Jim's Bugeye Sprite Ramblings

Thursday, August 25, 2005

My first car - a 1960 Bugeye Sprite

This is the story of my 1960 Austin Healey Sprite, number AN5L26002, which I owned for some 26 years or so.

In 1968 I was in my Senior (4th) year as a student at Kansas State majoring in Nuclear Engineering. I lived in the dorm, and didn’t really have a lot of spending money. For my first three years of college, I did not own my own car. This was in the real car “era” too – the 1960’s. I was pretty car crazy, and not having my own car was a drag. I did have sort of a motorcycle, a very small one that I buzzed around on, but no car. During my sophomore year, my Grandpa Kehler and my uncle Dan had taken pity on me, and loaned me a 50’s era Rambler (a “bathtub”); however, I don’t remember ever actually driving it, and I think it just sat on the street for a few months until it went back to the farm.

So, in the spring of my Senior year at school, when a young man’s fancy turns to roadsters, I was reading through the K-State Collegian want ads, and spied this ad, which I have kept all of these years. I called and made an appointment to see the car at the repair shop, and drove over there with my roommate, Dale Goheen, who was someone with actual mechanic skills.

The Sprite was sitting outside, but looked nice with good paint, good chrome, dent free, etc.; however, the engine was disassembled and in boxes inside the car. The interior of the car was sort of worn, but not ratty, and my expectations weren’t particularly high anyway. The owner was a fellow named Giancarlo Brunetti Duri, a handsome, cool, foreign guy who I always thought was from Italy, but may have been from South America, now that I think back on it. He had bought the Bugeye from a doctor in North Carolina who was the first owner – remember this was only early 1969, so the car was just over eight years old. Giancarlo called the Sprite “Topo Gigio,” or little mouse (ref: Ed Sullivan). At some point while the Bugeye was owned by the North Carolina doctor, it had been rear-ended pretty severely, but the boot had been repaired fairly well – not perfectly, but again I was a kid, and the car was cheap.

We went back to Giancarlo’s apartment to retrieve the title and pay the $250.00 cash, and his place was very cool, because he didn’t have conventional furniture. His mattress was on the floor, and I seem to remember that we all sat around on pillows – that was impressive. I’m sure he was popular with the babes.

Somehow, I had it in my mind that since I had earned a thousand dollars or so the previous summer, it would be ok for me to spend some money to acquire this car without telling my parents; however, when I broke the news on my next visit home, which was probably at Easter, they really didn’t seem to have any problem with it, almost like they considered it a natural evolution for a college kid.

The Sprite was red with a black top, and had about four or five vinyl “hippie flowers” stuck on it, which I kept on the car until they finally dried up and fell off.

I’m not sure what was actually wrong with the engine that had caused the PO to have a shop tear it down. Maybe it was in for a burned valve or something, and they told him it needed an expensive rebuild. And I don’t remember that we ever did any in-depth examination of the engine – just assumed that it needed an overhaul, and started in on it. In a fit of enthusiasm, I did pop for new flat-topped pistons and rings for the 948cc engine at $65.00 for the set of four, so I had the block bored at a local machine shop there in Manhattan (that’s Kansas, not NY). I guess I also had the valves reground by the shop as well. I remember hand-lapping them in.

I assembled the Sprite engine in my dorm room with Dale’s occasional help. This took several days that would have been better spent studying.

In order to degrease and strip the painted engine parts, I used the laundry sink on our dorm floor filled to about 3 or 4 inches with hot water with a few cans of LYE dissolved in the water. This caustic bath worked pretty good actually, but you can imagine the ring around the sink! Not to worry, I scrubbed it out.

We assembled the engine with new bearings (did I even plasti-gauge it?), new gaskets, etc., and used STP as assembly lube. I remember the STP being very messy and sticking to everything. I think I painted the engine orange at that time. Finally, it was reassembled, and was sneaked out of the dorm on a wardrobe dolly by four of us, then rolled through the parking lot and across the street to where the Sprite was parked in a gravel-surface lot.

We removed the bonnet, then used a length of chain and a long piece of 2x6 lumber spanning across the car to pick the engine up and install it. If I remember correctly, there was some difficulty getting the front motor mounts to line up right, but we eventually overcame. Hooked up wiring, throttle, exhaust, filled with fluids, etc., and I seem to remember that the engine fired off and ran without any real problem.

However, let’s not get ahead of ourselves - things were not to go smoothly.

We went to fill the radiator with antifreeze and water, but couldn’t find the drain cock, so could not fill it without making a side trip to Western Auto. Not a problem says I, “We’ll just whittle a wood plug, drive it into the drain hole, and replace it later after we’ve taken a test drive” – reasonable, right? You guessed it – while my “friends” were taking their turn at the wheel (they were gone for too long), the plug fell out, draining all the water out. When they returned to the parking lot the engine was WAY HOT. They didn’t notice the temp gauge, of course. These are the culprits - Gary (left) and Dale (right)

In my naïveté I thought the overheating must have caused internal problems, so at the minimum I should replace the bearings. Problem was, the end of the semester was upon us, and I had to return home. Looking back, I doubt that the engine had suffered any real damage, and I should have just refilled the radiator and driven the car away happily.

When my Dad showed up at school to help me haul my belongs to my Grandpa Lentz’s house in Whiting, Ks, to store them for the summer, I told him about the fiasco, and that we were going to have to tow the Sprite to Whiting in order for me to have a place to work on it. “Sure,” he said, “we can do that.” So we set out for the 80-mile drive with Dad in the ’62 Ford Sunliner convertible and me in the Bugeye, being towed behind by a 15-foot length of chain! Up hill and down through the Kansas countryside at 60 miles an hour! Stops and starts, trying to keep the chain taut, so Dad wouldn’t tear something loose. God was with us, because we made it in good shape, but I wouldn’t do the same thing today with my son or anyone else’s for that matter!

I either had the required bearings and gaskets with me, or may have ordered them through a store in one of the neighboring towns. Anyway, we pulled the engine – I think the two of us used the chain and 2x6 technique again. In tearing the engine down, there was no great amount of damage to the bearings – just a little wear, so I could actually have driven the car without a problem. During the teardown, I got the bright idea that I should also replace the cam bearing (only one in a Mk I Sprite block), so knocked it out, and knocked in the new one, Imagine my surprise when the cam wouldn’t go back in – you have to have a new cam bearing REAMED for proper clearance! Dad and I clearanced that new cam bearing manually – by a couple of hours worth of hand sanding it with fine sandpaper, until the cam would slip in. Ugh.

While reassembling the engine under Grandpa’s weeping willow tree, I was regularly harassed by an oriole or blackbird that had a nest in the tree. It kept up a constant racket and dive-bombed me whenever I went to the house. Finally, in desperation, I solved the problem with a well-placed shot from Grandpa’s .410 shotgun. Sorry about that, but it was him or me!

The engine was assembled and reinstalled. At that point, Dad had to leave to go on home to Baton Rouge, so he left me in Whiting to finish up and follow. “Ok, I can finish it,” says I, “I’ll be down in a few days.”

I had already made the trip from Kansas to Baton Rouge the previous summer on my 125cc motorsickle (3 days and 900 miles), so wasn’t worried about the drive. I finished the car and started it for a test drive. It was a little slow to start but sounded ok, so I took it out for a quick drive around Whiting. Didn’t really seem to have much power, though, but then I had just barely driven it the first time in Manhattan. While making a u-turn on the highway to return to town, I had to sort of get part way in the ditch, and couldn’t get out! I had to drive about 30 feet in the ditch to build up speed to climb back out in second gear – what the heck? Drove home, checked timing marks, re-gapped the points, re-synchronized and tuned the SU carbs, etc., but nothing seemed to help. Finally, after a long and increasingly desperate afternoon, I was checking the distributor again, and realized that the rotor turned in the opposite direction from what I had assumed, and I had the firing order for the spark plugs backward! Well, it made quite a difference in power to have the engine running on four cylinders instead of two, and have them firing at the right times! Next morning, off to Baton Rouge, breaking in the engine on the road. I don’t remember a lot about that first trip, except that I probably drove 60 to 65 most of the way, and made it home in good shape.

I used to drive some of those long trips in the Sprite with my transistor radio wired to the top bow and hanging just to the right rear of my head, so I could hear the music over the engine and road noise! Other times I just drove without radio, music, or anything other than engine and road noise. Modern college kids would be aghast.

While I was in Kansas I drove a lot on gravel and dirt roads, both dry and wet, and this essentially packed every nook and cranny in the chassis and body work with dirt, and kept it moist a lot of the time, unbeknownst to me. This is NOT GOOD for a Sprite. I can still remember the sound of gravel (stones) bouncing off the floorboards on the Kansas back roads.

Also during the 1968 – 1969 term, I had sold my 125cc Ducati motorcycle, and acquired a 1949 James/Villiers motorcycle from my previous college roommate, Galen Trabant, which I used mainly for trail riding around Manhattan. During the trip down to Baton Rouge, Dad hauled the James home in the trunk of the car, but at the end of the summer, I returned to Kansas State, and actually towed the James behind the Sprite. I removed the rear bumperettes and bolted a piece of ¾” plywood across the four brackets. Then I installed two eyebolts in the middle of the board, spaced apart about 6,” to which I attached the front forks of the James. The front tire went into the Sprite boot, not leaving much room for my luggage, tools, etc. To keep the forks upright, I tied a piece of rope to each side of the upper fork clamp, then to the sides of the plywood panel. Can you imagine driving this way today up through Louisiana, Oklahoma, and Kansas over a couple of days? I might have driven straight through, but seem to remember a stop in Muskogee. Anyway, somewhere along the route, maybe in northern Louisiana or Oklahoma, the rear tire inner tube spun and ripped the valve core out. I’m sure I didn’t have the tire inflated hard. I don’t know why I didn’t take the tube out of the front tire to replace it – I guess they were different sizes or I didn’t want to go to the trouble. I remember stopping at a gas station in a little town and asking the old man there if he could put me onto another tube, repair, etc., but getting no help. So in a flash of inspiration, with the tire already half off the rim, I decided to pack it full of wadded-up newspaper (!), remount the tire, and be off. I don’t remember how many miles the newspaper lasted – not many I’m sure, and I pulled it the rest of the way with essentially a flat tire, but it didn’t come off the rim, and we made it. When I replaced the tube the tire had a lot of fine powdered, gray paper pulp in it!

The fall of 1969 proved pretty eventful from the Bugeye’s perspective.

In October, I decided that I just had to go visit my girlfriend, Michael Ann Everitt, at Stephen F. Austin State U in Nacogdoches, Texas, which was about 600 miles or so from Manhattan. I believe I left on a Tuesday after my last “important” class, intending to be away the rest of the week, and return on the weekend, as I had a test the following week. I think I had actually prepared pretty well for the trip – I remember that I had the transistor radio and a thermos of hot coffee, flashlight, tools, etc. The route took me through eastern Oklahoma on the Indian Nation Turnpike, then jogged east through Hugo, Antlers, and down US-271 into Texas to US-259 on south to Nacogdoches.

Things were going great, and I was really enjoying the drive. Not much traffic, and a very nice autumn afternoon and early evening driving through the farm country and small towns of Kansas and eastern Oklahoma in a Bugeye – what could be better?

A few miles to the west of Antlers, Oklahoma, on the smooth, two-lane blacktop, I was feeling especially content. I poured myself a cup of coffee, and actually said to myself, “I am really enjoying this trip and the car is running great!” Literally a few minutes after uttering those fateful words, I heard a slight “tap, tap, tap…” coming from the direction of the engine. Checked the oil pressure gauge, and it was reading normal at about 25 psi. “Can it be a rod bearing? Maybe it’s just a flapping fan belt or something loose.” I pulled over and checked under the bonnet – nothing amiss, but the knock was still there. Ugh. Got back in and drove along at about 40 mph. Light tapping going down the Oklahoma hills, but loud knocking climbing back up to the crests. I had a queasy feeling in my stomach, and knew I was in for mechanic work, but decided to try for Antlers before stopping. I pulled into town about 15 minutes later, heading for the Gulf station on the corner of the main intersection.

To this day, I feel uneasy every time I tell myself that a trip is going well…

My problem at that moment was that I couldn’t drive the car, didn’t know the exact problem, knew that the engine was going to have to come out, had no place to stay, couldn’t get the parts, and wanted badly to go on to Nacogdoches. It actually never occurred to me to call a halt to the trip, and try to get back to Manhattan. I just figured that I would find a solution to the problem once I arrived at my destination, and had a chance to sleep on it.

So, how to find transportation in Antlers at 6:00 in the evening? The Gulf attendant said that the bus to Dallas came through Hugo if I could get there, but only once a week! The only alternative I could think of was to hitchhike, so I asked him if I could park the Sprite at the side of his lot and leave it there, and he agreed. Then I went across the street to the truckers’ café, accosted a driver, told my sob story, and what do you know? I got a ride in a big rig. The driver was a decent guy; I remember we stopped on the side of the road so he could go into a bar to have a beer, and I remember he bought me one as well. Then we drove on south in Texas, until we must have come to a truckstop on I-30 or I-20 east of Dallas. He wasn’t going to Dallas, but hooked me up with a friend who was driving to Dallas in his station wagon. The guy agreed to drop me at the bus station if I would drive the car, and let him sleep in the back seat, so that’s what I did. I don’t know when we reached the bus station – probably 6 am or so. I bought a ticket to Nacogdoches, and arrived there about 1:30 Wednesday afternoon to a nice reception ;o).

Now I had to figure out what to do about the Sprite, and the only thing I could come up with other than abandoning it in place was to tow it down to Nac and fix it. The only person I knew close by who was foolish nice enough to come to my rescue was John Ferguson, a friend attending Lamar Tech (now University) in Beaumont, about 2 hours drive south. He agreed to come up the next morning, pick me up in his 1963 Volkswagen bug (stock 1300, mind you), and drive up to Oklahoma, then turn around and tow the Sprite back to Nacogdoches. On Thursday morning, he arrived a bit later than planned because of having to attend a class he had forgotten to mention, and Michael Ann, besotten with love for me, agreed to go with us on our adventure to retrieve the car (a fateful decision).

Arrived in Antlers, probably around 5 in the afternoon, and hooked the cars together with about 15 feet of chain between them; then off we went back down the highways to Texas. The VW would go about 60 mph down the east Texas hills, and slow to about 30 mph climbing back up to the crests. For a while, both MA and I rode in the Sprite, but it was COLD, and the battery was rapidly declining running the lights, so she shifted up to the VW to ride in comfort (?), and I shivered alone in the Sprite, steering with one hand and keeping the other in my coat pocket – misery! I was so sleepy and cold by the time we arrived back that I was seeing dreamy things and could barely keep my eyes open. But, we pulled in about midnight safe and sound, except…

These were the quaint days when dorm curfews still existed at some conservative schools, and the girls’ curfew was 10:30 pm, so Michael Ann was “campused” by the Wicked Queen of her dorm, which if I remember meant she was restricted to her dorm after 7 or 8:00 each night for the next week. Anyway, I don’t remember that we were out very late any night during my visit. Bah! Did the boys’ dorms have curfews?

I was staying with a friend of MA’s in his apartment in a complex close to campus, and that’s where the Sprite was parked. He was a big fan of Charley Pride, so I heard a lot of 8-track tapes of CP while I was there. Friday morning I went to the apartment manager, and asked him if there was a place I could work on the car, maybe someplace close to a tree, so I could pull the engine. He said, “Well, there’s a tree right out there in front (of the office), so just pull your car in there and work on it there.” I explained that I would have to pull the engine, and it might take a couple of days to do the work, but he said to go ahead, and I don’t remember him ever expressing any concern over the next several days – how’s that for Texas hospitality? The tree and the spot in the grass where I did the work were about 30 feet in front of the office under a shade tree, in a large parking lot island. I think I rented a come-a-long or chain hoist to pull the engine this time, and did the engine work on a blanket on the ground.

Upon disassembly of the bottom end, the problem was quickly discovered to be a broken crankshaft! The crank had broken straight across the throw between the number 1 rod journal and the front main journal. The crank could still turn, and the engine would run, but the two crank halves would knock together as the crank rotated. I guess it was just fatigue after long service life, maybe exacerbated by youthful abuse?

I called a British car place in Dallas - how I got the number I don't know, probably just through directory information and ordered a new crankshaft, bearings, and gasket set, and had them ship the parts to me COD on the bus to Nacogdoches. Then I called my Dad, and asked him to wire me $125 to the Western Union office. The parts arrived on Saturday afternoon, I remember. I probably should have just borrowed a car and driven to Houston, which was only about 3 hours away, but I don't think it crossed my mind.

The rebuild I did on the blanket on the ground without benefit of a torque wrench. Having just been through the engine twice in the previous six months, I had a good feel for bolt torques, and never had a subsequent problem because of buttoning up the bottom end by "feel." So I proceeded to reassemble the engine into the evening hours with the hope that I could get it done Saturday night, then hit the road Sunday, and be back in class on Monday.

But once again, the affliction of being a true"shade tree mechanic" made itself felt...

Working late into the night by a lamp and a flashlight, I was dirty and tired, but close to getting the timing cover back on and the engine buttoned up to be reinstalled. I needed to install the crankshaft timing chain sprocket over the crank snout,but the front edge of the journal was burred, I guess because it was brand new. So I got a small file and piece of emery paper and worked to smooth the edge so the sprocket would slip on smoothly. But it was tedious slow work, and the sprocket would not go quite all the way on before hanging up. Almost there...maybe a little tap with a hammer and drift would do it...OHMIGOSH! The timing chain sprocket broke right in half! And I almost broke down crying.

Of course there was no way to get such an animal in Nacogdoches, even though I called around to a few junkyards on Monday morning. Someone thought a Nash Metropolitan had the same Austin engine, but I had no luck locating one. So I called Dallas again and ordered the sprocket for delivery on Tuesday on the bus. The guys in Dallas were great, and never let me down with a delivery. The sprocket arrived about 1:00pm on Tuesday, and I finished the engine up, reinstalled it, reinstalled the bonnet, connected all the wiring, and was finished by early evening. Unfortunately, my battery was too low to crank the engine, and the engine was so tight that three of us couldn't get it to turn over even pushing the car and bump-starting it in second gear; the Sprite would just skid the rear wheels as soon as the clutch was let out.
So, Wednesday morning I called a wrecker driver to come over with a "hotshot" battery to give me a boost, which he did, and the engine fired right up. As I remember it, the guy didn't even charge me. I was immediately on the road heading north to Manhattan, breaking in the new crank and bearings on the road. I remember that the oil pressure starting out from Nacogdoches was about 60 psi, settling down to around 40 psi after a couple of hundred miles. The car ran fine all the way back to school, and I arrived Wednesday evening. The test was the next morning, and I got a C without a lick of studying, but I was stressed out - hard to imagine why, huh?
At Thanksgiving, I again drove to Texas to see my sweetheart; this time from Manhattan to Orange, a distance of about 750 miles; except that I offered to take a girl with me who lived in Houston and drop her off at her parent's home. That added a jog of probably 100 miles to the trip. I remember a few things about that five-day trip. One was that I had no weather seals around the door openings, so cold air streamed in. We rolled up newspapers and stuffed them in the cracks, which was an improvement. Also, the heater was still weak (it was November), so I closed the outlet on my side of the car to force all the hot air to go to the passenger side (chivalry, don't ya know). We rode in our coats with blankets over our legs. And finally, the Sprite developed an oil leak out of the filter cannister (due to a crimped gasket), and leaked out a quart of oil every 100 miles. It was too cold and too much trouble to fix it - oil was cheap back then, so I just kept topping it off. I drove 26 hours straight, and was very sleepy when I arrived (not recommended). My father-in-law was pretty amazed/amused by the whole adventure. As I remember it, the trip back to Manhattan after Thanksgiving was smooth, and probably only 17 hours of driving!