5 things I learned from owning a British car for a year

Kyle Smith

With every DIY project that I tackle or drive that I take in a classic, I try to learn something new. Even doing the same project a second time around can show a more efficient way to use a tool or a smarter way to approach a certain type of problem. If there was one vehicle in my recent history that taught me more than all the others, it was the 1969 Austin Healey Sprite I impulse bought last June. I figured it would be fun to take a look at the five biggest lessons I learned from owning a little British car for a year.

Maybe wait to order parts … and order only once a week

Austin Healey 1275 on workbench
Kyle Smith

The little blue roadster came to me as a project car. Even when I first started diving into what it needed I was already ordering parts—what an idiot. The cost of the parts wasn’t so bad. In fact, they were surprisingly cheap. I was keeping careful track of what I was ordering so I wouldn’t buy two of anything, but foolishly I was placing orders every couple days. The shipping added up. Fast.

I’ve given others advice to go ahead and order everything you think you will need for a project before you start, and I stand by that advice, but also be conscious of how many times you are clicking the  checkout button and paying for shipping. Grouping orders saves money. Now I only order parts on Wednesdays. If Friday comes around and I need something that I cant get locally, I wait until Wednesday to order. Often times I’ll find that I need one or two other items anyway.

Good enough is good enough

Austin Healey engine on floor
Kyle Smith

Part of what I enjoyed most about working on and driving this Healey was the fact that it was rough around the edges. Nothing on it was perfect, and with the number of Sprites and Midgets built, it really wasn’t worth investing the time and effort to make it “perfect”—or really any better than what it was. I’ve been known to “save” things that aren’t worth saving, much to the detriment of my bank account and sanity.

Instead I vowed to just do “good enough” on this car. Safety was, of course, a priority and an exception to that rule. That’s why it got all new brakes when one brake line popped due to corrosion. I don’t play around with stopping. However, when it came to the process of removing the engine to replace the clutch, I held myself to replace only what was absolutely necessary. That included restoration work. Could I have repainted the engine fairly easily while it was out? Yes. Was its condition good enough? Also yes. Therefore, I left it alone.

Driving can be more fun that working

Driving Healey gif
Kyle Smith

Ask the people I surround myself with and they’ll tell you that I spend a lot more time turning wrenches on my projects than taking them out and driving them. The problem-solving aspect of working on vintage machines is delightful for me, and I often find myself dreaming about solutions to restoration tasks more than dreaming about driving or riding. The Healey pushed me to change that.

It’s not that the car didn’t need work. It needed a lot of work. However, I told myself that if it was drivable, I would drive it. Regardless of weather, I reached for the Healey’s keys. Taking the car to run errands, a quick trip to the office, or just a sunset cruise became the new normal. It was probably the first car in years that I spent as much time driving as I did wrenching on. In the beginning I forced myself to take a drive as much as possible, but in no time it didn’t feel obligatory.

No top, no problem

All the points above cumulated in the goofiest fun factor of my time with this car. When it was dropped off in my driveway, the top frame and top fabric were laid down next to the car. I own two other old cars and both are coupes. Having spent only minutes in convertibles prior to purchasing the roadster, the novelty of topless driving was something I thought might fade with time or weather changes. That didn’t happen. If you were around Traverse City, Michigan, in February this year, you had a decent chance of seeing me motoring about with the heater blowing full blast and the top nowhere to be found. A warm knit hat was plenty, and the fresh air was addicting. Seriously.

I need another one

When it was all said and done, the car was fixed up and functioning, and suddenly it was an object taking up space in the garage. Opportunity cost began to weigh heavy on me as the little convertible kept me from moving the Model A coupe out of storage and into the garage to complete work that it so desperately needs. My fun was had, so it was time to send the little Sprite down the road. It was a stroke of luck that all it took to sell the car was a For Sale sign on the windshield at a cars and coffee event. A young car enthusiast struck up a conversation, and then he followed me home to make the Austin Healey his.

Before he’d even driven over the awkward speed bump at the end of my driveway, I knew this wouldn’t be the last little British car I own. This adventure was a fantastic first foray into the British car world and only served to whet my appetite for the fun factor a roadster can bring. I’m hooked, and I’ll need another fix at some point in the future.

Overall, the car was nothing but a good time. It taught me a few things about how certain mechanical systems can fail and be repaired, which is knowledge I can apply to other projects in the future. It was a purchase of opportunity and one that I haven’t regretted for a second. Any car would have taught me something, but this Austin Healey Sprite was one fun teacher.

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