Abingdon at 400 Metres
I’m driving about on a Sunday morning; minding my own business, just chilling. It’s 40°C out and I come up to a red light. The sun blazes thru my driver side window as I’m adjusting my air vents. After a quick sigh I look up; I wasn’t paying much attention to it before, but now that it was directly in front of my it grabbed my full attention: a pickup truck carrying a car on a trailer behind it. So what? Nothing too special, innit? It wasn’t the idea of being in tow, rather what was in tow: A 1963 Austin Healey 3000. Seeing this, I decided to probably follow this guy; see if he’s going anywhere interesting. I only got half a block down until he turned into a hotel parking lot; but looking round there were several others. All in the quaint shades of paint they came in back in those days.
The classic British Sports Car for me is something that I’ve been fond of since I was about 8 years old. Before I was all for a nice Japanese sleeper car from the ‘Golden Era’ of the 90s; but after seeing the Series I Lotus Elan, I couldn’t helped but to be drawn into one of the most revered realms of automotive culture. The simple, yet effective lines of the bodywork; how they flowed over the front and haunched at the back. The staunch and ruthless simplicity that made them easy to work on. And just the overall presence that these cars have; they’re not big by any means, but as I said before, the way the lines flow catches your eye and keeps you staring; and although they may be ruthlessly simple, the more you look, the more of the little details you start to notice. Just by looking at these cars you develop some sort of intrinsic connection with them. It’s almost as if you don’t even have to drive them.
The first experience I had with a classic British roadster was an old Triumph TR6 that belonged to my friend’s cousin. It was finished in a red that was fading with not much clear-coat left on it, the interior almost mouldy, it smelled, it almost didn’t start. Guess it didn’t help that he had it locked in a garage for a year and a bit and almost didn’t use it. However, that was just being able to see it in misery and listening to its asthmatic attempts to cough itself to life. This however, was the ticket to properly get into the realm of the British roadster.
I pull into the parking lot of the Hilton hotel and I roll down the window; a gentleman in his 50s-60s comes walking towards me and catches me ogling his old 3000 Healey. He comes over with a coy smile and tells me, “hey, if you come tomorrow there’ll be loads more to see.” I took that as an invitation; these people were members of the Austin-Healey Club of America, and their Conclave had come to town, and in tow, some 70 Austin-Healeys, from the Sprites, the 100/6s and the full bore 3000. I had seen my fair share of A-H; Jeremy Clarkson drove a MkIII Sprite in the Majorcan Rally, the Frog-Eyed Sprite is something I still really lust after; with its dinky attitude and all. And the 3000 has one of my most favourite designs I’ve seen on a car. The way that the front is rounded yet stately, the radiator grille like a smile with bad teeth; and the profile view. The rounded front starts sloping downwards, then kinks up again giving the car some hips before the rounded back end slopes right down. The character line down the side adds to this; the way it emerges from the curvature of the wheel arch, then swoops back towards the rear wheels to give it an almost secondary shoulder line; It is just a fantastic piece of design. Looking at these cars in photos in a book when you’re a kid is one thing, seeing them in person and getting to feel them is another thing.
The next morning I expected there to be torrential rain, fog, cold or some sort of Britannic weather to set the mood. Turns out it was solely another day of 39°C Texas summer Lake of Fire. Didn’t make sense to get my tweed jacket anyway, guess a T-Shirt, jeans and some sneakers were fine. Heck, most of the people here don’t really wear tweed; the only thing that matched the scene was the pungent smell of tobacco and petrol. For some weird reason they go together like nothing else. It was 12 o’clock; I was done with class for the day and I could put off studying until later in the afternoon.
The very first thing I did as I arrive is go straight for the Frog-Eyed Sprites. After seeing this and the Lotus Elan together, I’ve wanted one for a very long time; and today was my chance to get up close and personal with it. My personal favourite was a Froggie finished in black with a red stripe down the middle. The interior was finished in red leather, the steering wheel in a bright shaded wood. The whole thing was just immaculately kept. The owner, a nice chap called Terry, asked if I’d help him with some of the fluids and a quick wipe down of the interior. Gladly I obliged. The Froggie Sprite isn’t very complicated. It has a 978cc 4-Cylinder engine good for 42 bhp. 0-100 kph; round the neighbourhood of 20 seconds. Now, those numbers would be enough to make a Toyota Corolla seem like a hypercar by any means. But what the Corolla lacks in spades compared to the Sprite is character.
The Sprite has this sunshine-y, dinky and quirky character to it; just in the way it looks. The front has this dorky, yet inviting smile on, as if it’s a small child saying “hello.” Even the way that little engine sputters as it impulses the car down the road. It growls like an enthusiastic puppy and is eager to wring itself out. What’s more getting to own one shouldn’t be too expensive. I went on the classifieds afterwards to see a 1951 MkI Austin Healey Sprite go for $6,200 USD; what’s more the parts are simple and can be ordered easily without much cost. A new 978cc engine for the Sprite shouldn’t cost more than $1,900 USD. This was essentially the Mazda MX-5 of its day. Speaking with Terry about his Sprite opened up a little something about these people. See, I go to car meets often with my mates, the occasional autocross/track day. The people I meet are often enthusiastic about their cars; they like them, but they always have aspirations for something a little bit better. These Healey owners however…
It’s not just about liking the cars, or being enthusiastic about it. It’s about a love they have for the car. These people will literally not sell their cars; and if they do, it’ll be round $40-50k for one of the mint 3000s, to which the person who sold it to you will more than likely go on to buy another Big Healey. Included, there was one man from Surrey who had moved to the States some 30 years ago, and with him he brought his Healey 3000, complete with the original MOT papers and the original number plates and regs from the UK. It’s a deep connection they have for these car. The “old girls,” they call them. And I can totally see it. It’s not like a normal car meet where you have loads of different cars, builds and people with different objectives and interests. This is like the Borg from Star Trek, a collective with one sole mindset. It’s something I haven’t experienced in car culture, but I think it is one element that it is seriously missing.
Leaving behind my beloved Froggies I went straight for the big boys, the 3000s and the 100/6s. These are the ones that most people remember. Compared to the Sprites, these were more stately, more gentleman-like. The wood panels were well polished, the leather still with the same grain as when it left the factory 50-60 odd years ago. The wire wheels polished; gleaming in the light and the club badges proudly sitting on the front grille, like a Captain’s decorations on his uniform.
Like I said before, these cars are huge design icons for me. Seeing them again makes me feel like I’m back in secondary school sketching the profile of them into my English notebook. These were good for up to 157 bhp from a 2.9 BMC C-Series Straight-6, able to sprint from 0-100 kph in 9 seconds. Back in the 50s and 60s this was very fast. One of the guys had owned his 3000 since the time he bought it in 1963. If anything it’s a testament as to how long these cars can last if you really take care of them. It’s like the last episode of Top Gear with Clarkson, Hammond and May with the Peugeot, Fiat 124 and the MGB. The people who buy these cars are so dedicated to them that they keep them months in garages, just to do them up and fix them. It’s part tinkering, part enthusiasm, part art and part love. Combined, all of these things keep these old Great Danes of the past running into the future. I just want to go out to a barn and find some old British roadster, just so I can fix it and run it every other day. All in all….I’m glad I woke up on a Monday