Auntie’s M – A 1956 Austin Healey 100M Le Mans Gets A New Lease on Life
By D. Brian Smith
Photography: Ben Moment
Without the influx of British sports cars into the United States starting in the late 1940s, we could all be meandering along the boulevards in land yachts that achieve 10 miles to the gallon and take the help of a road surveyor to assist in parallel parking. If we were still trolling around in those American dinosaurs from the ’50s, we might already be without fossil fuels and plugging our 50-mile range oversize Oldsmobiles and Lincolns into charging stations.
If there hadn’t been the emphatic distribution of these little British jewels to all points east and especially the last frontier of the wild wild west, there might not have been the fantastic formation of Ferrari, Lamborghini or Maserati. One could argue that British sports cars saved the worldwide automotive industry from ruination and extinction. Having cars like the MGTC roadster, the Jaguar XK120 and the Austin Healey 100/4 come to our shores is what likely got the rest of the automotive engineers and designers off their duffs and motivated them to design and engineer some sports cars and some modern automobiles that could compete with the dashing British machines.
The British invasion captured the interest of automotive enthusiasts everywhere. We shutter to think what we might be driving these days if British sports cars hadn’t landed on our shores in America and other parts of the world, in the late 1940s and throughout the 1950s. Would other automotive manufacturers have the creativity to create sports cars and distribute them as the British Empire did so admirably well? We could have a political debate as to whether that would even occur. Remember that Germany, Japan and Italy had to rebuild their manufacturing and engineering infrastructure after losing World War II. The Allies – Great Britain, France and the rest of Western Europe and the U.S. – we didn’t have the manufacturing shackles set upon as, as we won the great war. For all those armed service personnel who were returning home, American car companies were cranking up their production of the bigger is better American automobiles. England, on the other hand, was building smaller and more fuel-efficient cars, with good reason. Petrol in England and in Europe was far more expensive than here in the States. There was a demand for sports cars that the American automobile manufacturers didn’t quite see yet.
Especially in the western United States, guys were creating their own performance cars, by taking lightweight roadsters, coupes and sedans from the 1920s, 1930s and ’40s and stuffing powerful V-8 engines in them, while stripping off heavy fenders and interior items, thus enabling these home built cars to be fast and to handle far better than stock. These hopped up cars acquired several names, with hot rods, jalopies, street rods and roadsters being notable among them. As is the case with almost every trend in the U.S., the hot rod movement spread from the West Coast to the Mid-West and finally the East Coast.
But this story isn’t about the history of hot rodding. Rather, it concerns one specific hot rodder named Greg Vitaich, who spent 25 years of his life at the Bonneville Salt Flats as a mechanic on the crew of a World Record holding streamliner. He also has built his own hot rod roadster and driven it for many years and owns to this day.
Greg’s the sort of gearhead that appeals to those of us who create Redline Review. He isn’t just a fan of hot rods and street rods. He likes all sorts of different machines with the caveat that they have to be fast, or as we put it – It’s All About Speed.
Several years ago, a friend named Leslie asked Greg what his favorite car is. Like many a car guy, Mr. Vitaich has several favorites. So he could have responded several different ways. But, fortuitously he remarked, “I have about six favorites but Austin Healey is right up there, especially the 100M Le Mans.”
You’ll never guess what occurred next. Leslie remarked that her Aunt Carol has an Austin Healey, which she thought was a 1957 M Le Mans. Of course, Healey enthusiasts know that the 100M’s were only built from 1955 through 1956, with just 640 being produced by the factory in England. Austin Healey supplied M kits to AH dealers, which enabled 100/4 BN2 owners to get their cars to look like the M Le Mans racecar. The difference was that the 640 M’s from 1955 and 1956 were specially designated as such in their serial numbers. Finding and buying one of these original M’s all these years later is extremely hard to do and it’s expensive too.
The little 1956 or 1957 Austin Healey wormed its way into Greg’s brain and consciousness for a couple weeks. He simply could not get the car out of his noggin. Was it a ’57 100/6? If so, he could buy it, pull the Austin straight-six-cylinder mill and replace it with a Chevy V-8, making it a Healey 8, a poor man’s Cobra. Or was the car somehow a 1956 100M Le Mans? Could it be true? He had to find out. Greg told his friend Leslie that he was going to call her Aunt Carol, and he was taking a road trip from his Sacramento home to the San Francisco Bay Area to see this baby.
Within minutes after getting to the abode of the then current caretaker of the British sports car, Greg realized he was looking at a 100/4 Austin Healey. What’s more, the car was equipped like a 100M Le Mans. Of course, it could have been one of the 500 or so cars that were modified at the dealers or by individual customers after the fact with a 100M Le Mans competition kit. Or, it could even be a 100/4 Austin Healey that was customized with a reproduction Le Mans kit many years later. Decoding the serial number for the car would reveal the truth.
Being an Austin Healey aficionado, Greg brought several seminal works chronicling the history of the Austin Healey. From looking at the car and consulting the Austin Healey reference books over the course of several hours Greg determined that the 1956 Austin Healey before him that had been stored in Aunt Carol’s garage since 1973 in a broken condition was definitely a factory 100M BN2 Le Mans. Given this fact, Mr. Vitaich negotiated the purchase price and picked up the Austin Healey sports car the next day.
In May of 2000, the sports car had a new home and a new caretaker. By June 12, 2000, the British Motor Industry Heritage Trust provided a certificate that attests to the fact that this particular Austin Healey 100/4 is a genuine factory-built Austin Healey 100M Le Mans.
As what happens with many a restoration project, they can languish in the garage for several years. Greg did do some work on it in his spare time. He knew that he could tackle the engine rebuild with no problem, but the rest of the car would be much more demanding. Finally, after chatting with several other Austin Healey owners and from becoming a member of the Austin Healey Club of the USA (AHCUSA), he contacted Fourintune. Owned by Tom and Kaye Kovacs, Fourintune is a complete restoration shop in Cedarburg, WI that hones in on vintage British automobiles with specific focus on Austin Healey restorations. By November of 2009, Greg trailered his 100M all the way from Sacramento to Cedarburg to find out whether the Fourintune crew would be willing to renew the Austin Healey that Greg had affectionately named Lola.
Thankfully for Mr. Vitaich and his prized British roadster, the Kovacs agreed to bring the 100M back to life. The talented crew at Fourintune achieved a Concours quality frame-off restoration on Greg’s ’56 AH 100M Le Mans over the course of 14 months and performed the task before the deadline and under budget. Fittingly, Greg’s BN2 Le Mans came out of the Fourintune restoration shop in the Spring of 2011. Little Lola has been winning and placing at car shows ever since. And what’s even more significant from our point of view, Greg also gives Lola great regular workouts at track events and weekly cruising around his Sacramento home. His Austin Healey 100M Le Mans was restored to be driven, shown and enjoyed.
We imagine that’s precisely the way Greg’s Great Aunt Lola Belle would have wanted it. You see, his Aunt Lola Belle always encouraged Greg’s mechanical curiosity when she babysat Greg as a young boy. She was always bringing Greg items to fix – like broken toasters or radios, which he would accomplish with increasing ease each time he tackled a new challenge. Greg’s Austin Healey is named after his Great Aunt Lola Belle. What an awesome way to honor someone who played such a big part in your upbringing.
Aunt Lola Belle taught you very well, Mr. Greg Vitaich. Congratulations to you and the crew at Fourintune for giving your rare Austin Healey 100M Le Mans more roads to conquer.
1956 Austin Healey 100M Le Mans – Technical Specifications
Vehicle Manufacturer Info
Name: Austin Healey
Country of Origin: England
Name: Greg Vitaich
City, State: Sacramento, CA
Year & type/model: 1956 Austin Healey 100M factory Le Mans
Purchase Price: $2,985.00 in 1956
Frame: Steel Semi-monoque
Wheelbase: 90 inches
Rearend: 3.90:1 final drive ratio
Rear Suspension: Live axle, half elliptical leaf springs, Panhard rod and lever arm hydraulic dampers
Front Suspension: Independent coil springs, wishbones, anti-roll bar
Shocks: Hydraulic lever arm
Rear Brakes: 11.0″ X 2.25″ drum
Front Brakes: 11.0″ X 2.25″ originally. Now upgraded to later model Austin Healey disc
Brake Lines: steel
Master Cylinder: Original Girling. Upgraded to Wilwood
Brake Booster: None
Steering: Cam & Peg
Front Wheel Make & Size: Originally Dunlop 48-spoke 15X4.5-inch. Upgraded to 72-spoke 15X5.0-inch Dayton chrome
Rear Wheel Make & Size: same as front
Front Tire Make & Size: 15X5.90-inch Dunlop Roadspeed originally. Upgraded to Vredestein Sprint Classic 15X185
Rear Tire Make & Size: same as front
Paint Brand/Type: Period correct single stage Reno Red
Roll Bar: none
Lights: OEM with addition of period correct Lucas seven-inch driving lights
Emblems & Trim: OEM
Fuel System: OEM
Fuel Tank: OEM
Steering Wheel: Derrington style Motolita
Material: Leather and vinyl
Engine Brand: Austin A90
Engine Type: 2,660 cc Inline four-cylinder, OHV
Water Pump: OEM
Air Cleaner: none
Ignition: Lucas DM2 battery coil
Headers: Period correct steel tube, ceramic coated
Exhaust System: OEM muffler with 100S style side pipe
Transmission Type: four-speed manual with Laycock De Normanville electric overdrive
Air Conditioning: none
Battery: 12-volt negative ground
Engine Brackets: OEM
Accessories: Lucas driving lights
Additions, Modifications & Upgrades
Wheels and tires (see data above)
Period correct seven-inch Lucas driving lights
Wilwood brake master cylinder
Front disc brakes
Period correct Derrington style steering wheel
3.90:1 rear axle
Arrow Precision steel billet crankshaft
Custom designed three-ring aluminum 9.5:1 compression ratio pistons
Arrow Precision steel billet rods
Gas flowed alloy head with enlarged valves
Lightened steel flywheel
Nine-inch racing clutch
Lightened & polished pushrods
Statically & dynamically balanced