Crippen Mergers & Acquisitions Dept: a mini-hot rod

“Collector Car” nuts are rarely happy with their wares for long. It’s part of the craziness. There’s always the next desirable one. Great ad on cable, a guy standing next to an immaculate ’60 Jaguar XKE asked what his dream car was. ’67 Ferrari 275GTB. Jay Leno is said to have one of every vehicle ever built, including motorcycles and he’s still looking for more barn finds.

sprite-frontAccordingly, I have a new acquisition, a hot rod (sort of).

Some history: Back when the World War II ended, a lot of young men with extensive military training in welding and fabrication came home to find a fairly boring life in the Eisenhower administration. White picket fences. The cars of the day were boring as well, so these guys began to look at these vehicles with a different perspective. Older cars from the 20s and 30s could be purchased cheaply and re-built for lightness and simplicity. Engines extensively re-engineered for speed.

Check out this fascinating brief show of some classic rods:

California had an extensive racing culture for years and abandoned airports throughout the state were perfect for marked courses. Of course, “street rodding” became popular as well and the stage was set at that time for the “muscle cars”. The era of “drag racing” began on ¼ mile asphalt tracks. All this was popularized in the early 60s by the musical exponents of the car (and surf) culture including the Beach Boys & Jan & Dean.

Typical hot rods were chopped up 1932 Ford bodies containing huge modern supercharged V-8 engines capable of 600 horsepower. They go in a straight line only and few are legally road worthy. They are, of course, frighteningly instable and dangerous. Modern nitromethane burning “top fuel” dragsters are earth shaking beasts, the engine of which can reach 10,000 horsepower and can reach speeds of 335 mph (in 3.7 seconds) on a ¼ mile track, which is why the National Hot Rod Association has recently shortened the length of their run to 1000 feet.

But hot rods don’t necessarily have to be earth-shattering beasts. The hot rod feel and technology can be scaled down to relatively tiny vehicles without the fear and danger. Such a beast now resides in my back garage, and an interesting beast it is if you have a bent toward this sort of thing.

It’s a 1959 Austin Healy Sprite, with a 948 cc engine, not as big as modern Harleys and BMW motorcycle engines. It’s previous owner, however, hot-rodded this car to the bursting point, then got tired of it and went on to start restoring a Porsche 356. This guy lovingly put a TON of money into this car to discover that his three kids all wanted to ride in it at the same time and it would hold only one kid at a time.

So, to make a long story short, this car started life in 1959 as a 42 horsepower 2-seat mini-sports car, the power of which fell off dramatically over 4000 rpm. About comfortable 65 mph cruising speed. The previous owner, a very handy guy with a huge garage who loved to work on cars. He decided to create the maximum power and performance possible for this little engine just to see what he could get out of it.

Disclaimer: Esoteric technical details follow:

Cylinders bored out 40 thousands of an inch, increasing displacement. New balanced flat top pistons and rods. Chrome-Moly rings. Engine “ported and polished”, a trick right out of the hot rod age. Intake and exhaust ports drilled out to increase their diameter, then polished to a mirror finish to decrease gas/air flow turbulence. New valves and valve seats (for gas containing ethanol nowadays), strengthened valve springs.

Then an “Isky” camshaft (right out of the 50s) the legendary Ed Iskenderian sold “3/4 cams” in the 50s- held the valves open a little longer and closed them a little later, Increasing horsepower. New high-pressure clutch and reinforced transmission, rear axle and differential. Four wheel disc brakes to replace the old drums. New Bilstein shocks. Aluminum radiator, electronic ignition and alternator.

Then….the piece de resistance…..a period correct, completely rebuilt Judson supercharger with water/methanol intercooler (cooler air improves octane and decreases pre-ignition at hot temps). The supercharger creates about 9 psi pressure “boost” behind the air/fuel mixture through a new Weber carburetor. The engine now probably doubles it’s output (pushing a 1300 pound car) and will easily reach 7000 rpm still creating torque. There is also no “check valve” on this setup so the supercharger will continue to create boost as long as the throttle is pegged right up till it blows the engine up, which it will, so the driver must have a grain of common sense in driving this car.

Back in the late 50s and early 60s, Judson superchargers were relatively popular for Volkswagens, cheap, easy to install and increasing the normally miserable VW performance dramatically (blowing up more than a few of them). Some were also made specifically for period Sprites and MGs. They are virtually impossible to find now and if one is found they are extremely expensive. They require very little “tuning”. This one is immaculate.

So…..the classic car mania strikes again. Like Leno has said before, no one is ever really satisfied with what they have. There’s always something more interesting out there. This one is exceptionally interesting and you’ll see me hot rodding around with it come spring.

Here’s a neat (quick) video of what a supercharged Sprite typically feels and sounds like on a car identical to mine:



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