- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 30, 2010

From years as an undergraduate at Vanderbilt University, one day in 1958 stands out in Jim Sasser’s memory.

“I was walking to my European History class when I saw a sky blue Austin-Healey parked on campus,” he recalled, confessing, “I was late for class that day.”

He saw the car only twice after that initial encounter on campus. He says it sounded spectacular.

After going to law school, Mr. Sasser was determined to acquire a car like the one he had seen years before. He found a four-year-old red 1957 Austin-Healy in Louisville. “It was kind of worn out,” he said. But on the plus side, it was an Austin-Healey. He drove the car daily for several years, and then sold it when he married his wife, Mary.

Around the end of the 20th century, after serving in the U.S. Senate and as U.S. Ambassador to China, he once more began looking for a suitable Austin-Healey. The search led him to a recently restored cream and black 1960 Austin-Healey in Tennessee. In the autumn of 2006 on a business trip to Tennessee, Mr. Sasser stopped by to inspect the car. “I came, I saw and was vanquished,” he said. After a brief test drive, he said, “I could tell it was a tight car.”

He then became the car’s fourth owner. “It was an original Texas car,” he said.

The sleek, 13-foot, 1.5-inch-long sports car made the trip to his Northwest home in Washington on the back of a truck. “I didn’t have the confidence in the car that I do now,” Mr. Sasser said.

The two mirrors mounted on the peak of the front fenders were removed because vibration when the 178-cubic-inch, six-cylinder, 124-horsepower engine runs made them virtually useless. A four-blade fan keeps the temperature of the coolant under control, although it throws off an enormous amount of heat. “There is a total lack of insulation in the car,” Mr. Sasser said.

A pair of S.U. HD6 carburetors deliver fuel to the engine from a 12-gallon gasoline tank. Handling the 2,380-pound Austin-Healey on its 91-inch wheelbase is remarkably nimble. It is low slung with a ground clearance of 4⅜ inches. The diameter of a softball is 4.5 inches.

Mr. Sasser reports that his car can easily keep up with modern traffic because the four-speed manual transmission is equipped with overdrive on the top two gears.

The three-spoke banjo-style steering wheel keeps the 5.90x15-inch tires pointed in the right direction. The tires are mounted on the optional chrome-plated 72-spoke wire wheels with knock off hubs.

The steering wheel is mounted on a telescopic steering column in an attempt to make the driver comfortable. At the hub of the steering wheel near the horn button is a small vertical lever that can be turned left or right to operate the directional signals. The switch is conveniently self-canceling.

Inside the five-foot, 1-inch high sports car, the 120 mph speedometer is twined with a 6,000 rpm tachometer. In the days before electronic speed limiters, the tachometer red lines at 5,300 rpm.

At the rear of the car the metal around the taillights is sculpted gracefully. In the diminutive trunk is the horizontally-mounted spare tire and, in an effort at equalizing weight distribution, the battery is mounted there as well.

Mr. Sasser is quick to point out accessories on his car such as the badge bar in front of the grille, the windscreen washer and the heater.

As a true roadster, Mr. Sasser’s Austin-Healey has no windows. If you’re out driving with the top down and thunderclouds are threatening, Mr. Sasser has a solution. “Find a bridge to park under,” he says.

“It’s a two-man top,” he reported, “although one man can raise it if he is desperate.”

Even with the side curtains in place, a resigned Mr. Sassers said: “Eighty percent of the rain still gets in the car.”

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