Members Motors
Member - Robert Thornburrow

One Man and His Frog

881 LMH,  Austin Healey Sprite MkI
881 LMH, or "Froggy" as he is affectionately known, is my 1959 Frogeyed Sprite. He is my first classic car, and was bought from a dealer in June 2008 following a drive in a hired Frogeye for my Dad's birthday. It was definitely a case of the heart ruling the mind, and my inexperience in buying classic cars soon showed. Like the hire car, "Froggy" had been modified with a 1275cc engine and a front disc-brake conversion, making for fun road car.
Limited History. There was very little history on the car, with little more than a CD of restoration photos. The work that had been done looked thorough and extensive, with a new floorpan and wings shown at various stages of completeness. A couple of pictures showed the car before restoration, and it is quite clearly red (later confirmed as the original Cherry Red on the Heritage Certificate). You can also see a catch at the rear of the bonnet indicating that at that point it had a fibreglass bonnet hinged at the front, so part of the restoration was to refit the steel bonnet which it has now. At the time, this gave me confidence that the car had been properly restored, but later we shall see how some things had been done using parts sourced on the cheap, perhaps just to finish the car and get it on the road.
The first big problem. On his test drive, I had noticed that the car had a tendency to stall very easily and needed a lot of revs on to get it to pull away, but other than that, it drove pretty well and I was keen to buy it. Fortunately I insisted that the running problems were put right before I took the car (the dealer also had a workshop) and after various things being tried, the car was finally put on a rolling road and diagnosed as being down on pressure on the middle two cylinders. This turned out to be a little more than the cylinder head gasket, with cracks being found in both the head and block! True to his word, the dealer sourced a replacement 1275 engine from MG Mecca and fitted this to the car before I took delivery.
The first year. The car was provided with a clean MOT and a year of relatively trouble-free motoring was had. The only real problem was that he kept sooting up his plugs, leading to some rather poor running. Cleaning and replacing the plugs helped, but did not cure the problem. Changing the distributor cap and rotor and switching the silicone ignition leads for copper-cored ones with suppressed caps helped more, but still he would soot up his plugs after a while. An oil-change was done after 500 miles of running the new engine in and the addition of a thermostat for the electric fan helped the engine get up to temperature (previously it ran all the time as it was wired directly into the ignition). The wire wheels were found to have a number of loose spokes, and these were replaced with a brand-new set from MWS, as the old ones were also a little tatty round the rims as well.

The expensive problem. Now we come to the first MOT. Having had a clean pass the previous year and with new wheels fitted, I was not expecting any major problems. It came back as a fail with two pages of defects! Most of the defects were symmetrical, so it was both wishbone pin/bush left and right, king pin/bush left and right, and so on. At this point I entrusted the car to Merlin Restorations to bring the car up to scratch. The work done involved a full front suspension rebuild, with new wishbone pans, king pins, springs and dampers being fitted. Some accident damage was found on the drivers side and a new leg for the wishbone was welded to the chassis. The passenger side damper was found to have the threads stripped on one of the bolts, so a new piece was welded in and re-tapped to secure it properly. The front brake pipes were found to be routed in such a way that any failure of the suspension would sever the brake-lines, so these were re-routed to avoid this. The Spax adjustable dampers on the rear were found to be the wrong size for the car (they were up against the stops all the time - no wonder the back of the car skipped around a lot). After nearly 10 days in the workshop, the car finally got a clean bill of health, and was then taken to Chesterfield for a tune up. A new throttle cable and arm made for a much smoother drive, and setting up the Dellorto carb correctly for the new engine sorted the running problems. The car came home transformed, both running and handling were vastly improved and it was an absolute joy to drive.
Shows and things. No major changes were made to the car in the next couple of years and we enjoyed doing a fair number of car shows together. The car is a regular entrant at Tatton Park, and has also been to Capesthorne Hall, Gawsworth, Harewood House and Event City. One of the most memorable shows was the Aviation and Transport Fair at Manchester Airport. Froggy spent a pleasant day watching the planes taking off and landing from the comfort of the aviation viewing park, and even managed to get his picture taken with his own private jet!
The serious improvements. The one niggling problem I have always had with the car is the gearbox. First gear was horribly difficult to get and made stopping at traffic lights a bit of a nightmare, as you either had to sit with your foot on the clutch or risk not getting a gear first (or even second) time. The other major problem was that motorway driving was uncomfortable with the engine revving at 4500 RPM to achieve 65 mph, which made taking the car on holiday feel like an exercise in car cruelty. The solution came in the form of a 5 speed gearbox conversion, and the one I chose was a complete kit from Frontline Developments. The kit consisted of a Ford Sierra gearbox, a replacement bellhousing, new clutch and new propshaft. As fitting involved engine out and some cutting of the floorpan, the car was once again entrusted to Merlin for the work. The difference in the car is immense. Whilst gears 1 to 4 have almost exactly the same ratios as the old box, first is so much easier to select and fifth drops the revs by approx. 1000 rpm at 70 mph, making motorway cruising a very much more pleasant prospect.

The next big project is replacing the differential. The old one is rather noisy and at times you can't hear the lovely throaty exhaust note over the transmission noise, so this is being replaced by a reconditioned unit with new crown wheel and pinion from Moss. As the rear axle has to be dismantled to do this, on will go new wheel hubs and bearings as well as new seals all round.
The future. Froggy is definitely a keeper, and he will be staying with me for quite some time. I feel more like a custodian than an owner, and it is my privilege to drive such a fantastic little car.

Happy Frogging!