Words: David Lillywhite | Photography: CAton
One last glance at the sky. It’s still full Simpsons spec: blue with white fluffy clouds. Shades on. Push the starter button to prime the fuel pump then, with foot on the brake, another push and four big cylinders thrum into life. A quick blip of the accelerator pedal, and the exhaust, which exits pretty much directly below my ear, gives a roar.
Clutch down, into first gear, a few revs, clutch up too quickly, stall. Idiot! I’d already been warned that this is a competition clutch to deal with the increased power and torque of the Caton’s worked-over BMC straight-four. Start again, and this time the exit is smoother. Out I head in this – wait for it – £350,000 rework of the classic Austin-Healey 100, and straight into a two-hour odyssey of fast A-roads, busy Cotswolds towns and bumpy back lanes. What’s not to like?
This, then, is the first Caton Healey 100. Caton? It’s derived from the name of the family that owns the Envisage Group, a Coventry automotive engineering tour de force that you’re unlikely to have heard of unless you’re involved in car manufacturing – in which case you may well have made use of the company’s services in coachbuilding, design, interior-trim development, engineering… you name it.
Having been involved in numerous recent Continuation projects and classic car replacement bodies and panels, Envisage decided to go the whole hog and devise its own sort-of-restomod classic. Sort of? Well, it’s on mostly original running gear, save for a Tremec five-speed gearbox, but the bodywork has been lightly reworked to rid it of the seams and awkward fits that came of small budgets and low-volume pressing tools when the Healey was created in the 1950s.
So the seams along the front and rear panels have gone, the rear wings are subtly reprofiled, the external boot hinges banished, the front grille completely remade and various other neat touches applied. Honestly, if you don’t know Healeys well you wouldn’t notice the difference, but there’s a fluidity to the lines that even the ever-pretty original 100S doesn’t have.
So back to those A-roads, and we’re getting into the swing of the things, the Caton and I. The engine is sublime – that big BMC-derived Healey four-pot, originally 2660cc, now bored out to 2954cc, lightened and with a steel crank and high-compression pistons and a hot camshaft, is sweeter than any long-stroke four-cylinder of such large capacity has a right to be. If it wasn’t for the occasional whiff of unburnt fuel at idle you’d assume it was running on modern throttle bodies and mapped ignition – but no, it’s on larger-than-standard twin SU H8 carburettors plus conventional points and distributor. Remarkable!
From the woofling idle it pulls cleanly right through but really starts to sing above 3000rpm, the point at which a slightly annoying buzzing through the floor that starts just above 2500rpm smooths itself out. Later on, my wild guess that the vibration is from the exhaust is confirmed; it’s currently solidly mounted to the chassis and will soon be tried with a rubber mount. This is the prototype after all, and my drive is part of early shake-down testing.
Now I do remember well that both Healey 100s and early Triumph TRs feel much sweeter than anyone would expect from what are very basic four-cylinder engines, but the Caton’s motor is a step on from that, and is happy revving to 5500rpm even though peak torque is developed at 2900rpm. With 185bhp instead of the original’s 90bhp (the 100S was 132bhp), and lightened to weigh 920kg, it doesn’t hang around, either.
What lets down the original car is the gearbox: the initial batch of Healey 100s were fitted with four-speed ‘boxes from the Austin A90 with the super-low first gear blanked off and overdrive on third and fourth, on a side-exit shifter that blighted the 100 with an unsportingly long gearlever. Later cars were a conventional four-speed, again with overdrive, but still not an ideal choice.
The Caton addresses that head-on with its modern five-speeder tucked beneath the transmission tunnel. Funny thing is that the gearing is so high and the engine so flexible that I barely bother with fifth gear on the A-roads, except on a long stretch of fast dual carriageway. On a motorway, though, it will be a godsend, taking the revs right down to just above 2000rpm at 70mph. The gearshift could be tweaked to feel a bit more direct, more classically mechanical, which apparently is already being looked at anyway.
What’s clear is that the ratios are perfect, although with all that torque it’s not like the engine is too fussy about which gear it’s in. All the same, leaving it in third through sweeping bends and fast blasts along the straights keeps the engine singing its best song, as the air rushes past you in the neat little cockpit.
That beautifully formed low glass screen doesn’t look like it should work, but I’m 6ft and generally prefer a coupé to a convertible, yet the Caton never feels uncomfortably blowy even at high speeds. There’s no weather protection other than the screen, though, which is why the blue sky is so welcome – customers will be able to order a tonneau or perhaps push the bespoke nature of the Caton a step further with a modern take on the classic Works hardtop.
That’s jumping the gun, though; let’s stick to this number-one car for now. The further I drive, the more the new touches are appreciated. The ride, for example, is remarkable: there’s nothing clever about the suspension, it’s just been honed and tweaked with uprated springs and dampers by clever guys at JME Healey, whose experience Caton has sensibly called upon for help developing the new car.
Same goes for the brakes. No tricks, just straightforward, straight-line, wheel-locking stopping power, with the feel aided by the modern, custom pedal box that gives a much-appreciated improvement to the action of all three pedals. If there’s a weak link it’s the steering, with its slight vagueness around the straight-ahead position that no amount of tweaking can disguise. Blame it on the steering box, which could in theory be swapped for a more modern rack but not without significant engineering – and the risk that a little of the character is removed.
So, as with an XK120, there’s still that touch of pre-war car feel to the Caton Healey that needs to be learnt before tight corners can be taken with confidence. Just take up the slack a little rather than applying too much lock, because past the play there’s a responsive action to be found, and it’s all too easy to think that the steering wheel isn’t having enough effect and turning in unnecessarily hard. It doesn’t take long to learn the right technique.
The result of all this is that there’s never a time when the Caton doesn’t feel like a true Healey. Sure, the interior, with its Bridge of Weir leather, its cosseting seats and its (slides back in amazement!) actually generous legroom makes for a big change, but it just feels like a Healey always should have.
Does it justify the price? Hmm, tricky. This is effectively a brand-new car, built to personal specifications and extremely low numbers – just 35 are planned. And this first example is a funny spec, perhaps to show what’s possible. There are traditional carburettors and ignition, but LED projector headlights. It sits on wire wheels, yet the typeface and design on the instruments feels distinctively modern (although not without fresh appeal). The interior is luxurious, but there’s no hood.
Much of that is irrelevant, though. If you’re paying serious bucks for a bespoke car, then you’ll be able to choose the headlights you want, the colour you want, the interior you want and even the mechanical set-up you want. If you’re likely to spend time in town then maybe consider mapped ignition, perhaps injection, too, but bear in mind that those masters of updated, usable classics at Eagle E-Types stick with carburettors on their considerably more expensive creations. Sometimes, original is best. Especially when combined with comfy seats, a five-speed gearbox and a stunning drive…
More information on www.caton.uk