John F

Bug Eye -- Blast from the Past

I bought my first Austin-Healey "Bug-Eye" Sprite with my newspaper carrier earning in Tulsa, OK when I was a junior in high school back in 1964. It was a red 1959 non-running project that my Dad and I pulled home with a rope. Paid $500, if memory serves. We spent the summer getting it running and I drove it through the high school years and on to my under grad years at Oklahoma State University in Stillwater. Sometime during those years it got a BRG paint job and acquired a rollbar.

I would drive it back to Tulsa on Fridays, pull the engine and put in a racing cam, a lower rear gear, take off the muffler and windshield and run it in local gymkhanas on Saturday. Then on Sunday reverse the process and motor back to Stillwater.

Through the years after the Bug-Eye experience I had a number of sporty cars, including a Bug-Eye Sprite when I was a newspaper editor on the Big Island in Hawaii (where it rained 170" a year, an experience with a Sprite).

Eventually I found myself in Woodland, CA. (near Sacramento) and the owner of a very nice Fiat 124 Spyder that, unfortunately, was totaled by a red-light runner. I got it back on the road with a title that noted this unfortunate incident.

One day I had to travel to another Northern California town for a dental appointment and arranged to spend the night at a friend's house. That evening we went over to his neighbor's for a few brews and conversation. Of course we talked sports, women and then cars. I mentioned that I still missed my first car --- the red Bug-Eye Sprite -- and the neighbor exclaimed, "Hey, I have one of those damn things in my storage unit. Belongs to my brother-in-law and I need him to get it out of there. I need the space."

I, of course, was interested in seeing this "damn thing," so the next day we met at the storage unit and when he opened the door there sat a very nice red Bug-Eye on flat tires. It seemed that the owner, a retired colonel in the Air Force, and only driven it on the AF base in Texas. When he retired and moved to northern California his wife, the neighbor's sister, refused to let me drive it lest he be smashed by a logging truck. So he parked it, turned off the key and let it sit there for six years without draining anything or even starting it once-in-awhile.

The body was straight, the paint wasn't bad, the interior was good and the top and side windows were brand new. It was love at first sight, and truly a Blast from the Past.

So, I got the owners phone number and called him to see what his story was. He told me his wife was "really on his @ss" to get it out of her brother's storage unit and asked if I was interested in buying it. In the meantime I had gotten on the internet to check out what 1960 Sprite's were going for and learned that ones in even fair shape were fetching $10,000 - $15,000 and Bug-Eyes in good shape were going way up from there.

I told him I was certainly interested, but that I had one "car toy" (as my wife called it) and knew there wouldn't be another one. He asked how much the Fiat was worth and my reply was "who the heck wants to buy a Fiat?"

We traded phone calls for a month or so and finally he called and said that since I was a newspaper publisher I should put an ad in the paper and see what I could get for the Fiat. Shrugging, I told I would, but for him not to hold his breath. To my surprise I got a bite and finally a firm offer. I called the Sprite guy back, knowing that what I could get for the Fiat was no where near what he could get for the Sprite.

"Well, I got a firm offer," I said. "I can't give you anymore than what I can get for the Fiat."

"OK, what can you get for the Fiat," he replied.

"Uh, well, two grand." I said. Then there was this silence. Finally, "Oh, hell, come and get it."

Two days later I owned a red 1960 Bug-Eye Sprite. I had it trailered to a mechanic I knew in town there who got everything drained and the gas tank sealed. Put an electric fuel pump on and inflated the tires. Drove it back to my home and after fiddling with this and that for six months had a really nice Bug-Eye Sprite to drive around getting grins and waves from just about everyone I saw.

I ended up having less than $4,000 in the little car. Over the next 10 years I put a new red paint job on it and did some minor repairs such as brakes (it did have the disc brakes on the front). Nothing major and the little car ran like a champ. My grandkids labeled it "Granpa's Zoom-Zoom Car."

When I retired and moved to Oklahoma, I had it moved inside a car transporter and paid about as much to get it moved as I did when I bought it. But, hey, I had a red Bug-Eye with less than 10 grand invested.

Eventually I lost the clutch and had to pull the engine and put in a new clutch. I did this myself and had to borrow an engine hoist. The whole process took a couple of months and when it was done and the Sprite was back on the road it was not as much fun to drive. I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop and be faced with some major repair on a vehicle that was now more than a half-century old.

So, I bit the bullet. Put the car up on a couple of sports car sale websites and got an offer from a dealer who had a 1999 Mazda Miata. He had a client who was looking for a Bug-Eye to restore and thought mine would fill the bill. He trailered the Miata over to my place and when I saw it I was blown away. It was the 10th Anniversary Edition with all the bells and whistles --- 6 speed, chrome wheels, special sapphire blue mica paint, a/c, Bose stereo and on and on. We sat down and pretty soon he had loaded my Sprite up on the trailer and I waved to him as he drove away. I waved with a very nice check in my hand.

The end of this story is that a couple of weeks later I called the dealer and asked if he had made the deal with his client on the Sprite. He said he had, but that the guy had driven it off the lot and it had thrown a rod before he reached his home. He wasn't too upset and agreed to go through with the purchase if the dealer would pay for the parts.

I now drive down the highway in my pretty blue Miata with the top down, the Bose CD playing, the A/C blasting and a big grin on my face.

Oh, yea -- my three grandkids of named this one "Granpa's Zoom-Zoom too!"

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