Monday, 7 November 2011
Bonhams' dilemma: Austin-Healey
Bonhams is curiously coy about an Austin-Healey it is selling. Presumably the boot lid of NOJ 393 has been fixed after hurtling Pierre Levegh’s Mercedes-Benz into the Le Mans spectators in 1955. Bonhams merely describes it as “The ex-works Le Mans Lance Macklin 1953-55 Austin-Healey Special Test Car 100S Sports-Racing Two-Seater,” without mentioning that over 80 died in motor racing’s worst disaster. In its booklet of forthcoming sales highlights it has a picture of No 26 at Le Mans, in the early stages of the race. Editor Richard Hudson-Evans concedes the car is “infamous” without really explaining why.
Understandable really. Describing it as 1953-55 is a bit of cop-out. All other sale cars are described by the year they were made; a 1937 Bentley, a 1965 Rolls-Royce, a 1912 Lanchester. Bonhams seems sensitive about 1955, which everybody in the business associates with tragedy. True the Austin-Healey 100S model was made between 1953 and 1955, but chassis number SPL226B is a described by Geoffrey Healey as a 1955 100S; “… specially prepared … NOJ 393 with the high-lift, long-period camshaft and two 2in SU HD8 carburettors.”
Yet there is no denying its role in the accident. Paul Frère, a Le Mans winning driver, contributed a detailed analysis of what happened in Andrew Whyte’s book on works racing Jaguars. It seems almost beyond doubt that the sequence was set off by two of the drivers looking in their rear-view mirrors instead of what was happening in front of them. Macklin was behind Mike Hawthorn pulling his D-type into the pits, but he was looking over his shoulder as it were, for Levegh’s Mercedes bearing down on him at maybe 150mph. Hawthorn quite properly braked with 600yards to go, surprising Macklin who pulled out to avoid colliding.
Levegh too was looking behind him. A French guest-driver in the Mercedes team he knew that Fangio, in the leading 300SLR, who had spent most of the first two hours of the race duelling with Hawthorn was close behind. Fangio had caught up an entire lap on the Frenchman (real name Pierre Eugène Alfred Bouillin and in his fiftieth year) who was anxious not to impede the team leader and established world champion driver.
Levegh seems not to have spotted the slower Austin-Healey. The silver Mercedes drove up its sloping tail and over the low fencing, breaking up as it flew.
Sensibly the race was not stopped. The Automobile Club de l’Ouest knew that the roads around would be choked, hampering the emergency services. Fangio was sharing the Mercedes with Stirling Moss and by midnight it was leading the Jaguar by two laps. In view of the accident however, Stuttgart withdrew the cars at 2am and Hawthorn and Bueb won a cheerless and melancholy victory.
The Austin-Healey was impounded for a year and a half while investigations into the accident went on. The track was completely rebuilt to prevent anything like it every happening again.
Wisely Bonhams will not be drawn on what the car is expected to make; it is billed “estimate upon request”. The sale takes place at Brooklands. At Mercedes-Benz World.