Bought for looks: 1959 Austin-Healey
In May of 1996, while attending an imported car show in Pennsylvania, Don Smith spotted for sale a 1959 Austin-Healey Bugeye Sprite, which at 37 years of age, was about Smith’s own age at the time.
The original 43-horsepower engine had been replaced by a more powerful unit. The 11.5-foot-long sports car appeared to be complete but Smith wanted to give additional thought to the possibility of purchasing the car.
A few days later he contacted the owner of the car who had returned with the car to his home in New York. Smith purchased the car and the seller agreed to deliver it to Smith’s home in Fredericksburg, Va.
Once the Bugeye Sprite arrived, an elated Smith shoehorned his 6-foot, 2-inch frame into the diminutive car, fired up the four-cylinder engine, and drove his car 150 feet up the driveway before the engine died.
A disappointed Smith pushed his 1,328-pound car into the garage — where it remained for a few months while Smith searched the parts he would need for a restoration.
At first, his plan for the Austin-Healey was to give it a kiss and a promise. As he learned more about the 1959 model, he says he realized “It had a lot of potential.” Thereafter, things got out of hand and a serious restoration began.
Original documents with the left-hand-drive car led Smith to believe his car may have been manufactured with the United States in mind. Yet the Austin-Healey was shipped to its first owner in Iceland.
Smith says he is at least the fourth owner. When the car was shipped to Virginia from New York, the trailer also brought the original 948cc A-series overhead valve engine, as well as a pair of Skinners Union carburetors.
Because it was a New York car, Smith expected there would be rust to deal with: He ultimately replaced the floor pan, and patched healthy steel into other rusted places where necessary.
The Bugeye Sprite is only 4 feet, 5 inches wide and a hair taller than 3 feet, 8 inches high with the top down. Raising the top brings the height up to 4 feet, 1.5 inches. The 13-inch tires support the car on an 80-inch wheelbase. Ground clearance is a mere 5 inches.
The nimble Austin-Healey can turn to the left in a 32-foot, 1.5-inch circle. However, the same maneuver to the right takes just 31 feet, 2.5 inches. A Morris Minor-type steering rack directs the handling characteristics.
After discovering his car had been repainted an incorrect shade of white, Smith stripped the paint and reapplied the original Old English White.
Smith also installed a new black top with a clear plastic rear window, as well as new side curtains. He found a new windshield only after he had purchased a package deal in England consisting of 14 windshields.
The 1959 Bugeye Sprite is equipped with a heater, windshield washer, two wipers, tachometer, tonneau cover, and transistor AM radio.
A shift lever sprouts from the floor between the red bucket seats. It controls the four-speed manual transmission; second, third, and fourth gears are synchronized.
Stopping chores are handled by the 7-inch drum brakes. The crankcase has a capacity just shy of 7 imperial pints. Everything electrical on the car is 12 volts. Fueling the car is accomplished quickly since the tank has a capacity of just 6 imperial gallons.
Storage space behind the bucket seats is limited and access is challenging. “Still,” Smith observes, “It’s a neat little car to have. It doesn’t take up much space.”
Restoration of the Austin-Healey was completed in 2000 and since then Smith has driven it about 3,500 miles, though the majority of the time his Bugeye Sprite lounges in the garage.
“I kind of like to look at it,” he says. Not unlike an artist who steps back to admire his work.
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