|Driven by A
Couple Keep a Classic Going
By David Montgomery
The Austin-Healey used to be just a car. Now it is a calling. The true believers five all over the world, and in times of crisis, they send their busted bushings, their rusted rotors, their corroded calipers to one of the highest temples of Healeydom, which is a dirty, well-lighted place in Takoma Park.
Dirty is not to say unkempt. This is an auto repair garage, after all. A clean garage would be suspicious indeed. The sun streams through tall windows that rise ,from the floor to the cathedral ceiling. The story goes that the building was designed in the 1940s as a dealership for the Tucker, the romanticized American sedan that became extinct before hardly any could be sold. The Austin-Healey itself is a British sports car that went out of production in the late 1960s.
'I think it's very appropriate that we have another dodo bird in here," Inan Phillips said, smiling. She owns the shop, called Healey Surgeons, along with her husband, Bruce Phillips.
Bruce, 46, is chief mechanic. Inan, 45, is parts manager. Every day the UPS agent delivers packages of parts from a dozen states and foreign cities such as Tokyo and Johannesburg. And he picks up a dozen more bound for similar destinations. The UPS pickups are so regular that Takoma Park residents consider Healey Surgeons a surrogate UPS office where they drop off their personal parcels for shipment.
Other deliveries come by flatbed truck, bearing the treasured remains of deceased Austin-Healeys. 'Think of the concept,' said Tom Roadley, 53, a federal labor relations specialist who drives a Healey.
'Here are two people who work on nothing but automobiles built from 1953 to 1967 in another country."
Healeys were always the middlebrow sports car, better than the MG, not quite up to the Jaguar. In their day, they sold for the equivalent of about $15,000 in current dollars. Healey ownership didn't connote extreme affluence, nor does it today. For about the same price now, you could acquire a rusting Healey hulk from a vacant lot, and the Phillipses could make it drivable.
Today, Healey Surgeons is about the only place on the planet that is both a complete source of Healey parts and a full-service Healey restoration shop.
'They're pretty much unique in what they do,' said Everett Smith, 53, a metal craftsman who makes Healey body panels in Seiad Valley, Calif.
Nearly every day, Healey devotees gather in the big, bright garage on Carroll Avenue to talk about their shared passion. Bruce's voice comes out from under an ailing Healey up on jacks, while Inan pulls a sheet from the fax machine. It is a crudely drawn diagram of a Healey problem from a stumped mechanic m Ohio who needs an emergency consultation with the Healey Surgeons.
The Philhpses dispense more than repairs. They offer what amounts to empathy and hand-holding, as if their customers were caught in traumatic love affairs - which is how many of them describe owning a Healey. "Anything you'd give a friend, you have to give your Healey: love, affection, the benefit of the doubt,' said David Bernhardt, 23, of the District.
'I dunno, Dave,' responds Bruce Phillips, a man with the demeanor of a professor and the thick fingers of a mechanic, who's been working on Healeys so long he's developed a very dry British wit. 'I've never hit my friend with a big hammer.'
Healeys are famously finicky. Their electrical systems go out for no apparent reason. Then, once in the shop, the headlights might suddenly switch on, as if the car's possessed. The convertible tops are viewed as a sinister prank.
'One fellow in the motoring press described [the tops] as conceived by a demented umbrella maker,' Bruce Phillips said. "The seats were designed by a demented orthopedic surgeon. You're so worried about wrecking the car or getting caught by the police that you forget about the pain in your back.'
And yet the Healey culture is thriving. The car is for people who yearn for the days when the point of driving was not to feel comfortable, but, to develop an intimate relationship with the road. No two Healeys are alike, owners say, and if the car is a little eccentric, at least it has a personality. Consider Joe Prandoni, 41, a banker from the District. One day he arrives at Healey Surgeons in his Lexus. Out of the trunk he pulls a box of parts from his Healey at home. He's in his shirt and tie and pin-stripe pants and shiny black shoes and he's getting his hands greasy holding up a trashed gizmo from the front end for him Phillips' concerned inspection.
'A Healey is like a piece of sculpture,' Prandoni said reverently. Pretend you're carving a toy car from a block of wood. Whittle it down to a sleek, flat rectangle. That's an MG, or a Jaguar. Now add some jazzy lines-a bit of shoulder from the headlights back to the doors. A voluptuous hip from the doors rearward. That's a Healey- "This is one of the sexiest lines there is,' said Glenn Downing, 58,
7211 Carroll Avenue
Takoma Park, Maryland 20912