So You Want to Buy a British Sports Car? PDF Print E-mail

Some Questions and Answers by Jeff Burns

(Note: this article was originally appeared in the Austin-Healey Magazine in 1990 but still applies today. Adjust dollar figures accordingly)

The following dialogue is taken from a helpful and amusing little book written by Jeff Bums, owner of Mo­torhead Ltd. British restorations in Arlington, Virginia. With Jeff’s permission, we've adapted some of it to the Healeys, though most of what he says applies to all of the breeds equally well. Give it to a friend who's thinking about buying, or let your spouse read it in the hopes of greater understanding of your commitment.

Aren't British cars unreliable?

No, not inherently. The designs are intelligent. The technology is simple and well-proven. The cars are well constructed. The parts are durable in a manner consistent with the light nature of a sports car. When renovated and properly maintained, a British car can provide 100,000 miles offun, reliable driving at a cost of about $100 a month.

Are they safe?

Yes, inherently. In a small responsive sports car, one is able to avoid dangerous situations. Of course, sometimes the exhilaration allows maneuvering be­yond one's ability. In an accident, when shoulder belts are worn, the cockpit of a British car is rarely deformed, and injuries are minimal. While slipping a car is extremely difficult to accomplish, the convert­ible sports cars don't easily forgive loss of control.

How much does a British car cost?

Not much. Compared to new cars of similar ability, most British cars are inexpensive, fun, and mostly convertible. A good used one driven daily can cost from $4500 to $8500 to buy and about $100 a month thereafter. Although you can own, renovate, and maintain a car on a reasonable budget, there is almost no limit to the money you may spend if you choose to restore it. 

Won't it need a lot of work?

At first. Most British cars need an initial renovation and then thrive nicely on normal periodic mainte­nance.

What normal maintenance does it need?

Once a year it needs a major tune-up, oil and filter change, and a complete lubrication. Change the oil every 3000 miles, watch the oil and temperature gauges, listen for odd sounds, and be aware of changes in the car's behavior.

What happens if it breaks down?

You fix it well or pay to have it fixed.

Aren't parts hard to get?

No. If you plan to renovate an MG, Triumph, Austin­Healey or Jaguar, the suppy of parts to make it run, stop and light up is better now than when the cars were new. Some trim and detail items can be tough to track down. Any part that keeps the car off the road is usually available within two days.

Aren't parts expensive?

Some are. Most are not. British cars are still used as unique everyday transportation and parts prices re­flect the utility status.

OK, well, why are shocks so expensive?

On some British cars, the lever shock absorber is part ofthe suspension. Although this design is simple and maximizes road feel, this type of shock is a machine and costs more to manufacture than a conventional tube-type shock absorber.

Won't it be in the shop all the time?

No. If the known defects are corrected and if a reasonable maintenance routine is followed, your British car should have few unplanned shop visits.

Will I spend my weekends fixing it?

Only if you enjoy working on your car.

Where can I find a British sports car?

In nearly every town in America. Although they first arrived at the large coastal ports, these cars quickly spread across the country in capillary fashion through many owners and circumstances. Yesterday's parts cars are being renovated today so don't overlook auto salvage yards. And, yes, buyers are still finding cars in bams and pastures, though they aren't the bargains they once were.

How can I know what I'm buying?

Learn about the cars available. Choose your favorite. Join your local club and ask for advice from other members. Look at more than a few cars before you go out to buy your own. Hire a mechanic who knows the marque well to give it a careful two-hour inspection. Buy the best you can afford. Look before you leap.

Why a two-hour inspection?

In two hours, a reputable mechanic with experience in the marque you're buying can tell you whether the car has any major hidden defects, and can give you a good idea of what a renovation will cost.

What is a renovation?

A renovation deals with the 80% of results that cost 20% of a full restoration. Typically it will include correcting all safety and mechanical defects in the suspension and drive train, and a moderate amount of cosmetic work such as a new paint job and interior. For most of us, that is more than sufficient and the diminishing returns of a restoration are avoided in a renovation that emphasizes function and safety.

What is a restoration?

In a restoration, every part is separated from every other part, remade or replaced to original specifica­tions, and reunited. This approach costs at least $25,000 (not including the original cost of the car), un­less you do most of the work yourself. Costs can be considerably higher if special components are miss­ing and must be located or fabricated. Some experts consider that the final 20% of a near-perfect restora­tion effort uses 80% of the cost. Very few cars, except those of historic significance, are truly restored.

Why is it better to buy a car that's not rusty?

British sports cars are responsive, strong and light. Because they have less metal to start with, they have less metal to lose. All cars rust. Rust can be fixed at great ex­pense. Buy the best non-rusty car you can afford.

Why do you say "the best you can afford"?

The market for these cars right now is such that the quality of the car is more than propor­tional to the cost. You won't have to pay twice as much to get a car that is twice as good.

Where did the unfavorable reputation come from? In the United States, we have been taught to value the image of our cars without appreciating the machin­ery. Most British cars didn't cost enough in this country to instill a strong sense of ownership and value. These cars have tended to change owners more often than they received maintenance. Repairs were often postponed beyond fairness to the vehicle. A lack of proper care creates problems that stay with a car until a knowledgeable approach corrects the damage. British cars will run for a long time in an abused and neglected state. Then something breaks, leaving the unwitting owner stranded and cursing the breed.

Aren't the electrical systems a problem?

No, not if the systems are properly maintained. Lucas Industries made most of the electrical systems on British cars. The parts are well made and most prob­lems can be repaired by doing something easy like re­placing the fuse box or by removing the stuff in the trunk that is shorting the rear lights. Incorrect diag­nosis, corroded connections, and frayed wires have unfairly contributed to Lucas folklore.

Watch also for poor radio installation and dirty battery connections. Proper re­pairs stay repaired.

Is it good as an only car?

Yes. When properly attended to, it is as reliable as any other well-built car, and its fun factor means that all of your driving will be more enjoyable.

What if I only want to drive it occasionally?

These are good cars to drive occasionally-every week or every few days. Long periods without use can affect basic systems, such as brakes or electrical systems. These cars run better and last longer when driven regularly.

Can I take it on a trip?

Yes. British sports are lots off un to drive. A couple of hours in a nice one will leave you tired and refreshed at the same time. Know your car and have it serviced before a long trip. If it works well in town it should be great on the open road.

How is it in winter?

A bit cold-natured. These cars will start after a couple of extra cranks and then function normally.

Working heaters are really fine. A hard top helps. Some need a winter thermostat. Driving in snow is scary and driving on ice is unforgiving.

Is it a good car for daily commuting?

Yes. Once you have repaired all known defects and had an annual service, your car can be relied on to work well and give fair warning as normal wear occurs. Daily commuting of less than two miles each way, though, is rough on any car.

Should I own one?

Possibly. There is a range of temperament that seems to accommodate British car ownership. It does help to appreciate the beauty of the styling, understand the simple elegance of the machine, enjoy the feel of the road, and to be calm and thoughtful when it needs repair. If you have difficulty amusing yourself in a long supermarket checkout line, then perhaps a British car wouldn't be appropriate just yet.

Will it appreciate in value?

Yes. If you buy a good car, repair its defects, and maintain it properly, it will be worth more than you paid for it. Any car is worth $100 a month in utility, so subtract from your total expenditures (purchase and repairs) $100 for each month you've driven to figure a minimum value for it.

Why $100 a month?

This represents an easy figure to use and can be compared favorably to the cost of a taxi, bus, subway, or rental car. New cars will cost $150 to $300 a month in depreciation and the top usually doesn't come down. British cars, when properly repaired, average (over several years) $100 a month.

Can I sell it for what I have in it?

Maybe not yet, but soon. However, since most new cars cost more than $10,000 and the cheapest new convertible car is $15,000, renovated British cars are comparatively inexpensive. They are as yet generally undervalued. It is helpful to rationalize the finance of ownership by using the $100 a month utility figure. The price of some cars, such as the Austin-Healeys should easily keep pace with renovation.

Can my mechanic work competently on it? British cars are mostly uncomplicated. Their simple engineering is within the grasp of any good mechanic. The essence of competent repair is diagnosis. These cars are low tech in appearance and easy to disas­semble, hence the availability of "basket case" cars. Some parts and a few systems like dual carburetion are unfamiliar to most mechanics. What's needed is an understanding that these are easy to repair if symptoms are examined through diagnosis and testing before applying parts. Before giving the car to just any foreign car mechanic, however, ask other members of your club for their recommendations.

Can I work on it?

These cars look easy to repair and the temptation to attempt repairs beyond one's limits is strong. If you can manage clean careful work and agree that there's not enough time to do a job over, then you can enjoy working on a British car. Did you ever take apart a clock or a watch and not get it back together? So have I. Lots of people have, although that has almost nothing to do with working on these cars. I just wondered, that's all.

Do I need special tools?

American standard size wrenches and sockets are correct for the later Healeys. The few Whitworth or other tools needed for the earlier cars are easily available. For about $300 you can buy parts to complete almost any repair. With tools, as elsewhere, if it's hard you're doing it wrong.

How long will I have to wait for parts?

Any part that keeps your car on the road is available within two days. With few exceptions, there is no single part that can strand your car for more than two days. You should, of course, wait as long as necessary for competence in repairing or replacing said parts.

Aren't the carburetors a problem?

The twin SU carburetors are a simple and efficient way to feed an engine and often are blamed for problems caused by air leaks, low compression, and defects in the ignition system. Often, too, old original carburetors will be replaced with new and poorly matched carbs of a different design when the correct remedy is a rebuild of the original units. Even when understood, the SU cars are still somewhat difficult to master. But when properly rebuilt, set up, and ad­justed, they are reliable and durable.

Are there design flaws?

Yes. A design flaw is an engineered characteristic that causes repeated difficulties. Minor design flaws occur in every car. In the Healey, these rangefrom the nooks in the rear fenders that collect dirt and water (leading to the typical rust in the dogleg panels) to the lack of a fuse in the license plate lamp circuit lj'requently leading to burned wiring and blown switches.) Check it out before you buy.

What about a new car; aren't they better than ever?

Yes. There seem to be more fun cars of quality now than ever before. They are also more expensive, more complex, and less convertible than ever.

What about the lack of leaded gas and high octane gas?

The scarcity of leaded gas may cause a problem after many miles, and research on solutions is being carried on since so many cars are affected. Octane deficiencies are less critical and can be overcome in most situations.

How often will I be towed?

Possibly twice a year. However, British cars usually give lots of warning about imminent breakdown. Ignore a generator light for a month and you'll be towed; Neglect a tuning this year and be towed; Telepathize the temperature gauge needle of 212 for a week and you'll be towed. Spend the cost of a tow on maintenance.

Who are British sports car owners today?

Mostly people who have owned a British car before. We try other cars and our lifestyles take various twists and turns until we come back to fun driving. It's not easy to describe a typical owner.

Why do people sell the cars if they're so good and so much fun?

One reason owners, even those who neglect their cars, sell them is because of family obligations. Spouses and kids vs. the sports cars. Confrontations with mortality are character building and British cars appear to understand this. Not everyone who buys a British car should and the lack of vibrational parity eventually becomes unbearable.

What kinds of cars are there?

There is a whole list of British cars. As far as Healeys go, the early six-cylinder Healeys (3000 Mark Is and Mark lIs) are frequently available; the later convert­ibles even more so. The four-cylinder cars appear on the market more rarely. Sprites are still inexpensive and are fairly easy to find.

How many were made?

More than a million British sports cars were made, less than ten percent of one year's U.S. auto produc­tion. About 75,000 big Healeys were made and nearly 150,000 Sprites. Most of this production came to America.

What are the differences between them? Basically, styling, size, and cost. There are the big Healeys with bigger prices, and the little Healeys-the Sprites-that cost less.

Do they go fast?

British sports cars have a rich racing heritage and many are still being raced today in SCCA, club racing, or vintage races. All of these cars can exceed legal speed limits. One great attribute is that these cars give the illusion of high speed at any speed. You can thrill to "safety fast" as MG used to say.

Can I modify it?

These cars were intended to have a basic form for general consumption. Special tuning modifications are possible. Once you have decided not to have a totally original car, you can change it in any way that makes sense to you. Most modifications are costly and usually reduce reliability to some degree. They may also reduce the resale value of the car-Healeys with VB engines appear every so often, and sell for considerably less than the original and uncut cars.

Can I paint it a non-traditional color?

Factory paint colors were not exotic; an interesting color on a British car is sure to gain smiling approval in passing. But again, keep resale value in mind.

Why didn't they have automatic transmission?

These cars are meant to be light, simple and respon­sive, and to promote the feel of the road. Automatic transmissions are heavy, complex, and slow to shift-they separate the driver from road feel.

What can I get for myoId British car which is only good for parts?

How do you know it is only good for parts? The parts car, as defined today, looks completely rotten and has at least one irredeemable fault, such as a broken frame. Such a car can serve its highest purpose only in sacrifice to other cars. How much it is worth depends on the quality and rarity of the parts on it that are still usable.

Are the cars easy to steal?

These are attractive cars with simple electrical sys­tems and probably are easy to steal. Steering locks help, and a pedal to wheel lock is a good deterrent.

How can I maximize my chances of enjoying a safe and dependable British sports cars?

Buy the best car you can afford; fix its known defects; maintain it.

What's the downside?

Often you're buying someone else's errors, neglect, and abuse. Since there are no more of these cars being made, each one remaining ought to be bought out of interest and caring appreciation. If you can enjoy being part of the solution for this endangered species, then there is no downside.

What about Fiats? What about them?

Doesn't that last answer smack of the same sort of flippantly ignorant commentary that helped unfairly malign the British sports cars that are under discussion in this thinly disguised advertisement?

Yes. Thanks and I apologize.

How much will an engine cost to rebuild?

Installed, a pushrod engine rebuild costs about $3,000 (4 cyl) to $5,000 to rebuild, including the variety of details necessary to make the expense worthwhile. Costs may vary depending on the area of the country and the quality of the original engine.

Is it true you can open a bottle in the jack hole of a Sprite?

I'm not sure.

When did they stop making inexpensive British sports cars?

The last big Healey was built in 1967, having fallen victim-according to various accounts-either to the political inf'9hting in British Leyland or to the expense of bringing it up to the new pollution and safety standards of the American market. The Sprite struggled on a little longer. Then in 1980, after more than 30 years of Triumphs, MGs, Austin - Healeys and others in America, production was stopped. In the end, the British carmakers lost faith. They simply forgot that their contributions to world motoring were unique and exceptional. But the tradition can return.

Austin-Healey Magazine - May 1990

Last Updated ( Sunday, 04 May 2008 )
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