For his 10th birthday, I bought my son Bradley a 1960 Austin-Healey Bugeye Sprite. My first car was a Bugeye, and I was indulging in a romantic recreation of my own past.
I paid $15,000 for it because it needed nothing. Another $15,000 later, specialist Chip Starr had built and installed a 1,275-cc engine and a 3.7:1 rear end — along with freshening the suspension, electrical and wiring systems.
In a striking example of collector car math, after a total investment of $30,000 it is now worth the same $15,000 I paid for it. But it certainly runs and drives much better.
It’s now a great driving car – the best Bugeye I have ever driven — as it should be for what I have spent. I took it 60 miles to a Austin-Healey event in Hood River, OR, and it zipped right along, with all systems working perfectly. Well, except the wipers, which would simply quit if you used them too often.
In a deserted parking lot on a Sunday afternoon, Bradley even learned to operate the clutch and start and stop in 1st gear.
However, when I got my Bugeye it was 1966. Even with its puny brakes and ridiculous, worn-out lever shocks, it still out-handled and out-braked many of the American cars on the road. At 1,500 pounds, it could keep up with city traffic.
Aside from the occasional Suburban or Jeep Grand Wagoneer, 6,000-pound SUVs were unknown in 1966.
But as we all know, today’s world is different. Cars have safety features today that we couldn’t imagine 50 years ago.
A few years ago, I decided to sell my daughter Alex’s 250 Ninja and I said goodbye to my Suzuki SV650 (my Japanese Ducati). I decided that no matter how much fun I had riding with her, the chances of something going wrong — most likely by an error by another driver — simply outweighed whatever pleasure I might have.
I kept our dirt bikes, a Honda CRF230 and Yamaha XL-125 (plus another XL-125 for Bradley to grow into). Riding on trails, at reasonable speeds, entails a degree of risk I am comfortable with.
But I can’t in good conscience put him behind the wheel of the Bugeye. The car is simply too frail. The other factor that comes into play is that as our cars become more capable, with adaptive cruise control, lane-alert and more, drivers have become less attentive.
While I might not worry about Bradley’s skill set behind the wheel, the chances of a distracted driver making a terrible mistake are too large to ignore.
So as much as I want to relive my own past and have him go on his first date in a Bugeye, it will never happen.
When he gets a little older, we will find some deserted parking lots where he can play around with the Bugeye and master the skills of double-clutching into a non-synchro first gear.
When he turns 16 and has his license, we may even find some lightly trafficked country roads that he can enjoy. These are the same type of roads that make up most of the route for the SCM 1000. These roads were built during the pre-Interstate-freeway era — and so were cars like the Bugeye.
The Bugeye will not be a daily driver.
The first dual-airbag Miatas were built in 1994. By 2023, there will be no shortage of used Miatas, with low miles and in excellent condition, for well under $10,000.
I might steer him towards a BMW, Mercedes or a dual-airbag Miata. Alex’s second BMW, that she got when she was 17, was a 5-speed, 4-cylinder BMW 318i. A delightful car, she had it for four years and it had over 200,000 miles on it. It was peppy enough and had a single airbag. The engine was small enough so that she was always working the gearbox, a skill that has served her well.
In addition to the 318, she mastered all of the family Alfas (her favorite is the 1965 Giulia Spider Veloce). With gusto, she has piloted our Land Rover 88 SIII, Classic and D90, Lotus Elise, our Porsche SC, Boxster S, Twin Turbo and most recently our 996. There’s not a car she’s afraid to drive.
I want the same for her younger brother.
And who knows what the world of daily driving will look like in 2023? Will autonomous cars, along with Lyft and Uber vehicles comprise the majority of cars on the road?
It’s hard to let go of fantasies, especially vehicular ones that involved reliving your own past with your children.
But the automotive world is rapidly changing. And the safety of my kids is paramount to me, as I’m sure it is to you. I’m not afraid to take a calculated risk or two – I’m comfortable with Bradley riding a dirt bike, but he has to have a helmet, goggles and the correct boots and armor.
I’m comfortable with him driving a smaller car (so long as it is a manual gearbox), but it has to have modern safety equipment and be able to hold its own in modern traffic.
We can’t ignore change. We can only adapt ourselves and our dreams to it.