Austin Healey Sprite 1958 review
January 25, 2008
He was just 17 years old and was thrilled to discover the warehouse next to his workplace was owned by a fellow who was a car fan, a car collector, and someone who didn't have a problem with handing the keys over to a teenager.
“The guy had a whole heap of cars in his warehouse and one day he asked if I wanted to drive it,” he recalls. “It was so exhilarating and fun, just a good little sports car.”
And from that day on he was hooked and wanted to buy his own. Eight years ago, that finally became a reality for Holden.
“I had been looking for a long time to buy one and this one turned up two minutes down the road in a car yard,” he says.
After spotting it, Holden resisted the urge, but later went past to point it out to his wife.
“I drove past and my wife said, `Why don't you have a look?'. I said, `If I look, I won't be able to walk away', but ... my wife said, `Have a look and see what happens'.”
And when she encouraged him to sit in the car, Holden warned her: “There's no going back when I put my bum in it.”
“Ever since I was a young bloke I've been into cars, motorbikes, tractors, anything mechanical,” he says.
And while he couldn't quite afford “these sorts of toys” while he was starting a family, Holden says when the finances allowed it, he jumped at the chance and would now also like to buy another Bugeye, this time one to race.
“They actually made this as a nice sports car, but looked at it and said `no, we can't afford to do this' because they wanted an entry level sports car. So they took bits off other cars to make it cheaper, more economical,” he says.
The Bugeye has also been called the first unisex sports car to be introduced. Unlike its predecessors, it was built as a simple, yet stylish and affordable sports car, one that would not only attract males, but also tap into the other slowly emerging market of the time: women.
To keep the cost down, it drew on as many BMC components as it could. It features Morris Minor-derived steering and brakes, an Austin A35 engine and a four-speed gearbox. It was initially supposed to have pop-up headlights, but to keep the costs down, they instead stuck the headlamps right on top of the bonnet. A move that quickly earned it the nickname Bugeye.
And continuing with that unique character, the Sprite also doesn't have any door handles or a boot lid. The Bugeyes came into Australia as a completely knockdown kit (CKD) and were assembled here. Holden says while it's important to continually maintain a 50-year-old car, it is relatively cheap to look after, as he does most of the work himself. The 45-year-old tries to drive it at least every two or three weeks.
“If you can get one on a winding road or country road, it's beautiful fun to drive,” he says.
“Corners are really nice. Throw it into a corner in third gear, that's a lot of fun.”
Its handling ability and engine capacity is similar to the Mini with a 1.0-litre motor.
Holden has even done some motor racing in his Sprite and says although the top speed of 82mph (131km/h) may not sound that fast, it feels it in a car that's so close to the ground and weighs just 600kg. And the Bugeye has had a lot of tender love and care over the years, the previous owner pumping $15,000 into it.
“I believe it's the earliest Bugeye Sprite to be done up in Australia,” Holden says.
And while he came close to selling it last year, Holden says he talked a prospective owner out of buying it by rattling off all the “bad things” about owning car which is half a century old.
But while he was exaggerating the problems with old cars, such as drum brakes, no radio, having to tune the carburettors regularly, he talked himself into keeping it at the same time.
“Really, the car drives perfectly, the brakes are wonderful, I couldn't ... tell you anything I don't like about it,” he says.
Holden realised, it really wasn't the time just yet to say goodbye to his Bugeye.
“I said to my wife, I think we'll keep it.”
Today, Sprites in the same condition as Holden's sell for between $22,000 and $30,000.
But his won't be going anywhere anytime soon.
1958 AUSTIN HEALEY SPRITE
Value when new: about pound stg. 900 (`Bugeye')
Value now: about $25,000 to $30,000
Verdict: With its insect-like character, the Bugeye Sprite is a cool little sports car.