Keith’s Blog: What to Do When the Wipers Stop? 300 Miles in a Bugeye Sprite

We were traveling at 70 mph in a torrential downpour. Interstate 84, which runs through Oregon’s scenic Columbia River Gorge, was a nightmare of high winds and large pools of standing water.

It was not the weather I would have chosen to take Bradley’s 1960 Bugeye Sprite on its inaugural road trip.

There comes a moment of truth with any old car when you actually put it on the road. In this case, it was participating in the Austin-Healey Northwest Meet that was centered in The Dalles, OR, which is about 84 miles from Portland.

As I reach my maturity, I enjoy casual events like this more than the full-blown mega tours that feature million-dollar cars and multi-thousand-dollar entry fees. The registration fee was zero, and the only cost was joining the dinner on Saturday night. You paid for your rooms and your lunches — and that was it.

In the end, it’s all about the people, the roads and the driving.

Reid Trummel — a veteran SCM contributor — was the organizer. Among the primary sponsors were Sports Car Market and Moss Motors, represented by John Nikas, their communications manager and long-time SCMer.

Chip Starr had the Bugeye as prepped as it was going to get without being road tested. The day before we left, we discovered that the two (yes, just two) 15-amp fuses didn’t like having the electric fuel pump, lights, wipers and heater fan all operating at the same time.

The Bugeye failed to proceed when the fuel-pump fuse failed in the middle of a busy street in Portland.

As I wrestled the 1,800-pound car to the curb, I realized that I have now been pushing Bugeyes for 50 years. I wonder if there is a merit badge for that?

A set of 20-amp fuses cured most of the problems — except for the wipers, which would simply stop whenever they got tired. If you reached out through the side-curtains and pushed on them, they would start moving again. For a while.

Good friend and ACC contributor Michael Pierce was in our chase vehicle, a 1997 Porsche 993 6-speed cabriolet. As the water started leaking down the inside of the Bugeye’s windshield during the trip, his car looked much more attractive than ours. And not just because of the air-cooled, 6-cylinder engine.

The first day included that terrifying drive out I-84 in a rainstorm. However the clouds broke, and we had sunshine as we arrived at the Celilo Inn in The Dalles.

With a 3.7 rear axle, we found the car cruised comfortably at 70 mph with the engine turning 4,500 rpm.

However, the short wheelbase and light weight of the car made it subject to intense buffeting from the wind and passing traffic — including the massive three-trailer semis that are legal in Oregon.

The heater worked well, and Bradley enjoyed learning that by closing the flaps on the center console he could direct hot air to the windscreen and defrost it. That’s what passed for climate control in 1960.

There were about 30 Austin-Healey 100s and 3000s there, but only one other Bugeye. Our car was rare.

Grilled burgers were on the menu Friday night, and I surprised Pierce with a bottle of 2011 Brick House Pinot Noir. Good wine makes anything taste better.

Our rooms were modest but clean – with breakfast snacks included. Again, the best road trips are not about the food, they’re about the road.

On Saturday morning, we queued up and headed for a near full-sized replica of Stonehenge about 30 miles away.  It was completed in 1929 as a memorial to those who had died in World War I.

I’ve always liked Big Healeys, and there’s nothing like hearing 180 cylinders firing up in the morning as all 30 started, running rough at first when cold — and then gradually smoothing out.

Our time to drive these old cars is not unlimited. By modern standards, they have terrible brakes, suspect handling and barely enough power to stay ahead of a Hyundai Elantra. At one point I passed a Prius on the freeway in the Bugeye and nearly stopped to present myself with a commemorative grille badge.

Despite all the shortcomings, the sights and sounds of a gaggle of vintage Healeys is a wondrous thing.

During our caravan to Stonehenge, I marveled at the sight of so many Antediluvian machines, all half-a-century old, motoring over the Columbia River on The Dalles Bridge and then along State Route 14 in Washington state.

We returned to The Dalles for a no-host lunch at the Baldwin Saloon. Then we drove to Hood River, OR, for a visit to the Western Antique Aeroplane & Automobile Museum (WAAAM). All of their vintage planes are airworthy, and make an impressive sight.

SCM and Moss Motors hosted the dinner Saturday night, and Bradley entertained himself by building a balsa wood model of a triplane, while the rest of us blathered on about our cars — and told lies about our acceleration and gas mileage.

We had to be back in Portland on Sunday by 9:30 a.m., as it was Mother’s Day. So at 7 a.m., Bradley helped me pack the Sprite. I had forgotten how cavernous the trunk is. It helps to have a 10-year-old along to grab stuff that has slid into the recesses of the rear (there is no trunk lid for easy access).

Pierce was there in his 911, and he made snarky comments, such as: “How’s that cruise control working?”

To his credit, Bradley learned how to properly install the side curtains (how many kids his age even know what a side curtain is?), and got all of our various chargers and Bluetooth speakers hooked up.

The first part of the drive home, 20 miles to a local Starbucks, were glorious. The road was dry, and and the sun was out.

But just west of Hood River, the skies opened up. As I aquaplaned and tried to pass trucks and trailers, I wondered just how wise it was for me to have Bradley with me in the car.

When you are driving a vintage sports car, especially a diminutive one like a Sprite, you are busy all the time. It’s not the time to talk on your cell phone text, or even sip your coffee.

The road requires 100% of your attention. If something does go amiss, there are no nanny-aids to save you. It’s up to you and your skill set accumulated over decades of driving crappy little cars like these to keep you on the road and shiny-side up.

Having the windshield wipers fail 30 miles from downtown Portland was not a catastrophe (I had decided not to pack the Rain-X. After all, what could go wrong?).

Most of the water streamed off of the flat windscreen — except, of course, for the water that ran down the inside of the windshield and dripped on Bradley’s legs.

By 9 a.m. we were home, and the Bugeye was nestled in the dry, warm SCM garage. I’ve got a small list of things for restorer Chip Starr to attend to. But the car ran like a locomotive, never missed a beat — aside from a windshield wipe here and there — cruised at 70 mph and completed 300 miles.

The most satisfying part for me was watching Bradley adjust to the car. He learned how hold the choke out while pulling on the starter button. He was a great help when putting up the top and installing the side curtains. He figured out how to get just the amount of heat he wanted on his legs.

In other words, this wasn’t a vintage car adventure for him — it was just a road trip with his dad. Neither of us will ever forget the experience.

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

5 comments

  1. Funny, sort of… had the wipers in our DS convertible this past weekend on the Hagerty Spring Thaw through Southern BC. Rather terrifying but luckily we continued with a big bottle of RainX sourced in aptly named Hope, BC.

  2. Kudos to you, Keith. I had planned to go, but the weather was just too crappy. Valiant effort equals great memories.

  3. You ask how long we will be able to drive these cars, which is something I worry about too. Is your concern that they will be actually banned because they are unsafe? Or not green enough? I’m restoring an MGB and worry about taking my kids in it – no airbags, abs, TC, etc. Good thing I also have an Elise!

  4. Two guys (225+) from our shop in Wilmington Ohio drove a bug eye to Sebring with a 4.11 rear axle. 55 years later I still am amazed at their fortitude. If something happened to you in that egg crate, who would run the magazine?

  5. Keith – Your May 15 Blog article chronicling your trip to the Dalles from Portland with your son, Bradley, during which your Austin Healey Sprite experienced windshield wiper failure resurrected a 50 year-old mystery which remained unsolved until reading of your episode. So, file this under, “Mystery Solved.”

    In 1963 I bought a new Tartan Red MGB. It was my first car and would take me all the way through graduate school before parting company. My “B” was among the first of BMC’s new breed of MG’s to reach North America’s shores: the “pull handle” version that included an array of toggle switches a la “E” Type before the nanny state eliminated such atrocities in favor of rocker switches. But, I digress.

    Several years into ownership I headed West to college in Iowa. This was truly the MGB’s first significant journey and, in the mid-1960’s, for many Baby Boomers, going to college meant leaving in September and remaining until Christmas.

    Enroute I encountered Monsoonal type rain while navigating along Chicago’s Dan Ryan Expressway during the night. With headlights, fog lights, demister and wipers simultaneously engaged the later suddenly froze halfway across the windscreen. As with your experience, reaching out and manually moving them resulted in the wipers reengaging. But, success was short lived as, soon, the wipers again assumed a stationary pose in mid-sweep leaving me to rely on the pounding rain to clear the windscreen sufficiently to continue traveling.

    Months later, upon returning to my home Northeast of Pittsburgh (PA) for the Christmas recess I took the MGB in for servicing, with specific instruction to problem-solve the mystery of the wiper malfunction.

    In those kinder, gentler days customers were permitted in the service bays. Chatting with the mechanic assigned to my “B” about the problem he determined we needed to replicate the rain effect. Standing in front of the car while holding a garden hose (probably the hose used to drain radiators) he blasted a stream of water against the windscreen as all three wipers perfectly swept the glass in unison. Not once did they fail to perform. I left with the “B” serviced but, otherwise, clueless about the circumstance that had left me nearly rain blinded during that trip to Iowa.

    Clearly, on reflection, the oversight was in failing to run the headlights, fog lights and demister while activating the wipers. Your discovery of the Sprite being woefully under “fused” is likely the same gremlin that afflicted the MGB. Inasmuch as both Austin Healey and MG were part of the BMC conglomerate, it is highly probable they shared very similar electrical applications.

    I am in your debt for putting to rest my long-standing curiosity about this heretofore unexplained mystery. Thank you!

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