BRANFORD, CONNECTICUT — When you’re in an orange McLaren following a guy who’s riding a bicycle with a squeaky horn and a plastic hippopotamus head affixed to its handlebars, you know it’s not an ordinary afternoon. But there we were in Branford, having piloted a new $332,000 McLaren 650S from NYC to the shop and premises of Bugeyeguy.com, an operation that specializes in one of history’s most humble automobiles, the Austin Healey “Bugeye” Sprite. Its proprietor, himself not an ordinary guy, was leading us to lunch.
David Silberkleit, 54, grew up in Scarsdale, in New York’s Westchester County, went to Colby College in Maine, and spent nine years working for the once-legendary Archie Comics, which his father had founded with a partner. Cut out of the business along with his siblings upon his father’s death, Silberkleit bucked up, became a corporate coach, and launched an Internet fan site that morphed into a full-time job and a full-fledged business, www.bugeyeguy.com. Today the site purports to be the world’s largest seller of Austin Healey “Bugeye” Sprites, the plucky roadster that ingeniously repurposed parts of lowly economy sedans and was built by the British Motor Corporation between 1958 and 1961. “At least I think we’ve sold more than anyone,” says Silberkleit, whose establishment will soon triple its square footage with a move to new facilities nearby, to be accompanied by a planned incursion into the catalog parts market, with new and used parts. Over lunch we asked him the questions you’d want to ask anyone who’d come to devote his life to Bugeye Sprites.
AUTOMOBILE: What is it about the Bugeye Sprite?
SILBERKLEIT: I have tunnel vision. A Bugeye is incredibly simple, it’s elemental, and I love that. I’ve had E-type Jags, [Lotus] Elans. Once you understand them, they’re simple cars. But the Elan, for instance, has the aura of fragility. I feel like I could bend it or break it. Or die in it. In a Bugeye, I never feel like I’m going to die in it. Even though they’re both the same size, and they both might get run over. I never feel like I’m going to break the Sprite. We’ve had cars come in bent; we’ve unbent them. We’ve never had a problem. They just keep on going. It’s a very stout machine.
It gives me great satisfaction to travel in a way others don’t. Because I ride my bike every day to and from work, I watch what people are doing when they’re driving. And most people are not paying attention anymore to driving. It’s sad. This car is an antidote to that. I wish this culture could grow to a level that more people would wake up to how satisfying driving can be. Everything is moving away from that, and I guess the question is: How do you invite people in? The Sprite is a good point of entry.
I’ve had clients who’ve said, “I’ve got a [Porsche] 911. But I’m tired of driving a really fast car slowly; I want a slow car to drive fast.” The 911 is a far superior machine in every possible way [to the Sprite] but it doesn’t have this other quality. This past winter, when I couldn’t ride my bicycle, I drove the little green Bugeye I’ve owned since high school, all winter long. In fairness, I don’t have to go too far.
A: How did you get into Bugeyes in the first place?
S: I bought that Bugeye I was driving this winter in 1978 in New Haven, Connecticut, forlorn, parked on Orange Street. Parallel parked the way they were up there, I’m surprised it wasn’t shorter than it is — a lot of these cars are smashed by their bumper overriders and the noses are all cracked; the front takes a hit and they flare at the wheel arches. That was in high school, my fourth car — the first was a rusty MGB — but it’s the only car I’ve kept. I’ve had a lot of other things and let them go over the years. Even wives and houses are gone, but I’ve always kept this Bugeye. Then in the ’90s, people were constantly asking me about this car and where they could get one. So I bought one, sold it, and it started from there. The [Bugeye] has always had this sort of cult following/adorable personality hook. So it’s been the most evergreen car that I’ve come across. It transcends so many boundaries.
A: And how did it become a business?
S: So, however the way, I was selling cars, but the Bugeye thing had a lot of traction, started evolving. People kept coming to me; it gained momentum. I sold 10 Bugeyes, then 25 Bugeyes. And now we’ve just sold 154 Bugeyes. I still can’t quite imagine it. They made 50,000 Bugeyes, most of them sold in America. Still I can’t believe there were too many dealers in 1958 or 1959 who were selling 150 of these new. I feel good about that.
The most remarkable thing happened in 2007. I just started posting Bugeye information on Facebook — personal information, funny pictures I’d seen, stupidity like SU carburetors installed upside down. So I had this early Facebook page about Bugeyes, and I ended up with a top Google rating on Bugeyes. If you Googled “Bugeye Sprite,” I came up. By accident. I wasn’t paying anyone to increase my search engine optimization. So I ended up doing something I loved to the nth degree, sharing about it, and from there the Google-driven demand helped us to launch our business. It’s fascinating to me that we sold so many Bugeyes — old technology — driven by new technology, mainly by accident. But it’s worked out for us.
A: Who buys a Bugeye?
S: Number one, older guys who grew up with them. A lot of my clients started out with Sprites and MGBs. There are a lot of military stories, too, of Sprites that sat out at bases with no tops. One guy went off and the next guy bought it for 50 bucks. A lot of those guys are calling me now and saying, “I want one.”
I’ve had a lot of couples adopt them, like a new puppy, and the wife gets into it. I don’t mean to be sexist — because I’ve sold Bugeyes to women — but it seems that this is a car people take into the family. It’s not like Dad’s muscle car that’s out in the garage, — “I don’t want to go near it; I don’t want to drive it.” It’s a car that’s so approachable. It’s a completely unassuming, unintimidating, no-testosterone car. There’s so many things you can do when you start from there.
We had this one amazing guy from Louisiana. He called me up and said, “I’m 6-[foot]-4, 240 pounds,” a big dude, and he said he had a Bugeye in high school. “I want another one. But I can’t get in and out of it like I used to. I’m 70 now, and now I need to cut one in half and make it longer. Can you do that for me?” I said, “If that’s what you need to be able to drive one of these and you’re prepared to pay for it, we’ll do it.” And we did. We cut it in half right across the spine and lengthened it, welded in a 5-inch section, cut doors in half, and welded in the back half 5 inches longer.
There was another guy who came and drove his Bugeye home. This guy was from northern Florida, a self-proclaimed redneck. He got in his Bugeye at 10 at night and drove it straight back to Pensacola. He said to me, “Red Bull and books on tape.”
A: Any younger customers?
S: Not as many as I’d like, but we’ve had some younger guys.
A: Where do you find stock?
S: I do a lot of hunting online. I’m constantly looking for parts and cars. Anywhere and everywhere, following down leads. A lot of cars find me, which is really nice. People will find us online and call and say, “I’ve had this thing in my basement for 30 years and I’m never going to get to it.” We had one guy who had one in his basement forever, so we sent him a finished car [and took his on trade for another customer-to-be’s restoration]. Overnight this mess is gone. It’s like a reality TV show, like one day he drives out in the new car, and the neighbor says, “Wow, you’ve been busy!” and he says, “No, I just called the Bugeye Guy.”
We say to people, “For $40,000 we can take that pile of junk in your basement and put that one together. Or for $25,000, we can sell you this finished car.” There’s a market for unfinished cars too. We get cars from skilled builders and sometimes ones from some pretty sucky builders, too. But it’s a pretty forgiving car and everything is cheap enough, so it always ends up right.
A: Advice to Bugeye Sprite buyers?
S: It just depends on what people want. You can do lots more power, but is it worthwhile? That’s a personal taste question. But I like these:
• Three-point safety belts.
• A front anti-roll bar, but not too big. The 7/16th anti-roll bar out of any later Midget or Sprite.
• New tires, not too large. They came with 145/13s; 165 is max, and 185 is too much.
• About 75 percent of Sprites don’t have working rear brakes. The wheel cylinders leak, then the axle grease that’s leaked out of the axles trashes the rear shoes. We realized that if you put disc brakes in the rear, you finally have four functioning calipers ,and that’s a revelation [versus no rear brakes]. Add some new tires, and they stop really well.
• A little more power is nice. A supercharger gives you a reason to go over 4,000 rpm, but it’s not essential. And reliability is suspect. The 1,275[cc BMC A-Series engine] is great. But the 948[cc factory original] is totally adequate for a lot of people.
• A 3.9:1 rear end for highway driving is nice, and later H2 SU carbs (1¼ versus 1/18th in) are good.
• I love the five-speed conversions, but lots of clients never go over 45 mph so they don’t really need it. But with the five-speed, you get rid of the non-synchro first, which many don’t understand. A lot of people who grew up with it still can’t do it today. They’ve lost that synapse that allowed them to deal with them.
• I prefer the [original] lever shocks to tubular conversions. They’re too stiff generally, and the rear ones can hang down too low and you lose ground clearance. We take a lot of them off. It’s just too harsh. You don’t necessarily want a bigger anti-roll bar, either. It’s too much.