Barn-find Austin-Healey is back on the road thanks to family and elbow grease
I was in High Point, North Carolina, visiting my brother at his office, and this car was sitting at a salvage yard nearby, up front, behind a fence. It caught my attention because it had numbers on the door—a race car—but I had no idea what it was. I took a picture of it and sent it to a couple of racing friends.
One of them was Don Miller, who was president of Penske Racing’s NASCAR division. He’s part of this friend group of mine—lots of people in the racing business—that has always tried to get me into a fun vintage car. “Nice Sprite,” he said. “That’d be a great car for you and your kids to restore. You should get it.” I mean, it had no engine. The transmission was hanging off to the side. The interior was shot. The car had been sitting out in the weather for who knows how long. But my interest was piqued, so I went back to the scrap yard.
The guy who owned the place said his father had recovered the Healey from a barn. I met with him about buying the car and was sneaking around quietly, not talking about it to my family—not yet anyway. I wondered if I could pull this off without getting killed by my wife. Eventually I sat down with her and said, “Honey, we need to talk, and it’s really serious. Just have an open mind.” I told her about the car and that my plan was to restore it with our three kids as a family project. Well, when it registered with her that she would have some time to herself, she was totally on board. The next day, I came to a deal with the guy at the yard to basically buy a carcass. Even now, I can’t believe I ever attempted to do this.
Through research, I discovered the Sprite was owned by a Piedmont Airlines pilot named Johnny Jones, but he never registered it for the street. He bought it and immediately converted it into a race car. He got his SCCA license in 1966 and then raced the car everywhere, almost nonstop, until about 1976. Like everybody else in racing, he had his real job, but his full-time job was racing. Over time, he befriended a lot of significant racing people who respected his track efforts—numerous regional wins and even second in the 1971 SCCA Runoffs, losing out only to his instructor, Randy Canfield.
Sprites are accessible and parts are available, so it was a great family project. My kids were young and I was ambitious. I was like, “You know what? If we focus on this, we can try to have it running in a year and a half, maybe two years tops.” And two years rolled into three and a half to get it running, plus three or four months working with the DMV to get a salvage title to make it street-legal. Four years went by, and the car was still in our garage. We were still pushing to get it done. It just took longer—life got in the way.
But in the process, the kids learned how to paint, how to sand, and even learned how to wire the car. They installed the motor and transmission. They loved this car and did a tremendous amount of the work on their own. None of them are as car-minded as I am, frankly, but we spent hours—hundreds of hours—together. Whether it was peaceful or me barking at them, we did it as a family.
And it’s been a great journey. We’ve learned a lot and met some amazing people across the country through this car. When you’re in a circle or genre of car, you discover all sorts of helpful people. As more folks found out what we were doing, they started reaching out and offering us parts. I told the guys at Moss Motors what I was doing and they said, “And your kids are helping? If your kids are helping, we want to help.” My kids ended up as mini celebrities in some of their national magazine ads.
We still didn’t have a drivetrain, but a British guy in Florida got in touch. He was in his 80s and had been restoring Sprites his whole life, and he said he had a shed full of engines and transmissions. We just happened to be in Florida the next week, so we rented a trailer and spent the day with him, then loaded up an old race engine and transmission. I’d never built a motor by myself, but I had good mentors to make sure I didn’t hack it up too much. We tore down the engine, machined it, refreshed everything, and put it back together.
The first time the kids cranked it up was during a hurricane and we had no electricity. But to take this car that had sat for 40 years that had nothing in it and to bring it back to life, knowing that my kids got to be part of the entire experience—I mean, they remember everything they worked on. Then to have noise coming out of the exhaust! What a moment for all of us.
We did some repainting on the inside to clean it up and take care of some rust, but I like patina, so the Sprite is exactly the way it was on the outside when I found it. And it runs great. We take it to the store, we run errands, I go on sales calls with it. Sometimes my daughter and I get in the Sprite late at night just to drive to nowhere. But we also drive it the way it was meant to be driven—hard. On the weekends, we take it to hill climbs or to a racetrack. We’ve towed it to Texas to the hill climb at the Groesbeck Grand Prix, and we competed at the Chasing the Dragon Hillclimb in North Carolina.
Johnny’s wife learned about all of this and gave us many of his old trophies and photos, his goggles, all kinds of stuff that documents the car’s racing history. So now we have a little museum for the Sprite, and we’re chronicling everything we do to add to its great history. This car is a big part of our family!