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Power Corrupts?

In the right hands a supercharger is a beautiful thing

It’s rare in life when one gets the opportunity to build a dream car and get paid to do it. The only paramaters I had to work around were body and interior color. The body, a dark, dark blue-ish purple that is almost black—I would have picked myself. And the silver interior I certainly don’t mind at all. Quite honestly the rest of the build was, “Tom, do your thing.”

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So far I’ve done two Sprites for Craig. This second one was finished at my shop several years ago, but with Craig, “finished” is a moving target. “Yeah, we already pretty much have the two baddest A-Series powered Sprites in existence, but…?” and he would ask about fuel injection, turbocharging, you name it, etc.

I did not see any big value in putting fuel injection on a Sprite. Not a huge gain in power. Turbocharging: For a guy wanting a turn-key, hassle-free performance modification I didn’t feel he would like it. Too many drawbacks, namely, the heat and exhaust system issues. While these can be overcome, once again I felt it would take too many hours of experimenting to get it right. And then Craig said to me, “What about the Moss supercharger?” I said to Craig, “You know what, if you want to go to the next level let me do some research, but I think the Moss unit is the way to go.”

Many moons ago I had THE test mule engine for the Moss supercharger in my shop. I remember vividly taking Robert Goldman’s “Flaming Cockroach” Midget on a much too short test drive and thinking, “Gawdamn, that’s quite impressive!” I can’t even remember how long ago that was; I’m sure Goldman could since he told me I took way too long to build it. [“True,” said Robert, “but to Tom’s credit that engine is bulletproof.”]

Speedwell has been doing business with APT in Riverside, CA for a gazillion years (that’s a lot!) and I spoke with both owner, David Anton, and his man of all hats, Phil, about my quest. The engine already in Craig’s car was basically a de-tuned vintage racing 1275cc. It had .060″ pistons, Weber 45 DCOE on a Maniflow inlet manifold and LCB exhaust header. APT supplied us with a Stage 1 supercharger camshaft and a Pocket Ported Big Valve head; this dropped us right down to an allowable 8.7:1 compression ratio. The really tough part of all this was doing it on a perfect car with a perfect engine compartment. We can’t scratch, chip or nick a damned thing!

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Though perhaps unconventional, I decided to pull the engine and install the supercharger with it on a stand. Once the blower was strapped on, I could attach the starter motor and crank it over to make sure the drive belt and all ancillaries lined up and functioned properly. Once happy with the mock-up, it was install time. This car is so subtle in appearance that many of its customizations go unnoticed by most folks, although there are a few exceptions, like the rollbar support that gently “falls” back into the rear bodywork, and the “completely stock” tachometer that inexplicably goes to 8000 rpm. The Moss blower fit right in with this understated theme. It’s simply attractive and unbelievably effective hardware.

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Placing a gleaming engine into a perfectly painted bay is more challenging knowing your customer will put on his reading glasses during visitation. Yes, I consider them visitation rights. You see, while I may not actually own any of these special cars, in my own twisted mind they are actually mine, but I allow these “other people” to keep them at their homes and drive them because I’m such a nice guy. I’ve on more than a few occasions accused customers of fiddling with their own cars, damn it to hell. I do realize how irrational I can be, but what can I do? I’m emotionally attached. All joking aside, this is my soul we’re talking about. Somehow a majority of my customers actually end up being my friends. It’s the odd bond of motorheads.

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I know the phrase “light this candle” should be reserved for astronauts, but that’s what I say whenever starting a rebuilt engine for the first time. I don’t bother attempting to get a pop or backfire, once I get oil pressure, ALL of my engines are 100% ready to fire on the first kick, and I take it very, very personally if they don’t. For some reason, and it doesn’t matter if it’s 7am or 3pm, my engines are NEVER ready to light until it’s dinner time and I have to call home and say I’m running late. Seriously, this happens more than 90% of the time.

And I get nervous about it too, not about the possibility of a major problem, but the prospect of it not starting immediately. The nervousness sets in, I start puttering around, I go wash my hands—for some reason a fresh engine has to have clean hands—I get the timing light out (I static time the engine to where I know it will start), I run the fuel pump. I always tap, tap, tap the float bowls to make sure they’re not stuck. I know my heart rate is up. It sounds lame but that’s the way I am. I wash my hands again, make myself a drink (always Rum & Coke), and light up a smoke.

Let’s go, baby. Ignition. Fuel Pump. Starter. BANG. HELL YEAH! My first A-series supercharger build, and it lit right up.

One of the perks of doing what we do is getting to drive some spectacular cars. The flip side of this perk is the responsibility involved. If anything happens to a completed, ready to deliver car, I am just so up the creek, so to speak. Fortunately, nothing terrible in all these years. Close calls to be sure. Too close. After the successful start up, I drove the Sprite home for the night to shake it out and pack it up the next day.

So it’s another of those typical perfect southern California days. Saturday late morning, I roll the Sprite out of the garage—something I always do—for some reason I like pushing sports cars silently from the garage into the sunshine and fresh air, watching the light hitting the curves of the body and glinting off the chrome making me squint a little. I walk around, and while admiring the car, running through my head anything that might need checking.

I like to start these cars with the bonnet up, ignition on, hearing the fuel pump run, putting my hand on the throttle linkage, and hitting the switch. The smell of fuel, the throaty rumble, most folks these days really miss out on this stuff. For me, it’s what I live for.

Plenty of fuel. Won’t have to stop on the way to the shop. 16.2 miles, put her on the trailer, and it’s over. Once the temp gauge moves that’s when I close the garage door. I hop in, making sure I don’t pinch the tonneau cover in the door, latch the seatbelt and tug it tight. “Straight to the shop, Tom. No stopping anywhere for anything. Straight to the shop, don’t be stupid.” These occasions are very special for me and I enjoy taking my time. After all, I don’t get to keep them.

16.2 miles and it’s over. As I’m headed up Topanga Canyon Blvd. I see two 20-something kids in a hot-rodded 80s Mustang GT. Not a drag car, it’s a Ricky Road Racer set-up. It’s lowered, wide rubber, stainless dual exhaust, and it’s a nicely done, clean car. Reminded me of myself as a kid with my ’72 Mazda RX2. They’re checking the Sprite out as we go from light to light. Of course, they have no idea at all what this tiny little car is.

“What year is it?” 1959. At the next light—“Cool, what size engine is in it?” A little 1.3 litre, I reply. You could tell that, as usual, a Sprite, supercharged or not, will never get any respect, not from kids with a V8. Unless…

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I start mumbling to myself, “Kids please don’t turn left on Santa Susana Pass Road, please don’t turn left, I can’t risk teaching you two a lesson.” Yep, they turned left. I had no choice. I had to show them that this tiny little 55 year old car was going to pummel their ass. I learned and honed my driving skills on this short, famous stretch of road and they were in for it. Actually, a lot more then they would ever want to be. They did exactly what I knew they’d do, too. I stayed about four car lengths off of them; the road splits to two lanes for about a quarter mile and then back to one. Remember, I know this road like very few do, and I’m in a Sprite, a model of car that I’ve spent my lifetime building, restoring and racing. These turns are all in the 50-60 mph range, either a cliff on one side, or the side of a mountain on the other—a quick right, quick left, and then a decreasing radius right while at the same time going back to one lane. The kid’s next mistake is he went for the left lane, which will put me on the inside when we go back to one lane. The huge amount of low rpm torque from the addition of the supercharger allowed me to just roll into the throttle and remain side by side coming into the first right, and we’re still shoulder to shoulder into the left turn but he’s just screwed now. Coming into the decreasing radius right, it’s THE Sprite type of turn, I just keep on accelerating because I know he can’t pull this off. I wait to see his nose dip from braking, count to three, then just hammered the Sprite’s brakes. Well, the Mustang did pass me all right. With all four brakes locked up. The kids stopped and got out of the car—probably to pay witness to their fresh skid marks—while I coasted a ways. It was my duty; I had to be the wise guy. I flipped a U-turn and as I rolled by I calmly said, “Those decreasing radius turns are a bitch, ain’t they?”

Nothing in the world like a Sprite, tons of power, and a tight road.

Story by Tom Colby
Photos by Mike Upham

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