Owners’ personal choices for improving the looks, performance and comfort of Austin-Healeys

Jim Werner of Louisville, Kentucky posed the following question to fellow Austin-Healey enthusiasts: “I would be interested to hear about your favorite modifications. I think you can upgrade your ‘driver’ while respecting the integrity of the original design. What are your suggestions and experiences?”

The answers that came in were many and varied, and they demonstrated that Healey owners’ cars are as individual as they are. And for anyone out there who thinks that “everyone else owns a concours car,” these responses should help to convince you that the vast majority of Healeys have had various degrees of modifications to make them drive better, sound better and look better… in their owners’ opinions!

Now then, we’ve called off the Concours Police and offered the respondents entry into the Witness Protection Program, but so far no takers. Seems that these Healey-modifiers are happy to put their name on their non-original Healeys, whether slightly or very much non-original. In any case we hope you’ll find some food for thought here and benefit from others’ experiences.

Dave Mosher of Quebec, Canada responded:

My CB radio is the only ‘alteration’ I've added. The members of our local club enjoy yakking when we go on outings, and of course it's always handy to have a ‘lifeline’ in case of mechanical nastiness.

Herman Farrer of Silver Spring, Maryland responded:

Without a doubt, it's the extra heat insulation! A close second is a Works style shift knob with integral overdrive switch. It should have come like that from the factory.

Dick Brill of Fridley, Minnesota responded:

I confined my upgrades on my BT7 tri-carb to:

  1. The lighting: Halogen bulbs in the turn signals, stop lights, and running lights, and Halogen headlights. I also rigged it for ‘daytime headlights’ by running the headlight switch through a relay.
  2. The wheels and tyres: 60-spoke wheels and radial tires (Dunlops).
  3. And a Hayden six-blade plastic fan (same as ‘Texas Kooler’).
  4. I run everything else like Donald designed it, not because of any slavishness to authenticity, but because my BT7 works just fine without any other modifications. I have a brand new, still-in-the-box, Crane Electronic Ignition in the garage but never installed it. I just never found the need to.

Oh, I almost forgot, I also have Grose Jets in the three carburetor float chambers.

Gary Anderson of Los Altos, California responded:

The basic upgrades I've made to my BN7 were: lightened flywheel, BJ8 cam and ported exhaust manifold while the car was being restored. Subsequently, changed to negative earth; added ammeter, voltmeter and clock; substituted plastic six-blade "Texas Kooler" fan; installed vintage Sport Coil and ‘bumblebee’ competition ignition wires; added plastic wind deflectors from Moss Motors; installed CB radio for touring; and got a great pair of fitted sheepskin seat covers. Oh, also added sixty-spoke wire wheels and Dunlop 165/15 SP20 tires. I also have aviation cockpit insulation matting under my carpeting all over the car and a Macgregor insulation pad under the carpet on the tranny tunnel. When I destroyed my overdrive – by managing to back up faster than the shift switch disengaged the overdrive – I replaced it with the higher ratio overdrive so that I can now cruise happily at about 3200 rpm at Los Angeles freeway speeds.

Rick Wilkins of San Diego, California responded:

I have enjoyed many of the upgrades to my 100-Six (BN6) with one of the most fun being the Monza free flow exhaust. It made a noticeable difference to the power of the car and the sound is pretty cool. I've not measured the loudness, but it actually seems quieter at lower revs and the note is lower/deeper throughout the range. It does have a decidedly ‘Italian’ style to it, but hey, Webers are Italian. And perhaps my favorite modification is the 3.54 gears (28% overdrive tranny). And don’t forget the 195/60 tires on Minilite wheels and the stiffer anti-roll bar/springs etc.

Dean Caccavo of Thousand Oaks, California responded:

OK I'll say it. My favorite modification is the Smitty 5-speed conversion in a non-overdrive BN7 with 3.54 rear end. I also vote for: the plastic six-blade fan (Hayden), extra insulation, ‘bumblebee’ ignition wires, Halogen head lights, driving lights, 60-spoke painted wire wheels and a leather spare tire strap (like the 100S) to replace the carpet/vinyl bag.

Jimmy Smith of Avon, Connecticut responded:

Many of my favorites are already listed but here goes:

  1. Negative ground with modern AM/FM/cassette.
  2. 60-spoke wire wheels with radials.
  3. Bungee cord strategically placed to hold the side curtains and tonneau on top of the spare tire cover in the BN7 (frees up valuable trunk space).
  4. Position folded top in BN7 backwards.
  5. Cut away most of the foam in the new seat bottoms (for tall drivers only).

Otherwise, I really like the Healey just as it came from the factory.

Neil Trelenberg of Steveston, B.C. Canada responded:

I have always been bothered by the unsightly appearance of the side shift rubber boot on my BT7. One day I decided to make a small kid leather boot cover. Made a small pattern out of cardboard and sewed up a cloth mock-up to aid fitting. In my mind, the final result is very becoming and most people don't even notice it. The boot looks like a small very tapered funnel. It slips tightly over the shifter and tucks under the carpet, no fuss no muss. It is as easily removed as installed with no alterations to the original design. The rest of the interior, other than the colour (black), is completely stock. I have also added polished dashpot covers with the thought of changing the valve cover to a simple cast one. The rest of the car is pretty much original except for lots of stainless nuts and bolts. I'm trying not to distract from the basic elegance of the car.

Chris Stinehelfer of Bucyrus, Ohio responded:

My favorite modification would have to be the replacement of the original rust/body-putty/paint with modern day panel protectant/finish. I am also getting much satisfaction from polishing the cockpit surround trim. My next planned upgrade is unbroken springs for the rear, and maybe some upgraded seals in the front shocks!

Dave Porter of Albuquerque, New Mexico responded:

Best addition to my BN1 was a Fiat coolant recovery bottle. It nestles nicely on the front shroud upright next to the oil filter. In many years I have never had to add coolant or had an unsightly puddle upon shutdown. Painted engine green it blends with its surroundings.

Skip Saunders of Carlisle, Massachusetts responded:

I'm in the process of building a BJ7. It won't be original, but it will be fun. Things I intend to add as upgrades:

  1. Back up light - a white light mounted on the rear bumper operated from a dash switch.
  2. Luggage rack to hold a suitcase on long trips.
  3. Side mirrors on the doors, so I can adjust them from the driver's seat.
  4. Radio - something to provide entertainment (when the car is not running).
  5. Extra fuses to protect the wiring.
  6. Extra driving lights on the front bumper.
  7. Relay-operated headlights so the high current path is to the lights; use low current to operate the light relays.
  8. Chrome, 72-spoke, wire wheels - just looks nice.
  9. Extra fuel pump – à la the race car configuration.
  10. Alternator vice generator for extra power.
  11. Extra heat insulation.
  12. Wood steering wheel.
  13. Extra metal on the scuttle to eliminate shake.
  14. Extra metal to beef up engine mounts.
  15. BJ8 cam upgrade and all the other related engine mods.
  16. "Cigarette lighter" power point for auxiliary electronics (such as GPS receiver, radar detector, small cooler for soda pop, etc.).
  17. Mounting point for GPS receiver on dash in front of driver to keep it from slipping around.
  18. Heavy-duty anti-roll bars front and rear.
  19. Storage compartment in engine compartment for small tools & spare liquids.
  20. Third rear brake light attached via magnet on boot lid.
  21. An Italian bus air horn to augment the wimpy original equipment horn (and a selection switch to revert to the original equipment).
  22. A slow-blow circuit breaker on the fuel pump electric circuit (with bypass switch suitably hidden) to act as a theft deterrent.
  23. Dual-circuit brake lines so brake system is more reliable.
  24. Three-point seat belts.
  25. More-comfortable seats that recline and have lumbar support and headrests.
  26. Air Conditioning from parts provided by Vintage Air.
  27. Small air compressor and air tank in the trunk to operate air tools for breakdowns on the road, inflate tires, etc.
  28. Turbocharged engine.
  29. Lots more instruments; Smiths offers nice gauges such as clock, vacuum, battery charge, fuel pressure, etc., all to be mounted on a modified BJ8 console vice the BJ7 dash.
  30. "Works" style shift knob with integral overdrive switch.
  31. Power windows in the doors.
  32. A trailer hitch and the rear end of a basket case Healey as the trailer.
  33. Rear disk brakes.
  34. Really bright metallic red paint job, probably something like the bright red on the 1999 Ford Mustang.
  35. 3.54 rear end.
  36. Switch to negative ground.

Simon Sabel of Petts Wood, England responded:

I changed my early BN4 into a two-seater after I saw a 1954 Ferrari 250MM and then Frank Sytner’s 100S in a magazine. They seemed perfectly formed and both inspiring each other. With the discussion on the Healeys ‘Mail List’ (see explanation in the Austin-Healey Resource Book) about the Mille Miglia version of the 100-6, I found justification to restyle my four-seater. I sourced a BN6 (two-seater) rear shroud, removed the bumpers and blanked out the bumper holes, fitted a side exit exhaust and mounted a 20-gallon gas tank with a 3.5 inch Monza gas filler in the centre in true Mille Miglia style. The car is all black with red inserts. It got a 100 dash when I converted to right hand drive, and the spare wheel is mounted behind the passenger seat. It also has an electric fan with a completely standard drive train. It’s super reliable, totally in period, quite fast (with original tunnel port head) and looks fantastic!

Graham Healey of Sydney, Australia responded:

Personally I like the upgrades that make it more fun to drive: disk brakes on the front of a BN4 and aluminium vented front panels.

Carl Rubino of Perth, Ontario, Canada responded:

I have a 1957 BN4 (Longbridge-built) modified as follows:

  1. The interior is concours (did that cost!) except for a removable center console covered with same material as on fascia which includes ammeter, voltmeter, 4-way flasher, switches for fog and driving lights, and accessory plug for a phone.
  2. 3.54 rear with overdrive (what a difference).
  3. Lightened flywheel.
  4. Custom open exhaust system.
  5. Cast aluminum valve cover.
  6. ‘Bumblebee’ ignition wires.
  7. Electric thermostatic fan.
  8. Fully insulated cockpit.
  9. Custom louvered hood (what a difference!).
  10. Original Cobra wire wheels (big, beautiful and great grip).

Now if I could only get that damn horn to work!

John Pagel of Sacramento, California responded:

I have a 1960 BT7 with:

    1. Alloy head (Dennis Welch (DW) prepped).
    2. DW cam.
    3. DW chain tensioner.
    4. DW pistons/rods.
    5. Alloy sump.
    6. 70-spoke, forged hubs, well (Cobra) laced wheels, stainless spokes, painted rims.
    7. Color-matched factory hardtop.
    8. Home-fabricated stainless exhaust.
    9. Negative ground alternator.

Coming soon:

  1. Vented front discs w/ 4 piston calipers.
  2. Rear discs (DW Jaguar brake kit).
  3. Coil over front suspension (I have fabricated the upper control arms, just need to figure it out).
  4. Thinking about a 5-speed trans and EFI on Weber intakes.

Keith Pennell of Newport News, Virginia responded:

Have made several mods to the BJ8 and BN7 - probably 12 to 15 in all. My favorite by far is the scuttle shake mod! Whether it is that or the rebuilding of the front suspension or the Compomotive ML bolt-on wheels, THERE IS NO MORE SHAKE, RATTLE, AND ROLL! JUST ROLL! She is now a pleasure to drive!

Tom Ware of Riverside, California responded:

My BN7 has several ‘upgrades’ including HD8 carbs, BJ8 cam grind, flex fan and wood rim steering wheel (smaller diameter) among other things. The two best things I have ever done to the car are adding the 72-spoke wheels and Michelin 175 tires, in that order. The 72-spoke wheels smooth the ride and increase the cornering stability. The single most noticeable thing I've done to the car were the wheels. Some folks still prefer the look of the 48's, but the ride and cornering improvements of the 72-spokers make them the best upgrade for me. 72's aren't ‘just a pretty face’!

Bob Spidell of San Jose, California responded:

I've grown quite fond of the Ignitor module under the distributor cap. My BJ8 starts with 5 seconds or less of cranking after sitting for months, idles smoother and starts quicker overall. When I first installed the unit I idled the engine down to 300 rpm. The time I used to spend installing fresh points and futzing with the dwell can now be spent driving.

Colin O’Brien of Sydney, Australia responded:

How about the very first upgrade I ever did: Sticking the exhaust out the side, just in front of the rear wheel. I got fed up getting the system hung up on nearly every petrol station or car park entrance ramp!

Jim Dalglish of Manasquan, New Jersey responded:

My BT7 was equipped with a 3.54 rear and I added an overdrive trans. Now I don't have to make any excuses on the Garden State Parkway. Also did some minor tweaking on the engine rebuild, but the single biggest improvement was the addition of 72-spoke wire wheels and 175 Michelin radials.

Terry Singer of Madison, Wisconsin responded:

At risk of being tarred and feathered I'll describe the mods on my restored 1960 BN7, but first some credentials: I sold Healeys when they were still new and raced a Sprite while my everyday driver was a reliable BN1. Many great cars have been in and out of my garage since. OK, here it comes: my BN7 is completely stock appearing (other than Minilites/205-65 Yokahamas – I need all the rubber I can get and still look stock), but lurking under the bonnet is a ‘built’ 1969 302 Mustang coupled to a Ford top loader 4-speed. Many other under-the-hood/chassis mods make for a safe and quick ‘sleeper’. More than one Vette and other ‘hot modern muscle car’ has learned that a Healey still has teeth. Note, Carroll Shelby wanted a deal with Healey in 1959 but Healeys were selling too well at the time to spare any chassis. Well, I have one and love it.

Rick Neville of Rowley, Massachusetts responded:

My favorite modifications to my BJ7 were added by the original owner who raced and rallyed the car. They include a DMH three HD8 SU setup and matching manifold and a ‘Halda Speedpilot’. The carbs are too big and the Speedpilot is too complicated, but they're great period mods. What comes next is a Becker Europa II AM-FM stereo radio with factory amp. It too looks very period, although it was probably an early 70's item. The best part is I paid $20 for it at a flea market and when I offered the seller $10 for it, he said he'd rather smash it on the ground than sell it for that kind of money. My contributions as second owner are as follows: no-lead head, lightened flywheel, Isky cam and Toyota 5-speed. I'm firmly in the ‘It's your car, do what makes you happy’ camp and have been a ‘Nasty Boy’ wannabe ever since reading a Hurst 327 engine swap story in Hot Rod in high school study hall. Gotta think a Mustang 5.0L and 5-speed conversion would be loads of fun.

Nick Jones from Erding near the city of Munich, Germany responded:

To my BN7 (1962) I have added the following: 8-leaf rear springs that have raised the rear end slightly, BJ8 cam, lightened flywheel and Ali backplate, complete line balance including clutch, Pro race polished steel front crankshaft damper, Ali head ported and polished with competition head studs, MGC Hepolite pistons, stronger rings, RB340 voltage/current 22-amp regulator from a BJ8, Lucas hazard warning system, Lucas H4 Bilux +30% brighter with integral sidelights, clear glass see-through fuel filter, Lockheed servo along with Goodridge Teflon stainless brake hoses, BJ8 brake master cylinder, BJ8 clutch, extra fusing to overdrive and main headlamps, rear crank oil seal, spin-on oil filter, external mirror fitted to sidescreen frame (no drilling required), 3-point seat belts, 5.5 x 15, 72-spoke wire wheels with 185/65 Cooper tyres. Still toying with the idea of adding a third brake light... the project continues.

Reid Trummel of Portland, Oregon responded:

After making numerous cross-country, coast-to-coast drives in Austin-Healeys over the years, I believe that the best modification you can make to your Healey is anything that decreases the chances of breakdown. My vote for the single most important mod in that regard, based on my personal experiences – yes, that’s plural – is the addition of a dual-element fuel pump. I now have one on my Healey Blue 100. Now, the next time I’m motoring along and the fuel pump ‘clicking’ stops, all I have to do is reach under the fascia and switch over to the other element of the fuel pump. No more beating the bulkhead (where the fuel pump is mounted) with a knock-off hammer; no more coasting to a stop while wondering if it’ll be a quick fix or a night spent by the side of the road; and no more looking for new SU fuel pump points in some small town’s car parts store. The changeover switch also has a neutral position where neither element is selected, kind of like a ‘kill switch’ for the fuel system. Slick.

And finally, Jim Werner, who started the whole discussion, added:

  1. Loud turn signal flasher - bought it from David Nock and installed inside the car on the steering column support. No more embarrassing ‘Your turn signal is on’ comments from other drivers.
  2. MGB fuse panel - mounted inside the car on the firewall near the steering column as a subpanel. It holds four fuses and powers the extra lights, CB radio and CD player. No in-line fuse holders and it’s Lucas – looks like it belongs there.
  3. Velcro on the trunk gas tube cover - rip that sucker off and find my secret stash of ignition, carb and miscellaneous parts that sometimes come in handy.
  4. Interior lights mounted on the sides of the heater box and controlled from a panel with switches and cigarette lighter mounted on the windshield wiper motor bracket.
  5. Fuel Pumps - two NAPA fuel pumps on my side-exhaust Rally Car replica BN4. Flip a switch and keep on going, great peace of mind. But the aftermarket pumps are always too noisy for me. My long-distance luxury cruiser BJ8 features the stock SU fuel pump. The clicking of a SU is the greatest diagnostic tool on the car.
  6. CD Player - sorry purists, spend twelve hours on the Interstate headed towards Conclave and even the sound of a Healey engine gets boring. On the BJ8 with a center console I made panels that fit on the side of the console under the heater box, installed speakers and covered with carpet. Rear speakers were mounted behind the vinyl on the rear seat side trim pieces. None of the speakers show.
  7. OD switch on the shift knob - once you have one you wonder how you ever lived without it.

So there you have some ideas from your fellow enthusiasts. And you also have strong evidence that not everyone sticks to strictly original specs! Modifications and improvements are well-accepted practice, and they reflect the personalities and preferences and experiences of the wide variety of people who choose to own these wonderful cars. Some of these mods enhance the appearance of the cars, some improve performance, some increase comfort, and some mods were done just because they please the owners!

Please feel free to contact these owners directly for advice on “how they did it” and “where they bought it.” As our club staff always says, your fellow members are the greatest resource of all. Contact information for most of these folks can be found in the Austin-Healey Resource Book.

Enjoy your Healey, your way.

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