By Leo Kob
Our 1959 Austin Healey Bugeye Sprite’s maiden voyage last October was with the Philadelphia Chapter of the Austin Healey Sports & Touring Club’s (AHSTC) frostbite tour. During a long COVID-safe picnic at Sailor’s Point (on the north side of Lake Galena in Peace Valley Park, Bucks County, PA) we relayed this luv-puppy’s evolution:
I’ve owned Austin Healeys for over 40 years. All until now have been 1962 3000 cc tri-carb models. At the AHSTC events, we began warming up to the little Bugeye (Frogeye on the other side of the pond) Sprites as their numbers increased (almost exponentially), but there were too many projects in our queue to seriously consider another.
As the years rolled on, we started discussing colors and where to store if the right one appeared. At the annual 2014 AHSTC event held in Paradise, PA ground zero is a Hospitality room open from noon until 5PM daily. On this occasion, a fellow clubber who owns an LBC service shop in Moorestown, NJ announced he received a cold call the week before from a gentleman who was offering up his Bugeye due to age/health and wanted to sell it this week. I knew the club’s president was in the market for one, so I quickly asked about the condition it was in.
“It belonged to his wife before they were married, taken off the road in 1968, then partially disassembled and stored in his heated basement. Second to his wife, the man fell in love with restoring mahogany boats. So, the car sat in his basement for over 40 years! All original, complete, and essentially rust free…. but everything is in boxes!” He summarized saying that he would have taken it but space and time to restore were at a premium: business was just too good at the time.
So, I figured I had about 15 minutes to get a thumbs up from my better half before the club president arrived. Ironically, two recent events turned on a mental light bulb.
- We had been sorting out our seven kids’ secondary and high school memorabilia, much of which comprised doodles, sculpture, photos, art class projects, and some writings at home for several months
- A delivery of pedestrian wayfinding signs for a construction project at work by the printer in a small colorful van wrapped in vinyl a week or so earlier. The company’s owner was more than anxious to explain the process, and noted it is removable without damaging a quality paint job.
So, there was my hook: I suggested to Marty we restore this apparent time capsule, and wrap it in our kids’ art rather than have it stuffed in boxes in the attic, and reminded her our pres. would be coming into the Hospitality suite shorty. Already having downed a couple glasses of gratis wine helped my cause.
There was a five-minute or so pause before getting her thumbs up, and I was ready to pull the trigger. I asked Pete for a delivered price to our home and wrote the check.
Upon delivery a couple of weeks later, I inventoried all the parts (only a couple of items missing), and dragged the rolling chassis to a buddy’s barn in Lancaster County where we have restored cars for years. Pete was spot on about the sheet metal. We only replaced the right front quarter panel and patched in heavier gage floor boards to add rigidity. These little puppies were a collection of compound curves that trapped water from bow to stern, thus making this dent-less, rust-free one too perfect to believe. Only took a day to have it ready for media blasting.
In the meantime, we asked our kids what background color should be used. That took a while! I naively thought at the time the wrap’s background was transparent. We ended with my painter’s recommendation: Ford’s generic white (same paint code for over 50 years).
So, now we had to work our way through the wrapping process. Luckily an artist friend of ours also has a graphic arts business. Marty & I sorted through all our kids’ stuff, and pulled out several dozen candidates, and photographed the pottery. Off went all of this for high-resolution scanning (not cheap).
I had a vision of pasting everything all over the body. George (artist) observed the car will look like a leopard with small-pox beyond ten feet. So, a lot of money was poured in scanning. I turned over the decision-making to George and Marty: less quantity, larger images. We insured all seven kids were represented.
Meanwhile, I made a shipping paper/masking tape profile of the car’s one side, and took all kinds of measurements so George could set up the digital language for the company who actually creates and installs the wrap.
A month or so later, I dragged the rolling chassis to the “wrapper” (ASI) in Pennsauken, NJ, armed with a memory stick containing George’s digital program. ASI does funny cars and customs, as well as serving their bread-and-butter commercial fleet clients.
To my amazement, it was done in a week, with no fit-up problems or distortion. I promised to have it photographed for promotional use when fit-out of the interior and drivetrain was complete.
Another trip with the U-Haul dolly, and our little rolling art cart settled into the tool shed, awaiting completion of my ’67 XKE coupe restoration. By dumb luck, the wrap’s white background matched the Ford’s paint, so underside of bonnet and boot blended nicely.
In the meantime, I grabbed a Datsun 5-speed transmission at an AHSTC flea market, a 59 HP 1275cc block off eBay (the original was only 948cc, 43 HP), and a later MG front disk brake system from an LBC parts hoarder in upstate NJ.
Work resumed in late 2018. The engine and tranny were rebuilt by my long-time mentor, John Davies, who was over 80 at the time. A native Brit, he has been pulling spanners for 50 years. He literally finished the “bloody twit” on his death bed a year ago. It still needed the distributor and final timing when cancer forced him to close his shop. Being John, he ordered his son and a friend to carry the block into his living room where he finished it, reaching out from his rental hospital bed. A final victory for the Union Jack!
A couple of weeks later (Thanksgiving weekend) I was helping his family “de-leaf” the yard and button things up for winter when he climbed his stairway to heaven.
Last summer an auction of his shop’s tools & inventory was held. I was able to buy the bright red MAC Tools timing light and dwell/tach test set we used together to fire up all my LBCs over the years. You don’t find guys like him anymore!
The engine fired right up after our club’s tech team slipped it into the engine bay.
Note: When installing the lights and trim on the bonnet, we noticed some peeling of the wrap around the headlight “bulges” and lower edges. The shop in Pennsauken advised that sunlight exposure is important to maintaining the wrap’s adhesion. Seems counter-intuitive, but I admitted it had been in covered storage for about two years after initial installation. I loaded the bonnet into a pickup truck, and they re-wrapped it overnight. Luckily, George still had the digital file.
What a difference in handling compared to the Big Healeys. Both cars were designed by Gerry Coker. He and his wife have attended numerous AHSTC annual “Encounters” over the years, offering many funny anecdotes about the development of both cars. He said Donald Healey, wanting to meet a certain price point to make his cars the choice of American GIs stationed in Europe after the Big War, kept shaving off many of Gerry’s favorite touches such as retracting headlights and a trunk lid on the Frogeye, eliminating the fold-down windscreen on the Big Healeys after a couple of years, etc.
There is an interesting tie between Healey and Jaguar – Jaguar North America’s president Mike Dale’s (when under Ford’s umbrella) first job after leaving the RAF was with the Donald Healey Motor Company’s home dealership. He quickly became a terror on the SCCA circuit, garnering the 1973 national championship in H-production class piloting a Series 1 Sprite. These little demons were challenged only by Abarth Fiat for over 15 years in this SCCA class. His competition Sprite was recently unearthed in the Midwest, an incredible barn find. Apparently Mike did not keep his racecars, preferring to retain a significant collection of WWII vintage planes to play with after retirement.
As co-chair of AHSTC’s 2015 annual meet in Gettysburg, Marty and I had the honor to dine with the Dales and Cokers, who were the event’s awards banquet guest speakers. That week remains one of our most memorable auto events. The ladies even got Gerry to don a dress for an afternoon fashion show and tea earlier in the week while Marty played the harp. Sadly, Gerry passed away on last November at the “sprite” age of 98.
Next step is to get a hood for our luv muffin and start a preservation on another deceased friend’s 1966 XKE roadster we acquired in 2017. Very nervous about pulling this off!
The gang at Moss were with us all this time, as our three Austin Healeys were subjected to nut-and-bolt restorations under their rebuilder’s program. I did our ’67 coupe under the XK Unlimited program, and am repeating with them (now Moss Classic Jaguar) for my ‘66’s preservation.
Oh yes, after 150 miles driving our art cart, no issues. Time to replace the run-in oil…