Keith’s Blog: I Don’t Want a $30,000 Bugeye

Lots of eyeball

I’ve made the same mistake I’ve been making for 40 years. I bought a car that I wasn’t familiar with, and I didn’t have an expert examine the car. So, once again, this car is going to cost me double what I wanted to spend.

This all started out as a lark. My very first car was an Austin-Healey Bugeye Sprite. I thought it could be fun to have another one — and to make it my son, Bradley’s, car.

My fantasy was I would spend about $15,000 for an honest, non-concours car. I spoke with Bradley about it, and we agreed to develop a pre-flight checklist that he would go over each time we drove it. It would include checking all fluids and pressures. Perhaps this would encourage him to enjoy old cars.

I found a car nearby that seemed to hit all the buttons. It still had its original 948-cc engine, it was quite handsome in British Racing Green (incorrect for the car, but hey, it’s a Bugeye and who cares?), painted spoke wheels and more. It had a fiberglass hood that fit well enough, and a steel hood came with it.

When I test drove the car, it felt peppy enough and revved surprisingly easily. If I had driven lots of Bugeyes, I might have been concerned. But I hadn’t, so the fact that it pulled strongly and didn’t smoke was enough for me to write the check.

I drove it 45 miles from the seller’s place to mine, and aside from being difficult to keep running at idle — and a propensity to pop out of first gear — the Bugeye seemed fine.

I ran it to a nearby shop for the typical fettling I do with any car that I bring into the SCM garage. Installing the correct shift lever solved the transmission problems. Most of the suspension bushings were replaced, and the brakes were overhauled. All was good — for the moment.

However, as the technicians dug into the engine, they discovered it was really a race-prepped unit, with high-compression pistons (200 pounds compression per cylinder instead of the stock 150), a lightened flywheel and a hot cam.

Not only was it impossible to have it idle properly with the lightened flywheel, it also was impossible for the engine to stop blowing headgaskets.

So here I am. My $15,000 Sprite is already a $20,000 Sprite, and it’s not a runner or driver. The Sprite gurus I have talked with recommend having a 1,275-cc engine built to street specs (figure $3,000 to $5,000), and installing a five-speed ($5,000). While I’m sure this would make it a good Sprite, now I’ll have a $30,000 Bugeye — and for that amount I could have bought a very, very, nice and correct one.

What would you do in my situation? I’m told that just rebuilding the 948-cc engine to stock specs would cost almost as much as building a 1,275-cc engine. To compound matters, no one is quite sure how the current 948 has been modified and what it would take to bring it back to stock.

The Bugeye with its current gearing and 4-speed is very buzzy on the highway, and a five-speed would surely help. But am I just trying to build an imitation Alfa with these mods? Recall that I just sold our Volvo Amazon because even after we had spent thousands of dollars on it, it still didn’t handle like an Alfa. Further, this was supposed to be a once-in-awhile fun car — not something I’d use for transcontinental trips.

If anyone has a used 1275 they’d like to sell me, I’m up for it. Or even better, a complete driveline with a five-speed mated to the 1275.

Once again, I’ve committed the cardinal sin of buying a car I don’t know anything about without having a marque expert look at it. I thought that since Bugeyes are such simple cars, I couldn’t possibly go wrong.

Well, I could go wrong, and I did. Again.

I would appreciate any advice you have to share.

 

Keith Martin

Keith Martin has been involved with the collector car hobby for more than 30 years. As a writer, publisher, television commentator and enthusiast, he is constantly on the go, meeting collectors and getting involved in their activities throughout the world. He is the founder and publisher of the monthly Sports Car Market and bi-monthly American Car Collector magazines, has written for the New York Times, Automobile, AutoWeek, Road & Track and other publications, is an emcee for numerous concours, and has his own show, “What’s My Car Worth,” shown on Velocity.

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23 comments

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  1. You drop in the 1275 and sell your hotted-up 948 to an SCCA junkie to recoup half. Then take that half and buy a ‘more relaxed’ rear end ratio, saving the $5grand 5 speed money for when Bradley decides he wants some luxuries… like side windows.

  2. Kieth: I am a believer in keeping a car as stock as possible…I would encourage you to do the same…I have seen your car…it is pretty nice…and would make a great daily driver, or, occasional driver…Who cares if it is a bit buzzy at freeway speeds? I would go through the engine that is in the car…do the work myself (except for the machine shop work) leave the transmission alone, and have a $22,000 or $24,000 Sprite…Still too much…But not too much more than where you are now.

  3. 5 speed is a luxury item that is not worth the $$$. Engine rebuild to stock 1275 makes sense. Cut your losses but don’t go overboard. Have Bradley intern at the shop where they do the rebuild. I did that with my son and he loved it. Good luck!

  4. There’s no substitute for cubic inches!
    Keep you eyes peeled on CL or EBay for a used 1275 and pop that in. You should be able to recoup most of that expense selling your current engine . You could also try calling around to race shops that specialized in Sprites as they usually have spare stock engines lying around. Keep the 4 speed- the 5 speed isn’t worth the cost .

  5. Concur with most others have said. Replace the current engine with a more-or-less stock larger engine. Sell the current engine for whatever you can get for it. Forget the 5-speed. You and your son will enjoy it for what it is, a Sprite.

  6. Keith, You know as well as anyone that throwing caution to the wind and buying an old car with crossed fingers is something that true enthusiasts never out grow. Especially an old car close to home. Throw some money into it and make it what you want and enjoy it with your son. Life is short.

  7. As someone who raced and wrenched on an H Production Spridget, I can tell you it’s pretty easy to identify what engine parts are modified vs. stock, just find an experienced technician. I can provide an itemized list on how you get 90+ hp out of a 948 and twist it to 9,200 rpm with a lumpy 3,000 rpm idle. You should be able to sell your 948 to a racer to help offset the cost of a street 1275. In addition to the 5 speed idea, identify your installed rear axle ratio, there were quite a few. A lower ratio could be an inexpensive way to alleviate some of your highway buzz.

  8. Start by figuring out what rear end is in it – probably a 4.55. A 4.22 is best for street/highway driving – a 3.9 will be boggy.

    The 5 speed is great, with a 4.55 rear end. The Datsun unit has a 1:1 4th and .821:1 5th gear, so it’s like shifting from your 4.55 to a 3.9 at 70 MPH. If you have a 4.22 (stock for the bugeye) the 5th is so tall as to be unusable. But for normal driving, a ribcase and a 4.22 is a good solution – the solution that the Healeys found to be best.

    Definitely endorse the 1275, for a number of reasons. The bearings and cranks in the 948 are smaller and weaker, and as the hot rod engine, it was always designed to sing in the upper registers. There’s a reason BMC developed the 1275 and then stuck with it for street use.

    Put a Weber 40DCOE on a good stock 1275, dial in the jetting, then forget it. Get an Aldon distributor with a Pertronix inside.

    Or just buy Bradley a Miata for $5K and call it good. As I often say, my Miata is the best British/Italian sports car I’ve ever owned.

  9. Being an avid car nut and the owner of Vintage Auto Appraisal sometime the right side of my brain conflicts with the left side of my brain when it comes to buying classic cars for my personal use. I can’t tell you how many times Impulsive Me lost out to Logical Me. I should learn to take the advise we give to our pre-purchase inspection customers. Take the emotion out of it and get an expert to look at it. We always say sometimes the best car is the one you didn’t buy. Now I just need to figure out what to do with all these “Charmers” I have purchased thru the years. Either way it is an awesome looking Bugeye.

  10. Keith….
    I feel your pain.
    Any chance some SCCA guy would li it as-is and you could start over?
    Park it at the Portland races and hope for the best.

    In the latest SCM, Brian Carlson introduced me to the HUMVEE…now I need a real expert to look at them…or better yet, find one that already civilianized. Lots of potential land mines there.
    Bradley is still young, by the time he’s ready to rock and roll, you’ll have bound one like you’re looking for.

  11. Keith: Familar story; I have $60k in a ’56 VW now, even though I “bought the best one I could find” for $24k! Keep Bradley looking for that truly well-done Sprite. Its out there. Alex

  12. Buy another stock motor and plug it in. Sell the race motor to cover the cost and enjoy the car as it is. I work part time at a british car recycler here in Ohio called Team Triumph.

    The website is wwwTeamTriumphdotcom and the phone number is 330-392-7176. When you call, the owner himself answers the phone and he’s the most knowledgeable person I know. You’d be surprised at his inventory for these Sptites.

    Regardless of where you go, I’d advise fixing the car up into a driver.

    SCMer since 2003

  13. I too concur with most; stock-ish 1275 and ribcase 4-speed.
    Sell the souped up lump before it blows up; even with the head off, so the buyer can go ooh-ahh at the HC pistons and headwork.

    Personally, I think it would be a mistake to take the car away from Bradley and replace it with something else; after all, you bought this car for him, and the kid in (61 yo) me would get mixed messages if you denied him the whole experience.

    In for a Penny, in for a Pound!!

    I’m just over thirty-eight (>38) years with the same 100/6 2-seater, so maybe one day in the distant future, Bradley will still be enjoying the first car you bought for him. Just like a car can only be original once, you can only buy him a first car once.

    Just sayin’…

  14. My Bugeye has a stock 1275, with the exception of a downdraft 2 barrel carb, header, alternator, and electronic ignition. It is coupled to a Datsun B-210 5 speed with a Rivergate conversion. Great road car with the stock 4:10:1 rear end. No need for the late model 3:90-1 gear. Pulls strong in all gears. Turns 3500 RPM at 70 MPH.

    Someone gave me the 1275 that I rebuilt, but rebuildable engines are cheap. I bought the trans for about $500 and approx $700 for the conversion. I don’t have anywhere near the money your talking about in mine.

    My Bugeye, with disk brake, sway bar, new bushings, etc is a delight to drive and is totally reliable. I would be confident to drive it cross-country.

  15. As Randy mentions, should you choose to swap the 948 for a 1275, you will need swap the gearbox as well (smoothcase for ribcase). But, speaking from experience, 948s are FUN!

  16. My very first sports car was a Bug Eye, over 50 years ago. I just did the same thing and bought a 1960 at auction a few weeks ago. I like it a lot, but it needs a clutch and rear seal conversion. So far other than that it is great. I found a NOS Abarth for it and the sound is wonderful. Don’t ask what I paid for it, I’ve spent as much on used cars. Ah, the hobby goes on. …………………Jim.

  17. Keith: I am so pleased to hear that even one of the top guys in the car world (yourself) can make the same mistake I recently made with the purchase of a 1982 Lancia Beta Zagato Spyder which while a decent vehicle, developed the same thirst for cash infusions.

    1. Myles… great idea… I have several at this time… just not the “right” ones… still wish I’d bought that 1974 Martin D-28 ($800 back then) in college, but, at $2.00 per hour, that would have put me out of school for about a year…

  18. Well, I bought my first LBC in 1976, and my first Bugeye in 1978. It was a project, to say the least… in 1978, I didn’t have AAA coverage, nor a cell phone, nor the money or time to properly restore the beast. So, those late night drives usually required a hike to the nearest farm house to awaken those who had to rise early to milk, and bother them to use their phone. Eventually, wife forbid me from driving after dark, as the Evil Dr. Lucas had obviously taken over the spirit of the usually happy looking Sprite. I later was enchanted by an AH 3000, which had many of the same problems and more. Fast forward… I met a guy, who was the father of one of my daughter’s friends, who was also in gymnastics (a more expensive sport than LBC’s), who also happened to be a Master Machinist, who knew little of construction, but everything about mechanical issues. So, I’d help him work on his house, etc… and, he’d chastise me for having two lovely specimins sitting in my garage that I couldn’t reliably drive anywhere. So, the decision was to sell one, in order to restore the other. Well, my first response was to sell the Bugeye, which I thought would NEVER be worth over 5,000. But, wife and daughter told me the Bugster could not be sold… it was a “member of the family” by now, and, oh, btw, it was “SO CUTE”. So, the logical decision to keep the 3000 went down the tube to keep my girls happy, and the 3000 was sold… still miss it… but… 21 years after buying the Bugster, the little guy completed a nut bold and screw restoration… my decision was to not build a concours car… but to build a driver… built to concours standards as far as the interior and exterior could be… but, also, to build a car that could be driven reliably hundreds of miles to car shows in the area. Thus, I purchased a 1972 Midget for its’ engine, tranny, and brakes. And, for the low price of $200. So, in 1999, the car was finally completed… a balanced and blueprinted 1275, ribcase tranny, modern long legged pumpkin, and disc brakes. So, I went from a slow car that couldn’t stop, to a driveable car that would. In hindsight, I’d do it the same again… I can drive to St Louis or Kansas City, and keep up with modern traffic… and, if the car should ever need to leave the family, I still have the original 948, smooth case, and drum brakes, which would take a long weekend to change out. Build your car the way YOU want it to be, unless you want a “trailer queen”. Otherwise, build a driver, and enjoy it… just sayin’…