British bug-eye beauty
Special to The Union
While having bug eyes is not considered an attractive trait in people (unless you’re Bette Davis), it’s different with cars. The Austin-Healey Mark I Sprite, known here as the Bug-eye (Frog-eye in the U.K.) proves the case. Sprite-owner Mike Davis told of one damp morning when he drove to the Sears Point Raceway in Sonoma.
“The soggy lady taking money (for admission) said, ‘You made my day. It’s nice to have something so cute (as your car) smiling back at me,’” Davis said.
With its bug eyes and grinning grill, the Sprite might well have been the inspiration for the anthropomorphizing of cars in the Disney movie, “Cars.”
Mike’s Sprite story began back in the late 1960s, when he bought his ‘60 Sprite. As a one-car family, he was looking for an additional vehicle that wasn’t too pricey and would be “easy to work on.” That was when he found his Sprite. These sporty Austin-Healeys were an early unibody construction that it had no deck lid. Instead, the trunk was accessed by flipping down the seats and crawling in, which the Brits referred to as “potholing” and we would call spelunking.
The hood, or bonnet, had the front fenders attached and raised as one piece, looking like a clamshell.
With side curtains instead of roll-up windows and only inside door latches, the Sprite followed the British sports car tradition of small, nimble cars with few amenities.
Mike’s Sprite was in rough condition and had 96,000 miles on the odometer, but the body was sound and the price was right. He rebuilt the 948 cc OHV 43 HP engine and replaced the four-speed trans with a new one. Although the paint was showing its age, Mike said economics dictated that he “lived with that for a while.” A few years after Mike and wife Kim moved here in the early ‘70s, Mike had his Sprite repainted by Tripp’s Auto Body in a Pontiac Carmel Beige.
Since it was his daily driver for many years and, Mike said, “I’ve put lots of miles on the car,” the Sprite has gone through a few engines. In fact, he said, “I wore out three 948’s (cc engines) over the years.”
Because Sprite owners often opted for the bigger, newer 1275 cc replacements, he was able to buy the 948 cc and even the 1098 cc used ones fairly cheaply. So he did. Currently, he is running a later-model 1098 cc 56 HP engine.
In the early ‘90s, Mike decided to freshen the Sprite’s paint. To save money, he was wet sanding the car to prep it for paint when he saw a red Mercedes.
“I fell in love with the color,” he said. “That’s what we went for.”
Although the Sprite had a black soft top when he purchased it, Mike found a British Motor Company (BMC) stock removable hardtop and bought it.
“I had the top off more than on,” he noted, so he also put in a rollbar for safety.
The only other change he made on his Sprite was to change the front drum brakes for later-model discs.
Mike and Kim have owned a number of sports cars over the years, including a ‘58 TR3, a ‘65 Triumph GT6, a couple of MG Midgets and even a couple of Alpha Romeos, but the bug-eye Sprite was the only one they kept.
“It’s like a part of the family,” he said. “Once you learn to drive them, they’re pretty tough little cars.”
Although Mike and Kim don’t go on cross-country trips in their Sprite, they do cruise all over NorCal, including trips with the Sierra Sports Car Club. Although Kim is not a “car nut,” she does enjoy going on trips in the area, like to Sierra City on their anniversary. And their bug-eye Sprite grins all the way.
Ron Cherry has published two books, a mystery titled Christmas Cracker and a noirish suspense titled Foul Shot. For more about his writing, go to http://www.rlcherry.com.
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