Bugeye Sprite – The Quest for the Reluctant Car

This is the story of a car quest gone a tad astray.  It involves a Bugeye Sprite that my brother, Mark, bought.  He had spent a great deal of time looking for a nice, original Sprite to restore.  As the years go by, they are getting much harder to find, as they were only made from ’58 to ’61 - over half a century ago.  Lots of time for them to get ruined or poorly modified by uncaring owners, or for rust to set in.

He finally found what sounded like a good candidate, with the only glitch being that it was clear across the country.  We are the Seattle area, the car was in the Boston area.  Mark thought that the two of us could drive it back cross-country.  He was encouraged that I had done the same a few years earlier in a similar Bugeye Sprite that I bought in Austin Texas.  My son and I drove it home across the Rocky Mountains with almost no problems.  Just a flat tire, and a short push one morning when the battery was run low the night before from running the headlights on high-beam for several hours with the generator not quite keeping up.

So we ended up flying into Boston with one-way tickets, tools in our baggage, and pictures of the Sprite that the owner had sent showing it to be in excellent condition (he had owned it twenty five years), and an assurance that it had no rust. 

Upon arrival, the owner picked us up in his fancy Audi SUV, proving that he had the funds to properly maintain the Sprite, and giving us a tour of this historic area north of Boston.  When we arrived at the Sprite, we had to do an inspection in the dark of an old barn-like storage building, and had little time to test drive it.  Not only was the day marching on (and the Boston hotels no cheap place to spend another night), we were uneasy about test driving it in the unmarked back roads of the area.  If you’ve ever been to Boston, you know what I mean.  Crawling under it, Mark felt some pop-rivets under there, giving him some concern that perhaps there was some rust repair done at one time.  Could the owner have been a little loose with the truth?  With this uneasy feeling, but knowing that we didn’t have return tickets and were itching for an adventure, the deal was sealed and we loaded our bags into the boot of the Sprite.  As you probably are aware, Bugeye Sprites have no trunk lid, and while the boot is commodious, it needs to be accessed by a little opening behind the seats.

As we headed west late that afternoon, we discovered that it didn’t like to go up hills without missing some (and there’s not a lot of reserve power even when the 45 HP 948cc motor is running perfectly), and each bump  was tough on our backs from a combination of broken down seat cushions and rear springs on the Sprite.  Nevertheless, we continued onward.

We made it to upstate New York, when the transmission started to make a horrible groaning sound.  What a disappointment after just three hundred miles of travel – barely a tenth of the way.  There’s no easy way to fix a Sprite transmission when you are on the road.  Not only are parts hard to get, the whole motor has to come out – not the sort of thing you do beside the road.  In addition, Mark was planning to change to a different style transmission once we got back to Seattle so any money spent on this one was for naught.  And there was still the problem that it didn’t really want to run well going up hills, even with the transmission being operable.

What to do?  We groaned into a hotel a short distance down the road as the grinding got worse and worse and the car would hardly move.  We found a local newspaper and started looking through the want ads – maybe we could get a tow car cheap.  Sure enough, our dream came true when we found a ’92 Ford pick-up for sale for $1,500.  It had 171,000 miles, was rusty, and a few things didn’t work on it, but the price was right, the owner (a preacher from Laos) would pick us up at the hotel, and he thought he could link us up with a tow bar too.  Our luck was changing!  He took us to the DMV, where some frantic calls home to our insurance agent resulted in insurance forms in the exact convoluted form necessary for New York to transfer the title to us.  Thank you USI in Portland!    After he gave the truck a blessing for us, and an assurance that we would be able to make the trip “no problem,” we were off to hook up the Sprite to the truck and tow bar.  Of course this was the second person we handed money to with a similar assurance.

We think of cars in the ‘50s and ‘60s with big sturdy “real steel” bumpers.  Well, that may have applied to cars built here, but the Brits didn’t really think along those lines.  As we started out, we could see that the Sprite wanted to wander from side to side as the bumper brackets flexed.  As evening approached, we drove to a Home Depot.  We bought a bunch of cable and clamps, and using the Home Depot’s own tools, fabricated our setup in the store.  Then, with the aid of a flashlight out in the parking lot, installed our cross-braced contraption to see if that would stop the flexing.  Much to our disappointment, as we took off the next morning, we discovered that this arrangement made it even worse.  The car started oscillating side to side even more aggressively.  So much for that idea.

A few blocks from the hotel (we are still in upstate New York), we find a welding shop willing to help.  We spend almost all day there, it’s a dirty greasy job and we assist as much as we can, but are frequently interrupted as real customers come in.  We end the day with a bracket that bolts solidly to the Sprite “frame.”  And they only charge us $40 for all this work and materials – very nice folks.

We head down the road – and the Sprite is pulling well – at last! 

We notice that the pickup is running really cool.  And while it’s a straight-six with a five-speed, we’re thinking that mileage would be a lot better if it had a thermostat that worked.  Not only that, we could have heat then if we wanted it.  Working in the parking lot of a parts store, as I put in the new thermostat, I cracked the thermostat housing.  For some lucky reason, they have the housing in stock.  After I install it (not breaking it this time), we discover that an associated part is rusty and pitted, and we can’t get it to stop leaking.  A nice guy in the parking lot offers to help.  He drives us around to find a replacement part.  The replacement doesn’t have provisions for a heater, but we can live without that.

As we fix the thermostat, we notice that one of the welds on the new bumper bracket has cracked.  Dang, we haven’t even made a normal day’s progress yet.  Our vacation clock is ticking, we’re several days into it, and still three thousand miles from home.  Our new friend works at the Chrysler dealership, and tells us to follow him there.  He asks the boss if he can help a couple stranded travelers, and the boss says fine.  He rewelds the bracket, and adds a few more gussets to make it suitably stout.  Much better!  No charge – these are nice folks in up-state New York.

We travel through Chicago in a rain storm.  The trucks wipers sometimes work, and sometimes don’t.  And with no heater, there’s no defroster, so it’s an exciting ride through all the traffic on freeways we don’t know.  Somehow we make it unscathed.

As we get into Madison Wisconsin, a tire on the Sprite shreds itself.  We leave it in a parking lot and go to “Fleet Farm” (farmer’s co-op type store) where they set us up with a new tire and mounting for $31.  There’s an advantage to having small tires.  This is the size listed in the ad’s fine print under “prices as low as…”.   We head west - it’s evening again.

Near Sparta Wisconsin, we get pulled over and get a written warning for having no lights on the “trailer.”  As if you can’t clearly see the light on the pickup with this tiny car behind.  He tells us to spend the night in the nearest hotel, which we do.

Next morning, the truck won’t start.  We try to diagnose, but can’t find out what’s wrong (computerized engine).  Call Ford dealer, they can’t work on it until next Wednesday, so we find a local garage with a tow truck to come get the truck and fix it.  We spend most of the next day helping to fix it.  Everything is rusty and hard to work on, we both decided that if we lived in the rust belt, we would find a hobby other than working on cars.  Biggest chore is getting out the gas tank to replace the fuel pump.  Meanwhile, the owner is working on other cars too.  We help snake out a drain in the garage as we wait.  The repairs aren’t cheap, and when we fill up the tank, gas pours out all over the ground.  The tank was so rusty that when reassembled it wouldn’t seal up.  We continue the trip by filling ¾ full, and also getting some five-gallon cans for the back so we can refill as necessary.  The truck has two tanks, but the other tank doesn’t work – probably the fuel pump is bad in that tank too.  We walk to a parts store and get some trailer lights for the back of the Sprite.  We wire up the truck for trailer lights, and are ready to go once again – it’s another day of getting filthy and spending most of the day not traveling.


Cruising across Wyoming, another tire on the Sprite shreds.  We unhook the Sprite and head to the nearest town.  It’s evening, so everything is closed.  We find a parts store/garage owner tinkering with a motor after work.  He has a pile of old tires in the back that we look through, and find a proper size (but worn out) tire.  He mounts it for us, charging only for the stem.  Two bucks.  We go back to the Sprite, mount it, then haul it to the next town big enough for a tire store, and stop for the night.

Seven AM the next morning, we go to a tire store and get four new tires.  Evidently, the old ones, even though having good tread, are just too old to be reliable.  The tire store, with use of their impact gun, strips two of the lug nut studs.  They are on different wheels, so we continue regardless.  The folks at this shop had never seen a car like this little Sprite, and maybe nothing smaller than a pick-up.

All goes smoothly for the rest of the trip.  The old Ford ran well other than as noted.  It only used a quart of oil on the entire trip, and we got 15-17 MPG pulling the Sprite.

Postscript:  The Ford Pickup

After the trip, Mark went to work with some Bondo and rattle-cans of paint to make the truck look pretty presentable.  While at Mark’s Renton home, we put a FOR SALE sign in the back window of the truck, for $2,200.  While we only paid $1,500 for it, we had a bit more “invested” after the repairs on the trip.  Heading off with it to my home, my son and I made it about five miles from Mark’s when an old car full of Mexicans on the freeway came up beside us, arms waving, and basically ran us off to the shoulder.  One of them, the most English-fluent no doubt, said “we buy – move over.”  He jumped into the driver’s seat and we took off.  He evidently only knew those four words of English, so we rode along in silence, wondering what was to become of us.  We ended up at a seedy apartment parking lot.  His wife was indeed fluent in English.  She came back from the bank with cash, and somehow we got home from South Center.  I suspect that the Ford pickup, now with about 180,000 miles or more, is living in Mexico.

Postscript:  The Sprite

Mark completely disassembled and restored the Sprite.  He discovered that it had a fair amount of rust underneath, which he carefully cut out and repaired by welding in new panels.  The 948cc motor that was coughing when going up hills was replaced by a 1275cc motor from a later model Sprite with a bad transmission that we bought.  The donor Sprite was purchased locally this time!  The original Sprite transmission that had stopped our drive home was replaced by a Datsun 5-speed with overdrive.  The front drum brakes were replaced by disks from the 1275 Sprite. Here it is in the middle of its restoration.  I don't have any pictures of when it was upside down on the rotisserie.




Here's the finished project.  The earlier pictures of the car as purchased give it more justice than it deserves, and these pictures less than it deserves.



After using it as a hobby car for a year or two, Mark fell in love with a new project that “needed him” – a ’36 Chevy pickup hot-rod project.   He asked me to sell the Sprite for him.  I sold it on CraigsList to a gentleman from Oregon who resides in a tree house.  Somehow this seems like a fitting end to the Sprite story.  By the way, he drove the Sprite to Oregon, and made it the entire way without breaking down!  The karma of this Sprite has improved through Mark's hard work.

After writing this, I received an email from a car enthusiast who had a problem-laden quest for a Mercedes Benz that he purchased. With his permission, I've made it available here...

Mercedes Quest...

I hope any quests that you have aren't as problematic as these!

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