Once the Austin Healy Bug-eye Sprite was back in my hands after a major front end repair, I began retraining myself on why depressing the clutch pedal wouldn’t stop the car while the brake pedal might. But the fun of actually driving it was like no other. For one thing, its steering was so precise that a simple quarter-turn of the steering wheel was enough to complete a right-hand turn. Seated in the tight-fitting cockpit was like sitting in a tiny aircraft surrounded by bare-bone metal surfaces, traces of Castrol racing oil, and the startling uncertainty that I might not reach an intended destination after starting the engine.
Sitting in it was like being astride a four-wheel motorcycle if such a thing existed. Its 948 ccs, 43 hp engine provided a top speed of 82.9 mph according to the British Motor magazine, and it took over twenty seconds to accelerate from 0-60 mph which is slower than smoke by today’s standards. But, with less than a one-liter engine and 40 mpg, an eight-gallon gas tank provided almost 300 miles. Better yet, $.30 a gallon, it cost less than two whole dollars to fill it up.
The entire front end, hood, fenders, grille, and bug-eye headlights were made in one piece, so checking oil and coolant levels meant unlatching and raising the whole assembly on its hinges like a grand piano soundboard propped open. Conversely, and more than a little odd, there was no rear trunk lid to open. Tipping the seats forward allowed the only access to the rear compartment. At the time, crossing the Ambassador Bridge into Windsor, Canada meant all drivers were required to get out of their cars and open their trunks for inspection.
So, as one may surmise, the Sprite rather stood apart without a trunk lid raised like surrounding cars. A Canadian Customs Officer wandered over, scowling, demanding I raise my trunk lid like all the others, even less happy when I said I didn’t have a trunk lid to open. Unable to believe anyone could build a car without a trunk lid, he insisted on finding and unlatching it, futilely jerking the back of the Sprite up and down. Further examination proved their Commonwealth partners hadn’t found a need to provide a Customs-accessible trunk compartment, in this case, and there was none to be found.
Unfortunately, the Sprite’s extremely small size and weight, even to the extent of eliminating door handles and locks, although contributing wonderfully to agility and handling, proved rather more detrimental later. Anyone passing by was able to unlatch its doors by simply reaching inside flexible plastic side windows and moving a lever. In other words, the car couldn’t be locked. Around ten o’clock one night while studying for next day’s college classes with friends, something made me look outside our off-campus apartment to check on the Sprite. It wasn’t where I had left it parked in front of our building a few hours before. Panicky, I stood in the dark looking up and down the street. My new sports car had been stolen! Returning to the front porch, there was a trace of tire tracks in the dewy grass leading to one side.
Peeking around the corner, there it was, pushed between the buildings with its front and rear ends only six inches away from both walls. It didn’t appear to have any damage, but I suspected the upperclassmen on the second floor of mischief. Returning to our front room, I explained to my two friends I had found the car between the buildings. What an opportunity for revenge. We tip-toed outside and carefully pushed the car back and forth until we maneuvered it out to the street with no one noticing. But, why not push it around the corner a block or two and, later on, come outside as if for the first time and scream and holler that my car had actually been stolen and I was going to call the police?
Once back inside and studying another hour without the slightest sound from above or outside, I remained uneasy. It was time to end this charade and get some sleep. Leaving by the side door, I returned to where we had pushed the car. Holy mackerel! It wasn’t there! Now I was really upset. Had it really been stolen this time? Returning to our house, there were a few second-floor upper-classmen above trying not to be noticed. What was going on?
But, was there yet another trace of bent grass in a different location? I followed the line and it led toward an unused garage filled with junk. I slid the door open, peering into the darkness. There wasn’t even a light to turn on. The upperclassmen began calling down, in all innocence, “What happened, buddy? Did you lose your car, or what?”
How would they have noticed if they hadn’t been involved? Inside the shed, after carefully lifting an edge of old tarp and a pile of blankets, a slice of moonlight gleamed on shiny metal. “OK, guys, come on down and get my car out without scratching it. And put it back in front of the house where it’s supposed to be. Either that or I’m really calling the cops.”
“Oh, no. No need for that.” Half grinning and embarrassed, an entire second floor of guys trooped down, got the car out, and rolled it back to the street. We all had a good laugh and, after donating a few bottles of beer in compensation, they explained they were totally shocked and confused when someone went to check the car where they left it between buildings and found it missing. Oh, oh, they thought; someone else had really stolen the car and now they were in deep trouble. They then dispersed through the neighborhood, trying not to alert us, hoping to find the car. When they finally located it to their great relief, they rolled it back and hid it in the shed hoping to provide a double shock when I didn’t find it the next morning.
It all ended well enough but, if anyone wants to make mischief with a Bug-eye Sprite in the future, remember the British once ignored the fact that tiny cars that can’t be locked are in no way compatible with upper-classmen mischievous pranks.