Restoring Cars and Memories
Natchez Car Buff Restores Austin-Healey
For English Motoring Club past president Terry Trovato, restoring his best buddy’s Austin-Healey was the project of a lifetime
By James Fox-Smith, Country Roads
Predictably, it was face-meltingly hot on the early August day when Dunleith tour guide Terry Trovato (Theta–Kentucky ’62) took me for a spin around Natchez in his 1960 Austin-Healey 3000. Trovato’s car is a black, two-seat, fifty-six-year-old roadster; and as I settled into the red leather-lined tub just inches above the baking tarmac, a glance at the dashboard confirmed that the temperature in this vintage British sports car was not going to be lowered by any air-conditioning. With a brief invocation to “Lord Lucas,” aka “Prince of Darkness” (more on him later), Trovato pressed the starter button and the Healey’s engine, inches in front of us, roared into life, adding another source of heat to the afternoon. But when Trovato swung the roadster out into the late afternoon traffic trundling along Homochitto Street and squeezed the throttle, the car’s twin SU carburetors opened up and the big, straight-six cylinder engine responded with a full-throated roar. Sure it was hot; but as we flashed by fellow motorists sealed inside their climate-controlled glass and plastic boxes, I’d never felt cooler.
Trovato is a British car enthusiast of the first order. The longtime Natchez resident and past president of the English Motoring Club of Mississippi has, along with his wife Meredith, owned ten English cars during a half-century behind the wheel (actually eleven, if you count the modern MINI Cooper convertible that is Meredith’s daily drive today.) During his thirty-four-year career in the petroleum industry, Trovato has owned Sunbeams and Triumphs and Austin-Healeys and MGs; and he retains a boyish passion not only for the vehicles and their mechanical idiosyncrasies but also for the legends and lore that surround these fabled marques, which were a common sight on American roads in the 1950s and ‘60s. These days, Trovato can be found five days a week at Dunleith Historic Inn, where he shows his stripes as a born storyteller leading historic tours of the mansion. That’s where we met so he could introduce the Austin-Healey, which is the subject of his best story of all.
Trovato’s passion for British cars goes back to his boyhood in Lexington, Kentucky, where he and his friends developed a love for Her Majesty’s rolling stock right out of high school. “This was 1958 and 1959,” he explained, “before the Japanese invasion. So if you were an American kid with an interest in cars, you had two choices: If you wanted to go fast in a straight line, you bought a GTO. But if you liked to go fast around corners, and you wanted something cheap, you went British.”
On Trovato’s eighteenth birthday, a school friend turned up in a 1955 Austin-Healey 100, the classic, low-slung roadster with wire-spoked wheels and a tiny, two-seater cockpit set back at the business end of a long, curvaceous hood (or bonnet). “He said ‘Birthday present. Get in and take the wheel,’” said Trovato. “I was smitten.”
The same year, Trovato bought his first car, a 1947 Sunbeam Talbot, for the princely sum of $1,975; and by the time he was enrolled at the University of Kentucky (UK for short, ironically), he had a solid core of English car-fanatic friends who would get together to fling their nimble, open-top cars around the Kentucky countryside.
These days, with the exception of the occasional Jaguar and a couple of rare birds like Rolls-Royces and Aston Martins, you don’t see many English cars on American roads. But according to Trovato, in the late ‘forties and ‘fifties, British cars were commonplace. “At the end of the ‘forties, America accounted for ninety percent of the British car market,” he noted. “American pilots returning from the war in Europe were bringing back MGs, and people loved them.” By the mid ‘fifties, multiple British marques like Austin, Morris, MG, Austin-Healey and others were selling cars in the United States, where their affordable prices and nimble handling made little sports coupes with wire wheels a common sight. Trovato described their downfall in two words: “Japanese reliability.”
As beautiful as the British cars were to look at and as spirited as they were to drive, they were also notoriously fickle. Indeed, the Achilles heel of the entire British automotive industry might just have been Lucas Industries, which supplied the electrical systems for most of the British marques. So quirky, idiosyncratic, and unreliable were Lucas’ electrical components that company founder, “Lord” Joseph Lucas, is widely known in British car-buff circles as the “Prince of Darkness.” There is a popular, possibly apocryphal, tale that describes Lucas being summoned to appear before the British parliament to explain why the lights on cars fitted with his company’s products so frequently failed. Lucas is said to have retorted, “… a gentleman does not motor about after dark!”
The Japanese car company Nissan saw its chance. It reportedly bought two Austin-Healy 3000s, shipped them back to Japan, disassembled them, and got to work. The result, the Datsun 240Z, arrived in America in 1969. Suspiciously similar to the Austin-Healey in many respects, the 240Z was nimble, quick, affordable … and reliable. America loved it, and the British car industry never recovered.
Back in Lexington, none of that mattered to Trovato and his buddies, one of whom was a young man named Jamie Taylor (Theta–Kentucky ’63). Taylor’s pride and joy was a 1960 Austin-Healey 3000, the larger-engined, more powerful successor to the AH 100 that set Trovato’s obsession into motion in the first place. “When we were in our early twenties, Jamie would pick me up in that car and we’d go driving around the Kentucky horse farms with him at the wheel and me drinking cocktails in the passenger seat,” remembered Trovato. As the years went by, Trovato moved away, settled in Natchez, and owned various British cars; but Jamie Taylor hung onto his big Healey until, inevitably, it began to act up, whereupon he rolled it into a barn, closed the door, and forgot about it for twenty years.
In 1996, Taylor was killed in a tractor accident on his farm. His widow, Cathy, sold the car to a custom car enthusiast who had designs on turning it into a street rod. Fortunately, he never got around to it. In 2000, Trovato was browsing online, looking for vintage British cars, when he came across a listing for a 1960 Austin-Healey 3000, black with red interior, for sale in Harrisburg, Kentucky. “I shouted, ‘Mer, I think I’ve found Jamie’s car!’” recalled Trovato. “And Meredith, angel that she is, said ‘Go get it!’”
The car was forty years old, undriveable, and partially disassembled; but Trovato was not daunted. He brought it back to Natchez, where two local mechanics helped him restore the car to its original condition, down to the black paint job and red leather interior. When the restoration was complete, the Trovatos trailered Taylor’s Healey back to Lexington, parked it on the front lawn of the Thoroughbred Club of America, and invited all of Trovato and Taylor’s old friends to come and see it. “Lots of them came out, including Jamie’s wife, Cathy,” said Trovato. “I picked her up and we went for a drive. It was a tribute.”
So while the words “British,” “car,” and “reliable” are still rarely spotted in the same sentence, that doesn’t stop Trovato from taking his buddy’s car out for a spin along the Natchez Trace Parkway at least once a week. As we zoomed through downtown Natchez back towards Dunleith, he regaled me with stories of electrical fritz-outs and clutch explosions, shouting over the glorious roar the big Healey’s engine made as it propelled us beneath the canopy of live oaks lining Homochitto Street. “You’ve got to drive them. The worst thing for these old cars is to let them sit,” he observed. “And anyway, the point of these cars was never reliability; the point is the work of art. I used to ride around in this car fifty-three years ago; and now when I drive it, I like to think of Jamie’s ghost riding along beside me. Getting back into it now is like traveling time.”
On September 16 and 17, the English Motoring Club of Mississippi will host Brits on the Bluff, its annual all-marque car show in Natchez. The show attracts fifty to sixty vintage British cars from across Mississippi, Texas, and surrounding states, including Rolls Royces, Lotuses, a McLaren, scads of MGs and Triumphs, and a 1951 Daimler Empress Limousine said to be “the Queen Mother’s favorite.” All are welcome to attend. msemc.org. See the calendar listing here for more information.