Persona

This Bugeye business is booming

by Andrew Newton
13 April 2021 6 min read
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Photo by DW Burnett

There is a lot of change in the collector car market these days. New buying and selling platforms are cropping up. Younger enthusiasts are entering the market and paying big money for cars and trucks built in recent decades. In all this excitement it’s easy to forget about old and slow English sports cars.

That’d be a mistake, says David Silberkleit, aka the “Bugeyeguy.” “2020 was the best year in our history. Everything here has accelerated and expanded,” he said.

David Silberkleit, aka the “Bugeye Guy.”

Silberkleit’s main shop is a neatly restored 1950s Quonset hut in Branford, CT, located a few miles east of New Haven on Long Island Sound. He’s fluent in MG and Mini, but most of the cars coming in and out of the Quonset hut are Mk I Austin-Healey Sprites, commonly called “Bugeyes.” He currently has 15 Sprites in the queue for restoration work and is booked out for three months on other jobs. The parts side of the business has grown dramatically over the past year, and earlier in 2021 Silberkleit sold his 300th Bugeye. “We hardly had time to celebrate! We sold the 301st a few days later,” he says. As of this writing, they’re on 307.

Impressive stuff for a business whose focus is so narrow, at least at first glance. The Bugeye only lasted from 1958–61 and, more often than not, was driven hard and put away wet. The short version of the Sprite story starts in the late 1950s, when the Brits were already selling as many two-seaters to sports car-hungry Americans as they could screw together. But Donald Healey saw another opening in the market. There were plenty of young enthusiasts itching for a nimble roadster who didn’t quite have the cash for something like a Porsche or, for that matter, an Austin-Healey 100. Enter the Sprite, which for just $1795 bought you no windows, no outside door handles, no trunk lid, and modest performance, but a ton of driving fun. Its headlights, originally intended to be retractable, were left fixed in the up position rather awkwardly (but adorably) on top of the hood to save costs, earning it the nickname Bugeye (or “Frogeye” back in the UK).

The Sprite was a hit, filling countless grids at amateur sports car races and allowing racers and young gearheads to cut their teeth fixing a car on a budget. Nearly 49,000 were sold. After 1961 the Sprite got a more conventional shape and bigger, more powerful engines until being discontinued after 1969. It also spawned an MG version called the Midget (all Sprites/Midgets were built at the MG factory in Abingdon) that lasted until 1979. None of them, though, captured the spirit of the original. Used Bugeyes became entry-level cars for subsequent generations of sports car fans, who could often pick one up for a few hundred bucks. Today Bugeyes are worth thousands more than their “square body” descendants, not to mention bigger, more powerful MGBs. They’ve also held their value even as some older classics fade.

The Bugeyeguy himself remains infatuated with the humble roadster. “It is probably the greatest cult car with the greatest personality and the biggest smile. It’s a car with absolutely no pretensions, so it’s the opposite of something like a 911, and it has so much character. It elicits all kinds of responses from all kinds of people, from small kids to old racers. You just don’t get that with most cars.”

Silberkleit bought his first Bugeye for $1100 in 1978, when he was in high school. Despite life’s curveballs and other cars coming and going, he never got rid of it. “There were other phases in my life where I’ve had to pare down, ramp up, have a house, sell the house, etc., but my Bugeye survived it all.” He didn’t truly become the “Bugeyeguy,” however, until 2007. In the mid-2000s he was running an executive coaching practice, advising people to follow their passions in their entrepreneurial work. In part to provide an example for his clients and in part to indulge in his love for the smiley-faced two-seater, he ran a webpage and updated it regularly with articles, pictures, and other content he had amassed over the years as a Bugeye enthusiast.

Then the messages started coming in, not from budding entrepreneurs but from other Bugeye fans. “Because I had all this content, and especially back then when the internet was in its earlier days, I had this number one rating on Google. And then people just started contacting me about Bugeyes.” Silberkleit decided to follow his own advice, and pursue a passion-based career. “I was willing to take a flyer and see if we could make a business dedicated to just this one little car.”

One little car that appeals to many different buyers. “They can wear many different kinds of hats,” said Silberkleit. While the average buyer is a man in his late 60s who wants a sorted Bugeye that’s as headache-free as possible (“There’s no such thing as the perfect car. They do break”), Silberkleit also regularly sells cars to women and to younger car guys on a budget. Data from Hagerty’s insurance quotes shows similar diversity: Although Baby Boomers are the most common buyers, nearly a third of the people calling us about Bugeyes are Gen-Xers, 10 percent are millennials, and 3 percent are from Gen Z. We’re also seeing a higher number of quotes overall for these Sprites, meaning that although Bugeyeguy’s business is exceptional, it’s not an aberration.

Silberkleit sells driver-quality cars, concours-quality show cars, high-dollar custom builds with superchargers and upgraded interiors, and cars with lengthened chassis for older clients to make getting in and out easier. Bugeyeguy has even done two electric conversions to Bugeyes and is working on a third with Tesla power.

Silberkleit has also been able to adapt the business. He credits much of his spike in last year to his large internet presence. In addition to the main website and usual social media channels (we got connected to Silberkleit through Instagram), he has been posting YouTube videos for years that highlight cars for sale or the shop’s restoration work. There are currently over 800 such videos on Bugeyeguy’s channel. And because of the website’s high search ranking after so many years of posting content, “if someone is Googling and looking to find out more about Bugeyes, they will almost always come across us.”

Despite custom builds that can run up to $60,000 (nearly twice our current condition #1, or “concours” value in the Hagerty Price Guide), he maintains his perspective on the Sprite’s humble origins. “You wouldn’t cut up a 246 Dino like this because it’s too precious and the value of a car like that is in its accuracy. But a Bugeye is just a Bugeye. You don’t have to take it so seriously. A lot of these restomod-type cars and re-imaginings like Singer Porsches are becoming really popular these days, and the Bugeye is very viable for that because it was never so literal.” Silberkleit also gives the Sprite’s chassis, which was relatively advanced for the late 1950s, plenty of credit. “More than so many of these old body-on-frame British cars, the unibody structure of a Bugeye is an exceptional asset since they’re so tight and nimble. Even a rusty one can drive really well if you work out the kinks.”

Over nearly a decade and a half the Bugeyeguy shop has grown to seven employees, including two 25-year-old McPherson College grads, and the business is growing even more to meet pandemic-induced demand. “There were people who had a Bugeye on the bucket list saying ‘You know what, I’m done waiting. I’m not going to be around forever.’ I’ve had a lot of those types of phone calls.”

Bugeyeguy’s biggest challenges these days are in finding quality parts and high-quality help. The custom builds are becoming more and more popular, and although he sees a bright future in the electric conversions, he’s been too busy with the standard cars to develop them as much as he would like. That said, his next Bugeye EV is going to a client who already has two other Bugeyes—one completely factory-correct car and another supercharged hot-rodded Bugeye. “Does this guy really need three?” asks Silberkleit. “Well, if you think about it, they’re three different cars for three different occasions. And I think he’s a great summary of how versatile these cars are.”

“Versatile,” “charming,” “fun,” “personality.” These are all ingredients of cars that stay at the top of enthusiasts’ wish lists decades after they go out of production. It’s why a smart business like Bugeyeguy can thrive even as tastes change and the market shifts. People will be driving Bugeyes for years to come, and they (both car and driver) will have a big grin on their face the whole time. Many of those Bugeyes will come out of a Quonset hut in Connecticut. “A lot of people have had a second childhood from these cars,” Silberkleit says. Who wouldn’t enjoy a second childhood?

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Comments

  • W. Runyan says:

    I’ve had my Bugeye for 57 years, now–it was my first car. It’s a #2 car, factory stock. I am blessed to have an E-Type, two Porsches, and a Ferrari, but the Bugeye is still my favorite. It’s the car that defines me–I’ll never sell it.

  • Andrew Newton says:

    I hear that kind of thing often! My dad still misses 30 years after selling it.

  • John Prather says:

    6 minute read….LOL. I spent 6 minutes drooling over the 1st “Artful” picture of multi colored Sprites in the “Artful” designed and reimagined Quonset hut…..:). Congrats David and Works Team Bugeye, you inspire the DIY’ers and Sprite owners across the world to preserve and enjoy the Mighty Little Car….:). John P. in Kansas

  • Mike Murphy says:

    Congrats Dave , nice article. It’s always nice to see Bugeye’s getting some attention! I’ve had my Bugeye for over 30 years, never driven it yet but it’s starting to come together thanks to your parts…. maybe this article will be the catalyst to get me to finish it!

  • Rocky D says:

    Congrats david love my Bugeye’s … missing my “Rocky” though after selling him to you … wonder often of his whereabouts .. best rocky d

  • Jim Liberty says:

    My first sports car was a Bugeye 60 years ago. I lived in Upstate NY and it was my daily driver year around. David has been a mentor in my more recent ownership. Great shop, great guy, great service.
    …………………………Jim.

  • Jim Rosenthal says:

    How do you reach this gentleman if you’re interested in one of his cars?

  • Dantheman says:

    I bought a midget and put a Bugeye nose on it. The result is a Bugeye look (unless you are behind it) with disc brakes up front and an overbored 1275 and a ribcase transmission.

  • studenorton says:

    How do you reach this gentleman…?
    Brock Yates used to tell the one about what you answered when someone asked what MG stood for. “Why, ‘Mighty Good of course.’ ‘They are available only as gifts.'” you don’t reach him. He will reach you.

  • Harmony says:

    Jim, here’s his website: https://www.bugeyeguy.com/ with his contact information on it

  • Bob says:

    I bought my “big” Healey new on 7/5/60. Still have it. Bought “my” Bugeye in 1986 as a project to finish with my 15 year old daughter. Bought a “parts” car a few month’s later for $300. to finish the process with the first. Then sold the second one to a Berkeley cop who wanted to build a “racer”, for $500. more than I paid for the “parts-car”. The Bugeye was the most-fun project ever with my daughter. We finished the car on the Thursday before the 1968 AH meet in Oxnard, CA. Drove from the Bay Area to Oxnard in a straight shot the next day, in both Healeys. How’s that for either bravery or arrogance? Both made it with just a broken tail pipe bracket on the Sprite around San Jose. But that’s why we carry a few parts and plumber’s tape! Made it back without incident. Still have both Healeys, as well as many great memories of (1) the project with my daughter and (2) the Healey friendships of over 60 years, to include several personal interactions with the Healey family. I can’t think of another marque where we would become “family” with the creators. And you can’t drive a Bugeye without a smile!

  • Mike Hannan says:

    58 years ago I was in college in Houston and had a great ’53 Chevy and thought that an open car would be nice. I had a grand in my pocket (sale of the 53 Chevy) and no clue what I wanted but I knew when I found it, I’d know. I went cruising the car lots all over the southwest part of the city …… should be something out there. First thing I found and loved was 5 year old AC Bristol but with only a thousand to spend I was just dreaming. I needed 3 grand to get that one. I spent the rest of the day looking and came upon a nice 3 year old Bug Eye for $800 – I figured with the left over $200 I could get the red interior changed to black and a nice silver paint job (those were the days, eh?) and I did. For a couple of years, I learned a lot about driving and with only 946 CC, I couldn’t get in too much trouble. Any one in that part of Houston knew the top wrench for such things Bug Eyes and E- types was Johanes Hakeemian so when I needed a perfect tune up, I took my dream car to the Mad Ethiopian who was the expert on all things AC and A-H. I stopped at his place to see if my Bug Eye was ready and I saw Johanes under the hood of a (God save us) 1954 Kaiser – when I went over to talk to him he never looked up as he was replacing something on the 3.6 L jag engine. I turned around and walked away with concerns that I might get the Sprite back with a Kaiser (Continental?) engine installed. That didn’t happen and I spent 2 years with my beloved Bug Eye and before being called to training for a visit to Viet Nam sold my friend. Seven years ago I saw a really nice Bug Eye for sale in Houston for $14,000 and I was ready to head to Houston from my home in East Tennessee when I told my car guy brother about it. He asked if I had a friend who owned Miata , I do, and he said ask him to put the top up and ask him if you can try to get in and out it. I did and decided I’d look for my second favorite ride ……… a 63 VolvoPV 544. A month later I bought the first of 4 544s (it’s a long story), Now I want to sell it to free up some garage space. Give me a whistle.

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