August 13, 2014 at 5:26 pm

After 35-year wait, car collector's 'Bug Eye' to hit Woodward this weekend

Gerry Flood, who rebuilt his 1960 Austin Healy Sprit, with his daughter Theresa Demel of Farmington Hills. (Charles V. Tines / The Detroit News)

It’s been a 35-year wait, but Gerry Flood will finally get a chance to show off his beautifully restored 1960 Austin Healy Sprite at this year’s Woodward Dream Cruise.

Well, probably.

The quick-to-laugh Birmingham resident was all set to strut his stuff in the 2013 cruise when compost happened.

“It was the Friday night before the cruise,” recalled Flood, 76, who owns a company that specializes in fire suppression systems for electric vehicles. “And then the axle snapped. I had it towed back home and that was it for the Dream Cruise.”

But for Flood, the real story isn’t the cruise but what he and his car have gone through to get there.

By way of history, the Sprite is a very small open sports car manufactured by the British Motor Corporation and touted as a low-cost model that “a chap could keep in his bike shed.”

The BMC freely admitted using an Austin engine and as many other components as possible from existing cars to keep the costs down. (The Sprite is affectionately referred to as a “Bug Eye” in the U.S. and “Frog Eye” in the United Kingdom because its two headlights are mounted above the bonnet, er, hood.)

In the early 1960s, Flood had a chance to purchase a Sprite after serving four years in the U.S. Air Force.

“It was between a Sprite and a Fiat and I chose the Fiat because it had windows and a top,” Flood said.

“I was driving it from Denver to Michigan, and in Kansas the engine blew. Had it towed to Michigan and it never ran right again. I have regretted not buying the Sprite ever since.”

Then in 1979, Flood finally got his Bug Eye, which he bought from a U.S. sailor returning to Michigan from England. The purchase price was $1,500, about what a new Sprite cost back in 1960.

Flood also picked up a few other cars.

“He ended up collecting 13 different cars at the same time,” said Flood’s daughter, Theresa Demel.

“He owned a 1953 DeSoto, a 1941 Ford, a 1946 Hudson, a 1953 Kaiser, a 1960 Lotus and other cars, all at the same time. In fact, he went to an auto auction at Cobo Hall in 1978 and bought seven cars on the same day.”

Flood told his incredulous wife that the vehicles would be a “good investment.”

They divorced a few years later, but remain friends.

The cars were kept in storage and were, in fact, slowly sold off over the years, except for the Sprite, which the family put to good use.

“My four kids learned to drive in the Sprite, even though it is right-hand drive with a left-hand manual shifter,” Flood said.

“And my son used it to deliver pizzas.”

And whenever the family threw an outdoor party, they would balance a sheet of plywood on the Bug Eye, cover it with a cloth and use it as a table.

But over the years, the car was stored more and driven less until it became worn and tacky.

“Then by chance I met someone who specializes in restoring British cars and made a deal to have him slowly restore the Sprite as a surprise to my father,” Demel said.

So the car came out of storage and was sent to West Michigan Imports in Grand Rapids.

“He’d send me a bill and I’d send him a check,” Demel said. “This went on for five years.”

More than $25,000 later, the gorgeous, fully restored Austin Healy was delivered to Demel just in time for the family to surprise their dad on Father’s Day in 2013.

“It was delivered by truck and I was so nervous and careful when we backed it out,” Demel said. “But the look on his face was worth it.”

All Flood kept saying was, “No, no, no, I don’t believe it,” especially when Demel handed him the keys and the title to the Sprite, now painted a very snappy Ford Colorado Red and gleaming with chrome.

One year and one axle later, Flood is again ready for the Woodward Dream Cruise.

And he won’t be delivering pizzas.

tgreenwood@detroitnews.com
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