Bill Hepburn's 1962 Austin Healey Sprite MK II & 1968 Austin Healey Sprite MK IV
On a Saturday morning in the spring of 1968, I was shooting hops in the back yard at our home in Glendale, California. I was 14 years old. My dad had gone out with my older brother, Bob, to look at a car that Bob was interested in buying.
As I took a shot, I heard an engine noise, like nothing I’d ever heard before, coming up the street. It sounded like a sewing machine, quite but exciting. I walked to the front driveway to check out the noise, when all of a sudden Bob drove into the driveway in a little yellow convertible, with a big smile on his face.
I was totally amazed; I’d never seen a car like that before. After he revved the engine for a minute or so, he shut it off. When I asked him what it was, he said it was a 1962 Austin-Healey, and the model was called a Sprite. Bob said they came from England. It was a British car!
That was the first time I’d ever laid eyes on anything as beautiful as this Sprite. After Dad drove up in the family Buick, Mom and my younger brother, Jim, came to check out Bob’s “almost-new” Sprite. Mom grabbed the Brownie camera and took a photo of me and Jim with Bob behind the wheel. I still have that photo in my Sprite album, 45 years later.
I fell in love with Bob’s Sprite and was convinced that when I was 17, a Sprite was going to be my first car. For the next three years, I got my hands on every Sprite workshop manual and studied every mechanical aspect of them, down to the last nut and bolt. I spend a lot of time at my local BMC dealer, talking and watching the mechanics working on Sprites. I was time well spent, since today I do all the upkeep and mechanical work on my two Sprites. But I’m getting ahead of my story.
I was 17 in 1968, driving age in California, and had saved a thousand dollars over the past three years to buy my own Sprite. But first I had to find one.
Unfortunately, by that time, there were fewer and fewer Sprites of all models on the roads. In the summer I finally found one for sale in our local newspaper. She was a 1965 MkIII Sprite, in Old English White with 14,000 miles on her.
After calling and talking to the owner, who was asking $925, I said I’d be right over with the cash. As Dad drive me to check out the Sprite, he said, “You sure are excited, but don’t let the owner know. Maybe offer less.”
But as we drove into the owner’s driveway, there she was! She was beautiful and shiny, and in top condition, and was only three years old. After a short drive, I was sure, but I actually fell in love with her when I first saw her. I paid the $925 and drove my new Sprite home.
Over the next six years, I drove my Sprite daily, and took wonderful road trips. My most memorable trip was driving through southern, central and northern California and Oregon, ending up in Portland to visit my brother in college and show off my new Sprite before heading back home to Glendale. What a great trip and a wonderful memory, traveling in my own Sprite.
In 1974, several months after my trip, I went down to my carport where I had parked my Sprite. Much to my surprise, it was gone! It had been stolen right out from underneath me. I was heart-broken. It felt like losing an old friend. I had become so attached to that Sprite. It was found a month later, in a vacant lot in central Los Angeles, but it had to be stripped to the bone. No engine, no transmission, no gauges; everything was gone!
After missing my Sprite for a year, I decided to try to replace it, but that was not going to be an easy task. Almost a year later, I found a 1968 MkIV. It was a midnight blue beauty, with only one owner, who had really taken care of her. He was asking $1,500, so I sold my drum set and Honda motorcycle and bought her.
I enjoyed that MkIV for about five years, taking a beautiful trip one summer through Lone Pine, Bishop, Mammoth Lakes and Yosemite. One thing I noticed was that either my Sprite was getting smaller, or I was getting larger. I guess it was me; I couldn't jump in and out of the car as fast as I used to.
She was a great Sprite, but I still missed my MkIII. I guess you never forget your first time. I still hoped I’d find and Old English White Sprite again someday.
Shortly after that road trip, I realized I wanted to settle down. I got married, had a great career going, and decided to raise a family. So of course the Sprite had to go to make room for a family car. It was a tough decision, but I needed the money from the Sprite to buy a bigger car. Nevertheless, I knew that someday I’d own a Sprite again.
In 1985, I was transferred to northern California. There I bought a home for my family and continued my career. I began looking into British car clubs to find a connection for a Sprite for sale. There were few for sale, and one did become available, it would be snapped up fast. I continued my search for over 10 years in the local area. By 1995, it was very uncommon to even see a Sprite on the road. I began looking out of state, hopeful that I would own a Sprite again someday without having to see my family car to get it.
The years went by, and in 2003 I became ill. I gave up the hope of ever finding a Sprite. However, after I recovered, I started my quest again, this time in the earnest using the internet.
In 2006, my search was over; I found my Sprite. It was a 1968 MkIV, British-racing-green beauty, up for auction in Newport Beach. After a week of bidding, I had won. She had been only one bid away from being loaded in a cargo ship back to Europe. I was so excited I flew down to Newport Beach to check her out, finalized the sale and set up shipping back to northern California. She wasn't my 1965 Old English White dream, but I was thrilled just to have a Sprite again. I call her “P.J” for “Pride and Joy.”
After about six months of restoring P.J., enjoying drives in the country, and showing her off to friends, I began another Sprite search. This time it has to be an Old English White, as near as possible to the year of the one I had bought when I was 17.
I searched the internet daily for four months, and finally found a MkII in OE White just as it had all started over forty years ago. She had been a show car since new, winning first places in numerous shows, and had only 16,000 miles on her. She was a rare find indeed. She was over 3,000 miles away, and it took a week for her to arrive. After the long journey, it was a wonderful sight to see her coming off the shipping transport in my driveway. I immediately named her “Lily.”
Today to my other British-car friends, P.J. and Lily are known as “my twins.” They are a big hit and topic of conversation at shows and with other Sprite enthusiasts here in northern California. My “twins” will be a big part of the rest of my life, and I plan to pass them on to my son, Jeff, to enjoy and take care of after I’m gone.
Interesting, if you think about it, my first car and my last car, separated by 40 years, and both Sprites. And the second time around, I kept my family car.