I needed a car to commute to Flint, Michigan’s General Motors Institute after high school, but had yet to earn a paycheck from my sponsor, Cadillac Motor Car Division. All I had from teen year’s odd jobs and newspaper deliveries was $1500, so a co-op educational program would be the only way to attend college. I also needed starter money for books, room and board, and expenses, which left little for a vehicle. So my father and I began looking at used cars along Michigan Avenue, not finding anything that fit. Like all first time buyers, I needed something cheap and reliable, but everything cost more than I could afford and I didn’t know how difficult GMI would be or how long I would last.
We finally found an old two-door Mercury with a banged-up front end that we repaired over a few weekends, replacing a fender, hood, and bumper from a salvage yard. It wasn’t too difficult taking parts off and bolting new ones on before having the car repainted an eerie, silver gray by an Earl Scheib paint facility for $29.95. Which, by the way, in no way matched the existing yellow and black interior. But this was before I thought about color coordination, and Earl wasn’t in the business of matching exterior and interior colors; they just wanted thirty bucks, and the customer was left hoping they didn’t let the wet paint dry in a dusty parking lot. I drove that Mercury back and forth for two years before it needed new tires, brakes, steering, and coolant work. Even the radio was beginning to sound a bit foggy from its ancient vacuum tubes leftover from WWII.
So, with a small but growing bank account, I began looking for a replacement. Dad said I shouldn’t buy another used car since it usually meant owning someone else’s troubles. But just west of Schaefer on Warren, an imported car dealership featured a new British sports car called an Austin Healy Sprite sitting on its lot. It was the “Bug-eye” model, as the motoring press labeled it, because its hood-mounted headlights were perched above a surprised-looking mouth of a grille. The car was tiny, weighing a third of domestic cars at 1,328 lbs and powered by a one-liter, raspy-sounding 48 hp engine. The Sprite was good for 70 mph with a tailwind. Actually, the engine was less than a liter in displacement, at 948, and I’m exaggerating its top speed, too. But, it was new, which supposedly meant less trouble than a used car, but this was before I began understanding an oxymoron; English build quality.
It was both a joy and revelation to drive but, best of all, cost less than $2,000 out the door. So I said good-bye to the Mercury and leapt into the Sprite. How much, exactly, Sir Donald Healy had a hand in its creation and execution doesn’t matter as it was instantly wonderful and strange.
After a few months of enjoying fall drives in the winding countryside, Michigan’s winter hit, as it is wont to do on occasion, and it felt like the Sprite was seeing snow and cold for the first time. It was almost like a new-born puppy staring out at winter snowdrifts and the wonder of it all for the first time. In its first cold, blustery blackness of 6:30 am blowing snow, its nervous, hesitant engine shook and trembled like the puppy pushed out the door into the cold to do its thing. Unlike family Chevrolets I’d grown used to, this tiny thing seemed to be asking, “What’s with this white stuff and bone-chilling cold I’ve never seen in jolly old England?” The first time it saw 15 degrees, it needed a jump-start because, apparently, the British had never converted Celsius to Fahrenheit and its tiny battery simply couldn’t cope. It’s a good thing the Battle of Britain took place in the summer of 1940 because Hurricanes and Spitfires would still be on the tarmac never having started.
But, ah, the British, in their attempt to figure out metric to English conversion, had also forgotten to change the polarities of their electrical systems. Connecting normal red-positive to red positive terminals, the American way, began melting the electrical wiring harness to great shouts of dismay, alarm, wisps of smoke and burning plastic, along with acrid smells of ozone. Now, who would have known that a people who drive on the wrong side of the road would get their electricity backward, too.
But the car endured itself. It was a delight of differentness with its strange mix of rubber floor mat smell, engine oil aroma, harsh ride, and incredibly quick steering, all propelled by a snicky-snick four speed manual transmission. The doors lacked door handles, requiring un-snapping and opening of its plastic side windows to reach inside and release a catch. So, there was no way to actually lock the car, perfectly fine for the stately British Isles where no one ever steals cars, but rather inadequate for the crime capital of the Midwest, Detroit, Michigan. Once seated inside, the view out through flexible plastic side windows revealed wavering Monet-like images one could only guess at.
The Sprite was so low and tiny, it should have been called Tinker Bell. From the driver’s seat, top down, one gazed up at Chevrolet door handles, pedestrian trouser pockets, and ladies handbags, altogether providing a new perspective on life. No one at Cadillac seemed to mind a new co-op student employee bought himself a British sports car because, I suppose, they weren’t sure what it was as long as it wasn’t a Ford. Besides, expecting a student to buy one of our products like a Cadillac Sedan DeVille would have been like asking a Boeing co-op student to begin payments on a commercial airliner.
Three days after driving it off the lot, I ran into the back of a co-worker’s car in front the Cadillac Administration Headquarters Building when I pushed the clutch pedal instead of the brake pedal. I’m sure the General Manager never even glanced up from his coffee, but most of the first floor came out to stand on the entrance steps and stare. There was no damage at all to the other car, but it took a few weeks for my forehead bruise to fade and an entire month for a repair shop to get a new Sprite front end from England. When they were done, it was still bug-eyed.