000 was assembled at Abingdon, England, a dozen years before the eldest Formula One driver, 37-year-old Kimi Raikkonen, was born.

Sports cars were considered the perfect antidote to the station wagon during their era, 1950s into the 60s.

Many remember Austin-Healeys as the most handsome of the British sports cars, but to Michael Schumacher, the way they look was altogether trumped by the way they smelled.

In 2002, the reigning world champion was driven by John Healey, the son of company founder Donald Healey.

"Michael did not know who John was and, as they followed the other Healeys around the track, Michael asked him to drive on the right 'because these old cars smell,' " Hamel says. "John was very upset, but refrained from answering."

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However he took it at the time, the anecdote remains on the John Healey page of the Austin-Healey Club of America website, eight years after his death. All Healey enthusiasts develop thick skins. They accept that perfection was not achieved by 1967.

Thus the backup Healeys at the parade, should any of the cars carrying the F1 aces falter.

"All of us think, 'Please let my 50-year-old car start and run and not embarrass me on the grid or on the track,' " says Jud Perkins, president of the New England Region of the A-H Club of America, who is returning this year for a third run.

"In June, it can get quite warm," Hamel says. "And sometimes Healeys overheat – that's, what you say, an understatement."

Gerry Coker, who designed the body for Donald Healey's chassis, quipped in 2007 – when he drove Italian race-car driver Jarno Trulli in a Quebec club member's car – that the reason he'd never bought one "was that owning a Healey was like wearing a barbed-wire vest."

All good fun among lodge members. But, of course, the cars are tuned to perfection. Perkins toured eastern Canada after the race – 5,630 kilometres – with no problem.

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Perkins has attended many championship games as a former executive with Madison Square Garden and the NBA, yet he says, "even with my background, the opportunity to take a Formula One pilot around the circuit before the start of the Canadian Grand Prix is the greatest thrill I have experienced in sports."

The first time, Perkins drew Max Chilton, hardly a star – in fact, a rookie with the no-hope/now-defunct Marussia team. But Chilton turned out to be the exception to the rule of drivers having no time for sports cars. "Max Chilton and I were so engrossed in talking British sports cars, as he was rebuilding an MGB, that we almost missed our start."

The next time, he drove Sergio Perez, the Mexican many feel is likely to move to Ferrari. Perkins and Perez discovered they have mutual friends in Guadalajara. The "20-minute conversations, in between grandstands," as Hamel terms the chitchat during the parade lap, is not soon forgotten.

Fernando Alonso, Hamel learned, as the applause for the Spaniard caused his own hairs on the back of his neck to stand to attention, speaks six languages. Christian Klien, a rookie with Jaguar, was eager to learn a little French.

"He wanted to know how to meet girls in Quebec and I taught him to say, 'Je t'aime.' He kept practising it in between grandstands."

The 20-year-old Austrian finished ninth, his best result in eight races to that point. Who's to say Hamel's instruction didn't play a part?

Healeys muscled their way to wins in Canadian racing in their day. A 3000S, in which Grant Clark won the Ontario class championship in 1960, resides in California, where Kevin Adair raced it to a class win at last year's Monterey Motorsports Reunion. Al Pease and Don Kindree prevailed in the four-hour Sundown Grand Prix at Mosport in 1964; their 57SAC is in Australia, owned by Tony Parkinson, proprietor of Penny's Hill Wines.

Now, their prominence at Circuit Gilles Villeneuve has all to do with their classic lines. When Normand Legault, race president and CEO from 1996 until 2008, first called Hamel in 2000, "He told me that a professor drove by his window every night in an Austin-Healey and he loved the looks and sound of the car.

"The F1 television people have told us our parade is the best in the world," Hamel says. "Because not only are the cars very beautiful, they are identical except for their colours, thus creating beautiful 'flower pots' for the drivers."

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