16 January 2012

A Healey of dubious distinction

In the annals of motor racing crashes, none is more infamous than the devastating wreck during the 1955 running of the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

At 6:26 pm on June 11 of that year, the Jaguar of Mike Hawthorn dived for the pits, cutting in front of Lance Macklin, who swerved in his Austin-Healey 100, and a hard-charging Pierre Levegh in a factory Mercedes-Benz 300SLR. In that very instant, Levegh drove up the back of the little Austin-Healey and launched himself and his Silver Arrow into the air, striking an embankment and then tumbling into the crowd. Levegh was thrown from the car and killed instantly, and his disintegrating Mercedes killed 83 spectators, including some children, and injured a further 120. It remains the deadliest accident ever to occur in a race.

Eight hours later, Mercedes pulled out of the event while leading with another SLR, then quit motorsport altogether at the end of the season, to return only in the 1980s.

In December at its now-annual December Sale at Mercedes-Benz World at the Brooklands circuit in England, Bonhams sold the 1953 Austin-Healey that served as the catalyst for the crash. Bonhams had set the estimate at £500,000, or roughly $780,000, but when the hammer fell, the barn-find Healey soared to £843,000 — fully $1.3 million. The sum is unprecedented for an Austin-Healey of any stripe, but is perhaps no surprise given the car's dubious history.

It's hard to say that a car so linked to such a tragedy had much going for it, but in auction terms, that is the case. Unlike the Mercedes, and despite being run into at 150 mph, it was not destroyed in the crash. In fact, it was rebuilt and kept racing in private hands for several years after. And that 1955 Le Mans outing was its second, having also competed in 1953, so double entry in the world's greatest endurance race is noteworthy. The fact that it is a factory car adds value, of course. As does the fact it was a "Works Special Test Car," as very early or pre-production mules often draw higher prices on the block. And it was presented in rough, barn-find condition after a long period of ownership by a single individual, a state of automotive being which has garnered much favor in recent years.

All of the above factors contributed to this Healey's appeal. But it is the undeniable aura of danger, death and devastation surrounding the car that ultimately tipped the scale here. Its place in history is firmly cemented, and it is the wise collector who will leave the car untouched, content just to have it as a relic of the glorious, dark years of post-war motorsport.

For more information, read the full catalog description by clicking here.

Stefan Lombard is the Managing Editor of Hagerty magazine.

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