A collector leaves his stamp on vintage sports-car world

A stash of 80 rare Nash Healeys earns national recognition.

August 12, 2005|By Josh Mitchell | Josh Mitchell,SUN STAFF

Leonard McGrady boasts he knows more about the Nash Healey than even the man who built the legendary sports cars in the 1950s.

Who could argue?

Inside McGrady's barn on a sprawling estate in Aberdeen, he has collected every Nash Healey he could find over the past three decades. That amounts to 80 so far, a third of those known to still be in existence and almost one-sixth of the 506 of them that were ever built.

Over there is the X-7, the only Nash Healey built with a power top that would roll down with the push of a button on the dashboard. Just yonder is Ted Williams' old convertible.

None of McGrady's neighbors knows about his collection of rare vehicles, and he had planned to keep it that way. But soon the secret will be out: One of his cars was the model for a stamp that will be issued Aug. 20 by the U.S. Postal Service as part of a series on classic American sports cars.

His car will be in good company. The series, "America on the Move: Sporty Cars of the '50s," also features a 1953 Chevrolet Corvette, a 1953 Studebaker Starliner, a 1954 Kaiser Darrin and a 1955 Ford Thunderbird.

But aficionados say the Nash Healey started it all.

"Clearly Nash was the first - the first to put an American sports car" on the market, said Bill Emerson, curator of the Healey Museum being built near Danville, Va., noting that the more famous Corvette and Thunderbird did not appear until several years later.

The Nash Healey was a trans-Atlantic collaboration built by the Nash Corp. It combined Nash's six-cylinder, double-carburetor engine with a chassis built by the British Donald Healey Motor Co. The first was built in 1950, chiefly for racing, and assembled in Europe.

The sporty two-seater made headlines that year when it placed fourth in the LeMans series in France. "Which is truly remarkable when you think of the cars that were there," Emerson said by phone from his home in Florida.

"They were racing against the Ferraris, the Mercedes, the Talbot Lagos, the Maserati. Most of them dropped by the wayside, and here was this absolute newcomer placing fourth overall," he said.

The next year the Nash Corp. hired the Italian designer Pinin Farina to design a sleek, new body for the consumer market. Over the next few years, about 400 of the new 140-horsepower Nash Healeys went on the American market for about $6,000.

"It was a promotional automobile, to bring people into the showroom, an attention-getter if you want," Emerson said.

Such a setting was where the cars became the obsession of McGrady, 55, a bearded homebuilder who on a recent afternoon wore his hair in a ponytail under a black "Nash Healey" hat.

He recounted seeing a Nash Healey for the first time at age 3. The two-tone green convertible was displayed in the showroom of Harford Motors on Route 22 in Aberdeen. Growing up, he'd frequently visit the showroom to keep tabs on the car, and at age 20 he bought it for $800 from a friend, who had bought it from the dealership a week before.

"Cars don't get more beautiful than that, and it was a good car," McGrady said in his kitchen, where he had spread out a Healey book and pictures of himself with British racer and engineer Donald Healey.

Many of the Nash Healeys he owns are shells, their wheels missing and their paint chipped away, collecting dust in his two-story barn at the end of a long gravel driveway. McGrady says he plans to restore them all.

He has searched the world for the cars, finding them in England, Key West and other places. He won't divulge the most he's paid for them.

McGrady has the first three Nash Healeys built with the Farina body. He says he has 10 prototypes - one-of-a-kind cars that for one reason or another were never duplicated.

He also has the fabled split-window coupe that Healey himself crashed in Europe during the 1952 Mille Miglia race. It still has a pair of racing helmets on the seats and the same peanut-oil-smelling gasoline in its tank.

Perhaps the sweetest specimen of all sits in McGrady's front yard: the silver roadster with red leather seats, a black retractable roof and handmade mirror hubcaps. Fewer than a dozen were made.

McGrady estimates its value at $100,000. He got his by sheer luck, trading his 1937 BSA Roadster with a buddy for the prized convertible.

He heard from the postal service three years ago. The agency was planning a series of stamps on vintage sports cars, and word was that McGrady might know of a silver Nash Healey with red interior in California. McGrady didn't know of any in California.

Where's the nearest one, he was asked.

My backyard, he said.

Before long, two photographers were in his backyard, clicking away with digital cameras. The pictures were used by automotive artist Art M. "Fitz" Fitzpatrick to create a stamp that features a young couple driving a 1952 Nash Healey with the top down. They're on a cliff, overlooking a body of water.

"I know more about Nash Healeys than anybody," he said in his barn on a sweltering afternoon. That includes Donald Healey, who visited his home on numerous occasions and conceded that McGrady came to know more about his cars than he did, McGrady said. Healey died in 1988.

McGrady's still looking for a prototype car from 1950.

"I've been looking since 1972," he said, hovering over pictures laid out on his kitchen table. "I don't think I'm going to, but you never know. I'm not going to give up."

Baltimore Sun Articles
|
|
|
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.