Austin Healey Sprite Mk1     

                                                                                                  

   

  

     

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August 2018

     I was  9 years old when this little Healey Sprite was made - around the same time as my birthday in fact - which was 4 years before JFK was shot, 8 years before we saw colour TV from the BBC and 10 years before the first manned moon landing.....and the Quarrymen were still a year away from becoming the Beatles!  My Dad was driving a Morris 8 Series E back then, I remember the reg number of it like it was yesterday: GKA 213, a good Liverpool reg if ever there was one. I remember my 9th birthday too because an aunt bought me a Dinky model of a J Type Royal Mail van which for some inexplicable reason remained one of my favourite "Dinkies" for years, along with a Leyland Octopus lorry. Dad took a job as a long distance lorry driver in the mid 50s and he drove one of those so I got rides in it sometimes - fond memories of another life in a different place.      

     XLK 375 was made in Sept 1959 and first registered on 20th October, it came to live with us almost 59 years later in August 2018.  I'd originally been after an Isle of Wight Frogeye (Google it if you're not familar with them) which promised to be something rather special, and indeed it was but sadly the paperwork didn't quite back up the provenance claims, due in part to a DVLA cock up.  It was this which put me in touch with Mike Authers who was advertising that particular Sprite on his website for the owner on a commission basis.

 Mike is the proprietor of "Mike Authers Classics" which lies between Oxford and Abingdon and he specialises in chrome bumper MG Midgets and Austin Healey Sprites. He's been running his business since the early 1980s so he's a veritable mine of information where Sprites and Midgets are concerned. We exchanged quite a few e.mails during our discussions, which subsequently revealed his obvious and genuine passion for these great little cars. Mike doesn't just sell Spridgets, he lives & breathes them!

     It became apparent that there was something I wasn't happy with regarding the car's documentation so I finally decided against it, and it was at that point Mike mentioned he had an original but modified Frogeye in stock which he thought I might be interested in.  He sent me a few photos of it which the previous owner had given him, these had been taken during its restoration quite a few years ago so the shots weren't wonderful but they showed how well the job had been done. The photos of the body shell being restored depicted a lot of bracing bars temporarily welded in to keep everything lined up while it was being worked on so it looked like a "proper job". However, with it being an older restoration and a bit more modified than I really wanted I wasn't too interested at first, but he followed up a few days later with some up to date shots he'd taken at his garage and they fired my interest enough for me to make the journey south to see the car.

     After the initial greetings and introductions we moved into the garage.  And, there it sat - the object of my desires, a lovely little blue Frogeye all ready and waiting for me to go meet it, it was already smiling so things looked promising. Honestly, going for one of these things is just like going to buy a puppy!  

 

     Under the bonnet sits a bored out  'A' series engine, with a fast road cam, Omega dished pistons and a Weber 40 DCOE carb fitted to it. This car is definitely not for the purist but I've never been one of those anyway so it really doesn't matter – just as well really because it has a cheeky wee bonnet bulge as well.   

     First impressions were good, and after a quick look over it we decided it was time to take it for a run so Mike fired it up.... Blimey!! This thing is LOUD! The air rattling through the Weber intakes sounded glorious, I sunk down into the surprisingly comfy passenger seat as Mike steered us out of his garage and onto the long potholed farm track that took us to the road at the end of it. There's some nice countryside around here, perfect for sportscars, and with the old site of the MG factory at Abingdon nearby this area was also the testing ground for a lot of MGs back in the 40s and 50s so the place has history. The Frogeyes and later Sprites were all assembled at the MG factory in Abingdon so it's a fitting place to find a Sprite / MG dealer right on the doorstep.  

     Out on the road the temp gauge showed normal and the oil pressure was looking good so Mike put his foot down a bit and this demure little – and it is very little, tiny in fact – car turned into a rattling, spitting & snorting missile.  The roar through the Weber was very loud –  I am actually pretty deaf but I had to turn my digital ears down a notch and I couldn't help but burst out laughing, it was hilarious honking along this little country road in a 59 year old car at what felt like a totally insane speed – probably no more than 40mph but such was the noise from it,  it felt absolutely manic! 

     Soon it was my turn, so Mike pulled into a little lay-by and I climbed into the driver's seat, no clunk click needed here due to the age of the car, it does have 3 point harnesses fitted but we left them hidden behind the seats just because we could, it felt like one of those rare moments I rode motorbikes without wearing a crash helmet. Moving off in the car it becomes evident how incredibly light it is, the steering is very quick and ultra responsive but perfectly weighted. In fact it's a bit reminiscent of driving a Caterham where the light weight is very much in evidence and due to the very direct steering not that easy to hold it in a straight line at first, especially after stepping out of a modern car with electronic power steering, so I wasn't prepared to push it and as a consequence was driving like an O.A.P.... Oh! I am an O.A.P, never mind. The feel of the car is something you get used to apparently....  or so I've been told by several people, and judging by the way Mike had it hurtling along with no problems it must be true! 

        The brakes are awful by modern standards, so stopping has to be planned in advance with the brake pedal having to be really stamped hard upon to scrub off any speed, no servos here so it's very ..erm …..interesting!  This one has been uprated to disc brakes up front as well to replace the old original drums.  It feels like it could be a physically tiring car to drive for any distance so I can see this being more of a, “Lets pop out for coffee and cake”  rather  than a, "Let's go up to Scotland in it" kinda car but maybe when it's back to standard that'll change. 

 

     We're back at the farm all too soon, me with a big stupid grin on my face and Mike asked if I wanted to run it up onto the lift so I could have a poke around underneath, so I accepted the invitation. The underside of this car is amazing! It's as clean as the top and it's all the same colour – no underseal here to hide any horror stories and it's all clean, apart from the odd dribble of old Waxoyl. There's the usual 'A' series engine oil leak from the back of it, no oil seal was ever fitted there on an A series engine so they all leak a bit, but most owners look upon it as a "rolling oil change" . 

Time to talk money, I was definitely not letting  this little monster slip through my fingers but Mike wasn't for budging on price,  I thought it was a tad overpriced given the work that needed doing to tidy it up and bring it back to standard spec, but after seeing the condition of the underneath  I really did want it, there can't be too many around as solid as this for the price.....and it was smiling at me for gawd's sake!!. The solid condition of the shell makes this car a viable and relatively easy project ,and finding another as good would be difficult so in the end he knocked a bit off the asking price, which offset the cost of transporting it back to Lancashire, and we shook hands on the deal. 

     I do have plans for it, which include turning it back to standard spec but retaining a 1275 engine. It won't be this 1275 engine though because it's got all sorts of expensive gear on it - a tuftrided & balanced crankshaft, Omega pistons, and lightweight adjustable timing sprockets / duplex chain, Megadyne 286 cam etc, plus of course the Weber 40DCOE carburetor - so it'll be quite saleable and I'll build a nice standard engine from the proceeds - and that will include putting it back onto twin S.U carbs. First though I intend to have a bit of fun with it as it is for a year or so  because it does snarl a lot as it is, and it makes me smile! .  

The icing on the cake for me is that the car still has its old buff log book.....  It just doesn't get any better than this! 

 

 

This is a copy of some of the receipts I got with the car, it's mostly just engine items so there are a few missing purchase records relating to the body restoration but it's got some form and had lots of £££s spent on it. 



 

 

We'll do the photos in chronological order. 

        The day after buying the Frog I was mooching through some classic car insurance websites and a few had it listed as a Sebring Sprite which prompted a delve into the interweb where I found these pics of it in a past life, taken around the time that the previous owner bought it in 1997 at a guess, but this looks more like an Ashley hardtop and front end than a Sebring. This Sprite evidently has some competition history so I'm going to try and find out what I can about it. Subsequent attempts at insurance quotes have it listed as a Healey Sprite. Confusing!  

 

 

 

Photos of the shell restoration which going by a few of the receipts I got with the car suggest (up to now) that it was carried out between 1997 & 1999. 


 

 

 



 



      Back home, then a few days later the car arrived here from Oxford and it started up fine for me to take it off the transporter and drive it into the garage. The following morning I went out and tried to start it up to take it for a sneaky run around the block but it fired up then spluttered to a stop.  At first I thought it had run out of petrol, it sounded like it had but it turned out to be the fuel pump which had packed in.  Being a tuned engine with a Weber 40 DCOE carb it requires a higher capacity pump than original so a Facet type had been fitted. When I got it off I noted that it's dated July 2000 so it's not done too bad for 18 years.

     I thought it best to replace it like for like & Merlin Motorsport had them in stock so I ordered one up from them. Meanwhile I got on with tidying up a few bits and pieces. First off was the steering wheel which was looking a bit sad, I was going to buy a new leather one because I'm not really a fan of woodrims but this is a genuine Moto Lita which has a bit of patina to it so I cleaned it up and fitted some nice new stainless steel mounting screws and it's growing on me. 

The bracket holding the steering column up was very loose so that's been tightened up, the offside headlight is also loose as were all of the nuts on 3 of the wheels, so now I've discovered that someone's not been too keen on tightening nuts and bolts I'm going to have to go over the whole car with a spanner just for peace of mind to make sure everything else is tight. (NB -.I've found since writing this that the fuel tank bolts, rear shock mount bolts, and the handbrake cable bracket were also loose) 

 


The heads on the replacement stainless screws were a bigger diameter than the originals so I had to
 cut the countersinks a bit deeper in the outer ring to accommodate them. 

 


         Steering column all nice and tight now, I felt a rattle coming from it when I test drove the car but thought it may have been the top bush so was preparing to have to replace that. It's far easier to tighten a couple of bolts than to change a bush though, so that was a good result.  The tachometer doesn't work - it's a positive earth one and the car has been converted to negative earth, Mike gave me another Tacho which needs repairing but it's the right one for the car  - which the one that's fitted isn't and it looks a bit odd with that outer ring. The odometer is also non-operational, although I think the speedo works ok. I'm not sure about the fuel gauge yet, it does go up to half full when the ignition is turned on so I'm hopeful!.  

 


I cleaned the door cappings up a bit as well and fitted some stainless screws. Two of them on each door will have to come
 out if I ever fit the side screens, but for now the holes are filled

 


I really like this wee mirror but it'll have to go if I restore the side screens, which I intend to do

 


Old fuel pump removed, it was a bit of a faff to get off


  

         This is the fuel filter I took out, it's obviously never been checked or changed in a long time. Due to the amount of crud in it I decided to remove the fuel tank as well because it looks like it's going quite rusty inside, it was the right thing to do because some really horrible stuff came out of it. No wonder the pump packed up. It definitely needs a new tank so I'll change the sender unit as well, might as well while it's out. The rubber fuel pipe to the filter was also blocked solid, probably the result of using the latest biofuel brews which can rot old rubber and cause condensation in the tank which causes rust to form.  The rubber hoses have now been replaced with ethanol resistant Gates tubing. 
    


New fuel pump, it needs building up onto the back plate which will take a while as 
I'll be making up a new better version which will be easier to get off in the future.

 


             Starting to look a bit tidier in here, all the alloy cabin cappings have been cleaned up and new hex head stainless steel screws fitted to replace the loose old slotted ones . Not sure what to do with the radio "knock out" as yet, but I'll not be fitting a radio. That alloy panel in front of the gear stick will have to go as well, it serves very nicely as a "knee guillotine. I think the guy who owned the car before must have had shares in an aluminium factory!

 


It took a while to buff the alloy cappings and polish the screwheads but the Devil is in the detail or so they say

 

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