Bob Dehare's 1959 Austin Healey Sprite
Love at First Sight
The first time ever I saw a Sprite I fell in love. It was all red, sitting in a showroom at a dealership in Lake Charles, Louisiana. I was in the Air Force stationed at nearby Chennault Air Force Base. The year was 1960. I still have the advertising picture the salesman gave me. I told my buddy from Tellico Planes, Tennessee that I would “one day own one.”
For the next 15 or 16 years life moved along quite fast, with a couple of bumps in the road. I had raced motorcycles, outboard flat bottom utility boats, 3 point hydro’s and a 1968 Sprite.
Years later while living in Minnesota, selling land and racing snowmobiles, I announced to my wife I was hanging up my helmet. I would sell or trade a new “sled” that my racing sponsor had just given me, for a little sports car I had always wanted. The year was 1975.
I still have the wanted ad I sent to 10 large newspapers within 150 miles of our home in Garrison, Minnesota. I also saved the reply letter that arrived one month later. The writer said his Austin Healey Sprite was a 1959 and that I had been in storage for the last 8 years. The car had a racing windscreen, aircraft safety belts, and a roll bar. He had raced it from 1961 to 1964 in Sports Car Club of America events in 9 states, mostly at Brainerd International Raceway when it was called Donnybrook Raceway. The color was white, sporting the number 21 on four sides.
Within 10 minutes of receiving the seller’s letter I had made arrangements to see the car the next day. After asking a hundred questions, the owner was pretty sure he had his 59 Sprite sold. What he didn’t know, he would trade it for a snowmobile, and would do so before his wife came home from work.
I had finally checked off another item from my bucket list. I soon painted the car red, installed the factory windshield, head lights, turn signals, then a fresh full race 948cc engine by “Baker Engineering” out of Spring Lake, Michigan. Zoom. Zoom.
Over the years, I entered several auto cross solo competition events and even beat some of the best Corvettes from across the country. I didn’t have their top end, but I could corner through the slaloms without knocking down the traffic cones. Each cone subtracted one second off your time. If you add some well-developed performance bits to the little Sprite it becomes a snarling alley cat.
I had the engine out 5 or 6 times over the years because of transmission and clutch problems. The engine is still strong. I just recently had the large Jaguar carburetors rebuilt, electronic ignition installed, new rear spring assemblies, brakes, generator, and regulator. I did learn a neat trick or two along the way. Tie the drive shaft to the back of transmission with rope and feed it into the tunnel. After the transmission and engine is attached to the frame, cut the rope and attach the drive shaft to the differential. Beats trying to feed the drive shaft into the back of the transmission from under the car. But, the front engine motor mounts still drive me crazy. They don’t want to line up.
I’ve owned my little red “Bugeye” Austin Healey Sprite for 39 of its 55 years, it has given my wife and I much enjoyment. The throaty sound of the exhaust through the headers and out the pipe bring a smile to all around.
I never tire of the question “Hey, mister, what kind of car is that?”
Back in 1960 it was love at first sight, the same as now when I take it out of storage each spring and run her to red lines in all four. Something I look forward to all winter long, while living in Grand Haven, Michigan.
Getting in and out isn’t as easy as it used to be, but when I have the steering wheel in one hand and the shifter in the other, wearing my aviator glasses, I’m like that kid again with a love come true.