Domenic & Davana Valentino’s 1959 AN5 Sprite
By Andrew Schear
As he cranked the starter, the supercharged 948cc motor roared to life with a high raspy idle and puffs of smoke from the dual Abarth exhaust. After 15 seconds the idle dropped and Domenic and Davana Valentino motored out of the parking lot of their Newbury Park, California, home. “I’ve got the coolest place for us to shoot the car,” Domenic said. We hopped into our chase vehicle and followed the ‘59 Austin-Healey Bugeye Sprite through some local twisties, only to end up in a secluded valley surrounded by horse property and windy roads, a place that any British sports car nut would call heaven.
The AN5 Sprite is considered the quintessential Austin-Healey Sprite. Nearly 50,000 Bugeyes were manufactured, a production number that far exceeds any other Healey model. Unfortunately, over the years the lion’s share of ’58-‘60 first iteration Sprites were raced, crashed, repaired, crashed and eventually sent to the bone yard. Dubbed the Bugeye in North America or Frogeye everywhere else, the AN5 had a pair of distinct headlights attached to the bonnet in what would seem like an unlikely location. Originally designed to have retractable headlights, Healey designers realized that this was a cost-prohibitive option, which left two bulbous headlights in plain view. Little did they know this engineering mishap would create a cult following of epic proportion.
Domenic and Davana Valentino moved to California in the early 1990s, and it didn’t take long before they got absorbed in Southern California’s crazy car culture. After attending numerous car shows and swap meets, Domenic made up his mind: his weekend beach cruiser had to be a Bugeye Sprite. Simple mechanicals, great lines, and a different look than any other car on the road all appealed to the newbie enthusiast.
About four and a half years ago the process began. After perusing a local newspaper, Domenic saw an ad that caught his attention. It read, “Austin-Healey Sprite; $2,500, needs restoring.” When the Valentino duo arrived to pick up the car, the words “needs restoring” were an understatement—Domenic described it as a complete basket case. But, to his surprise, the car fired up and ran. Unfortunately, it had no brakes, so a test drive was out of the question. After bringing their new project home it was time to survey the situation. What did he have, and what would he need? Let’s just say he bought two more Sprites off eBay for parts.
After stripping the AN5 down to a bare carcass, it was sandblasted and primer dipped. Together with the help of buddy James Saldana, Domenic straightened the metal, patched the holes and repaired the problem areas. Knowing full well that Sprites were never offered in silver, Domenic still went with his color of choice, 2003 Corvette silver, accented with red stripes and white meatballs. After wet sanding and polishing the six coats of clear, it was time for reassembly. The suspension was completely gone through and restored to original specifications, with the exception of the application of custom industrial coating in lieu of paint.
While the car was equipped with a 1275cc motor when Domenic purchased it, he chose to install a period correct 948cc Judson supercharged power plant. Producing almost 90 bhp, the Sprite now faced a great number of problems, the largest being engine cooling. With the advent of modern high-octane race fuel and non-ethylene-glycol radiator fluid, Domenic was able to get the sub-liter motor to run at a steady 190 degrees.
After the driveline was completed, a Moss Motors Lucas based electric system was installed. Every wire, fuse and switch was replaced; Domenic took no chances with the Prince of Darkness. The entire interior was custom stitched from black hide to OE specs. The carpet is Moss Motors while the gauges are original.
Why red wheels? “The supercharger, red wheels, and whitewall tires are the main reason for the theme of the car,” Dominic explains. “To me, nothing screams ’50s hot rod more than a set of whitewall tires on red wheels.”
In the ’50s and ’60s when sports car racing was in its infancy, car clubs used local airports in Southern California to hold their races. It is in remembrance of these races that Domenic and Davana call their Sprite the Airport Racer. Not only was this restoration a chance for Domenic and Davana to explore British car culture, it has given them an opportunity to relive a part of California’s racing history.