and co-driver, Martin Davidson
Another Sebring Coupé with a long racing pedigree, this Sprite has, amazingly, remained with its owner since he acquired it from the works (Donald Healey Motor Company) in 1960. Built in 1959 it was sold to Jack Wheeler by Louis Cassoni, who was salesman when John Sprinzel was in charge of the Grosvenor Street showroom, and Paul Hawkins was foreman of the workshop. It was then described by Cassoni as a "low-mileage company car, with a special specification". When Jack met him again at Lancaster Mews in 2005, he mentioned this to him, to which Louis Cassoni replied "Well, I'll give you your money back if you like!"
It is a little unclear as to whether all previous works Sprites bearing registration 7080AC were in fact the same car - Jack has seen pictures of Tommy Wisdom in Sicily, Moss at Sebring, and Wisdom again on the Alpine Rally, all with Sprites bearing 7080AC, prior to his ownership. It is possible the number was used on several of the Healey's cars at that time.
Jack initially ran the car in a few rallies and other modest events before deciding to go club racing. The car began as a standard-bodied Sebring and is pictured in "Spritely Years" fitted with a supercharger. A fibreglass Sebring bonnet was the first major modification, followed later by an alloy hardtop similar to those of Sprinzel's Williams & Pritchard coupés. Unable to afford W & P's prices, Jack obtained front, rear and side screens from Paul Hawkins and trotted off to Peel Coachworks for them to create a similar top. Jack made his own lightweight doors by stripping off the steel outer skins, and cladding them in aluminium. He bent the shape "over his knee" and was naturally proud to show me that the driver's door he made remains on the car today. Later, when funds allowed, Jack went back to Peel's and asked them to make him an alloy rear end. While there he noticed that they had made one for Douglas Wilson-Spratt which incorporated Bentley rear light units, so he asked for his to be fitted with these as well.
Jack lived, for a time in a flat in Netherhall Gardens, off Finchley Road (London) which he shared with Martin Davidson, Paul Watson, Graham White, and Andrew Marriott, the then editor of Motoring News. Jon Brown (he of Targa Rusticana and LeJog fame) also joined them for a while.
The group inevitably talked often about cars and racing, - over a beer in the local pub and on one occasion the subject got around to what was termed PROPER racing. Jack had always been fascinated by the Mille Miglia and had done a 'recce' of the course, but before he could 'get his act together' the Mille Miglia was abandoned on safety grounds, (in 1957). It was concluded that the only real race left was the Targa Florio which was run on public roads around the island of Sicily. Back at the flat, someone said "Well, why don't you do it then?" By this time the Sprite had been retired from club racing and a project to build the ultimate lightweight Mini was under-way (this still awaits completion today!). "Well, what about the Sprite?", was the next suggestion. So, the Sprite was dragged out of hibernation and was modified to cope with long distance international events. Jack, and Martin Davidson, would share the driving and in years to come, they endeavoured to take part in 4 or 5 races on the continent each year. These included the 1000Kms at Nurburgring, the Targa Florio in Sicily, the Circuit of Mugello in Italy, and the 500Kms back at the Nurburgring. Mugello was a 40 mile road circuit over the mountains and back again.
Looking at the car(s) today one can see the mods which were made over a period to improve handling, braking, performance and interior ventilation among other things. The team took part in 8 Targa Florios including the last run in 1973. The first four of these were with the Sebring Sprite and the later ones using a sports-racing car called a Daren.
Engine and transmission developments included several wet sump engines fitted with a wide shallow high-capacity sumps, before the dry-sumped XSP engines of varying capacities came along. Seeing that Geoff Healey was running MGB overdrive gearboxes in his competition Sprites, Jack followed suit, these ideal for circuits like the "Little Madonie" with long straights followed by twisty mountain sections. Later he acquired one of the few 5-speed boxes developed by Donald Healey/BMC. Jack also managed to borrow an 8-port cylinder head from Eddie Maher of BMC (this has often been referred to as the Weslake head, but Jack says it is in fact one developed by Morris Engines. Harry Weslake's grandson apparently has one of the true Weslake heads which is somewhat different. Jack Cramp, Weslake's flow-tester, who still lives near their former base, in Rye, Sussex was able to give Jack this information - the Weslake head has round exhaust ports while the Morris ones are square). He was lucky to be given the inlet manifolds by Paul Ivey, who he was not meet again for over 30 years. The manifolds had been made by Bob Eccles, and when Jack needed another set for the much more recent re-build, Bob's pattern-making company was able to oblige once again. They went to enormous trouble to re-create these manifolds from scratch, for which Jack is very grateful. Another modification was to create dual-circuit brakes using twin Girling master cylinders in the Sebring pedal box, and fabricating a separate narrow box for the clutch cylinder and pedal.
The Sprite's (period) racing career came to an end at the Nurburgring in 1969 when Jack rolled the car going through the Carouselle. Early in the race a throttle spring inside one of the Webers had broken up and jammed the throttle. This had no bearing on the subsequent accident but Jack lost considerable time trying to effect a remedy in the pits putting the car out of contention. Apparently before World War II one was considered quite a hero if you could achieve a lap of the Nurburgring in under 10 minutes, so Jack, being now well behind, decided he could at least try for that. It was in this attempt that he 'over-did it' and was lucky to escape without injury, though the car was mangled - especially the streamlined bonnet of which little remained. After the event the car was dismantled and, due to lack of space, parts were distributed among numerous friends and relatives. Some 25 years later, it all took some finding again when Jack decided to restore it.
On one occasion, Peter Jackson, who had campaigned a Sebring Sprite in the past but was now racing Lotus Elans, partnered Jack at the Nurburgring, and he complained bitterly about the handling, especially at the rear of the car. Peter pointed out that the wheelbase of an Elan was little different from that of a Sprite and why didn't Jack equip it with Elan rear suspension? Jack went to Temple Fortune in North London where Ian Walker (another Sebring Sprite man), Paul Hawkins and John Pledger were working and they found him all the parts he needed. Peel coachworks welded in part of an Elan backbone chassis to the rear of the Sprite and built a slippery bonnet with inset headlamps for the 1968 season. The following year it also had Elan front suspension. By now the hardtop had been discarded and a Perspex wrap-around fly screen fitted, together with a panel which partially covered the passenger area (full covering was not permitted under the regulations).
I am not really sure how the revival of interest in the Sebring Sprite came about. Brian Archer was beginning to plan a replica of the Williams & Pritchard Coupé in the late 1980's, and by the early 90's Tom Coulthard and John Sprinzel were well into preparations to publish their book: "Spritely Years". Jonathan Whitehouse Bird had recently found the remains of EAO and started its restoration. Jack Wheeler was approached by Tom for information and he and Jonathan paid Jack a visit and asked him what he was going to do with 'the bits'. It was this that sowed the seeds for 7080AC to be "re-assembled". The car only really survives, in Jack's hands, and in its original form, because it was damaged in 1969, and therefore it could not be sold on, when it may well have been further modified and perhaps eventually lost.
... and then there were two!!
Then the question was whether to rebuild it as the Coupé car raced in the early 60's or the open, Elan-equipped car of the later period. Jack eventually decided to do both! He had enough parts but only one bodyshell and that needed a lot of work. Brian Wheeler built a new shell for the hardtop car which then had a new aluminium rear plus the original hardtop and a replacement fibreglass bonnet. This car is fitted with a wet-sump motor with single 45 Weber and the MGB overdrive gearbox, while the open car has the 8 port head, dry sump motor and the 5-speed box. At the time of writing this latter car is with Brian Wheeler for a replacement aluminium bonnet to be fabricated.
The Coupé has bolt-on wheels while the open one has centre-lock Minilite wheels. Many were curious at last year's Goodwood Revival, as to the purpose of the aluminium trumpet just ahead of the windscreen. This was introduced as a means of ventilating the driver's footwell during the intense summer heat at Mugello. A scoop on the bonnet feeds fresh air straight down on to the drivers feet, and this is now a feature on both cars. Naturally both have the registration 7080 AC and the Healey Motor Co chassis plate, though the open car has the extra digits 26R to denote its Elan connections.
I realise I have said little hear about Martin Davidson who remains a close friend of Jack's and continues to race the car on his behalf, as he did in the 2006 Fordwater Trophy at the Goodwood Revival bringing the car home in 8th place overall and 4th Spridget.
Another little anecdote - Jack showed me the electric motor of the Kenlowe cooling fan which he originally obtained in that company's very earliest days, direct from Ken Lowe, collecting it from his home. It has recently been restored to go back on the 'open' car.
[Other interesting reading material relating to this car can be found at: www.ahsdc.org/goblins/tech/TF67.htm where Martin Davidson relates the story of his race at the Targa Florio in 1967 with 7080AC]
Testing 7080AC (No.2) at Bruntingthorpe (19 August 2008)
I had a visit from Jack Wheeler one Saturday recently when he was scouring the Kent countryside, with two 5 gallon cans, looking for leaded petrol for his open version of 7080AC. The car was finally ready for testing, having been provided with a complete new bonnet in aluminium, courtesy of Brian Wheeler's skilled hands. The following Tuesday Jack and his long-term co-driver Martin Davidson put some 200 miles on the car around the airfield perimeter track at Bruntingthorpe in Warwickshire. I really admire the way in which they felt able to take the car "straight out of the box" after very many years of disuse and do a full day's testing - no rolling road or dyno for them, just set it up in the workshop and away. Apparently, apart from having to re-set the carburettor float levels it went very well, using up all of their 10 gallons of petrol. I suppose anyone who can race at Nurburgring, and then trail the car all the way down to Sicily and take part in the Targa Florio the following weekend (admittedly nearly 40 years ago) has to be "special". The last time the car was running was when Jack inverted it going through the Caroussel at Nurburgring in 1969.
The car in its early days fitted with Shorrock supercharger
The new Peel aluminium rear
On the 1967 Targa Florio
Thruxton ( ? 2001)
At Goodwood in 2006
Davidson at the wheel
That special air-vent
Engine bay in 1969
and on the start line
The streamlined car ...
....with Elan suspension....
.....as it is today
Jack with Peter Jackson
Wonderful sheet metalwork by Brian Wheeler
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My thanks to Jonathan Whitehouse-Bird, Tom Coulthard/John Sprinzel, Dave Owen and John Phillips for supplying many of the pictures featured here.
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