Classic Cars

Austin-Healey at Center of Notorious 1955 Le Mans Disaster is up for Auction

The Austin Healey 100S Prototype sports-racing two-seater is an extraordinary barn-find; a car that triggered major changes to international motor sport.

At the 1955 Le Mans 24-hour race, the worst crash in motor sport history took place when 84 people were killed after this Austin Healey was clipped by a Mercedes which then flew into a crowd of spectators. After keeping it locked up for 42 years in a garage in northern England, the anonymous owner who bought the Austin for £155 in 1969 has decided to sell it at auction, where it is expected to fetch around £1 million.

On that fateful day, the green Austin Healey was being driven by Lance Macklin. Swerving to avoid a heavily-braking D-type Jaguar, he pulled out in front of French driver Pierre Levegh's Mercedes-Benz 300 SLR, who clipped the Healey. As a result of its ramp-like rear-end, the Mercedes flew into the spectators, scores of which were killed instantly as debris, including the engine, hurtled towards them at 150mph. Fires caused by the wreckage then erupted in the grandstand. The whole incident was recorded on film, and the disaster prompted major changes in the implementation of motor sport safety.

It is for this, as well as its association with the disaster, that makes the Austin Healey such a rare and important vehicle. Despite its morbid past and poor state of repair, enthusiasts are willing to pay vast sums for this 'crucially historic landmark car.'

James Knight from auctioneers Bonhams, which is selling the car, said: "The accident was tragic but a catalyst for many changes in safety. Mercedes stopped racing and didn't return until the 1980s and racing was banned in Switzerland. "This Austin-Healey is important for a number of reasons not just because of the accident. It was one of only four 1953 special test cars and was a prototype for the 100S and competed in other blue ribbon events." The pre-sale estimate for the Austin Healey is £800,000 and the auction is to take place today in Weybridge, Surrey.

Arguments as to who was to blame for the Le Mans crash are ongoing more than half a century later. John Fitch, Levegh's co-driver, began active development of safer road cars and racing circuits; while the grandstand and pit areas of the Le Mans circuit were demolished and rebuilt soon after the tragic incident. Photos courtesy of Bonhams.

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