Keith’s Blog: The Bugeye Saga Continues

The mantra of the car collector could well be “Buy, Spend, Learn, Spend, Repent, Spend, Move On.”

It’s been over a year since we bought our 1960 Austin-Healey Bugeye Sprite. I was looking for something that my 9-year-old son Bradley could call his first car.

After nearly a year, it’s nearly ready for us to pick up from the restorer, Chip Starr at Racecar Resurrections, when we return from Amelia Island next week.

Our year with the Bugeye is typical of what happens when you buy a 60-year-old sports car.

When we started looking, this example — in attractive-if-incorrect British Racing Green and with painted wire wheels — seemed to fit the bill. It didn’t seem to need anything, was not far away (with an inexpensive car shipping can end up being a substantial part of the purchase price) and not expensive.

Austin-Healey made a lot of these little Sprites, over 400,000, so there are always quite a few for sale.  They seem to be in the $10,000 range for nasty ones with needs to $25,000 for examples you could drive onto the lawn at Pebble Beach — if you can picture that happening.

We drove the car home the 50-odd miles from White Salmon, WA, where we had purchased it. To date that’s the longest trip it has made. It didn’t like to idle, and it ran a little rough. We assumed all it needed was a major tune-up.

The major tune-up turned into an engine replacement. We discovered that the 948-cc engine in the car was highly tuned to near-racing specs — so much so that it was nearly impossible to run on the street.

That was a moment of despair for us. This was supposed to be a fun, cheap little car that my 9-year-old son Bradley could claim as his own. My thoughts were he would learn to check its oil, water and tire pressures each time before we took it out. I didn’t want a concours car or a race car — I just wanted something we could putz around in.

I never intended to spend thousands of dollars on it just to make it into a decent runner.

We talked with Chip and developed a plan. A 1,275-cc block and head came with the car. He felt that for a reasonable amount, he could have the engine professionally rebuilt and install it and we would have a reliable, cute little car.

The local specialist at NAPA built us a fresh engine. The crankshaft was stock, so we had it turned. We had them balance it, installed new pistons, valves, rocker-arm gear and a slightly hotter cam. Moss Motors has proven to be an invaluable resource for parts.

“While he was in there” we had the fuel line rerouted to move it away from the exhaust system. A defective rear u-joint was replaced, which is much simpler to do when the driveline is out of the car.

The engine bay got a chrome valve cover from Moss Motors, and we had the exhaust headers ceramic coated. The slightly over-sized exhaust pipe gives the car a nice, throaty sound.

When we visited the car last week it fired right up and revved easily. All the gauges have been rebuilt, so that they read properly and don’t stick. The oil pressure was good and the water temperature was stable. Our steady Oregon rain was the only thing that kept us from taking it on a test drive around the block.

There’s a Healey meet in nearby Hood River, OR, which is about 60 miles from Portland, in May. Bradley will ride along with me.

We’ll take the two-lane Washington State Highway 14 up the Columbia Gorge. SCMer Michael Pierce will follow us in the Porsche 911 Twin Turbo we used to own, just for my piece of mind.

So far the Bugeye experience has been typical. Buy, learn, spend money, repair, spend money and use. However, I think we are on track to a happy ending. We’ll get the car sorted out and head out on a two-lane road. I look forward to having Bradley as my co-pilot as we set off on a new adventure.

 

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.

Posted in Blogs, Keith Martin

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  1. Keith – I know you have discussed before but I’m curious what your comfort level of your young son driving this car. Will he drive it daily or on weekends or just to the odd local car show. My son wants a “classic” car for his first car – but my wife (and a little bit of me) – refuses to let his regular use car be without air bags. I know you blogged about this topic before but now you have finished the Sprite I am interested to know your plans for it once your son becomes a driver.

    1. Come on Malcolm, I rode my bike for years without a helmet, and drove cars without seat belts., And, I actually survived. …………………Jim

  2. Keith, my very first sports car was a used Bugeye in the 60s. I “Had to have” another, so here I am working on number two. I too use Moss Motors, and the Bugeyeguy for parts and help. My shop specializes in 356 Porsches, so this is a total divergence from them. Thanks for the story. Jim Liberty, Liberty Motorsports.