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First Road Registered Austin Healey Sprite
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Whenever anyone becomes party to a conversation about old or classic cars it is much like listening to the tales told by anglers of how the biggest fish that ever lived was so nearly caught, but just happened to get away at the last moment.

Newspaper photograph of the first Austin Healey Sprite to be registered for the road with registration number PBL 75 In the case of the classic car conversation, the story is often that of the one found in a barn on some deserted farm, or the car that despite being 30–years old had one lady owner from new, had not turned more than 2,000 miles and lived in a heated garage all its life.

Yes, as long as mankind shows an interest in classic cars, those stories will always be told.

However, as far as classic car stories go, the one that we are about to tell really is quite amazing, and one that we at Ride Drive feel honoured and privileged to be able to tell. This is the story of Pebble, one of the two very first Austin Healey (Frogeye) Sprites to be registered for use on the road and a very special piece of British motoring history.


One of two first Austin Healey Sprites

Pebble, so named by its owning family on account of the three letters of its registration number, had a sister, PBL 74. These were the two very first Austin Healey Sprites to be registered for the public road.

Apparently, PBL 74 is listed on the Austin Healey Owners Club register, and although alleged to be still be in existence, it is believed to be in a very poor state of repair. At least that was the case at the time of publishing this article.

However, we do know a a lot about PBL 75, thanks to Phil Evett, the man who owned the car for most of its life, took it to Australia with him, raced it on the track and spent years lovingly restoring it.


Originally thought to be
the oldest surviving Austin Healey Sprite in the World

It is known that PBL 75 and PBL 74 were two of a small number of Austin Healey Sprites built as development vehicles for public road work. These were used to test out design and modifications, and followed on from two prototype cars, these being code named Q1 and Q2.

The car that was labelled Q2 was the second of only 2 such prototypes to actually be built by the Healey Motor Company, then based at Warwick, and was the first car to undergo pre–production tests by BMC. All remaining cars where built at Abingdon, but the exact number of cars that made up the initial pre–launch batch of Sprites is unknown. Certainly the total only amounted to a hand full.

As a result of testing, modifications were made to strengthen the area of the rear wheel arches and rear suspension mounts. These changes were then incorporated into the finished design when production of the Sprite began in March 1958, and before public announcement of the model was made in May of the same year.


Prototype cars were driven unregistered and on trade plates

The prototypes, it seems, were never registered for the road, but were used on trade plates before being destroyed once their purpose had been served.

An interesting feature of PBL 75 is the numbers of various major components seem to have been issued and in a somewhat haphazard manner. This is of no surprise as consistency in number progression was never a great concern at BMC, as many owners will attest. PBL 75 is no different on that score, as the numbers to be found on the various parts around the car are as follows.

Engine No.3
Body No.5
Chassis No.7

Section of body panel of the first Austin Healey Sprite with the word Body 4 stamped into the metalwork and showing through the paintIn addition to this information, and stamped above the passenger foot well in large figures, are the words, Body No 4.

PBL 74 and PBL 75 were registered for road use on 31st January 1958 and were the very first two Austin Healey Sprites to bear registration plates. These cars pre–date the beginning of the first production run by about 6–weeks. PBL 75 was also BMC’s show car and therefore the one that all the representatives of the motoring press tried and tested before preparing their media reports.


Used and abused

PBL 75 had to endure all sorts of abuse over the first 20–years of its life. First, it was used as both a racer and a test car. Then, after enduring 5–months of being thrashed around the roads of England whilst being used to develop the design for production models. It was wrung out to its limits by the journalists of the day, including writers for Motor and Autocar Magazine.

This was the car used for all the official publicity photographs to advertise the launch of the model into the car market place. In fact, in those early days, practically everyone who sat in the driver’s seat, drove the Sprite for all it was worth.


PBL 75 driven at Silverstone race circuit

One such driver was Roy Salvadori, who took PBL 75 for a track test at Silverstone circuit. For several laps he pushed the Sprite as hard as it would go, an event that provided footage for a short promotional film produced by BMC and narrated by John Bolster.

In 1965, a man called Jim McManus was a committee member of the Austin Healey Club. He was also the manager of a large BMC dealership in Rickmansworth, Hertfordshire, then called H.A. Saunders. During that year, McManus negotiated a trade–in deal with one David Cook of Waltham Abbey; a customer wanting to buy a new car.

The vehicle Mr. Cook was asking to part–exchange was one Austin Healey Sprite, bearing the registration number PBL 75. At this time a fellow committee member of the Austin Healey Club was Phil Evett, who had a very keen interest in the little car. McManus knew of Evett’s interest in the Sprite and the connection was made.

PBL 75 had been frequently photographed and pictures appeared in books, magazines, on postcards and posters, some of which had adorned the walls of Phil Evett’s home for quite some time prior to this date. Phil had always promised himself that one day PBL 75 would be his. Then, at 24–years of age, and for the sum of £260, the going rate for an Austin Healey Sprite of that age, the dream became a reality.


Pebble emigrates to Australia

About 18–months later, Phil Evett and his wife emigrated to Melbourne, Australia, and took the Austin Healey Sprite with them. The better climate preserved the car well, as it was not being exposed to the damp and salt gritted roads of England.

Transported by sea on the SS Balranald, and despite there being concern about potential damage, or worse, the car arrived in one piece. However, it was mysteriously short of the battery and radio!

In 1967, Phil and his wife purchased a second Frogeye Austin Healey Sprite, and at this time had joined the Melbourne based Austin Healey Sprite Drivers’ Club (AHSDC). This new acquisition, registration number JKL 154, was finished in British Racing Green and came with a Peter Manton hardtop.


The Austin Healey Sprite now becomes a weekend racing car

Soon, both Sprites were to be found racing most weekends with Mr. and Mrs. Evett at the wheel of their respective motors, each being as highly competitive as the other. To try and get the winning edge, Phil replaced Pebble’s 948cc engine with a balanced 1098cc unit, together with matching gearbox. He also replaced the drum brakes with discs at the front, introduced an anti–sway bar at the front, put on new sills and a gave the car a fresh coat of paint.

In 1968, PBL 75 was featured at the annual Melbourne Motorshow, along with two other Sprites, one of which was a MK2. This car was a completely different shape to the frogeye design.

That same year, PBL 75 went on to race at Philip Island, and competed in the Templestowe and Lakeland hill climbs. It also clocked the fastest time at the first ever Melbourne State Championship Motorkana, as well as competed in the Winton six–hour relay race.

Despite the determination of the team, and with a race being run in the most diabolical weather conditions where it rained for the whole six–hours, by the time the event ended, they were placed in sixth position.


Pebble becomes a donor car for parts and is sent into retirement

However, 1969 was to be Pebble’s year, well sort of at least. Phil Evett had built a new Austin Healey Sprite, and to do so he used the running gear from PBL 75. Pebble itself remained safely in the corner of the garage waiting to one day be re–assembled, but it was to be some time before that happened. The car running on borrowed parts completed the 1969 event with a successful outcome.

In 1975, after two more house moves that took place in that one year, PBL 75 was totally dismantled for the start of a complete re–build.

When the project began, Phil’s eldest daughter was 18–months old, and when he finished the project, she was eight and just about tall enough to drive it!

Pebble had now well and truly withdrawn from the racing limelight and to a life of leisure, scenic drives on the weekends and the occasional Noggin ’n Natter. There was the odd famed appearance, such as in the 1983 publication of a magazine called, Australian Sports Car World, an occasion that commemorated Pebble’s 25th Birthday.


The move to Queensland

In 1984, Phil, his family and the car went to Queensland as part of yet another house move, and covered the 1,200 mile distance in 2–days, driving all the way.

All seemed very comfortable for Pebble, that was until in 1998, when Phil’s youngest daughter, Lisa, began learning to drive.

The body shell of the Austin Healey Sprite stripped down to bare metal and ready for re–sprayingWhilst at the wheel of the faithful little car, and trying to sort out which gear was what, she chipped the first motion shaft in the gearbox. After that the Sprite was once more retired to the corner of the garage.


In 1998, full restoration
began in earnest

A little while later, and in 1998, a full restoration project began, but this time Phil wasn’t just making the car look good again, he was returning it back to the specification and condition when it was first registered in January 1958.

8–years later, and in 2006, the Austin Healey Sprite emerged, bright, gleaming and in as near perfect order as it is possible for a 48–year old car to be. Everything about it was how it should have been, with any modification previously carried out being back–converted.


Restoration complete and the Sprite is offered for sale

Early in 2007, and after Phil had owned the car for just over 40–years, he advertised it for sale, offering it to a worldwide audience via the power of the Internet. No doubt he had good reason for giving the car up, but whatever they were, the choice to let it go must have been a very difficult one to make.

The first road registered Austin Healey Sprite now fully restored and immaculate in every way Following its sale in Australia, PBL 75 again took to the high seas aboard a ship, but this time it was coming home to England, arriving here on 19th May 2007.

It is not actually known by the team at Ride Drive who now owns the car, but it would be wonderful to learn that information. Has it become part of a collection, or is it the pride and joy of someone who will actually use it?

If anyone can continue the story, and would like to contact us at Ride Drive, we would be very interested and pleased to hear from you.

It would also be wonderful to learn of the whereabouts and up to date situation of Pebble’s sister car, PBL 74. Again, if anyone can tell us we would be very pleased to hear from you.


Link to a comprehansive photorgraphic record of the restoration of the first Austin Healey Sprite to be registered for the road   A selection of 12 photographs of PBL 75 during and after full restoration
   
Link to a publicity film produced for BMC to announce the arrival of the Austin Healey Sprite   You Tube clip of PBL 75 being driven around Silverstone race curcuit by Roy Salvadori in short promotional film made in 1958

First Published February 2007

The above article has been written by Phil Evett, and produced and edited by Julian Smith of Ride Drive Ltd. All photographs have been provided by, and will remain the property of, Phil Evett and are displayed here with kind permission.


See also, Lisa Pays Tribute to Her Dad’s Sprite

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First Road Registered Austin Healey Sprite

     
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