The Austin-Healey Sprite MK I, otherwise known as the “Bugeye” in the U.S. was a popular British sports car in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s. This early model, a fun to drive, open, two-seater roadster, was marketed as a no-frills machine that offered one-of-a-kind aesthetics. Along with the low sticker price, the MK I’s came lacking luxuries such as door locks and external door handles.
Even the interior of the MK I is simplistic, earning the title ‘unsophisticated’ by critics. Then come the owner complaints that cabin space was too small and cramped. Another drawback was the engine being significantly underpowered and the suspension was, well let’s just say, only good enough to tame this 43 bhp beast. Despite all of its flaws, the MK I was a big phenomenon overseas in motorsports as they competed in many historic races, claiming class wins in the 12-hour Sebring and Alpine Rally.
When Donald Healey designed the Healey Sprite, he would have never imagined 58 years later, a tuner shop like Design Craft Fabrication located in Westminster, California would be bold enough to attempt shoe-horning a turbocharged all-wheel-drive engine into this ‘affordable’ roadster.
“Don’t tell me it can’t be done because I will always figure out a way to make it work.” That has been the motto that Design Craft Fabrications owner Gary Castillo has lived by. Over the years, Castillo has catered to a wide range of clientele and projects. Among them, he has helped to create the first LS/VTEC oiling system, aided in tuning the first 10-second quarter-mile Honda, built the first ’02 Subaru STI in the United States, assisted the Scion xD rally team to a podium season, and worked to build a zombie-proof car for the AMC hit show The Walking Dead.
So when a customer approached him two years ago to build a turbocharged all-wheel-drive Austin Healey Sprite, Castillo didn’t even flinch. He simply deemed it as just another challenge and grabbed the bull by the horns, ultimately creating this restomod monster he affectionately nicknamed ‘AWDstin Meanie’.
Castillo recalls his unusual first encounter with Minh, the owner of this MK I.
Editor’s note: At the request of the owner, we agreed to only mention this Westminster resident by his first name to protect his identity from his wife, due to his reckless abandonment of cash flowing into this particular build. We’re serious!
“It was a hot summer’s day and I had the shop’s side bay door facing the street wide open to circulate air,” Castillo recollected. “Anytime that side bay door is open it’s an invitation for onlookers driving by to see everything going on inside the shop. One day this older gentleman by the name of Minh popped his head inside the garage and began talking about how he saw all these ‘crazy project cars’ being worked on every time he drove by the shop, and decided to stop in to get a closer look.”
Minh owned a ’60 Austin Healey Sprite that needed some work and wanted to bring it by Design Craft. Months passed by and Castillo never heard back from Minh. Just when Gary thought he would never see him again, a local flatbed truck rolled up to the shop with a ’60 MK I Sprite in tow.
“We talked about what direction he wanted for his build and was surprised when he mentioned he was offering me full creative authority over the entire project,” Castillo continued. “The only requirements he had were that it had to retain its rear-wheel-drive configuration and make more horsepower than the factory 43 bhp, 948 cc OHV engine. Minh had initially agreed on my idea of using a F20C power plant, but 48 hours later I received a phone call from him.”
According to Castillo, this is how the conversation went;
Minh: Uhh… hi Gary, this is Minh.
Castillo: Hey Minh, you excited about your Austin-Healey build?
Minh: Yes, I’ve been thinking about the whole RWD setup I had previously requested.
Castillo: Yeah, it’s going to be a bad ass car and fun to drive once it’s done!
Minh: Is it possible to convert the vehicle to an all-wheel-drive configuration and turbo charge it?
Castillo: (Pause…) Sure Minh. We can make it turbo all-wheel-drive, no problem but it won’t be cheap! I’ll fax over an invoice for parts and labor costs in a few hours.
Minh: Thanks Gary! I’ll look over it and get back to you.
Replaying the phone conversation back in his head, Castillo recalls his initial thoughts. “I wasn’t expecting this project to move forward and in all honesty, I wouldn’t have blamed him backing out after seeing that invoice. Low and behold the next day he rolls into the shop with a beanie filled with cash as a down payment.” Castillo mentions when the transaction took place it freaked him out. “Seriously, who in this day and age makes down payments with a beanie filled with a wad of cash? I come to find out that Minh had a slush fund that he kept in his office without his wife’s knowledge.”
With the project now in play, Design Craft began mocking up a Honda K20A engine with an adapter plate mated to a Nissan Skyline R32 GTR transmission. “This was our original plan until we mocked it up inside the engine bay and found the transfer case was too long and sat right where the rear differential was located. It was decided to move to plan B,” Castillo told me.
Castillo took inspiration from a particular engine setup he saw a few years back while attending Pikes Peak International Hill Climb (PPIHC). A privateer competing at the event took a Mitsubishi V6 FWD engine and transmission and rotated it from transverse to a longitudinal position. What was originally the passenger side driveshaft was used as the front driveshaft while the driver side driveshaft was modified to spin the rear wheels. According to Castillo, it was the prefect setup for this project.
Although it sounds fairly straightforward to longitudinally mount a Honda engine with a ’06 6-speed Civic transmission and slap it into any engine bay, Castillo assured me it wasn’t going to be easy. Design Craft sourced both a front and rear differential set with matching gear ratios from a Nissan R32 GTR, equipped with factory 4.11:1 gear ratios. The units were tied into a set of off-road stub axels, custom chromoly driveshafts, and finished off with Porsche 930 CV joints.
“We also ran into gearing issues with splitting the power using the factory 4.6:1 final drive transmission,” says Castillo. “The gear ratios when split front to back come out to around 16.5:1, meaning you can probably drive from a stoplight starting in sixth gear. We’re currently working on a set of drive shafts with automatic transmission planetary gears hooked up in-line to the drive shafts to under-drive the ratio that comes out of the transmission. In theory it should work, but it’s a trial and error process that we hope to address when the car returns to the shop.”
In order to maintain the structural integrity of the build, the Design Craft team strengthened the chassis using chromoly steel tubing to tie-in the front end to the rear strut towers.
Another challenge that Castillo encountered was redesigning the archaic factory suspension. The MK I factory suspension is designed with a unique layout consisting of a coil spring and wishbone arrangement, with the arm of the Armstrong lever shock absorber serving as the top suspension link. The rear axle is sprung by quarter-elliptic leaf springs with lever-arm shock absorbers and top links. Castillo says “the factory suspension might have been ground breaking back in the ’60s, but today it definitely needed to be updated as it was never intended for high performance driving.”
Challenged once again with its all-wheel-drive configuration, Design Craft fabricated a completely new rear sub frame and relocated the independent suspension mounting points for a push-rod design using Suzuki RM125 dirt bike coilovers with external reservoirs.
The front suspension is also re-engineered as a double wishbone setup with custom built control arms, knuckles, and cantilever suspension. Castillo opted for a set of Honda CR50 coilovers to improve corner handling. Yes, you read that correctly, suspension sourced from a pit bike. There’s a reason why Castillo’s friends call him the Filipino MacGyver!
While the Design Craft team worked tirelessly on redesigning the suspension and strengthening the chassis, Castillo began assembling the soon-to-be-installed Honda K20A two-liter power plant. The block received a fresh set of forged 88mm JE pistons and K1 rods for added strength. A set of aftermarket camshafts were custom machined as VTEC killers and paired with non-VTEC rocker arms sourced from a Honda K24 engine.
Off the bat, Castillo knew that the height of the K-powered engine would pose hood clearance issues. “We cradled the engine to sit as low as possible, but the valve cover still hits the hood. We were originally going to use a HPD dry sump valve cover, but upon taking measurements we found it was still too high, not to mention it costs over $600. We ended up chopping the factory cover and remolding it.”
Due to the cramped engine bay compartment, Design Craft was once again challenged to design a custom turbo setup that would not only fit inside the engine bay but leave enough space to accommodate the all-wheel-drive components. A Garrett GT3076 turbocharger was selected as the ideal power adder and was coupled to a custom stainless steel equal-length turbo manifold. A custom Garrett-core intercooler keeps inlet air temperatures in check and can be seen peeking out the top of the hood though a KSR hood vent.
To support the engines fueling needs, a set of Grams 1,000cc injectors were paired with a Radium fuel rail, pressure regulator, and fuel pulse dampener. High-octane fuel is siphoned through a set of AEM 440LPH fuel pumps from a 12 gallon ATL fuel cell.
From the custom audio system to the vehicle’s entire electronics system, no expense was spared in creating a one-off machine. The fuel and ignition is controlled by a Hondata K-Pro while the engine wire harness is sourced from Rywire and modified to accept a set of coil packs sourced from a Nissan VQ35DE engine.
Among many of the custom features implemented into the MK I, we were drawn to the eight-channel PDM (Power Distribution Module) with a separate main brain that features internal solid-state relays and built-in fuses to eliminate dashboard clutter. Using an iPad tablet, Design Craft wired in the Switch-Pro’s unit to activate features such as ignition on/off, fuel pump, fan, and turn signals.
The Bluetooth unit is fully compatible with iPhone and Android based smart phones or tablets to remotely control any feature on the car. Pretty high-tech!
When it came time to upgrade the interior, Castillo turned the job over Reyes Upholstery located in Anaheim, California to freshen up the ’60s era upholstery. The door panels and various trim pieces are redone with a mixture of perforated cloth, Alcantara, and leather.
Don’t expect to find these cool looking seats while perusing though your Sparco catalog, they are completely custom. Design Craft modified the frame and side bolsters using a set of Sparco Sprint seats. The modified pieces were then reupholstered by Caesar of Sparco USA using Porsche style perforated leather to give it that vintage ’60s look.
Design Craft added roll hoops similar to what you would see on a classic Porsches. “We wanted to add some safety features while keeping the overall look of the car clean. It’s such a small car, the last thing you want to do it put some bulky 4-point roll bar that make it look like some shopping cart,” Castillo added. Reyes Upholstery is also credited with wrapping both roll hoops in black Alcantara to help blend them in with the exterior’s Silhouette Mica Black paint.
Automotive Entertainment of Anaheim, California took care of all the vehicle’s audio needs by integrating a full Rockford Fosgate audio system, while keeping all the components hidden at the request of Minh. The original dash is redesigned to house an Apple iPad, while Stevens Audio horn speakers were stealthily integrated behind a grill enclosure. Three 10-inch Rockford subwoofers are hidden behind the seats in a custom fiberglass enclosure, and removing the trunk cover fully exposes a set of Rockford amplifiers.
Design Craft took things one step further and designed a custom shift linkage to retain the proper shift pattern sequence and finished it off with a shift knob featuring Bluetooth audio controls. One look at the interior and the end result speaks for itself. This simplistic, yet modernized interior pairs perfectly with the theme of the vehicle.
Something as simple as fitting a radiator becomes a major challenge when designing one for this MK I. “In order to create space, we rotated a ’92 to ’95 Civic EG Koyo radiator 90 degrees and chopped the end tanks in order to clear the hood,” Castillo informed me. Design Craft also fabricated a custom coolant reservoir that was neatly tucked away.
The custom exhaust and wastegate dump tubes jutting out of the passenger side fender are reminiscent of a Ford Cobra side pipe setup but with a bit more flair. “We designed this side exit setup primarily due to a lack of engine bay room to route exhaust piping, but at the same time wanted to create a clean look to the car while giving it a menacing appearance,” Castillo added. The exhaust is an oval 3.5-inch setup with custom oval perforations inside, that Design Craft built from scratch. If you look closely, notice the baffles on the end of the wastegate dump tube. These baffles are pulled from a motorcycle exhaust to allow a deeper, quieter tone when dumping boost atmospherically.
Attention to detail is what separates a true fabricator from your typical shade tree mechanic. The custom windscreen is just another prime example of how a well-executed design can complement the look of this vehicle. Castillo mentioned that he wanted to design something that was sleek and eliminate those bulky factory window pieces. “It doesn’t pop up any higher than the driver’s head but just enough to deflect any wind from entering the cabin, similar to a gurney strip you find on a rear wing.”
Wheel fitment was another challenging aspect, among many things, but Design Craft utilized a set of universal fender flares originally intended for a Honda Civic. Here’s an interesting fact; The MK I Sprite’s chassis width is recorded at 52.99-inches. Compare that to a 2017 Mini Copper S which is 68-inches, and it gives you a good idea of just how compact the MK I’s really are. The flares give the MK I a widened stance with just enough room to fit a set of custom HRE wheels, measuring 16x 9.5 inches wrapped in 205/40-16 Falken Azenis RT615K tires up front and 16×10 inch wheels with 225/45-16 tires in the rear.
The factory brakes were removed and upgraded with a set of Wilwood cross-drilled rotors featuring four-piston front calipers and two-piston rear calipers.
For the final touches, all the exterior metal pieces were re-done in black chrome. Then, Design Craft custom-made emblems were laser etched and strategically placed throughout both the interior and exterior of this project.
As the car currently sits, including the audio, the MK I weighs-in at a mere 1,820 lbs. Castillo mentioned that the original target horsepower was set at 350 all-wheel-horsepower but the owner being a bit greedy now wants 450 all-wheel-horsepower. “In my opinion that’s way too much for a car that weighs under 1,900 lbs. I tried explaining to Minh that horsepower doesn’t win races but it’s a lesson that can only be taught once he jumps in the car. One stab at the throttle and I guarantee you he will probably end up losing his cool!”
Upon shooting the car at Sparco USA headquarters in Irvine, California, the vehicle was scheduled to return back to the shop in less than 24 hours for a tear down before once again heading out on tour.
Castillo and his team will find themselves racing against the clock, yet again, to complete the drivetrain for an upcoming invitational show featuring top competitors within the industry. “If I had to put a number to the amount of man hours spent on this car, I would have to say it is well over 200 hours. It’s crazy to think the only bolts on this car that remained untouched were those on the doors and the hood. The rest of the car was either modified or custom fabricated from scratch by us.”
Lastly, we asked Castillo if he was satisfied with how the project currently sits and he had this to offer. “At the end of the day, it’s my job to make sure my clients are happy with the end results and able to enjoy driving it around as a reliable street car. It’s always gratifying to see the look on their faces when they drive it for the very first time. I have no qualms about how we executed this build and the challenges we faced in building this MK I, but like always, I wish I had more time to improve upon a few things. Regardless, I truly believe this is one bad-ass ride.”