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A Bug Eye's Life

The inimitable Johnny Cash had a hit in the 1970’s called, “One Piece at a time,” about a factory worker who assembled a car by sneaking out parts…”it's a '60, '61, '62, '63, '64, '65, '66, '67,'68, '69, '70 automobile.”  Crispen Morgenthaler’s 1960* Austin Healey Sprite is reminiscent of Cash’s automobile, as Crispen says, “we call it a 1960, but it’s got lots of different parts on it.”

Let’s begin the “Bugeye’s Life” story around 1970, when John Nicholson, Crispen’s grandfather, picked up the shell for $100.  The idea was to build an auto-x car which would allow John’s son (Crispen’s uncle) to race in the “Mid-Cal Sports Car Club.”  Thus, the shell was made into an auto-x machine, and raced through 70s and 80s before falling into disuse, and being stored for about 15-20 years.  Then, around 1999-2000, John decided to revive the old Bugeye and enlisted the help of one Joe Baba, a legendary figure in the San Joaquin Valley sports car milieu.  The mighty 1100cc engine was given new life, with a racing camshaft, high compression (13:1!) pistons, a Weber 45 sidedraft, and all the associated goodies.  The rest of the car was also modified to suit its more serious intent. Now prepared for its second Auto-x bow, life intervened, and the car again sat unused in John’s garage.  Only occasional visits from young Crispen gave the Bugeye any love; he would beg his grandfather to be allowed to sit in the car.  Later, Crispen pleaded to be allowed to drive the diminutive racer, but he was always rebuffed.  “You better talk to your uncle,” grandfather told Crispen.

The begging, pleading and waiting continued until late 2018, when Crispen was given permission to pull the racer out of the garage.  At this point, the car had covered a mere two miles since its Baba-influenced rebuild.  A refresh of all fluids and a check of all the safety systems, and the Bugeye once again snorted back to life.  Crispen drove the ‘eye in its first auto-x in nearly 40 years in the Fresno SCCA event, Spring 2019.  He and the Bug have attended many Auto-x events since, including some during the Dark Days of COVID.

On October 10, 2020, Crispen trailered the Bugeye to a Porsche Club of America event in Madera, CA. While the vintage car couldn’t turn times competitive with the pricey modern machinery, it provided more entertainment – for pilot and spectators alike – than any other competitor.  As Crispen says, “it’s not Fast, but it’s Quick.”

In an age where vehicles are become ever more similar and disposable, it’s very gratifying to see Crispen enjoy his Bugeye in what must surely be one of the ultimate acts of “repurposing.”

Martin Connolly

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