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PDLJMPR's Sprite Hall of Fame

PDLJMPR Web Magazine, October 22, 1998

Robert Kershaw - Bob's 1959 Blemished ex-racer Bugeyed Sprite

Over the years, I have enjoyed owning several roadsters: a 1965 MGB, a 1977 MGB and a 1966 Datsun 1600. But having 4 kids resulted in me being roadsterless for many years. For quite some time, my personal sports car dream line-up, in order of preference, has been:

1. 1958-61 Austin-Healey Bugeye Sprite
2. 1958-63 Triumph TR3
3. 1970-74 Porsche 914
4. 1960's Triumph TR4

And of course, I often hear late 50's-60's Corvettes, XKE's, Ford Cobras and Pontiac GTO convertibles calling for my attention too... and just the thought of crawling into a Lotus Europa causes me to shiver. But those are all quite far removed from day to day possibilities for my garage.

There is not an over abundance of LBCs advertised in Phoenix, so I started tracking Porsche 914's several years ago. They are plentiful, at least at times, and seem to be a pretty interesting knock-around-shade-tree-mechanic type car. As I got close to buying a 914, I began to dread the required emissions testing and potential licensing hassles.

Then, in 1996, while learning to search on the Internet, I stumbled into Les Myer's PDLJMPR Home Page. It was there that I came across an ad for a 1959 Bugeye Sprite Race Car and a pile of racing parts, that had been retired and was for sale in Texas. 1959 meant no emissions. My desire for a Porsche 914 faded. Through email, I conversed with the owner for 2 months. I decided I wanted his car and he agreed to a down payment that I could afford and I agreed to sell off any of the competition parts or extra stuff that I didn't need to get it street legal/licensed and send him the proceeds. So with that deal, I drove to Texas with a car dolly, picked up my racing car on 8/17/96 and towed the prize back to Phoenix. It was totally an email deal, the first time the owner and I talked to each other was over the phone when I arrived in his town, the night before I was to pick up the car. I continue to keep him up to date on the bugeye via monthly progress updates. I hope he and his wife visit Phoenix someday and give his previously owned bugeye a workout...

As a race car, it had wheels, a chassis, a drive train, a bugeye body, a 5 point roll bar, a 5 point racing harness, lots of lockwired nuts, no interior, a couple of fiberglass shell seats, no electrical (except for the few wires needed for the engine to run), an external kill switch, no windshield/frame, no lights, no speedo, no handbrake .... nothing that was not needed to go fast. But along with the other missing stuff, I could also find no rust! The car has a fair amount of bondo filling in all the trim and accessory holes and was painted with a coat of light gray primer.

I decided to work on the car in 3 stages:
Stage 1 - get it street legal, driveable and licensed - return it to the public's eye
Stage 2 - work on the interior, dash, roll bar and top - make it more comfortable
Stage 3 -work on the body and get a real paint job - make it look better

Stage 1: The Return to the Public's Eye

The car had been retired in the late 70's or 80's. It had been sitting for unused since and for 2+ years without being run. It's 948cc Series A engine turned over fine but wouldn't start. I put in new plugs and points. I did a compression check and was surprised to find 165 - 170 psig in all four cylinders. I drained the gas tank and put in 2 gallons of the best premium I could find. I charged up the battery and made sure the plugs were sparking. It still turned over fine and oil pressure came right up while cranking on the starter - but it wouldn't start. So I got my daughter crank the engine while I manually choked the carburetor air intake pipes (it had no air filters). The engine coughed some and finally sprang to life. After a couple of stalls and a bit of coaching (she was only 11), we were able to keep it going. Below 2K rpm it ran very rough and was in the process of stalling, but around 3500 rpm the engine smoothed out and then seemed literally take off.

I rebuilt the hydraulic system to get brakes and a clutch so I could check out the drive train. The engine was modified for racing and even with tuning adjustments still ran real hard and rough at low rpm. I realized that I could not use it for very long on the street - plus it seemed like a shame to wear out what might be a vialable race package just driving around town. But I must admit the feel and sound of the engine hitting it's power band was something to experience. I considered installing a V6, but decided to look for a 1275cc engine to keep the engine swap from becoming a project in itself.

I really enjoy the fact that the car had been a racer - the previous owner said that in the 60's it may have been part of the Smothers Brother's Racing Team in California (??? sounds good to me???) - it will never be a concours quality car - too much was missing or non-original and too many little dings and modifications, plus my interest was to get it on the road and drive the heck out of it.

I made steady progress as I shopped on the Internet to both buy and sell parts. As I sold parts, I sent the money to the previous owner. Through the Internet, mainly PDLJMPR contacts, I acquired a windshield and frame, headlight buckets, a windshield wiper system, side curtains, bow frame and a top, light fixtures and lenses, a carpet set, a heater, an entire handbrake assembly, rear bumperettes, mirrors, gauges, etc. Through the Internet, I also made some local contacts that helped with finding incidental items and offering information and encouragement. I decided to install MiniMania's front tilt hinge kit for the bonnet to improve access to the engine compartment. I also installed an electric pusher fan in front of the radiator. The forward tilting bonnet has been a great decision for me. I really like not having that beastly bonnet ready to fall on my head or back while I'm working under it.

A big break came when I sold the racing drive train and all of the extra racing/engine items to an Internet contact who was building an H Production race car. I was then able to pay off the rest of what I owed the previous owner and was able to acquire, from email contacts of course, a 1275 engine and ribcase transmission. To my amazement, we found that pallets weighing 450 lb. could be shipped around the U.S. via air freight for about $100 a pallet. Soon the racing engine was gone and the 1275 was in my garage to be cleaned up, reassembled and installed. But it turned out that the 1275 had experienced a major lubrication failure and needed to be rebuilt.

One of the contacts that I made in my cyber journeys around the world was Bob Magnotti in Virginia. Bob Magnotti has the unique combination of extensive experience in building racing and street A-series engines for spridgets combined with a friendly, patient, encouraging manner. As we conversed via email, he challenged me to rebuild the engine myself. I consider myself to be a good shade tree mechanic, fairly handy and quite creative in using tools but doubted that rebuilding an entire engine was within my scope. Bob prevailed and so I dove in with the agreement that he'd answer my questions. It took 3 months to rebuild the engine. We spent some time waiting for parts and work proceeded slowly due to the limited time I had to spend in the garage. Bob patiently responded to about 300 questions that I emailed to him - at the rate of 3-5 questions a day. He also reminded me regularly that this was fun, which it really was. In fact, I miss having an engine to work on out in the garage... Although it took much longer than I'd hoped or expected, the day finally came when my rebuilt 1275 was sitting in the engine dolly that Bob had me build to break in the camshaft/tappets and test it outside of the car. It cranked and sputtered but would not start - until I got the spark plug wires on the right cylinders. I can only hint at the satisfaction I felt when that engine roared to life for the first time. It was more exciting and satisfying than I'd even dreamed it would be. I must admit that the initial cloud of blue/gray smoke freaked me out until I realized it was all the assembly oil burning off. I continue to feel satisfaction and thrill every time I start the engine. Bob was pretty excited too - he said he heard it and saw the smoke, plus it meant that my stream of questions would finally slow down.

The engine is now the strongest feature in my car. It red lines at 7500 rpm and idles at 1200 rpm (it has an ISKY hot street cam). After 2000 miles, the compression reads a solid 145 psig in all 4 cylinders. The engine is equipped with a centrifugal advance only Lucas distributor and loves rpms. The engine seems happiest when accelerating from 3000 to 6000 rpm. I am running the car with a 4.22 differential which lets it get up to 50-60 mph pretty quickly and allows the car to get 20+ mpg. I have a 3.90 for cruising and a quaife type, limited slip, 4.55 for autocrossing, if I ever decide to let the bugeye return to it's roots. The exhaust, which includes a header and straight pipe through a bullet glass pack, sounds better and better. The car literally screams when I let the big dog eat... well maybe more accurately - the little dog eat.

As I proceeded with the work necessary to get the car street legal, I realized that the car needed another coat of primer or it would soon begin to develop surface rust. I was toying with the idea of painting the car dark blue with 2 wide white stripes (Cobra style). I decided to temporarily try out that color scheme with spray cans rather than just another coat of primer gray. It was quite the joke among many of my friends. It took a few more cans than I had planned but ended up looking surprisingly good from 10 feet. It has allowed me to focus on other tasks rather than the body work at this stage of the reconstruction of this car. The body work and a real paint job will come later.

In July 1997, after several attempts and breakdowns, I finally got enough bugs out of the bugeye to get it inspected, registered and licensed. What I had thought would take a couple of months took 11 months. But it was 11 months of pleasure for me. My family had stopped referring to it as "Dad's car," but had started calling it "Dad's garage project." Now my kids show it off to their friends as "this is the car my Dad built, neat huh?" They're even proud of the paint job.

The Sprite is pretty simple as cars go. Having built and installed everything in this car has allowed me to know it quite well. When it breaks down, I find that I'm pretty relaxed and confident that I'll be able to figure it all out. Stage 1, getting the car on the street and driveable, is complete. Stage 2, which includes improvements to the interior, seats, roll bar modifications, so I can use the top on rare occasions, has begun. Stage 3, body work and paint, will take place in the future.

Stage 2 - Some Creature Comforts

Stage 2 was immediately interrupted due to a need to replace or rebuild the ribcase transmission . From the beginning, first gear was badly worn and had to be physically held in gear. In December 1997, I broke some teeth off first gear and lost first gear altogether. I acquired a non-running, round arch MG Midget for parts. Its ribcase transmission, which has turned out to be quite strong and tight, is now in the bugeye. I didn't realize how much I had missed first gear until I got it back...

With the "new" transmission in place, I was able to return to Stage 2. I found a set of Mazada Miata seats in a junkyard that fit the bugeye quite well and come a lot closer to meeting my wife's request for back support and more comfort. I converted the car to negative ground and replaced the generator with a 1981 Toyota Corolla alternator. I have all my instrumentation, except for a speedo, installed and working. My gauges include a Tach (oriented as the racer had it with 7K rpm at the top), oil P, oil T, water T, fuel level, amps, and volts. The cockpit arrangement is temporary while I consider the gauge placement that suits me best and decide whether the new dash will be aluminum or wood.

It has been fun and enjoyable along the entire journey so far. Like many others, I have made some great friends and acquaintances along the way that have helped and encouraged me immensely. I got to meet and spend an evening with Bob Magnotti while on a business trip to Virginia and stay in regular touch with him and several others with whom I have bought/sold parts or shared information. It has been quite an adventure.

I feel privileged to just drive the bugeye down the street and I love to answer, "Hey, what is that?" The car always attracts the attention of kids and often adults that had experiences involving LBCs in the past. I also love to drive along and make a 90 degree turn at 30 mph without slowing or sliding (too much). Since it looks like a race car, people - especially kids - often ask me if it's fast - I like being able to respond with, "Yeah, it goes OK, but it really rules the corners."

Living in Phoenix allows me to drive the car nearly every day. Last week, rain from an El Nino storm kept me from driving the bugeye one evening. It was the first weather related grounding I've had in over 4 months. Phoenix has 9 months of fall/spring (the temperature rarely hits freezing) and 3 months of hot. I call my air conditioning "NN1T", which stands for "No top, No windows, 1 guy burning up while watching the Temperature gauge".

Recently, I have added Stage 4 to my plans. I have decided to look into taking the bugeye vintage racing with a local group called Historic Auto Racing Events (HARE) which races monthly at the Phoenix International Raceway (PIR). I dream a lot, but we'll see. I also think about taking the bugeye on some driving trips to the California coast or up into Colorado. Again, we'll just have to see...

If you hear of any spridget cars or parts in the southwest that need a friendly, caring home - send them my way. I haven't settled on a name for the car yet, but at work, I am now often referred to as "Bugeye Bob." Got any suggestions for the car? Having a lot of fun in the sun. Look for future installments to complete the story:

Stage 3: Time for Looking Good
Stage 4: Return to Roots - Vintage Racing

If you liked Bob's article, why not e-mail him a note saying so!