The One That Got Away

The One That Got Away: Austin Healey on why his dad’s Cavalier SRi was the perfect car for a fledgling rugby star

by Charlotte Vowden
3 August 2022 7 min read
The One That Got Away: Austin Healey on why his dad’s Cavalier SRi was the perfect car for a fledgling rugby star
Austin Healey in 1995 – by which time his Cavalier was already long gone. Photo: Mike Brett/Popperfoto via Getty Images

“The Cavalier SRi, which was dark grey with a red stripe, had an alarm on it that sounded like a police siren. If I was ever late for training, or stuck in a traffic jam, I was tempted to open the door so that it went off with the hope that people might think I was an unmarked police car and move to the side of the road and let me through, but impersonating a copper wouldn’t have been right, it’s not in my character, and I didn’t want to get arrested.

I’ve had a sponsored car since I was 19, but it would be disingenuous to say I wish I still had something that cost a lot of money like a Porsche 911 Turbo or a Nissan GT-R, even if they did drive amazingly well, because nothing special happened in those cars. It could have been, and maybe should have been my Austin Healey, but the Cavalier SRi is the car that got away. I can’t tell the full story behind the reason why I wish I’d kept it, I’ll leave that to people’s imaginations, but let’s just say it was my dad’s car, I was 17, and I was with my first girlfriend. 

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I grew up in Merseyside and my mum and dad didn’t have a lot of money so our cars weren’t very good and always used to break down. I must have been the only 10-year-old kid who knew how to clutch start a car, it’s my first car-related memory, and it happened in December when it was snowing and I was going to play rugby in north Wales. I think it was a Peugeot 206 or 306 because it had a really sloped back, but when we got in the car to go, the battery was flat so it wouldn’t start. Mum got out and pushed it down the hill and I clutch started it, then slammed the brakes on and she got back in. On other occasions, I’d push it down the hill, maybe she did it on purpose as a form of training?

When I passed my test at 17, mum and dad bought me a blue Peugeot 306, but I wrote it off after four days when I had a head-on crash in the ice; that was in December 1990. I drove their Ford Granada 2.8i Ghia X for a little while, which was a very sociable car, but then dad bought the Vauxhall for about £3,000 and lent it to me so I could travel to university in Leeds and then back and forth to play rugby for Waterloo in Liverpool and Orrell in Manchester. 

The SRi was a 2 litre injection saloon with alloys (not hub caps), windscreen wipers on the headlights, a tiny little fin on the boot and leather and dark cloth seats inside; my mum was a smoker so it smelt a little bit of cigarettes. It was a cool car for an 18-year-old student to be driving, it wasn’t typical at all, most people my age had an XR2 or XR3 Escort. 

Vauxhall Cavalier SRi
Healey has no photos of his old Cavalier, so you’ll just have to imagine something like this, but wearing a set of alloys… Photo: Vauxhall

I remember aquaplaning at about 70mph on the M62 thinking ‘oh god, I’m going to hit the barrier’, then suddenly the Cavalier got a grip. I went across the Pennines in it two or three times a week, which was fine in the summer, but not so good in the winter, and I didn’t really take it out at night. To be honest, I didn’t go out much at all because I spent most of my time in the gym. As a driver, I sort of missed my teenage years in a lot of ways, I didn’t go joy riding or phone up the lads and say let’s go out tonight for a spin because rugby had taken over, and that’s all I wanted to do. 

The Cavalier became a bit of a taxi for the younger lads that were at Leeds, but also playing for Orrell, and like most teenage boys my boot was full of clothes (as well as rugby boots and a couple of rugby balls) so I didn’t really need to pack for training, I just picked out what was cleanest and wore that. I didn’t wear tracksuit bottoms in those days, I only ever wore shorts, so I had a collection of them in there too. I did a lot of thinking in the SRi, on the way to a game there’d be a lot of contemplation or nerves, and on the way back I’d be happy or sad. 

In those days, Sat Nav didn’t exist, you used to have to get the map out of the glove box. The first time I drove to London was in the Cavalier, I’d been called down to Twickenham to train with England under 21s, and I had no idea how to get there – so I picked up a hitchhiker holding a sign that said ‘London’ at Toddington services hoping he might be able to show me the way. He was a proper weirdo; I had two asthma inhalers on the dashboard and he asked if he could have one, I was like ‘yeah if you want’ just to get him out of the car without killing me. I dropped him off near the Hilton on Park Lane and after that just followed the road signs, although at one set of traffic lights I got caught in two minds as they changed and stopped in the middle of the crossroads. We live in the countryside now and both of my daughter’s have Minis but their biggest complaint is that their cars don’t have Apple CarPlay.

Back then, I was pretty much anonymous in sport, so I could just go about my business, but when you get picked for England, things change. My first sponsored car came when I was 19, and that was a Nissan Primera, which I quite liked, but that was soon swapped for a Nissan Almera. It had a yellow stripe down the middle with ‘Austin Healey’ on it, which completely changed my relationship with the car because at university it was a recipe to have the the tyres let down (I caught a few people trying to do that, which didn’t end well) or the s**t kicked out of it – which happened a lot. With my name down the side of it, people saw that car as me, and so if people wanted to kick me, they kicked the car, so I quickly peeled that off.

Thinking back to training ground car parks, there wasn’t anything too spectacular. Will Greenwood’s first car was a white Metro 1.1 and he kept that car for ages, he was tight even when he was getting paid as a professional rugby player, and Martin Johnson had a Ford Scorpio when he was England captain, but when you think back to the late ’90s and early ’00s cars were a bit crap then.

I was sponsored by Mercedes for 10 years, and the rugby guys knew I always went to the cinema on a Friday night to have popcorn before a game, so on one occasion I came out to find they’d completely covered my brand new orange 320 SLK in shaving foam, which is quite funny until you try and get it off. I had to buy about 30 bottles of water to wash it off the windscreen, and side window, but I crashed into another car because I didn’t see it. I took revenge the following day, in one of my teammate’s boots before he wore them! That sort of thing is why I’ve always thought having a flash car is a stupid thing to do as a sportsperson, and when Lou, my wife, wrote off our Lotus Elise anniversary edition with gold wheels on the M1 in the wet, that sort of killed fast cars for a bit, she could have died.

Buyer's Guide: Austin-Healey 100 and 3000 by John Simister_Hagerty
Healey has embraced references to his automotive namesake – and thinks it helped him get noticed as he was breaking into the sport. Photo: Bonhams

I only had the SRi for about 18 months. I’d gone on holiday with Lou to Turkey and when we came back there was a Volvo 440 GLE in its place. I was like ‘where’s the Cavalier?’ and my parents said ‘oh, we’ve sold it’. I was like ‘why didn’t you ask me?’. I really did like that car and I have no idea what happened to it, I can’t even remember the full number plate, but I think it was a G Reg. I also don’t have any pictures, nor does my dad.

The Cavalier had character and it had a profound effect on me because it was there during part of my life that was instrumental in my development; it’s the one car I look back at and wish I could keep. My parents made sacrifices to help me become a rugby player and that car is symbolic of that, they gave it to me and shared my dad’s work van. 

I was going to be called Clint, but my grandad, a car collector, said to my dad whilst wetting my head that I should be called Austin. I’m glad dad agreed to it because I think my name has served me quite well and as I get older, I can see the synergies between me and my namesake. I’m getting a bigger penalty spot and becoming more of a convertible on top, I think I’m relatively quick but probably not as quick as I think I am, and I’m loud but probably not as powerful as I think I am. 

At school in the ’80s most people knew what an Austin Healey was, so I got quite a lot of banter about my name and got called motor mouth and all that sort of stuff, but the thing about being a sportsman or sportswoman is you need to get noticed as you try and make your way up. Some rugby players used to dye their hair blonde, but when you’re named after a sports car, it certainly does help.

I do think about the SRi every now and then, and if I could meet its owner I’d be tempted to say ‘how much do you want for it?’. I don’t think it would cost a huge amount of money and I’d force one of my daughters to drive it if they misbehave, it would be the penance car.

The Cavalier takes me back to a period of my life that was really quite enjoyable, but if we were reunited I don’t think I’d be brave enough to drive it on the M62. I’d probably drive it to play golf with old school friends, and pick them up on the way, that would be the perfect way to do it.”

Austin Healey is an ambassador for SOGO, an ultra-flexible car leasing community

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  • Stephen+Pye says:

    What a great story about the Cavalier sri! Good news for Austin is you can at present still pick them up reasonably priced

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