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Well-travelled Austin Healey ‘Frog Eye’ has seen good times, with the top down

PUBLISHED : Friday, 24 June, 2016, 2:34pm
UPDATED : Friday, 01 July, 2016, 3:37pm

For almost five decades, British ship broker Keith Martin, 69, has owned one of the cutest cars ever made, which he brought with him from Britain to Hong Kong.

“I am driving a 1959 Austin Healey (Frog Eye) Sprite. I purchased it in 1969, when I completed my apprenticeship in Plymouth, in Britain. I really just wanted a small open-top car to drive from Plymouth to the Midlands, to see my parents. The Frog Eye was the ideal car and I have owned it ever since.

It has such a happy looking bonnet and kids just seem to love it – even in the 1970s and 1980s they did. Initially I painted it “Absolutely Bright Yellow” with a green stripe. My wife and I had our honeymoon in Britain in it in 1984, driving around Scotland in gorgeous weather with the hood off, and stopping at some wonderful scenic spots such as Loch Lomond and the Caledonian Canal.

The car stayed in the UK when I came to Hong Kong in 1983, and I brought it out here in 2010, but before that it was fully rebuilt back to its original details, including its “Whitehall Grey” paintwork. It has its same UK registration number: 278 HKT.

I shipped the car to Europe from Hong Kong on April 17, 2014, and picked it up in Naples, Italy on May 21. Then my wife Maria and I drove it up through Tuscany and Switzerland, with [friends] Charles White and his wife Timi, and their 1953 split-screen Morris Minor Convertible called Daisy. We did roughly 3,000 kilometres over 15 days, with memorable stops at Chianti de Radda in Tuscany, Pisa and Santa Margherita, near Portofino, where the food was really good.

We drove on to Como, and the San Bernardino Pass into the Central Swiss Alps and Interlaken, which seemed to have as many Chinese and watch shops as Hong Kong. All the shops had mainland Chinese salespersons.

Then we drove through France and had tea and scones in Canterbury. The Frog Eye was then shipped back here to its adopted home. That was another great trip with my wife. We had the hood up once in three weeks – it was gorgeous.

My motoring tastes have changed to cars with more powerful engines, which is why I purchased a 1963 Jaguar Series 1 E-Type convertible, which I brought out to Hong Kong in 2011. I also have a 1995 Maserati Ghibli BiTurbo.

But I have always liked British cars, especially Austin Healeys. I had a 1967 Austin Healey 3000, which I also brought to Hong Kong in 2011, but it was simply too hot to drive as the engine and exhaust heat was terrific. I sold it and it is now back in the UK. The E-Type now carries the registration number that was on the Austin Healey 3000.

The Frog Eye is rather underpowered driving in Hong Kong traffic because the engine produces barely 42 horsepower. The only niggle is its engine power — 948cc. Many people put a 1,275cc engine in the car, which increases its power to 65 horsepower. Such an upgrade means you would then have to fit disc brakes on the front.

If I redesigned the car for this city, the main consideration would be the cooling system – a big high heater radiator in Hong Kong is essential.

Of course, it is small and easy to park and handles the heat and traffic well. I should mention, however, that air conditioning and power steering were never an option in 1959, when it was built. Of course, it has a heater. I like to drive out to Sai Kung and the Pat Heung area as there is always something to see, and the roads are slower.

I always thought that my Frog Eye was the only one in Hong Kong, but I have since found out that there are three more, all in “Eggshell Blue”. I have never seen the other three on the road: one is stored on the first floor of a garage in Sai Kung, and one other has several modifications, so is not really original, which I think is important.

My Frog Eye will compete in the Beijing-Shanghai Rally in October, and the Classic Car Club of Hong Kong annual show in Chater Road on November 20.

The talk of the Hong Kong car world must be the RL Neo Classic auction at The Repulse Bay on June 11 (when I purchased another old classic), plus the sheer number of Tesla’s on the road. I think that electric cars are here to stay, and that 90 per cent of people charge them in a car park as they have no charging station at home.

I personally think that the standard of driving in Hong Kong is terrible. The average motorist does not care about the yellow boxes at traffic lights and has no idea of courtesy to other road users. One of my main interests is trying to tell other motorists to switch on their lights at night. I am amazed that not more pedestrians are mown down by cars with no lights.”