Le Mans Sprite
Mighty Boy. By Paul Hunt
After watching tv shows like Classic Restos, Gasoline, Cruisin, Restoring Dreams, etc, I got the restoring bug. But what to restore. You really have to restore a car from the classic 1960’s After the staid 1950’s the 1960’s were exciting times. What with the music, styles and fashion. As Bob Dylan said “The times are a changing”
We had the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, mini skirts, the pill, beer came in cans, transistor radios, human heart transplants, man walked on the moon and the Sydney Opera House was being built. Anything was possible.
And the cars. Look at the classic cars from this era. The E type Jag, Mustangs, the Corvette Stingray, Cobras, the Monaro, GT Falcons, VW Beetles and Kombies were the ‘in’ car, the Cooper S and the Sprite.
I think it is a good idea to restore a car you had in this era. The reason being is at the time you had a choice and bought the car because you considered it to be the best for you. I hope it is not just reliving your youth. I had my love affair with cars during this decade. Before cars were merely just a form of transport. I had all the early Holdens, a Sprite and a GT Falcon. Restore an early Holden and all you get is an early Holden. Been there. Done that. The Falcons are getting expensive and I would not be seen dead in a replica. That leaves the Sprite. The Sprite was a fun car. Only small, easy to work on. There are not acres of heavy bodywork to straighten up and parts are still available. So it is decided. Restore a Sprite. However, I wanted to modernise it. A modern twin cam engine,5 speed gearbox, disc brakes all round, wider tyres and modern electrics. I have done my apprenticeship.
The purists will shun me but hey, it’s your car. Everyone is entitled to their own dreams. On joining the Sprite Club, you see how members are passionate on preserving the originality of the car. I can understand someone going along the concours path. If I restore another Sprite I will go the concours route. But I doubt I would have started that way.
OK. The first thing is to get a car. This probably took about 6 months. E bay is an eye opener for the novice. Like having the car all day, being the highest bidder, only to be snaked in the last 10 seconds. Or, being the highest bidder and the owner refuses to sell. Get a car that is as rough as possible. You are going to restore every part anyway. The reason you get a rough car is when you take a picture of the car, this will be the before shot. Then when the car is finished people will remark “wow, you restored the car from that”. The sparkling gem I purchased definitely fulfils the rough before shot requirement. I also purchased the motor I was going to use so there was no turning back.
Because I had other projects I wanted to finish first, the car was sitting there for say a year. Even though the car was sitting there, I was planning the different stages in my head so it was not a waste of time and I could anticipate problems I would have when I started. Nothing gets done my planning, But it saves a lot of headache, frustration and redoing work.
I moved the car to my work and made a carport to keep it out of the elements. My son said I would have used the spanners on my first Sprite. And you know he is right. In quiet periods I could work on the car. I stripped the car down to every nut and bolt. I did this with a 3/8 socket set and some spanners I had in my apprenticeship days.
I made a rotisserie for the car. I cannot see how you can restore a car without one. It is simply a matter of turning the car upside down to get at the underside for cleaning, cutting, welding, drilling. Fitting etc . On the rotisserie pivot, I drilled radial holes with a pin so the car could be positioned at various angles. This helped for better downhand welding and having the car at a convenient work height.
Once the car was stripped down, I put the Sprite motor and gearbox next to the 4 cylinder motor and gearbox to replace it. The size difference was astronomical. It was like putting the sun next to the earth. I did not think I was Going too overboard. There was the gallant A series next to the monstrosity which was going to replace it. I then put the new motor next to the engine bay and thought it will never fit. So I went away and came back later with a tape measure. Measured a few things and decided yes, that part will probably fit. But what about the rest. I went away again and came back with a tape. This went on for half of the day and I finally concluded it will probably fit. So I wheeled the motor away and started on restoring the body. There is work to do.
I used POR15 products to restore the car. This stuff is fantastic. As their advertising spiel says “POR15 covers metal with a tough ceramic like finish that will not crack, ship or peel. Protection is permanent” I worked in small areas at a time. For instance, the underside floor of the car. I used a gerni, degreaser, paint stripper, wire brush, grinder and sand paper to get back to bare metal. Any rust was cut out and new plates welded in. Using the POR15 process. The underside of the floor was painted and then I moved to another section. Once the entire car was treated with the POR15 inside and out and no likely hood of rust again, I started on the modifications. I need a break. My fingers are worn down to the bone. I close my eyes at night and see rusty metal ready to be sanded. I am going surfing and come back next week.
If you want to get the car registered, you have to go through an Engineering Signatory for the modifications. Get a copy of the RMS rules and abide by them. For instance, they are very strict on motor capacity/car weight, tyre width, ground clearance, etc. The RMS will not allow you to make your own say suspension parts but will allow you to use parts from another car. I can see their point as car companies spend millions on R,D. Whereas, a car builder might try to save weight using say untested aluminium control arms.
I tried to do one item at a time and finish it. It is tempting to move to another stage when delays crop up. The trouble is then you get another delay and end up with all these unfinished jobs. It may take longer and most of the time is spent finding and sourcing parts and waiting for their arrival. For instance, it took one month to get the tacho recalibrated to 10000 rpm. The IRS took one year to perfect.
The car took me 5 years to complete. So what. The pursuit of excellence goes at its own pace. It is a great feeling of satisfaction when the car is finally registered and rolling down the road. This is something you made.
The acceleration of the car is fantastic and has a glorious exhaust note. The car vibrates, does not like bumps, is hard to get in and out of, scares the shit out of me but I love the car.
FOUR SEASONS – A Bugeye resurrected. By Ross Reichardt
“Damaged” the ad said. Damaged! He wasn’t kidding! The ad appeared one Saturday morning in 1990 and I decided to have a look. Of course by then I had owned 2 Sprites (Mk3 and Mk4) and a Triumph GT6. I had completely restored the Mk4 Sprite and it had won its class in the concours, so I thought ‘how hard can it be?’ I had a look at the Bugeye for sale and wasn’t put off at all – although in hindsight, I should have been!
How hard can it be?? The car was a wreck! To start with, someone else had completely dismantled it with- out any thought to reassembly. None of it had been catalogued or labelled. Not only had the car been dismantled but all the assemblies had also been dismantled and the parts simply put in a box. Well, lots of boxes actually!
Then there was the rust. It was in the sills, in the floors, in the door pillars, rear of the rear guards, pretty well everywhere a Bugeye can rust this one had. Badly! Added to that, the transmission tunnel had been cut out so there was a lovely big hole there instead. Apparently it had been cut out to allow a Ford Consul motor to be fitted at some stage! As least that’s what I was told by the previous owner. The bonnet and rear of the car had been chopped up and heavily reworked so it didn’t even really look much like a Bugeye anymore. I really should have turned my back on it but instead just felt sorry for it. After all, how hard could it really be? So, I bought it and started an adventure that would last 18 years.
Autumn –a period of maturity passing into decline.
Apparently it’s normal for restoration projects to start with a flurry and then just dwindle away. That makes mine pretty normal as the start wasn’t too bad. A MIG welding machine was purchased using the theory that the cost savings of being able to do a lot of the structural repairs myself would pay for the machine. I hadn’t used a MIG before although the two previous Sprites had taught me how to gas weld. So I figured learning to use a MIG couldn’t be too hard either. It turned out to be a good decision as I’m sure the MIG has more than paid for itself.
Along with the MIG machine I bought replacement panels for both outer sills, left hand inner sill, floor and door pillars.
One of the first jobs was to fit the replacement tunnel which came with the car. As I said, the car was pur- chased without a transmission tunnel as the old one had been cut out with an oxy torch. The remaining hole was not cleaned up at all so all the edges were still a rough oxy cut. I had to clean up the edges and then work out how to fit the tunnel. Overall, the tunnel replacement went well. It more or less fitted straight in and everything lined up very nicely!
Armed with the success of refitting the tunnel, a pile of fresh metal and a few bags of enthusiasm, I got going with replacing the floors, sills and door pillars. The car was sitting on 2 hefty timber beams as I cut out and replaced the structural elements – one at a time so as not to distort the structure. It was in this phase that a lack of experience showed up. During the replacement of the transmission tunnel, I had made up a new centre section of the cross member which runs across the car just in front of the seats as it had been cut out when the tunnel was removed. The problem was, when it was time to replace the floors I discovered that the outer ends of the cross member were rotten so I had to remove the entire cross member – including the new centre piece I had made. Then, I discovered that as I had already re- placed the two sills, getting the new cross member in place was quite a trick!
As everyone who has done it will know, replacing the floor and sills is major surgery and takes quite a while to do. Actually, it felt like it would never end! It’s too long ago to remember now but that phase probably took many months to complete. Eventually though I had a good, solid and straight structure again. So far, so good.
Somewhere in those early years, a friend mentioned he had seen the rear of a Bugeye advertised for sale. Remember mine had been rather badly chopped around, so I needed the rear skin to put it back to standard. It was in central Victoria and my Mum and Dad were on holiday in Melbourne. So a few quick phone calls, to measure the back of a bugeye and the boot of their car, had them travelling home a different route and with some rather sad (but usable) old English steelwork for company! They probably thought it was rubbish but it was just what I need to put the rear of the car right. I originally planned to fit this replacement piece to the car myself.
After getting the basic structure good again, both door pillars were repaired as they were rusty too. It was about this time the project started to run out of steam. The original idea was to install a Datsun 1200 motor and gearbox into the Sprite and I even had some meetings with an automotive engineer about what needed to be done. During this time I was measuring and planning that conversion and also planning to fit the replacement rear panel work which was large job on its own.
Winter –a period of decline, decay, inactivity.
Bit by bit the enormity of the whole project started to weigh me down. Between that and being involved with the normal activities of a young family, I just stopped work… for several years. I guess that was the project’s winter when everything seemed to go into hibernation – even the car (wreck) as it was stored under an old curtain out of sight!
The whole project very nearly came to a premature end as I tried to sell it. Luckily there was no one else who was willing to take it on! So, I battled on. Well, for a few years I told people that I was soldiering on but in reality, I wasn’t. The project just ground to a halt as life and other interests took priority and the Bugeye was repeatedly put to the bottom of the list of things to do.
This phase was definitely the project winter. The sun got dim and the life of the project just seemed to go underground.
I guess it must have been about year 10 or 12 that I made some good decisions. Firstly, I would get someone to complete the exterior panel work and paint the car. Secondly, I would fit the Bugeye and not the Datsun engine and gearbox. Both decisions were really influenced by the size of the whole project. I had originally thought I could repair the damaged rear of the shell and also repaint it. If I had stuck to that plan, I would be still working on it! All the structural work had taught me that what looks to be a couple of weekends work will actually take 12 months or more to complete. So, I needed professional help to complete the body work.
The decision about the engine was just as expedient. It seemed so much easier to rebuild the Sprite engine and gearbox and slot them in, than it would be to engineer a completely different engine conversion. I liked the idea of keeping the car more or less original too. So, with those 2 decisions made, there was only one more major decision standing between the horrid thing in the garage and a nice, cute Bugeye to go driving in.
Spring – the season when winter hibernation finishes and things start to grow again.
After deciding how to proceed with the bodywork and engine there was one more major decision needed to get the project moving again. A simple decision. The decision was just simply to put it up the list and get on with it!
With the body shell now at a panel shop, work on it was proceeding and I would not get it back until it was complete and painted. That gave me the time to think about the engine. Normally, that wouldn’t be hard. Get it cleaned and machined. Buy the new bits and assemble it. Easy, right? I actually got 2 engines with the car and both were completely disassembled and thrown into boxes. None of it was sorted or stored properly and who knows what bits belonged to each engine. It was going to be a pretty decent job to sort it out and turn the pile of rubbish into one running engine. And there was so much else to be done. What to do? Enter my Dad who is a retired engineer and also likes cars. The conversation was short… “Dad, would you build the Sprite engine for me?” “yes, sure”. That was it. A short conversation and I had found an engine builder! What a relief it was to just know that both bodywork and now engine were proceeding without my direct involvement. Now we were getting somewhere.
That left me to get on with the remaining parts. I broke it up into subassemblies and tried to work on one at a time but in reality often had several different jobs on the go at once! The rear axle was rebuilt without too much trouble but then there was the gearbox. Just like the engine(s) the gearbox had been completely disassembled and thrown into a box. I was lucky enough to buy 4 gearboxes for pittance so that made 5. I spent several weeks in the middle of one winter disassembling all the gearboxes, washing the parts and laying them out, 5 at a time, in front of the heater to dry. It’s at times like these you need a family with a sense of humour. What’s that drying in front of the heater? Shirts? Nope. Socks? Nup. Gears! After a few weeks of that, I had a gearbox. Then the engine came back from my Dad and in September 2007 the body came back from the panel shop looking just beautiful!
It’s amazing just how much space one little car can take up when it is dismantled and now I had all the subassemblies taking up space in the garage alongside the body. I had no garage space left so I just HAD to put it together. Enter a couple more helpers. I had great help from both a long time friend, Charlie and also my nephew Matthew. Both of them, along with Dad of course, spent many hours helping to put the car back together and without the 3 of them the job would have been much more difficult.
Anyone who has rebuilt a car knows the seemingly endless list of jobs that need to be done and mine was no different. Every time I finished something there was something else to do, but the one thing I kept looking forward to, was starting the engine for the first time. Finally, we were ready and on 22nd Feb 2009 it started up and ran again for the first time in how long? 20 years? 30? However long it had been, it was wonderful to have it going again!
But we were still were not done! The engine had a rather nasty oil leak from the rear and I had lots of those finishing jobs to do. I had a sneaky feeling that the rear oil gallery plug had not been put in and that might just explain that large oil leak coming from the rear of the engine. So out it came again to install the plug which did help with the leak.
Then the finishing jobs. Tidy up the interior. Test all the electrics. Fit all the bodywork trim. Fit the windscreen. Many more as well but finally we were done and it was almost project summer.
Summer – period of finest development, perfection, beauty.
On 1st May, 2009 it was registered. I didn’t say completed because it will never really be complete. There will always be things to improve and / or repair. Thank you to my wife, Deb and two sons Pete and Tom for their great support! They patiently listened to me forever chatting about ‘the car’ but after all the time and effort, we can now go Spriting together.
I’m sure that in previous years far better Bugeyes were scrapped but this one has made it through and after a project time of 18 years and probably closer to thirty years off the road, another one runs again. What a pleasure!