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Driving

The Cockpit

You donít so much get into a Sprite as put it on. Iím 6 foot tall and people are always amazed when the tiny car swallows me up. Once installed there is plenty of space even for people a couple of inches taller than me, but best to wear narrow shoes as the pedals are close together, though there is plenty of space to rest your left foot. The large steering wheel sits in your lap, your arms half bent Ė itís not modern but feels utterly natural; the tiny gearstick less than a handís span away on the top of the big transmission tunnel. The weakest part of the experience are the seats which offer little support, you soon learn to brace yourself with elbow and knee instead.

On the metal dashboard youíll see the essential dials, the revcounter and speedometer, through the steering wheel. To the left are those classic little Smiths gauges showing fuel and combined water temp and oil pressure. Who needs more?

A bit of choke, a churn of the starter and a tap on the accelerator combine to bring the little beastie to life. On a standard Spridget (especially late models) the noise in a subdued purr, but anyone with any soul will have changed this for a less restricted type that frees up that characteristic off-beat thrum of the A-series (caused by siamesed exhaust outlets in the head). The motor is ridiculously responsive to the blip of the throttle and hours of fun can be had just sitting stationary and going vrooom!....vrooom! This will largely drown the sound of the rocker gear, which on a good 1275 is pretty subdued anyway.

Now time to move off and you get the first reminder that you are driving a car designed 50 years ago... Clutch down and wait for a couple of seconds before pushing the gearstick into first. The reason? Thereís no synchromesh on first. Those cogs keep spinning and they need a couple of seconds to slow for you to engage first without a crunch. First can only be engaged when the car is stationary, attempts to do otherwise resulting in chipped teeth and eventual gearbox failure. I know you should be able to double de-clutch into first on the move, but Iíve never managed it silently in a Spridget (unlike all the other non-synchromesh cars Iíve owned). Anyway why bother when the torque in 2nd will pull away from all but a dead stop?

But... 50 year old gearbox it might be but you will never, repeat never, drive a car with a faster gearchange. In the top three gears that gearstick is like a little switch as you flick through the gears. Thereís no spring across the gate so you need to acclimatise or crash 1st, but after a few miles youíll just wonder why all gearboxes arenít like this. Iíve read the MX5 gearbox being described as changing with Ďrifle bolt precisioní Ė the writer had obviously never used a rifle or driven a Spridget...

By now on your first drive youíre wondering what the hell is going on, the thing is all over the road, the tiniest movement of the wheel causing it to dart from side to side. Entering a corner you dive towards the apex, lifting off tightening the curve, winding off lock puts you in the middle of the road, accelerating pushes it into understeer, you lift off and you feel like the back is going to swing round, and youíre only doing 30 mph Ė thereís no grip!

Itís all an illusion. Pull over to the side of the road. Take a breath and relax. Every car youíve driven (probably) has a Ďdead-spotí at the straight ahead Ė called the Ďsneeze-controlí Ė i.e. so you donít change lanes if you sneeze on the motorway. The Sprite doesnít. Almost all modern cars understeer heavily in normal driving, go faster they understeer more (i.e. try to go straight on), lifting off pulls the nose in.

The Sprite isnít like that. Even at moderate speeds itís range of attitudes on the road is much greater. It too is essentially an understeerer, but small changes in throttle will change this angle far more than on a modern car. Lifting off at speed tucks the nose sharply in and if you arenít used to such a huge body movement it feels like the car has no grip and is about to spin. No! The car has plenty of grip but is a real drivers car and designed so that it can be driven Ďon the throttleí. You can enter a corner and position yourself by altering throttle position, not steering. Sounds crazy nowadays, but itís a wonderful feeling.

So here am I trying to get you to drive a car that sounds like a rodeo ride... No again, because after 20 minutes youíll begin to wonder why all cars arenít like this. At first youíll Ďthruppeny-bití around a corner but itís all utterly safe and as you gain confidence youíll find yourself gripping the wheel with fingertips, lifting off into corners and powering out with a total lack of drama, body roll or shrieking tyres. The tiny size straightens corners like a motorbike. Give it a day and you may find yourself taking roundabouts at speeds that would have your car at home on its roof...

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