“Roger” Reginald Davis Menadue, a key figure from the Donald Healey Motor Company and the man responsible for the construction of many of the company's racing and recording-breaking cars was born in Newquay, Cornwall, England on August 23, 1912 and passed away on March 12, 2003 at the age of 90.
Roger was a long-time friend of Donald Healey, and he was the first recruit to the Donald Healey Motor Company when it was formed in post-World War II England. He became the chief experimental engineer for the company, which in practical terms meant that he was personally responsible for building many special cars. These cars included racing cars that finished as high as third and fourth at Le Mans, cars that broke innumerable records on the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah, and many other cars that brought great credit to the company and were pivotal in the success that the small company achieved.
A most significant part of Roger's involvement with the Donald Healey Motor Company from an Austin Healey viewpoint is Roger's work with the Healey 100. It is sometimes said that without Roger's action regarding the 1952 Earls Court Motor show there would not have been any Austin Healey's. When the prototype 100 was completed Donald was not happy with it, particularly with the front end. Roger's opinion was that it would be a winner. It had been intended to exhibit the new car at the show but Donald now had his doubts and was against it being shown. Roger insisted that he thought it should be shown. It appears that Donald did not actually order Roger not to take the car to Earls Court but he definitely did not instruct him to take it there. However, Roger being the strong willed man he was, transported the car to the show where it was displayed on the Healey stand, albeit with its front hiding behind a pillar. We all know what happened next, Leonard Lord, the Managing Director of the Austin Motor Company saw the car, was impressed by it, struck a deal with Donald and the Austin Healey was born.
Beginning in the late 1980s, Roger became a regular at Austin-Healey club events, always happy and enthusiastic to share experiences and provide insights on the history of the marque. He had the ability to instantly make friends and he made many of them among us, this writer included. We present here some recollections of him by members, with the lead feature a letter written by Roger himself.
The following articles about Roger appeared in the March-April 2003 issue of the Austin-Healey Magazine
A LETTER FROM ROGER MENADUE
Submitted by Rick Neville Rowley, Massachusetts
I thought it would be a fitting remembrance of Roger Menadue to share this very kind letter that Roger sent to me last May when I requested that he sign my copy of Geoff Healey's book, The Specials. Here is what Roger wrote:
"The Specials are nearly all cars that I made for Donald. I made about 300 cars in all; the prototypes of all the cars that went into production during the 30-odd years that we [the Donald Healey Motor Company] existed. I also made all of the race cars and the record breakers, including the Salt Flats cars. When I say I made these cars, I had a young Scots lad as my assistant as a lot of work on building a car requires two people.
"I was always interested in cars, so I did a seven-year apprenticeship in a garage, and when I finished I went on to Coventry, and in the 1920s Coventry was the centre of the British car industry. There I was employed by Triumph as a road tester. After 3 years I went to "5.5. Cars," also as a road tester. They are now known as Jaguar. I then did two years with Armstrong Siddeley Aircraft working on bombers, and the war came on and I was "frozen" - I wasn't allowed to leave. Towards the end of the war, Donald and I made our first car in our spare time.
"In 1950, Donald asked me how would I like to make a car for Le Mans. I replied that I would love to make a car for Le Mans. We would not win Le Mans, but we would give the opposition an awful fright and that was exactly what we did. In a field of 62 cars, we finished in fourth place. [Editor~ note: This was a Nash Healey driven by Tony Rolt and Duncan Hamilton, beating all but two Talbots and an Allard.]
"The following year, 1951, we finished in 6th place [Editor~ note: This was a Nash Healey Coupe, again driven by Rolt and Hamilton.] This was still good for Le Mans, to finish is something of a feat. I believed that you had to study a car when you were building it, and that paid off. I have, on several times when things got a little tense at some race or other, in the pits said to the other driver or Geoff Healey that I was not at all worried. That my car was not going to let me down and they would not, they have any say in the building, either. They had been built with understanding, and this one learns during apprenticeship and paying attention.
"In 1952, I was able to do what everyone said was impossible. I built a Le Mans race car to replace the car that I had prepared for the 1952 Le Mans 24 hour race and that Donald Healey had completely written off. With less than 2 weeks to go, I said that I could make another car, body and all. Donald and Geoffrey both said, "Impossible," nobody could build a Le Mans race car complete with body in less than two weeks. I said, "Maybe not but I can.” They said “Don’t be ridiculous” I said. “You two will not have any say in the building, either. I can’t have people arguing, it will never get done.” They knew they couldn’t argue with me and had to give in. They were furious especially Donald, and more so when I had that car ready on time. But worse was to follow. In the race, my car beat every other car in the race including one of the 3 works Mercedes. I beat the Ferraris, the Jaguars, Aston Martins, Cunninghams, Talbots, you name them. I beat them and Donald was furious. He wouldn't allow a picture of that car in any Healey book. [Editor~ note: This was again a Nash Healey, driven this time by Leslie Johnson and Tommy Wisdom, and finishing third overall behind only two factory-entered Mercedes.]
"In 1968, my last Le Mans venture, I entered a Lucas fuel injected Sprite and won three trophies: the First British Car Award, the Rudge Whitworth Biennial Cup for 2 consecutive year wins, and the Best Mechanic Le Mans 1968 (for the Jaguar and Coventry Climax trophy). I thought that this was a lovely way to finish Le Mans. My first attempt, 1950, I finished in fourth position and to finish the greatest sports car event of the year, the First British Car, is not too bad."
Submitted by Bill Emerson (Club President 2003)
I had a column all written for this issue. It was about sharing rides at Healey meets. I'm off to New Zealand and a kind Healey owner there has agreed to loan me a car so I won't have to go to the Meet in a "Hertz Healey." However, upon hearing of the death of Roger Menadue, I withdrew that column and with a sad heart wrote this one.
I believe it is appropriate to discuss this man who was involved from the first Healey to the last Jensen-Healey. Roger Menadue was a Cornishman. He was a gentleman. He was a loving husband. He was a master mechanic. He was an innovator who had that wonderful "can do" attitude. He was a friend to Donald Healey and the rest of the Healey family. And he was my friend and I shall miss him.
He would continue to have cars, that he built, finish the grueling 24 hours of Le Mans for many years, culminating in 1968 when an Austin-Healey Sprite was the highest placed British car; and Roger was awarded the Mechanics Prize.
Last summer I drove down to Cornwall to visit Roger and to bring him a copy of The Healey Book as a gift. The gift that he gave me in return was turning the pages and relating stories about many of the cars. He spoke of building the very first Healey, a Westland; it was done in 1946. It was his job to assure that all mechanical components interfaced correctly with the body that was built by an aircraft company. He spoke of taking the next chassis to the Elliott Corp. where the first saloon body was installed. He stayed at the Elliott factory monitoring the initial production, assuring that the mechanical and body components worked in unison.
As he turned the pages in the book they represented the years that he worked with Donald Healey. He stopped at the first Nash-Healey page and discussed the building of that prototype. That was in fact the "E" type Silverstone with the Nash engine, transmission and brakes installed. It was Roger who was given the task of installing new aerodynamic wings on the car before it went to Le Mans in 1950. The car placed fourth overall, providing Roger with his first Le Mans finish. He would continue to have cars, that he built, finish the grueling 24 hours of Le Mans for many years, culminating in 1968 when an Austin-Healey Sprite was the highest placed British car, and Roger was awarded the Mechanics Prize.
When I think of Roger, I think of the story he told me of building a racecar for Le Mans in the incredible time of two weeks. Roger took this car to Le Mans and watched for 24 hours as the two factory drivers, Johnson and Wisdom, circled the track. At the end of 24 hours the car was in third place overall, and it was the first British car to finish. The photo shows a smiling Roger sitting in that same car, almost 40 years later, after it had been restored.
I normally write about driving and Roger epitomizes a person who liked to drive. In his early career he was a test driver for a number of British car companies driving miles and miles on narrow roads in all kinds of weather. For a number of years in his long Healey career his everyday driver was NOJ 292, the Austin-Healey 100 that competed in the 1953 Le Mans race. A few years ago I had the opportunity to drive Roger around Summit Point racetrack in my 100S. Although he was not driving, he made comments on the sound of the engine and handling of the car through the curves. He was a man who clearly understood all facets of the cars that bore the Healey name.
He was a man, a friend, who will be missed by all who knew him.
Submitted by Patrick Quinn Sydney, Australia
It is indeed sad that we recorded the death of Roger Menadue on March 12. To many, Roger's name means little, but when you look at the history of our favourite marque, his name features very large indeed.
It was Roger who was Donald Healey's right hand man. Roger was the first employee of the Donald Healey Motor Company (DHMC). It was Roger who interpreted the plans of the likes of Geoff Healey and Gerry Coker into practicalities of steel, iron, and aluminum. Roger was the master technician who screwed everything together so not only did it work, but it did so in such a way that it brought great success to the road and competition cars of the company.
Roger Menadue was once visiting Sydney, Australia and we had invited him and fellow Austin-Healey owners to a barbecue at our home. Needless to say, I was looking forward to a most interesting time with Roger and fellow enthusiasts. Over time I had read of the things that Roger had done during his career, and that only served to heighten my interest. However, it was a non Austin-Healey owning friend that really opened my eyes to what an amazing man it was who was visiting my home.
While my good friend John Mum has never owned a Healey, he is a long-term owner of a TR3A as well as being a keen enthusiast of motor racing since the Second World War. When John and his family arrived at our barbecue for Roger, I gave him a snapshot of Roger's career achievements. It is an understatement that John was enthralled with the proposition of meeting the man who had almost single handedly put together the DHMC competition cars that ran at Le Mans in the early 1950s, and these were cars that didn't simply run with the pack, but in 1950 in a field of 62 entrants, including some from the world's greatest manufacturers, finished in fourth place. Success also followed the next year with a sixth place finish. Then in 1952, Roger managed to construct a car for Le Mans in just two weeks after its predecessor was written off in the Mille Miglia. This car also defeated strong teams from Ferrari, Jaguar, Aston Martin, Talbot and Cunningham and finished third overall!
John listened intently to stories from Le Mans and also how Roger ran the Experimental Department of the DHMC. It was not only where the competition cars were produced, but it is also where the very first Healey Hundred was produced. Yes, it was Roger who actually built the car that featured at Earls Court in 1952, and that went on to become the Austin-Healey 100. Roger was also in charge of the construction of the initial 20 pre-production cars at the DHMC, all at the same time as preparing the first competition Austin-Healeys.
Submitted by John Sprinzel Kaunakakai, Hawaii
Roger Menadue was my idea of a typical Cornishman, Just like his close friend and employer Donald Healey. He had that elfin smile and a gentle nature, but underneath was always the steely determination which was the basis of his prowess as a builder of Healey race cars. In his time he constructed some three hundred race, rally and prototype cars with some tremendously successful versions among them. His competition and development department at the Cape was almost impossible to get into and there was always the pervasive odor of fiberglass resins, as the Healey Boat assembly was not far on the other side of the plywood walls. Coupled with the aroma of Geoff Healey's evil pipe tobacco, I reckoned Roger's sense of smell must have been quite seriously compromised!
I was fortunate to spend some time with Roger on a trip to Sebring in 1960, to race the Falcon-bodied Sprite in the 12-hour race. We flew from New York to Florida on one of the Lockheed Electra planes, two of which had recently crashed. As we buckled up in our seats, the cabin crew was loading extra life rafts and was all quite pale-faced and anxious. I glanced at a neighbor's paper to see a full page photo of the scattered wreckage of the most recent crash, and read that Electras were restricted from flying into storm clouds. Naturally, our flight South was through heavy gray clouds and the 'plane bounced around the skies while Roger, smiling all the time, kept up an amusing dialogue of his experiences in building cars. Both of us had worked with airplanes and were fully aware of the problems, but his cheerful conversation did a lot to keep my mind from the predicament.
During the race, Roger's little Sprite went quite superbly, but when the cylinder head gasket blew and I tried to change it out on the circuit, I found the head had been damaged, so I pushed the car back to the pits.
Meanwhile, Roger had persuaded a bystander to let him borrow the head from his Sprite out in the car park. Roger smuggled the part back into the pits and duly fitted it, enabling us to finish and win the class. Needless to say, Geoff and Roger soon had the Payen gasket people produce a steel gasket to replace the copper asbestos version which had proven so fragile in competition, and the problem rarely appeared again however highly tuned the little A-series engine became.
In recent years, Roger very much took over the mantle of Healey Club activities, first from Donald and then from Geoff, and spent a great deal of time traveling the globe to the great pleasure of Healey enthusiasts everywhere. There are not so very many folks left who were a part of those exciting times of the fifties and sixties, and it is very much thanks to the efforts of Roger and the Healey family that today's enthusiast has such a good command of the goings on in factory and competition arena.
There is no better way to add appreciation to the ownership of a classic car than to have spoken with the people who designed and built it, and Roger was superb at meeting with individual enthusiasts and allowing them to share in his wonderful life's adventure.
Submitted by John Wheatley Worcestershire. England
It was with great sadness that Austin-Healey aficionados worldwide learned of the passing on March 12th of Roger Menadue, a key person in the Donald Healey Motor Company and in the creation of one of the most significant British Sports Cars. Roger was Chief Experimental Engineer of the DHMC and Donald and Geoffrey Healey's right hand man, a skilled "Mr. Fixit" who put together the prototype cars and once kept one of the Le Mans race cars running with a piece of fencing wire to hold up a failing exhaust system.
A very resourceful Man to have around, Roger was a fellow Cornishman of Donald Healey with whom he worked longer than anyone else. Not only a clever man, but a very nice man too.
Over the last fifteen or so years Heather and I got to know Roger very well and spent much time listening to interesting tales of his career and adventures with Donald and Geoff. These must have been good times when they designed and created cars without being bound and restricted by pettifogging regulations. We last saw Roger at the 50th Anniversary Dinner held near Warwick in October last year where he was surrounded by admiring guests and fielding questions in detail and good humour.
We were fortunate to be able to spend an afternoon with Roger at Margot Healey's house before he returned to Cornwall, and we were able to talk about the cooperation between The Cape and Longbridge where I spent most of my working life and knew the people there with whom he and Geoff worked. Happy times! I know Roger enjoyed that afternoon as I did, especially looking at photographs not previously seen and in particular one of his wife whom he described as the most beautiful woman in Leamington Spa. He was right, she was, and Roger said how happy and lucky he had been in this aspect of his life.
I'm sure Roger lived a happy and fulfilled life and his legacy is his share in leaving us marvelous cars to enjoy. We will miss him. He takes much with him.
Submitted by Wm. Severin Thompson Lake Villa. Illinois
I had the distinct pleasure of meeting Roger Menadue in 1992 at the International Healey Meet held in Breckenridge, Colorado. Roger was somewhat of an unknown to the Healey community at the time, as members of the Healey family were (and still are) sought after. Roger was content to stay back in the shadows. However, in the months preceding the 1992 meet, I had numerous phone conversations and correspondence with Geoff Healey about my Healey boat and Stage V tuned Sprite, and he was quite happy to see his fishing buddy Roger getting an opportunity to share some of the spotlight.
Roger was considered Donald Healey's right hand man. They'd met before World War II. Roger was a little too old to be drafted into the service, and he spent much of the war working in an airplane factory, and volunteering as a lookout in Cornwall, watching for enemy bombers in the skies of England.
Following the war, Roger went to work with Donald, designing and building some of the first Healeys. Materials in England's post-war period were very difficult to come by. In fact, the chassis dimensions for many of the Healeys were limited by the length of steel available. Roger had also saved every nut and bolt ever taken off an airplane that had been in for service, and he had quite a collection since regulations always required replacing them with new hardware. He had quite a stash of high-quality fasteners, and they were worth their weight in gold in post-war England. If you ever have the opportunity to examine any of the Rileyengined Healeys, or any the special test cars, you'll see fasteners that Roger had squirreled away during the war.
It was Roger who, back in 1952, had defied Donald Healey and showed the new Healey 100 prototype at the Earls Court Show. Donald had decided he was unhappy with the frontal treatment on the car, but Roger went ahead and brought the car to the show anyway. It was Roger who drove it there, and of course the rest is history.
Roger ran the Experimental Department at "the Works" - the Donald HealeyMotor Company. And he ran it alone sometimes, and later with assistants like Jock Reid and Jim Cashmore. Out of a small garage, and on a shoestring budget, he built racecars that ran with the best in the world. One Nash Healey he built in a period of two weeks (the car originally intended to run at Le Mans had been destroyed) finished 3rd overall at Le Mans. That car, along with the-Falcon-bodied Sprite raced by John Colgate, were his favorites.
In his career he built over 30 cars that raced at Le Mans. He also built the record-setting Bonneville cars, the Sebring entries, and the Targa Florio cars. Virtually all Healeys that went into production were built first as prototypes by Roger.
Following the big meeting at Breckenridge, Roger stayed in the states for an addition two weeks to participate in another Healey event. (Roger was also to celebrate his 80th birthday during this period.) I made arrangements to have Roger come back with us to Illinois and stay in our home for a week. We scheduled a day or two up at "Fourintune" with Tom Kovacs as he and Steve Pike had discovered what they believed to be NOJ 391 lurking under the identity of a 100S owned by Fred Hunter. We scheduled an "archeological dig" of the car, and I managed to capture it all on videotape. Six months later we brought Geoff Healey over, and videotaped his inspection of the car as well. Despite the fact that it had been forty years since either one of them had seen the car, there were only a few minor details that they disagreed on, despite conducting their inspections separately, six months apart. Later, I had the opportunity to edit all the footage together in a little documentary called 'Just In Time". The proceeds of sales of the video went to memorials in Geoff Healey's name. (The video has long been out of print, but I hope to once again have copies available soon.) I remember that we celebrated Roger's 80th at my kitchen table. My daughters Kate and Emily were 6 and 4 at the time, and they just adored him. He was so sweet and kind to them. I think I still have pictures of him wearing a party hat as we ate cupcakes.
Our time together went by all too quickly, but not before Roger and I had developed a bond. We discussed various issues. We argued. We laughed and we enjoyed one another's company. We went up to my summer place in Wisconsin, and he and my father went fishing. We were sad to see him go.
The following summer, Tom Kovacs, Mike Flaws - another Healey enthusiast - and I pitched in to bring him back to the states for another extended visit. I believe it had been that winter that Geoff Healey had passed away suddenly. Roger's wife had passed just a few years earlier, and the loss of these people greatly saddened Roger. He'd put on a happy face for the Healey community and, I suppose, it was the attention given to him that helped him in some way to deal with the loss.
Roger got a taste of vintage racing as he crewed for me from small club events at Blackhawk, to the huge Chicago Historic Races at Road America. What a thrill for a Healey enthusiast like me to have the Healey Experimental Chief help me prepare my car. We also tackled various other projects; he loved to work and he had amazing energy. We re-engineered the roll bar on my Stage V tuned Sprite, "the Bishop." The roll bar had come from 57 FAC, the Works Sebring car from 1963. I'd also picked up two mopeds at a garage sale with the intention of using them as pit bikes. Although they had less than 200 miles on them, the tanks were full of rust and sediment. We spent the better part of two days dismantling them. Roger took a bag of sheet metal screws from the hardware store, a cup of oil, and a halfgallon of gas, and dumped them in the fuel tanks. We shook them for hours, the sharp edges of the screws loosening the rust and sediment, and I ended up with two nicely running mopeds.
On this trip, Roger presented me with his ID bracelet from Le Mans. It was required by the scrutineers at the French race, as only the approved mechanic could work on the car. Everything was tagged and sealed, from the crankcase on the engine, to the mechanic's tool box, to the mechanic himself. He also gave me his MIRA Proving Ground General Driving Permit, a facility where they'd often take the Works cars for testing. The gifts were Roger's way of thanking me for bringing him over again, and he knew how much I appreciated the history of Healeys and his involvement.
Roger also spent time with the Flaws family, and Mike Flaws hosted a club party for Roger. Then, Roger spent time up at Fourintune in Cedarburg, Wisconsin where Tom Kovacs was thrilled to have Roger help in an authentic recreation of NOJ 391. Geoff had also given guidance and a Works numberplate for the car, as it had his blessing. The car was raced successfully by Phil Coombs and then Mike Carroll.
Roger and I kept in touch with an occasional phone call or letter, and we always looked forward to his elegantly written Christmas cards. His elegant handwriting always surprised me, although I suppose it shouldn't Roger was a small, wiry man, yet his hands were huge from years and years of wrenching. He admitted he didn't really care for writing by hand, as it took him a lot of time to carefully craft the letters.
In 1998 I had the opportunity to go to the UK on business. I took the train down to Cornwall and stayed with Roger, his daughter Gay, and his son-in-law Neil. They lived in a stone cottage, and Roger lived in a small trailer out back. Roger showed me how he's devised a series of gutters and basins to capture the rainwater that he washed his clothes in and also water the garden with. There was also an old tool shed out back, and Roger showed me the various projects he had going and the tools he had made to assist in building one certain Healey prototype or another.
Roger had told me the story of the Mechanic's Prize he'd been honored to receive at Le Mans on two occasions. One was a cash award although he never saw the money as it was somehow appropriated along the way. The other Le Mans Mechanic's prize was a gold-plated beam style torque wrench.
Funny thing was, Roger, in all his years, never used a torque wrench. He related a story about a Nash factory mechanic who was having trouble with head gaskets on one of the Nash Healey racecars. Despite repeated attempts at torquing it down to spec, the gaskets still failed repeatedly. Roger took a stab at it, using just "feel" as was his method, and they never had a head gasket problem again with it. Torque wrenches, he just didn't trust them. So, the goldplated one given to whim ended up in the bottom drawer of his tool box, its resting place for 40 years or so. He went to the tool box, dug around, pulled it out, and presented it to me as a gift.
We also spent time driving through Cornwall, as Rog showed me where he grew up, where he met Donald Healey. He took me to Trebah, the estate once owned by Donald where, in the later years, they'd worked on various projects. The following day, it was time to take the train back to London. Roger had indicated it was not likely that he'd be able to make another cross-Atlantic flight to the US as he felt with all the toils of travel, the time change and all had become too much for him. We sat and talked. Roger, although only five or six years older than my father, had become somewhat of a grandfather figure for me. I loved the old man. We both teared up as we hugged and said our good byes. As we talked, I think we both knew it might be the last time we'd see each other again. It was.
He's gone now. I'll miss him.