I recently had an exchange of emails with Ian Grainger who is a member of the Austin Healey Owners Club. Ian wrote an article about the Trident Clipper‘s use of “spare” Austin Healey 3000 chassis frames, it was that article which caused me to contact him. In the course of the exchange Ian sent me a link to the Panorama Bay Motor Company’s website, where a Trident Ventura (similar body shape to the Clipper but using a modified Triumph TR6 chassis), was for sale. As I was looking at the thumbprint photos on the dealer’s website, I noticed what looked like an Austin Healey 3000 for sale with a price tag of £24,950. “That’s cheap”, I thought, so, I took a closer look. All was explained when I focused on the photo’s caption. The car was and is a Sebring MX!!
So, what’s a Sebring MX when it’s around? I hear some readers say, those, who, like me, are unenlightened when it comes to the vast array of Classic Car replicas that are, or have been, available. I am not a total ignoramus on the subject; I remember being somewhat horrified when I saw various cars that looked like Ferrari F355s at a kit car show, some years ago. The illusion was exposed when I saw, under the perspex engine cover, a Toyota MR2 engine (I expect a Ferarri aficionado would have spotted the cars as fakes from a mile off but I am not one of those). I suppose the clue was “Kit Car Show”! And of course, well before that, we were all aware of the myriad Shelby AC Cobra replicas on the market. Some of these were and are very respectable and have earned a cult status in their own right.
In fact, we should hold on to that thought and divest ourselves of any disdain we may have for replica Classic Cars, especially the Austin Healey ones which I am going to cover here.
The Healey fans who read these posts should remind themselves that both Donald and Geoffrey gave their blessings to two brands of Austin Healey replicas. One was Keith Brading’s GRP “Frogeye” Sprite built on the Isle of Wight and the other was the Healey 3000 replica produced by the Holmes Brothers, Graham and Peter, at their premises near Stroud, Gloucestershire. The latter, also with a GRP body, was going to be badged ‘Healey 3000 MK IV’ until the owners of the Jensen brand at the time also claimed rights to the Healey name. This is an interesting story in itself which ran well into the 21st century. In the end, it was launched as the HMC (Holmes Motor Company) Mk 4.
Both cars were very successful at first but in the case of the “Frogeye”, a disastrous business deal, with a Japanese consortium, caused insurmountable financial problems, the company ceased trading in 1998. Initially, the cars were sold as “kit cars” using components from donor Sprites and Midgets. Eventually, type approval was gained enabling complete cars to be manufactured. An uprated model, designated SuperSprite using a 1.4Ltr. British Leyland ‘K’ series engine, was introduced. The car shown above has that specification. In the case of the HMC Mk 4, a combination of difficulties in obtaining “type approval” and meeting increasingly stringent USA safety regulations, made it almost impossible to sell the cars at a profit. Production was stopped in 2001 after c.178 cars had been built.
As a result of my chance discovery of the Sebring MX Austin Healey 3000 replica, I have found that the market for Healey replicas is still being satisfied. The manufacturing base is not large, more of a “cottage industry” but it appears to be vibrant and in my opinion is producing some very desirable cars at reasonable prices.
Above I asked the question “what is a Sebring MX when it’s around?”, I will answer that question now. It appears that the U.K. based company Sebring International was established in the early 1990s to import AH 3000 replica GRP bodyshells and chassis from Classic Roadsters who were based in Fargo, ND., USA. Classic Roadsters was started from scratch by Gary Rutherford, a native Dakotan engineering graduate. His initial objective was to manufacture kits for MGs (TD with a VW engine) and “Big” Healeys. He developed a good reputation for the quality of his work and the company thrived despite not being located in an area noted for car production. He expanded into making kits for the ubiquitous Shelby AC Cobra plus other American classics such as the Ford Thunderbird and Hummer. In an interview with Rutherford by Jeff Meyer, dated January 1988, that I found on the AP News website, he said that he foresaw handing over the business to new management in about ten years time. That’s forward planning for you! In 2003 he did just that, with some hiccups in between, I have to say. I don’t know the details but I do know that Classic Roadsters II was established in Sauk Centre, Minnesota, by a former Classic Roadsters employee, Don Scott. It was a case of enthusiasm over ability and or insufficient capital. The new enterprise did not thrive and the trading name, Classic Roadsters II, found its way to Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada [at least you’re getting a bit of a geography lesson with this article :-)] under the ownership of Ryan Marten. That enterprise, which according to my research was focused mainly on the Cobra kits, didn’t last long either with lots of broken hearts, promises and litigation along the way.
In the midst of this business horror story, all too familiar where niche car, or kit car, manufacturers are concerned, it seems to me that there were some truly outstanding vehicles built both in the U.S. and the U.K. Many of the cars still exist and are treasured by their owners. For instance, there is a thriving Sebring Owners Club in the U.K.
A little more detail on the Classic Roadsters Austin Healey replica models – there were two main models produced, the Saxon, which looked very much like the original Austin Healey 3000 and the MX which had the flared wheel arches. They were fitted with a number of different engines but mostly with “small block” American V8s. I am advised that Sebring International bought both Saxon (SX) and MX moulds and chassis jigs from Classic Roadsters to start producing the cars in the U.K. They struck off on their own with the Sebring Exalt model of which only six examples were built. This car has styling references to the “Big” Healey but is not a replica, in fact there are cues to the Healy Designs Enigma car, shown below. This is no surprise because one of the founders of Sebring International was Martin Williamson who left Sebring shortly afterwards to set up Healy Design.
So, it looks as if we have seen the demise of Classic Roadsters and Sebring International, is that the end of the road for Austin Healey replicas? Not at all! As a result of my research, I have come across another U.S. based manufacture by the name of Cavaliere Roadsters based in Port Charlotte, FL. From what I can tell, looking at photos and specifications, it seems to me that Candido Cavaliere, the proprietor, is filling the gap left by Classic Roadsters, in a very satisfactory manner.
Post Script I am grateful to Reid Trummel, editor ‘Healey Marque’ the magazine of the Austin Healey Club of America, for informing me of another Austin Healey replica kit that was made by a British company named Haldane. In the late 1980s and early 1990 they produced around 120 cars, mainly in kit form. The models produced were the HD100 Mk1 and Mk2, ‘S’ and HD300. Like most of the stories surrounding niche car companies, the Haldane one is complicated. The moulds they used and developed had been bought from Peter Ferries of PCF Motors, Nottingham. There is an excellent website dedicated to the Haldane story run by Dutchman Peter Aardoom. A link to the History section of the website can be found at the bottom of the page.
Here is a fascinating snippet from it – Brian Harrison: “As a matter of interest: I met Gerry Coker, the designer of the Healey 100, at a show in 1991. It was a very interesting conversation and he was enthusiastic about what we were doing to put his design back on the market. He said that his original design did not have the chrome strips between the body and the wings. They were needed to fill up gaps between these panels and he thought that, without them, the Haldane was a very good representation of his concept. I also had a call from Geoffrey Healey saying he liked the cars and asking if he could be involved in their promotion”. Brian Harrison was one of the three founding members of the company, the other two being Alisdair Scott and David Haldane. David provided the money so the company took his name.
So, that’s the “Big” Healey scene covered, what is happening on the Sprite/Midget front? I will have to say that I struggled to find any information at first and what I have found, with due respect to the company involved seems a little “low key”. I hope that there are people reading this article who will educate me as regards the current availability of Sprite replicas, if not in the U.K. then somewhere else in the World. This perceived lack of Sprite kit car or fully built replica offerings is somewhat surprising to me given that not long after the launch of the car in 1958 there were a plethora of companies offering significant GRP mouldings for the Mk I and subsequent series of Sprites and Midgets. These then led to complete cars with their own branding being offered. Some of the U.K. offerings that spring to mind, in alphabetical order, are – Archer*, Ashley, Lenham, Peel (not series production), Speedwell, Sprinzel/JS Racing, Williams & Pritchard and WSM. Many of these designs were inspired by Healey’s success, with modified cars, at the Sebring, FL. race track in the 1960s.
Sadly but understandably, all those companies have been consigned to history, so, who is satisfying the market now? The answer is Halls Garage, of Morton, Bourne, Lincolnshire. They offer a range of kits and complete cars under the Tiffosi brand name. The range starts with the Tiffosi Rana which is a Sprite MK I replica using GRP mouldings fitted to a donor car’s platform. Next in the range is the Tiffosi SS, a Sebring Sprite based on the ‘Peel’ design. Topping the range is the Tiffosi J.E.M. (Jacobs Evolution Midget) based on the car developed and raced successfully by the late Dick Jacobs. Quite an offering from a relatively small operation. In my view, they deserve to do well.
There are other companies making GRP panels for Sprites and Midgets, one of them is Honeybourne Mouldings Ltd. of Bidford on Avon, Warwickshire. Andrew Forster, partner of Brian Archer at the former Archers Garage*, has recently announced that he will be supplying Sebring and Monza bonnets via Aldon Automotive. Links provided at the bottom of the page.
Before I leave the Austin Healey section I want to indulge myself by showing a photo of the Fibrefab Jamaican bodyshell fitted to an Austin Healey 3000 chassis. Not a replica in any way, just a fabulous piece of automotive art i.m.o., providing a glimpse of “what might have been”. –
Because not all subscribers/readers of these posts are Healey enthusiasts, it is reasonable that I give space to some other replicas that are popular in the U.K. Here are some of them –
I have already mentioned the Shelby AC Cobra, there are many manufacturers of replicas of this car, some of them have been around for a good number of years. Without thinking too hard Dax, Gardner Douglas and Pilgrim, U.K. brands, come to mind. It must be the most popular car ever to have inspired the building of replicas around the world.
In the U.K. it is probably beaten by replicas inspired by Colin Chapman’s Lotus Six and Seven models. The big difference being that with the exception of the Caterham Seven, which was the continuation of the original Chapman car, these “replicas” do not carry either the Lotus or the Seven name. Many are replicas of a concept rather than the original car. Here is one of the more successful ones, Westfield –
At the top of this piece, I mentioned the Ferrari F355 replica. Here is an example –
There are a couple of Porsches which are popular in the replica world, here they are –
You will no doubt have your own opinion on replica classic cars but I hope that, via this article, I have stimulated your interest, as I have my own.
Cavaliere Roadsters – https://www.cavaliereroadsters.com/healey-replicas/
Hall’s Garage – https://www.hallsgarage.co.uk/
Honeybourne Mouldings – https://honeybournemouldings.co.uk/
Andrew Forster’s bonnets – https://www.aldonauto.co.uk/
MR35 – https://www.mr355.co.uk/
Chesil Motor Company – https://chesil.co.uk/
Porsche 718 – https://718-rsk.co.uk/
Special Edition Inc. – http://www.beckspeedster.com/
Haldane History – http://haldane.nl/History.htm