In the name of the father… Shortly before he died, Douglas Wilson-Spratt consented to his Spridgetbased WSMs being reproduced. His son Tony did not disappoint. Words John Simister. Photography Alex Tapley.
WUZZUMS REBORN!The Spridget-based WSMs are back…
Sprites and Midgets with coupé bodies, usually fastback. You probably have a vague mental image of such machines, popularly raced in the 1960s, lumped together under the umbrella title of Sebring Sprites. For most people with a smattering of Spridget knowledge, that’s as far as it gets. But the story is a lot more involved than that, with multiple variations on the theme and tortuous links between them.
There are Sebring, Speedwell and Sprinzel body creations, all alliterating nicely with Sprite. There are the works Le Mans cars. And there are the WSMs, about which I’d heard a little and knew less. Those in the know call them Wuzzums, a bit like the way ‘Ms’ is pronounced ‘Mizz’ but older in its usage. To delve into the history of Wuzzums and their co-conversions is to risk tangling in a jungle of arcane information as trees obliterate one’s view of the wood, but I’ll try.
I’ll try because I’ve been driving a pair of WSMs, newly minted and old in equal measure. They are two of, so far, five ‘Sanction Two’ WSMs, cars that have resulted from a plan hatched in 2008 to add to the tally of nine cars created by ’Healey dealers Douglas Wilson-Spratt and Jim McManus – the ‘WS’ and the ‘M’ – between 1962 and 1965.
(Another was assembled in 2009 from original bits and belongs to Douglas’s son Tony.) One of the new ones is actually based on an MG Midget, not that it matters given that the tiny cosmetic differences between a Sprite and a Midget vanish during the surgery that creates a WSM.
So, what exactly is a WSM and how did it come to exist? Our guide here is Paul Woolmer, whose Bedfordshire-based Woolmer Classic Engineering company builds the new WSMs in a venture with Tony Wilson-Spratt. Douglas died in 2011 at the age of 90, three years after giving the go-ahead to the WSM’s rebirth on the condition that they were to be sold as complete cars, as the originals were, and as kits.
‘Douglas was 6ft 4in tall and quite broad,’ Paul explains. ‘He’d had one of the first Frogeye Sprites and we think he was the first to compete in one.’ The sebringsprite.com website confirms this, recording that Douglas took delivery of his Sprite on 16 May 1958, just before the official launch, ran it in at night and on 24 May entered it in a Sporting Owner-Drivers’ Club rally.
‘Douglas found the Sprite rather small inside, so he wanted to make it bigger. He’d only intended to make one WSM, but the first time he took it to Silverstone, people asked: “Would you build me one?”’
That first Sprite, VBM 7, didn’t lead straight to the WSM but – re-registered as DWS 97 to start a ‘97’ theme of WSM registration numbers – it did gain an aluminium coupé body made by Peel Coachworks. This was similar to the Sebring bodies created for John Sprinzel’s Speedwell company by coachbuilder Williams & Pritchard. It was such a Sebring, owned by Peter Jackson and registered 46 BXN, that caught fire on a rally, upon which Douglas designed a new fastback body for it. This was also made by Peel Coachworks and used a Speedwell Monza bonnet.
Still with me? The re-bodied 46 BXN gave the Wilson-Spratt and McManus duo the idea to create their own version, the WSM, whose body would again be built by Peel (based in Kingston-upon-Thames, Surrey, and nothing to do with the Isle of Man manufacturer of a 1960s microcar that, incidentally, was re-launched in 2011). The style was a refined version of 46 BXN’s, and the first car, WSM 201, made its debut at Silverstone in October 1962.
Six of the original WSMs had aluminium bodies, all slightly different; the rest had identically shaped glassfibre bodies made by Fibrepair of Lancaster Mews in London. The new WSMs are also bodied in glassfibre, but Paul has taken a new mould from WSM 202 (aluminium, registered 793 XPP, based on a Midget and in Paul’s workshop today along with NMN 97, the first glassfibre WSM) because the original Fibrepair moulds – thought to have been taken from WSM 203 – were damaged beyond use.
So, what was, and is, the process that creates a WSM from a Spridget? ‘First, all the external panels are removed,’ says Paul. ‘The WSM body envelops the original chassis, including the sills, so it’s 3in wider than standard. The scuttle is cut away, the dashboard is repositioned further forward, and the steering column is shortened to match so the steering wheel is further away. The body is longer, the whole idea being to give more space.’
The bulkhead is unchanged but the A-pillars are expanded forwards and outwards. The bonnet hinges and B-posts are removed and the boot floor is extended rearwards. And when the understructure is ready, the lightweight glassfibre bodyshell is attached to it by both bonding and riveting. Originally it was rivets-only.
For the new WSMs, Paul can either use an existing Sprite or Midget, of any age provided it’s rust-free (remedying rot obviously adds to the cost), or he can build the car on a new Heritage Midget bodyshell. The specification and equipment are to the customer’s choice; back in the day the cars could be had in pared-back Sprint specification or, starting with WSM 204, as a more luxurious GT. Our two new WSMs tilt towards the latter: race it on Sunday, drive it to work on Monday.
The first, in silver, reprises the look of the original WSMs and belongs to Lorraine Noble-Thompson. She runs it in hillclimbs and sprints, continuing the WSM history of club-level motor sport participation. WSMs were 1960s regulars at circuits in the UK, Europe and the US, and WSMs 201 and 205 even took part in a 1964 German Grand Prix support race at the Nürburgring.
A WSM is quite a rare-groove car, it must be said. So why did Lorraine want one? ‘I’ve had Midgets for quite a while,’ she says, ‘and I wanted something different. I was at a Goodwood event in 2008, taking pictures of the fronts of cars including Lenhams and WSMs, and I bumped first into Paul [Woolmer] and then Tony [Wilson-Spratt].
‘I already had a picture of Clive Cocks’ original car, WSM 210, pinned to the wall in my office with its smiley face, and that’s what sold it to me. Paul and Tony said they were to produce another ten cars, and mine was to be the first road GT in the new series. I already had a 1972 Midget but I didn’t want to cut it up, so Paul found another chassis.’
Lorraine then had to decide on the specification. ‘I had a 1380cc Oselli engine in my current Midget so we transferred that to the WSM. I was playing with colours on the computer and tried silver. “I’ve never seen a silver one,” Douglas said, so he sold me on that idea. It mimics a soft Jaguar silver from 1962 but is actually a Hyundai colour. Then I had to decide between wire wheels and Minilites. I imagined cleaning them… Minilites it was.’
The seats are from a Mk2 Mazda MX-5 retrimmed in leather to suit, and there’s a classic-looking wood-rim steering wheel plus Lucas toggle switches and an engine-turned aluminium panel for the Smiths instruments. The look is one of period appropriateness. ‘Douglas wanted that too,’ says Lorraine, ‘and his name is on the dashboard and on the back of the car as a tribute.’
Lorraine’s WSM is an MG at its core, not that it matters by the time it has been WSM’d, and is the second car – WSM 402 – in the new series. Its build began in 2008 and was completed three years later. The first ‘new’ WSM, 401, has been built as a racing car, 403 is in the US and work is starting on 404. A new Heritage shell is being prepared, and it will use one of the pair of new bodies waiting behind Paul’s workshop. WSM 405, however, already exists. We’ll meet it shortly.
We have assembled at Bruntingthorpe test track for our initial WSM encounter, and Lorraine’s car is being warmed ready for my run. Is it a beautiful car? No, but the nose has that cheerful smile, the headlights are racily recessed under clear plastic covers, and the tapering tail suggests streamlining. Door and boot hinges are external, because it’s simpler that way, and the bonnet catches bear the ‘m’ that reveals their origin on a Michelotti-styled Triumph Herald.
When I walk round to the back, it all hangs together rather better. The steep rearward tilt of the sliding Perspex side-windows ties in with the angle of the fastback tail, the curved haunches of the rear wings meeting that angle above neat pairs of round tail-lights flanking a square numberplate. It looks low, squat, ready for a sprint.
I thread my legs into the cockpit, a task no easier than it is in a regular Spridget, but once installed I definitely have more space around me – especially aft, where there’s an open, sloping-floored luggage area rather than a vertical bulkhead. So, sitting quite low and peering past a gentle bonnet bulge, I set off along Bruntingthorpe’s long straights and open bends.
The engine feels pure souped Spridget, with the rorty granularity that comes from a long-centre-branch manifold and a gutsy crispness to which the Swiftune SW7 camshaft, designed with knowledge absent in the 1960s, doubtless contributes. But there’s a sonic ingredient missing: the tuneful BMC gearbox whine in the indirect ratios, especially first. That’s because WSM 402 has a five-speed Ford gearbox, a popular and sensible modification, if one that costs a bit of BMC character.
Standard Spridgets can roll a surprising amount in corners, as cars often did back then, and it’s by no means a bad thing. This one has uprated dampers (still old-fashioned lever-arms), stiffer springs and a lowered ride height, but it still leans as it points with remarkable eagerness into a bend. The more it leans, the more it points in usual Spridget roll-oversteer fashion. At first it feels precarious, especially as this process is preceded by no initial understeer, but soon you just aim, squirt, hold tight and pay off a little lock as the WSM settles.
On this track it does feel a little loose, and stiff steering (fixable) makes it hard to judge exactly how much grip is left in long, steadystate corners, but later I take it out onto real roads with their bumps and cambers and increased opportunities for transient responses. And now the WSM is in its element, darting into the cambers but thoroughly good, nippy fun as the throaty exhaust sings at just the right volume. Original WSMs must have been much like this, if slightly less rapid and lacking a gear. It’s a Spridget with more pace, more space and a roof. Geoff Hill’s car, however, is something else entirely.
Meet WSM 405. ‘I was allowed to have that car number even before 404 was built,’ says Geoff, ‘because I used to own WSM 205, which was one of two lightweight WSMs and now can’t be found.’ Like Lorraine, Geoff met Paul Woolmer and Tony Wilson-Spratt in 2008 when Douglas had given the go-ahead to make more WSMs. And in 2011, just before he died, Douglas agreed to Geoff’s idea of building a WSM with a K-series engine.
This is a Spridget path well-trodden by tuning companies such as Frontline Engineering with very entertaining results, and Frontline duly provided an engine plucked from a 24,000-mile MGF. According to a rolling-road session this 1.8-litre engine, using Jenvey throttle bodies and Emerald K6 engine management, produces 187bhp at 7073rpm and 143.2lb ft of torque at 5850rpm. But it’s not particularly peaky; there’s 132lb ft on tap at just 3200rpm. So this WSM, finished in 2013, is like no other. ‘The engine is set further back in the chassis,’ Geoff reveals, ‘and the bulkhead and heater are moved back to suit. The body is moulded as a semi-lightweight, and the roll hoops around the windscreen and ahead of the rear window are made from aluminium bonded to the body. The whole car weighs just 630kg.’
It should be quite speedy, then. Getting all this energy onto the road in a disciplined fashion has taken a fair bit of development.
‘We had issues over getting the rear springs right,’ reports Geoff. ‘The first attempt was so stiff that the car was undriveable.’ The final spec includes Owens rear springs with fewer leaves than standard but two of them stiffer, AVO telescopic dampers all-round – coilovers in the case of the front ones – and 1.8º of front-wheel negative camber.
There’s a Tran-X limited-slip differential to help with traction, and double bearings on the outer end of the rear axle, which has extra lateral location by Frontline’s cleverly pivoting ‘traction control link’. Plus, as you might expect, that Ford T9 five-speed gearbox whose narrow gate demands accuracy from its driver.
The ‘donor’ car for WSM 405 was a 1969 Sprite that had been built into a new shell in 1975. So 405 is an Austin-Healey WSM, as most of the originals were. It’s a modern reinterpretation in the cabin, though, with much tan leather, Alpine-Renault seats (the metallic blue paintwork is an Alpine colour, too), modern air-vents and modernly high numbers at the far end of the Smiths speedo and tacho scales.
This WSM has a smaller steering wheel – a leather-rimmed Moto-Lita – than that of Lorraine’s 402, and it obscures the speedo. It also heightens the sense of instantaneous, inertia-free flickability that comes from the almost total lack of roll and the ample grip from the fat Yokohama A0-012R tyres that clothe the wire wheels. The ride can be choppy on the road but the darty directional instability of 402 is much less evident here, helped by less friction in the steering. And the all-disc brakes are stupendous.
As is that very torquey engine, whose intake trumpets blat fruitily from 2500rpm, and which revs with joyful zing well past 7000rpm as you hurtle from crest to crest on a backroad that suddenly seems very three-dimensional. This is an attention-seeking, garrulous WSM, great fun on a track and able to make every road-drive an event.
It has been fascinating to enter the niche world of WSMs and to drive two newly created examples, one casting an eye over its shoulder, the other embracing the modern world of Midget mods with amusing gusto. More can be made if people ask for them, at around £35,000 plus your unrusted donor car, or – for the hands-on project-seeker – around £18,000 for a finished but unpainted body attached to your chassis and awaiting your own bits. Tempting, isn’t it?
Thanks To Geoff Hill, and to Woolmer Classic Engineering, woolmerclassic.co.uk.
Tech and photos
TECHNICAL DATA FILE SPECIFICATIONS 2011 WSM 402 (silver)
Engine 1380cc BMC A-series four-cylinder, OHV, two SU HS4 carburettors
Power c110bhp @ 5200rpm / DIN
Transmission Five-speed manual Ford T9 gearbox, rear-wheel drive
Suspension Front: lower wishbones, coil springs, lever-arm dampers doubling as upper transverse arms, anti-roll bar. Rear: live axle, semi-elliptic springs, lever-arm dampers
Steering Rack and pinion
Brakes Discs front, drums rear
TECHNICAL DATA FILE SPECIFICATIONS 2013 WSM 405 (blue)
Engine 1796cc Rover K-series four-cylinder, DOHC, Jenvey throttle bodies and
Emerald K6 engine management
Power 187bhp @ 7073rpm / DIN
Torque 143lb ft @ 5850rpm / DIN
Transmission Five-speed manual Ford T9 gearbox, rear-wheel drive
Suspension Front: double wishbones, coil springs with co-axial telescopic dampers, anti-roll bar. Rear: live axle located by semielliptic springs and lateral pivoting links, telescopic dampers
Steering Rack and pinion
Left and above Wilson-Spratt (far left) and team with the first WSM Sprites, including Geoff Hill’s old lightweight (near right); new glassfibre shells being made by Woolmer. Left and below Silver WSM replicates an original car, complete with a stretched and tuned A-series engine; ‘Douglas’ signature on dashboard refers to company founder Douglas Wilson-Spratt. Below and right Blue example is more of a development on the theme, with a lightweight body and a tuned Rover K-series engine that’s set further back in the chassis.
‘This is an attention-seeking, garrulous WSM, great fun on a track and able to make every road-drive an event’
‘WSMs were 1960s regulars at circuits, and two even took part in a 1964 German Grand Prix support race at the Nürburgring’