by Matt Hunter
The title was transferred to me on a bright November day, outside a dusty airplane hangar in middle-of-nowhere Mississippi. But my guardianship started as a little boy whose feet barely scraped the floor mats in the passenger seat of grandpa’s car.
As little kids, my big sister and I played “drive-thru.” We sat in grandpa’s parked car while our grandma played the “car hop” and brought us Pecan Sandies to eat. It was the plastic sliding windows that gave us the idea.
The car was a 1959 Austin-Healey Bugeye Sprite MkI. It had a BMC A-series 948cc engine and was painted Iris Blue with an all-black interior. What it lacked in power it made up in personality. The Sprite was a treasure awaiting me as the garage door creaked open. It smelled of oil and worn leather infused with pipe tobacco. Gas leaked and it routinely broke down, but it was a prized family possession and an annual Christmas parade tradition.
My grandfather, Mel Gibbs, was a gentle, dapper man with a calming charm. He served in World War II in the Army Air Corps and went on to proudly work for years at Inland Steel outside of Chicago, a plant that produced automotive metals. He was happily married, golfed, smoked a pipe, cooked burnt hot dogs, and made things by hand. One time I said, as kids do, “I wish grandpa and grandma’s house had a jungle gym.” The next time I visited, a modest swing set greeted me in the shaded nook of their backyard.
Like many young boys, I dreamt of an automotive inheritance. But one day, without warning, my grandpa sold the car. He said it was because he’d gotten too old and weak. I hate to think of him struggling to take care of the car he loved so much. And then in the summer of ’05, my grandfather passed away unexpectedly. Out of love and nostalgia my mom and I pondered the idea of searching out the Sprite’s owner, but time carried on.
In 2019, on a whim, I wondered if the old British Sports Car Club in Memphis, of which my grandpa was once a member, was still around. A quick Google search revealed it still existed, and I decided to join the club to—at the very least—honor my Grandpa with a financial contribution. Included with my application form, I provided a letter explaining why a young guy from Los Angeles was looking to join a Tennessee-based car club. I told them about Grandpa Mel, his beloved Bugeye Sprite, and my goal to one day find the car and buy it back. Expecting very little to nothing in return, I snail-mailed the letter and application form. I’ve come to find that most car clubs don’t have the most upto-date communication systems.
One week later, the head of the Memphis British Sports Car Club emailed to welcome me to the organization. He also, to my surprise, sent an email to the entire club, explaining my search for my grandfather’s car. Within an hour, a member responded with fond remembrances of my grandparents and information about who had bought their car! Just like that, I had a name, number, and address of the buyers: a couple named Pete and Maggie, who now lived in Mississippi. The power of the internet is wild. (I apologize for my previous statement about “up-to-date communication.”)
I called the number the following day. It didn’t ring. Just beeped. Feeling hopeful, I tried again later when I had better reception. Again nothing. Presumably a dead or disconnected line. My heart sank. While the situation was unfortunate, I can’t say it surprised me. I reasoned that the buyer might be dead or in a nursing home. (I apologize to Pete and Maggie—these presumptions were far from true.) Regardless, I still had a mailing address. Without another option, apart from wandering around Mississippi screaming “Maggie! Pete!”, I wrote the buyer a letter, sure to mention every way they could get a hold of me.
A week later I was at a bar with friends when I received an email from the buyer’s husband, Pete. Although Pete and Maggie had kept the car in dry storage, they hadn’t run it in six or seven years, so they couldn’t swear to its condition. Perhaps for that reason alone (and the obvious personal connection), they offered to sell me the car for an amount of money so low that it made me cry. $1000. The quality of the vehicle made no difference to me. I immediately agreed to buy the car.
Going forward, the plan was to retrieve the car in November when I had time to fly home. That meant I had about three months to prep myself, like an expectant dad waiting for his first child, an old rusty metal child. Overall, I was ecstatic but scared. I had not intended for this “life goal” to happen at this point in my life. I didn’t have the knowledge to restore a car, let alone the means to even own a second car. I can barely find parking for my daily driver at my apartment building, and I sneer at paying 99 cents for upgrades on iPhone games. Furthermore, prior to this experience, I wouldn’t even come close to calling myself a “car guy” or “proficient with cars.” In my research to care for the Sprite, I would look up car parts and their function as I came upon them for the first time in blogs and manuals. Did you know a carburetor combines fuel with air? Because I didn’t.
Two local members of the Memphis club, Jim and Steve, offered to help me retrieve the car from the buyer in Mississippi. I’ll be forever grateful to these two effortlessly nice, mild-mannered Southern gentlemen for their help, endless patience in answering my basic questions, and enthusiasm to get the car running.
I met Jim and Steve in person for the first time on the morning we retrieved the Sprite. With the rest of my family trailing in a separate car, we set off for Mississippi and arrived at a small rural airfield around noon. It was there, as we rounded an old plane hangar, that we laid eyes on Grandpa Mel’s Sprite for the first time in decades. It looked so small sitting alone on the tarmac, like a toy that had escaped its packaging. The Sprite had since been repainted Olde English White, but otherwise it was exactly as I remembered it. I have a low bar for judging the quality of classic cars, but it seemed to be in good shape. The first thing my sister noted was that “it still smells the same,” which is remarkably true. After years it held onto its characteristic aroma—a mix of petrol, leather, and smoke—that I loved so much as a kid. Later that night I would find myself ducking into our garage to sneak a whiff just to indulge in the memories.
Jim and Steve loaded the Sprite onto the trailer. Again, I didn’t know enough about cars at the time to help very much here, and we traversed the flat Mississippi landscape back to Memphis. On the way, Steve asked me when I’d be returning from California to work on the car. I answered vaguely that I’d be back at the end of December.
“No, when exactly?” He pressed. “We could trailer it over to my garage, and I’ll have it running in a day.”
He wasn’t wrong.
When I returned to Memphis for the holidays, Steve hauled the Sprite to his home, as promised. Once situated on jack stands, and with the Sprite’s 35-pound bonnet vaulted up, Steve peered into the aged engine bay and remarked that “some idiot” had cut my fuel lines. I couldn’t discern what he was talking about, and with a wink Steve drove a box cutter through the cracked rubber lines. We were off to work. Also, let’s be clear that when I say “we,” I 100% mean Steve was off to work. He was a man on a mission: to revive the spirit of this sleeping Sprite. I kept myself busy shuffling around his garage, relocating the same box of spare parts, and fetching tools like a nurse assisting an old-hand doctor at surgery. By 4pm, after the gas, oil, coolant, and various rubber lines had been removed and replaced, we were ready to ride the lightning, spark the solenoid, gas the gussey. (One thing that Steve did not teach me was automotive slang.) After a few false starts, Grandpa’s old Sprite whirred to life with a throaty growl for the first time in nearly a decade.
A few days later I returned to Steve’s garage to address a leaking wheel cylinder. This day was my true indoctrination into working on the car, as I vowed to change the parts myself. Steve later confessed that he would let me silently struggle for a little bit before he would come over and effortlessly solve my problem. The second day was less successful than the first. Despite some attempted revival, both the brakes and clutch yielded a weak response, a clear sign of a leaking this or loose that. Did I mention I’m new to this?
I returned the next morning to Steve’s to bleed both the brakes and clutch again, but this still didn’t fix the problem. In a panic that the brakes only worked after several pumps, Steve calmly replied, “Well I guess just be extra careful when driving home.” The Sprite’s problems were now exclusively my own. But taking on the burdens of the Sprite is exactly what I wanted. Anything to get me closer again to my childhood hero, Grandpa Mel.
Look, I know I’m not alone when it comes to experiencing the overwhelming feelings of regret and confusion when a taking on a large project. I constantly questioned why I’m burdening myself with a seemingly endless stream of problems, in an area outside my usual realm of knowledge. I found solace one day when I was emailing with a local British parts dealer and in thanking him for offering me a deal said, “I’m just a poor kid trying to restore a car.” To which he responded, “We all are just kids! And since we are car guys, we are poor! But boy do we have fun!” I guess he’s right, but that still didn’t stop me from falling into an automotive existential crisis every few days.
I returned to California, and a week later I had the car shipped across the country. I breathed easy once it was safely in my newly acquired garage, after it nearly fell off the car hauler while being unloaded. 2020 provided an unexpected amount of time indoors, which allowed me the opportunity to get my knuckles greasy and actually learn how to work on the car. Since then, I’ve installed an electric fuel pump, cleaned and rebuilt my carburetors, restored the gas tank, converted the drum brakes to disc, removed one dead mouse, and replaced the master cylinder. In the past few years, the Sprite has remained healthy, met with the twisty back roads of LA county, and even garnered praise from discerning car enthusiast, Jay Leno.
Now I’m at the endless frontier of restoration. I’m always fixing something. But I take the opportunity to imitate my grandfather’s ability to quietly address an on-going list of problems without fuss or complaint. Routinely I find myself calling the Sprite “our car.” It was once grandpa’s and, in my mind, will always be that way. I haven’t taken mental ownership and maybe never will. I’m merely a guardian of the car. Watching after it and carrying on the maintenance in way that would hopefully make my grandpa proud.