Tour of Duty

This 1964 Austin Healey Sprite Mk III has worn no less than ten sets of registration plates since if first hit the road, as well as spending a fair amount of time in hibernation while its owner jetted off (literally) to distant shores.

Brian Weston enjoyed a distinguished 34-year career in the Royal Australian Air Force as a jet-fighter pilot, which included flying Mirages and F/A-18 Hornets. But back in 1964 he was a lowly 19-year-old second-year Air Force cadet at the RAAF Academy at Point Cook, driving a two-tone 1952 Ford Consul. While the Consul was a sound and reliable barge it was hardly in keeping with the image of an aspiring jet jockey who dreamt of open-top adventures in a svelte sports car.

BMC released the MK III Sprite in late 1964 and this was seen as just the sort of car that Brian needed. Having been rebuked by the salesman at Peter Manton Motors in downtown Melbourne over the value of his Consul, he took his business to Goulds Motors in suburban Northcote.

“I had to wait four weeks before taking delivery of chassis YAGN8 629, a very early Champion Red Mk III registered JDB-836 on 28 November 1964,” remembers Brian.

“Interestingly, over the next 18 months a further six cadets from the No 16 RAAF Academy Course would buy Mk III and IIIA Sprites, and most from Gould’s; and certainly none from Peter Manton Motors. By early 1966 there were two Mk III and five Mk IIIAs at the Academy, oh, and a solitary Triumph TR2.”

Early on the inadequate Dunlop C49 crossply tyres were replaced with Pirelli Cinturato radial tyres that no longer made wet weather driving a heart-in-mouth experience! The Sprite was used on several interstate dashes; trips to the beach with surfboard secured; as well as trips to visit a young lady from the Bellarine Peninsula. (Happily this lady became Mrs Weston and still is to this day. The Sprite also got her to the church in time and performed reliably on the honeymoon too!)

In 1966 Brian was scheduled to undertake further studies in the U.K. and he faced a dilemma. Should he sell the Sprite at what would be a significant loss, or should he put it into storage? He chose what would become the first of a several periods of hibernation.

But before this happened disaster struck, as Brian explains. “I was on temporary duty at the Central Flying School at RAAF Base East Sale, awaiting departure to the UK. After an enjoyable weekend driving around Lake Wellington, the coolant drain tap on the block vibrated loose and the Sprite overheated. Very quickly it became apparent that the engine had suffered major damage, as it started to use large quantities of oil.”

“So I lifted the head and dropped the sump to remove the pistons that had telltale signs of scarring from the oil ring. However, the cylinder bores appeared smooth and undamaged. So a new set of pistons went in and the Sprite was carefully run in over 1,500 miles. But soon after its first extended full-power run, an ominous rattle developed. It was too late to investigate, as I was soon on a Boeing 707 bound for London. The Sprite sat on blocks at Point Lonsdale for the next 20 months.”

While in England, Brian ran a Triumph TR2 that consumed equal amounts of fuel, oil and water but otherwise proved reliable. But the Triumph had terminal rust and was sold to a wrecker for the princely sum of £10 prior to his return to Australia.

With Brian back in Australia, the Sprite was towed into Murphy’s; the Geelong BMC dealer. Here the engine was hot-soaked in an oil bath to remove the internal stresses caused by the overheating. It was bored and 20 thou oversize pistons were fitted. Murphy’s top mechanic did an excellent job. Indeed the cylinder head wouldn’t be lifted for another 20 years.

Although the Sprite returned to the road in September 1968 sporting new Victorian registration, it was soon NSW registered as Brian was transferred to RAAF base Williamtown, near Newcastle.

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The BMC Experience Issue 19. Oct-Dec 2016 Magazine


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