The Austin Healey Sebring Sprite‘ Little BeWT ’, OUMF student practical project 2015 - 2021
Shortly after the completion of the now well-known and successful 1959 Riley 1.5 race car by OUMF students in 2014, they appealed for a new project on their stand at the NEC Classic Motor Show later that year. Several interesting classics in various states were offered by visitors, and amongst these kind folk was long-time OUMF supporter Bob Kemp of the Austin Healey Club, who suggested his early Sprite 838 BWT as a candidate. It was in a bad state, and well beyond his means or capabilities to restore - but it was complete, and he was happy to donate it to a good cause. OUMF members were excited both by the idea of an 'A' series-engined race car project, and by Bob's photos, and so despite the clear challenges posed by its advanced delapidation (due to long storage in the open) Bob's offer was quickly accepted.
With the clear aim of preparing it for racing, and in consideration of the cars condition, a plan was drawn up there and then at the show. A long list was swiftly made of parts that would be needed, and students set off to approach the many trade stands for help. The first high hurdle was to find the repair panels, and this was cleared very quickly through the support of John Yea, MD of British Motor Heritage. He had been much impressed with the OUMF placement students' performance at BMH and immediately offered to kick start the project with a 'mine' of parts - in the form of a trial assembly Spridget underframe – from which could be cut many of the panels that might be needed for repairs. In the same way, Steve Hall of Hall's Garage ‘Tifosi Rana’ kindly offered a set of his beautiful 'Sebring' Sprite outer body panels - and so with two of the biggest problems solved, and many of the other things on the list pledged by the end of the three day show too - including a set of rear light units donated by Gerry and Rhona from Hawk Cars - the project was off to the best possible start!
Little did we know then just how far ahead the chequered flag would be...
So began a long welding-metal-fest that provided the students with the opportunity for all the practice and experience they could ever have wished for using the excellent TIG and MIG welders and plasma cutter kindly donated by R-Tech – further blessed with copious supplies of argon from SGS Gases. However, without the help of John Yea and the expertise of Sprite guru Brian Wheeler it might still be unfinished, as so much of the bodywork needed repairs and repanelling involving 100's of hours of attention during the ensuing 3 years. But eventually, by mid-2018, the shell was rust-free, lighter, stronger, and in many respects better put together than it would have been when new - and the carefully prepared braking, steering and suspension parts could begin to be mounted. Ray Davis, Motobuild, Mamba Motorsport, Superpro, Aurora, Dave Atherton, Lifeline and RacepartsUK kindly supplied what was needed for the front end - including alloy-mounted Speedwell tubular anti-roll bar - before the Performance Braking calipers and Mintex pads were mated to the lightweight hubs and calliper bells engineered by the OUMF students.
At the rear, Owen Springs and BCCP kindly supplied alternative rates of quarter elliptic springs, and with Peter Caldwell's help we were able to upgrade the suspension with his adjustable lever arm shocks at each corner. The modified rear axle was fitted with an 3J NXG limited slip diff, feeding power through uprated Laranca halfshafts, with standard drums and Saftec brake linings. The students then installed mounts to allow either a Frontline Developments Panhard rod or an RTL/Mumford link to be fitted as they planned to test and compare both systems on track.
With the chassis rolling, it was fitted with dummy running gear and both the roll cage and a bespoke inlet and exhaust system were beautifully crafted by Joe Ellis at BTB Exhausts, assisted by an OUMF team member. As the goal was the race track, the entire exhaust system was subsequently Zircotec coated to minimise underbonnet heat and allow the fastest handling during mid-race repairs in the pits.
The monocoque was then able to be primed in Rustbuster's superb Epoxy Mastic paint - which in our opinion is better than powdercoating - which will protect it for countless years to come. Once the tailored fuel tank, radiator, and oil and expansion tanks were installed - all made millimetre-perfect in gleaming alloy by GDM Cooling - OUMF members will never forget the day they spent with Matt Potter and his team at THINK Automotive's new HQ in Ashford. In a blur of action and learning, they helped completely plumb the Sprite with all the pipes, fittings, clips, and hoses for the fuel, braking, cooling and oil systems. By the time we thanked super-generous Matt and set off back to Oxford, the car was really beginning to look like a top historic racer!
Many other aspects were being addressed concurrently during this time, and, as parts and services were kindly offered, many trips were made to supporters around the UK. One example arose from Sebring expert Martin Ingall moving house from Kent to Teesdale. This event prompted a very thoughtful invitation from him to clear his garage of a lifetime's accumulation of random parts, which proved an invaluable trove during the build. The pyrotechics at Lentons Treatments when they caustic scoured the engine block for us was another visit forever etched on our memories! After Owslebury Crankshaft Services had kindly machined all the engine parts to perfection, we were ready to start the build, and everyone was very excited to be offered help and guidance in this by Nick Swift of Swiftune. Who better to teach the team how to build an ‘A’ series race engine than the conquering hero of the Goodwood Revival?!! Loading the club van with all the components needed before we set off for that memorable weekend read like a roll call of the finest motorsport providers - and will give you an insight into the calibre and integrity of the engine that was built: ARP, G&S Valves, Calver, ACL, Serdi, EnginepartsUK, Kent Cams, SH Engineering, Helix Autosport, ITG, NGK, Raceparts, CSI, THINK Automotive are just some to whom we are truly grateful for their support. In the end, the team spent two full weekends staying with Nick Swift and his family at Swiftune in Kent, building the engine with him (to which he generously donated some of his prized race components too). Finally, we filled it with Fuchs Titan Race oil, and put it on the Swiftune dyno - fitting all three of Phil Taylor's artfully ported heads, and comparatively testing each one in turn on the powerful little beast! Thanks to Nick's ‘no nonsense’ teaching style, there was so much learned at every stage of the process; it was simply unforgettable…and its over 140hp was more then we, or Nick, had ever expected!
The came the pandemic at the end of 2019 - and the first lock down in early 2020. The project was severely hampered and delayed by the pandemic restrictions which lasted for months, but as they lifted towards the end of the summer of 2020, the Sebring’s trial build was close to being completed. The peerless Tillett seat was installed with the Lifeline harness and fire extinguisher system, and the dash and appropriate parts of the interior were trimmed in burgundy leathercloth. Speedycables again surpassed our expectations in their renovation of the clocks - and especially in subtly converting the original 100 mph speedo into an electric tachometer - topping out at 10,000 rpm! Neither the Car Builder Solutions LED warning lights, nor the ingenious Cartec isolator and Power Distribution Panel mounted on the tunnel, looked in the least bit out of place. Soon the SuperB battery was connected to Vlad Ardeleanu's clever modular wiring loom, and the interior was set off by the dazzling handbrake lever - and other items flawlessly re-chromed by S&T Electroplate. All the months of graft on the bodywork were vindicated by the best panel gaps we'd seen on similar cars, and this included the alloy-framed sidescreens the team built from scratch, with Jeff Skitt sliders. After a trial fit of the lovely ‘Speedwell’ door handles from Motobuild, plus the door mirror, front grille, wipers, catches and glass, and the car was externally stripped and ready - at last - to be treated to its top coat of paint; Lesonal's finest Jaguar Silver Grey Metallic, courtesy of one of OUMF's longest-serving sponsors, Akzo Nobel.
On August 17th 2020 the lucious Lesonal finishing coats were applied in the booth at Oxford Wheel Repairs - and all agreed the paint finish looked fabulous, straight from the gun. The students couldn't wait to put it back together, and the final build began in earnest when term began in September. Everyone wanted to get the car ready and tested before the first HRDC races of 2021, and everything went well - until the second lockdown began around Christmas 2020. Many students left and sensibly opted to stay at home in the New Year rather than suffer further imprisonment in their rooms in halls...and the Sebring project again ran into the sand. The OUMF yard outside the shed - where students could safely practice 'hands on' skills while socially distanced and out in the open - proved to be an oasis of creativity for those unfortunate members who remained in Oxford, as all departments and facilities at both the universities were shut down until the end of the summer term. But as the lock-down lifted and things opened up again, the Riley 1.5 distracted the team's attention in advance of the late start to the 2021 HRDC race season, first at Thruxton in June, and the second meeting at Lydden Hill in July. Then out of the blue came the news of OUMF's invitation to race the Riley in the St Mary's at the Goodwood Revival! The Sebring project was upstaged again, and, with the Riley’s engine requiring a rebuild, as well as tons of other problems after Castle Combe, just two weeks before it was due at Goodwood, the odds of the car finally making its first appearance on track in 2021 grew even longer. As the old saying goes, it is the final 10% of the tasks needed to finish a project that can sometimes take 90% of the total time! - and, after a long 5 years, it was the spectre of this that was gnawing away at the team's enthusiasm by late summer.
That all changed with the reappearance of Canadian student Thomas Leclaire! He had gone back to Quebec for Christmas 2020, but had been unable to return to his 2nd Year engineering studies at Brookes in 2021 due to the pandemic, so he had decided to take a year out and get a job. However, on reading of the HRDC 'Season Finale' deadline at Silverstone that OUMF had set itself to first race the Sebring, he decided to fly back when the restrictions eased, and joined the OUMF team at the Goodwood Revival. When all the excitement of Jochen Mass driving the Riley in the St Marys Trophy was over, he took the project by the horns full time to ensure the deadline of October 30/31st was met.
His extraordinary commitment and 'will do' attitude galvanized the whole club, and from the beginning of term there was a frenzy of activity as we addressed all the outstanding tasks. The pedal box was rebuilt, the front hubs, brakes and hydraulics were completed, and the new IMS propshaft fitted. A myriad of items of trim were made while Think Automotive helped get the KA Sensors and Davis Craig cooling system plumbed into the Swiftune engine, along with its Powerlite ancilliaries and Classic Carbs Weber linkage. The Minilites (X-rayed and refurbished by Supreme Wheels) were fitted with Dunlop 'L' section historic control tyres, courtesy of Phillips Tyres, and Halls Garage kindly provided a second screen when the first one cracked during installation. By mid-October the RaceLogic VBox system was mounted and with under two weeks left before Silverstone, the car was finally started for the first time! As dreaded, but expected with any new car, there were a host of problems - ignition, pedals, fluid leaks, electrics, rattles, vibrations, etc.,- but the long list of ‘nibs’ was quickly addressed, and after urgent calls to generous supporters like Steve Illing, Paul Gardius, Nick Swift, CSI, Mamba Motorsport, THINK, Aldons, for help and advice, the car was road tested briefly. More problems! However, by Wednesday 25th it was running well, and an essential test session was kindly offered by Turweston Airfield for the following day.
Then, during the final checks that evening before loading it on to the trailer, the almost new engine lost its oil pressure! Checks did not reveal the cause, so decision time…strip it down and risk having nothing for Silverstone, or replace the engine?
It had to be the latter - and dear David Savidge was the 7th Cavalry! His old hillclimb Midget engine was rapidly pulled out of storage and swopped into the Sebring – an understated process that was led throughout by the utterly determined Thomas Leclaire and actually took from 9pm Wednesday through the night until well after midday Thursday (due in large part to the differences between his A+ and our 1275 block). Luckily Turweston was very understanding, and granted us a last chance to test there on Friday – on the way to set up in the paddock for the HRDC Silverstone GP weekend! At a wet Turweston Airfield, the car went well on the unknown engine, and, apart from discovering and addressing an oil leak from the rear main seal, we were able to adjust the brakes, suspension and other critical settings during our brief visit which boosted everyone’s confidence…and we set off for Silverstone.
The OUMF Riley 1.5 won its Class comfortably in the Jack Sears Trophy on Saturday, and the Sebring drew a lot of attention and positive comments, so team spirits were high as it was spanner checked on Sunday…before the typhoon struck! Practice/qualifying was undertaken in the wettest and windiest conditions we had ever seen at a track, with close to zero visibility, and the paddock was a dangerous place, scattered with wrecked awnings and gazebos, flying pit boards and damaged cars. However, the Sebring made it through all this unscathed, and lined up on the grid for its first race appearance in the slightly less wet HRDC Allstars race. To the team’s joy the Sebring looked great and went well reliably on track, lasting the whole race without issue, and taking the flag in 17th Overall, with a 5th in Class – and a lot of the race commentary!
The OUMF team was jubilant – not just at the amazing result but at the manner in which the race debut of this 6 year project had been concluded. Many major manufacturers have not been able to achieve such a result with a new model even after endless testing - let alone straight out of the box! They were further buoyed up by the congratulations they received in the paddock, and after prize-giving from their great HRDC patron Julius Thurgood. This was followed by the column devoted to its first appearance on track later that week in Autosport magazine – and then by the news that the car had been awarded the 2021 Sebring Sprite Trophy for the best turned out and presented car of the year at the NEC Classic Motor Show.
And then to crown it all, Little BeWT was invited to compete in the Weslake Cup at the 79th Goodwood Members Meeting in April 2022.
What a start to the Sebring’s racing career, and - we hope - a boost to the careers of the team, and a glowing tribute to the 100’s of students who have learned so much and played a part in its fairytale first appearance.
Lastly, and most sincerely, OUMF sends a huge thank you on behalf of every student who has been involved, to the members of the public and the companies across industry without whose support this could never have happened.
The OUMF Sebring Sprite Supporters ‘Roll of Honour’…
John Yea - monocoque repair panels and mirror
Steve Hall of Hall’s Garage - outer body panels
Owslebury Crankshaft Services - engine machining
Think Automotive - all plumbing for fuel, water, oil, and brakes
Swiftune - engine build and dyno, pistons, rods, timing gear kit
ARP - bolts and fixings
EnginePartsUK - gaskets and engine parts
ACL - race bearings
Keith Calver - rear oil seal conversion
Fuchs - oils
CSI - distributor
KA Sensors - sensors
Kent - camshaft
Omega - pistons
G&S - valves
Serdi - guides
Phil Taylor - cylinder head porting
Lentons - treatment of block
R-Tech Welding - welder, plasma cutter
SGS Gases - welding gas
BTB - exhaust system, roll cage and inlet manifold
Zircotec - ceramic coating of exhaust system and Zircoflex heat shielding
Aurora - spherical/rose joints
Pilkington - glass, heated windscreen
Jeff Skitt - sidescreen slider kits
Tillett - race seat
Motobuild - advice and parts
Ray Davis - advice and parts
Dave Atherton - door handles and trunnions
Brian Wheeler - help, advice, panels and spares
Akzo Nobel/Lesonal - primer and top coat paints
Rustbuster - epoxy mastic protective primer
Speedycables - clocks and cables
Classic Carbs - Weber linkage kit
ITG - air filter
Cartek - power distribution panel, battery isolator
Lifeline - harness, tow straps, mirror, steering wheel release and extinguisher system
RacepartsUK - HT and battery leads and steering wheel
Owen Springs - quarter elliptic springs
British Classic Car Parts - quarter elliptic springs
GDM - bespoke fuel tank, radiator, header and oil catch tanks
Superpro - suspension bushes
Peter Caldwell - adjustable shock absorbers
Mamba Motorsport - Suspension mounts, coil springs, and advice
3J Driveline - Limited slip differential
Steve Illing - parts, help and advice
Laranca Engineering - uprated halfshafts
Frontline Developments - panhard rod
SH Engineering - filter housing
Performance Braking - calipers
Saftec - brake linings
Mintex - brake pads
Racelogic - VBox, in-car camera system
Speedwell Engineering - anti roll bar kit, rod ends, links, engine mounts
Car Builder Solutions - lights and switches
Gerry Hawkridge - rear light units
SuperB - battery
Powerlite - alternator and starter motor
Davies Craig - electric water pump and cooling fan kits
Helix Autosport - race flywheel and clutch
IMS - torsionally resilient propshaft
NGK - spark plugs
Phillips Tyres - Dunlop L section tyres and much invaluable support
Supreme Wheels - wheel rim refurbishment
S&T electroplate - rechroming work
Oxford Wheel Repairs - paint oven provision
Martin Ingall - a van of spares, and the Sebring Sprite Trophy 2021!
Aldon Automotive – points distributor and rolling road set up
Robin Vincent – materials, machining, and water jet cutting
Julius Thurgood - HRDC race entries
David Savidge - parts, help and advice
Leave a Reply.