A Blast from the British Past

A Blast from the British Past

The Rebirth of the Bugeye

Posted on 2017-02-28
Most guys and gals I know who are fans of these things we refer to as "motor vehicles", began that passion long ago. Maybe it was Dad's truck, Mom's car, crazy uncle's motorcycle, neighbor down the street's car... but somewhere along the way, a vehicle sparked something in all of us, which has followed us the rest of our lives.

Growing up in the 60's and 70's, many of my friends had muscle cars. Big block, fuel gulpin', rubber burning monsters. And yes, I did like a many of them. But, hey, there were a lot of them out there back then (just wish I'd had the knowledge, money, and foresight to have gathered up a few back then).

For whatever reason, I seemed to be drawn to the quirkier cars... not the ones everyone else had. My first encounter with "falling in love" with a car was 1968 AMC AMX. While not quite a "muscle car", it wasn't exactly a "pony car" either. AMC took a Javelin, cut two feet out of the middle, and shoved a big old 390 in it, backed up with a 4 speed. A two seater with a 390??? Yeah, that was my dream car. Unfortunately, when I started driving in 1972, they were already out of production, and, most importantly, even though it was my money, the old man would not sign for me (being a minor and all). All the usual reasons, unsafe, impractical, etc, etc, etc.

My next love was a 1950's TD. Needless to say, that wasn't about to happen either. But, something about it drew me into British sports cars, and that passion has never gone away.

What's a Sprite Bugeye?

In 1978, somewhat newly married, I found an ad in the local "Penny Power" for a 1959 Austin Healey Bugeye Sprite. Now, I knew what a Sprite was, but, the "Bugeye" part??? Curiosity reigned that day, and I talked my wife into going and taking a look at it with me.

We arrived at our destination that Saturday afternoon, only to find another couple there looking at it. They had a restored Bugeye that they drove over there, and a fine example it was. They were considering buying it so as to have "his and her" Bugeyes, but didn't commit to the owner. Thus, we had to decide and decide fast. The owner wanted $1,000 for it. It started, and it ran, but was nowhere near close to original. Someone along the way had painted it "Volkswagen" Orange. It had recovered seats in it, but they were a weird metallic blue. It reminded me of a Gulf Oil color combo. But, the car had lived most of its life in the dry heat of Arizona, and I couldn't find any rust at all. And, after seeing the restored car the other couple had, I knew someday this one could be just as nice. It was a tough decision, as we didn't really have an "extra" $1,000 at the time, but, we decided to figure that out later.

When my brother in law moved back to Springfield, it was a blessing. He had an MG Midget (the offspring of the Sprite), and together, we rebuilt the 948cc engine, and I had the car repainted. Although more reliable, it was far from being ready to take a cross country trip in.

It's funny how we meet people along the way in this thing called life... Around 1993, The parents of my daughter's best friend brought her to spend the night. Upon entering through the garage, the father saw the Bugeye, and an Austin Healey 3000 I'd acquired (it did run, and we did take it on several cross country trips), and although he liked the 3000, he fell in love with the Bugeye, as I had done many years prior.

As our friendship grew, I found out that he knew everything about the "secret mysteries of the motor vehicle" and what made it work. He was both a gearhead and, a Master Machinist. He insisted that between the two of us, we could get the little car back on the road again, and that it would be reliable when completed. I'd buy the parts, take care of the body work, the cosmetics, and he'd guide me through the rest. In return, I'd help him with home repairs/remodels/etc in return.

Thus, the journey began

It wasn't a quick journey, as my work, our kids' activities, and our budget got in the way. I had planned on just touching up some paint work, and rebuilding all the mechanicals. But, "shipwrights" disease soon took over, and before I knew it, there I was, stripping off four coats of paint from the body. Soon the Bugeye was naked, as it was when it was born. The upholstery was all removed, and my buddy and I had started removing the "mysterious to me" mechanical components for replacement or restoration.

The more we removed, the more of its history became known to me. I found out my once "orange" car was actually Old English White, and had a red interior. Due to my attention to the details, people kept asking, "oh, you're building a concours car???" Not even close. I wanted a car to do what a car should do. Be a driver... albeit a very nice driver. So, at the end of the day, I had to decide what was most important. While originality was somewhat high on the list, so was drivability. So, I ordered the "concours standards manual" by which to complete the exterior and interior of the car. But, I decided to make some "easily reversible" modifications within the drivetrain, the brakes, etc.

We rebuilt and transplanted a later model MG Midget 1275 engine, along with the later "ribcase" transmission and longer legged differential, and added front disc brakes to replace the old 4 wheel drums. At the end of the day, it had gone from a slow car that wouldn't stop, to being able to keep up with big city traffic. And, it can be swapped back in a weekend.

Our car club, Greater Ozarks British Motoring Club (GOBMC), was formed Labor Day weekend in 1999, at the KC All British Show, and we held our first car show on the square in Carthage in 2000. We had hoped to have the Bugeye there, but missed that deadline (along with many others over those many years). The car finally made its debut in 2000 at the KC All British Car Show, where it surprisingly, took first in its class. I'm no longer afraid to drive the car day or night, or any distance now. And, in spite of its "Spritely" size, and lack of creature comforts, it's definitely more fun to drive than any of the other cars. And, the "smile" on its face seems to put a smile on everyone who sees it.

Although I've had several cars in the years since bringing home the Bugeye, I'd have to say that the Bugeye has almost become a member of the family, and will probably remain that way as long as we're here to take care of it.

Rod Miller

Greater Ozarks British Motoring Club