The old Monty Python quote seems appropriate here, because not only is this car British, but it is an oddball that has no good reason to exist. As readers of my COAL series have no doubt noticed, I pinball back and forth between cars as ordinary transportation, and cars as toys. This one falls squarely in the “toy” category.
This car is known as a “car conversion”, which is a British term for something built on top of something else. It is not exclusive to the British (think Meyers Manx built onto a VW Beetle pan), but the term seems to be. Amongst all of the specialty British car enthusiast magazines, back in the days before the internet, there was one called “Cars and Car Conversions”. If “Car and Driver” was the eccentric voice among mainstream American automobile magazines, then “C&CC” was the eccentric voice among oddball little British niche automobile magazines. Shut down in 2003 after over 40 years of publishing as a monthly magazine, it is still fondly remembered by the very few of us who bought it at the newsstand or subscribed to the name. Pre-internet, about the only place one would even see a mention or photo of the Lenham was in C&CC. Lenham also gets an entry in David Burgess Wise’s “The Illustrated Encyclopedia of the World’s Automobiles”, so it is a real thing.
Since the advent of the internet, there is now an awareness of all sorts of what I call “internet cars”. Before the webs, the TVR, or perhaps the Elva or the Turner, were about as obscure a make as one could be aware of, and only because someone would race one in SCCA or a car magazine would do an article on one of them. Now that the internet can instantly call up anything, cars such as the Roquedale Olympic, or the Ginetta, can be called up and learned about. The Triumph Italia and the Triumph Dove are now on the map. The Lenham falls squarely into this “internet car” group, as only about sixty or so currently exist, not counting the few race cars and other odd projects.
The entire idea of “car conversions” is not a hard and fast definition. Typically, VW Beetles, the original Mini, and Sprites and Midgets were used as donor cars. Do early Porsches or Pumas count as “conversions” of a VW Beetle? Certainly the previously mentioned Meyers Manx and the Kelmark GT would qualify, as one needed a VW donor car to go with the kit. Then there were the, shall we say, cars of rather curious taste, such as the VW Beetle based “Bugatti”. The first Excalibur was built out of a Studebaker Hawk. If one is looking for automotive rabbit holes, there is an entire warren containing elements of car conversions.
For our purposes, we are going to stay with British conversions based on the Mini and the Sprite. Especially in the ‘60s and ‘70s, there was an entire cottage industry of conversions. There were many using Mini powertrains, including the Ogle, the Unipower, and the Cox GTM, to name three slightly less obscure examples. The maximummini.blogspot.com website should satiate anyone curious enough to want to learn as much as possible about Mini-based conversions.
On the Sprite/Midget side, the Sebring Sprites of recently passed John Sprinzel of Speedwell, an early ‘60s brand of Sprite racing parts, was the hub of the Sprite/Midget constellation, with connections to Graham Hill, Donald Healey, and other big names of the era. Not conversions exactly, by any rigid definition of the term, but the Sprites and Midgets saw a lot of tinkering and changing around of things as part of the constant and varied upgrading of a very crude and basic car. Today, over 40 years after the last Midget was produced, the Spridgets still race in sports car and vintage racing, and companies such as Frontline Developments continue to create newly engineered, highly modified parts and assemblies for old Sprites and Midgets. The sebringsprite.com website is your internet source for bingeing on these sorts of cars.
The Lenham differed slightly from most Spridget modification work, in that it was, at root, simply an enclosed fiberglass coupe body plonked onto a Spridget chassis. An honest-to-goodness “conversion”. Any other mechanical modifications were up to the individual owner. The original shop for Lenham’s owners, Julian Booty and David Miall-Smith, was in an old carriage house belonging to the “Dog & Bear Hotel” in Lenham. They did all sorts of custom and contract work to modify and rebuild sports cars. Buying old sports car hulks, refurbishing them, and selling them off at a modest profit, after expenses, paid the freight. In 1962, a Sprite owner brought his car to Lenham, asking for an aerodynamic enclosed body to be installed. They fabricated one out of aluminum, but when others began asking for something similar, they decided to go into production using fiberglass body moulds. The “Lenham GT Coupe” was born, fitted to the early Sprites and Midgets, the ones which had no roll-up windows. Buyers could buy the bodywork and have it shipped to them for their own installation, or the car could be delivered to Lenham for a “works” conversion.
Most of the early Lenhams were used as competition cars. The improved aerodynamics and lighter weight made the cars more competitive than the typical stock-bodied Spridget. Beyond the floor pan, only the factory windshield, metal cowling and firewall, along with the doors, were kept. The rear bodywork was cut away as part of the conversion, and, typically, clamshell front bodywork from various manufacturers, done in fiberglass, was substituted for the stock metal fenders and hood (“wings” and “bonnet”). Savings of a couple hundred pounds was substantial on those light cars, and, at speed, the improved aerodynamics also made a big difference.
At the time (the early ‘60s), British sports car racing car prep fundamentally differed from that of the U.S. While the Americans and their sports car competition rule books often allowed considerable mechanical upgrading but minimal bodywork changes on their production-based cars, the British often went in the opposite direction. The mechanical specifications would largely stay “as delivered” or upgraded slightly, but the bodywork and the ability to modify it was much more wide open than in the U.S. Perhaps the stronger history of “bespoke” custom bodywork in the UK dictated such an alternative arrangement? In any case, given that a Lenham conversion would transform the performance and was generally legal to do to your small-car class racer, the Lenhams were a bit of a “ringer” in the races. One competitor, John Britten, annihilated the racing fields for a season or so in the mid-‘60s with his primrose yellow colored Lenham, whenever and wherever he showed up.
In 1965, Lenham produced a new variant, the “Lenham Le Mans Coupe”, based on the second generation cars with roll-up windows. They also introduced their “Superfast” nose. (Matchbox used “Superfast” as branding for their version of the little cars that had the easy-to-roll wheels, to compete with the recently introduced Hot Wheels. If the “Superfast” name is rattling around in your head for some reason, that is probably why). Prior to 1965, either stock front bodywork was kept, a fiberglass stock-appearing version was substituted, or clamshells from others were used. Lenham’s “Superfast” front clamshell was in-house, and carried what became their signature “smiling” front radiator inlet. The “Le Mans” second generation version could be distinguished by the rear quarter windows, while the first generation “GT” had no quarter windows, rear bodywork that tapered to a narrower appearance than the “Le Mans”, and a more “breadvan” look to the rear.
Just as “production” (such as it was, a few body shells per year, likely fewer than ten or so in any given year for both variants) commenced for the “Le Mans” coupe, the sports car sanctioning bodies began to tighten up on changed bodywork. The new racing rules said the bodywork had to “appear” like the factory bodywork. John Britten, like any dedicated but low-budget racer, simply removed and threw out the Lenham bodyshell, and substituted a “factory” appearing fiberglass Midget bodyshell onto the existing floor pan. So the most significant racing Lenham was lost to the ages. A primrose yellow replica vintage races in the UK today, and recently won the Weslake Cup race in the Spring 2022 Goodwood Member’s Cup outing.
Lenham produced GT Coupes and Le Mans Coupes, to order, up to about 1975 or so. They also built a few sports racers and a for-real Le Mans race car, which failed to qualify. The total known number of Spridget-based Lenhams appears to run to about sixty cars, roughly evenly split between GT Coupes and Le Mans Coupes. Add in a handful of purpose-built race cars, and that’s it. Once the demand for race-car conversions slowed down, Lenham pushed the small cars as street (“road”) cars, but they weren’t particularly suitable for the purpose, as they were very cramped, noisy, and hot inside, with few creature comforts. Most Lenhams were built without any interior upgrades, other than to retain the Spridget seats and dashboard. The rest was raw or painted fiberglass. Lenham did offer a road car interior upgrade, with carpets, headliner, and interior rear quarter panels, but only three cars are known to have received the option. All of this knowledge was thanks to an Australian owner named “Shep” on-line, who built out a registry and clearing-house for Lenhams, years ago. Sadly, the website has long disappeared, though perhaps the Wayback Machine might yield some results, at LenhamSpridgetregister.com.
My car turned up on “Bring-A-Trailer”, back in the seminal year of 2012. My racing days were over, I had an extra 12-A rotary engine sitting on the shop floor, and I was looking for a new project. Why not put the rotary into the Lenham? I went on-line to learn about the car, and found that it was actually a real thing. This was back when Bring-A-Trailer sold a car or two a week, and did not do auctions. Instead, they listed “exclusives”. The seller, through the photos and text of the listing, completely undersold the thing. It looked and sounded rather hideous. But, as I might be chopping it up anyway, I figured, “what the heck”? I was traveling for work, but figured I would contact the seller a week later when I was home, and if it was to happen, it would happen. When I called, the seller’s friend told me I was the first and only person to call. I told him I would buy it if I could fit in it. As it turns out, I did fit in it, just barely in all directions. Deal done. The business that held the car for the owner was a small, private shop that restored old British sports cars back into condition, and sold them for a bit of a profit, after expenses. Full circle for a Lenham, forty years and a hemisphere later.
Through the BAT listing, I made contact with the second owner (I was the fourth), and learned a ton about the history of the car. As the pink slip was lost, he, along with the third owner, provided affidavits and signatures to get the title transferred over to me. Thanks, guys!
The car itself was complete but had been sitting for a long time. The faded paint was buffed out, and the mechanicals were gone through. These cars typically had either first-generation Cortina taillights, Fiat 850 sedan alternatives, or aftermarket “button” taillights. My car came with the Cortina lights, but I swapped them over to the Fiats. I did a bit of juggling front and rear ride heights to get a good result, and decided to keep the car “factory stock”. As it turns out, it is the only known period Lenham build with a U.S. market donor car. As the cars keep the donor car VINs, and Lenham didn’t keep any records, things are a bit nebulous. But Shep’s registry did a great job of sorting things out for me and my car.
The car, all-up but without driver, weighs in at a bit over 1450 pounds. This is with full window glass, a full interior, and with heavy insulating lining under the carpets. The rear glass is actually MGB-GT, while the rear quarter windows are custom work. The added glass is all British “Triplex” branded, and date-coded to early 1971, as it should be. I was actually fitting a quarter window into a fresh rubber frame, when it slipped out of my hands, having used a bunch of slippery dish soap on everything to get it to work its way together. I caught it just before it hit the concrete garage floor. Close one!
It still gets a bit toasty in there, but the thermal lining seems to make a big difference. It also quiets the mechanical noises down, while at speed. “Windows down” is the rule. But one can just reach over and roll down the passenger side window from the driver’s seat, no problem at all! I like taking it to local shows, and it always gets a lot of questions. Little kids like cars this size, because they feel like the cars were built for them!
It is crude and noisy, but it is a hoot to drive. These little cars, like VW Beetles, have only two modes, full throttle, and no throttle. Not much in between. The twin SU carburetors have been an interesting experience to dive into. I have come to appreciate the design, from the very early 20th Century, as a really elegant and simple solution. Instead of trying to calibrate an engine with jets and fuel/air circuits and bleeds, one basically employs a variable venturi, of sorts, instead. Little baby Smith’s gauges on the dashboard both satisfy the desire for old, quaint British mechanicals, but the small size adds to the “toy car” vibe. I do fit in there, but with a slight lay-back to the adjustable seat back (which I prefer anyway), a bit of steering wheel right-in-your-lap, and splayed knees to make the tiny foot pedals operate.
Not bad for short drives, but not really enough space. The non-synchro first gear and a one-to-one fourth gear that only allows about 55 to 60 mph before everything in the drive train is screaming along, makes the speed envelope rather constricted at both ends. The handling, on the skinny tires, is not much, in a softly sprung, high body-roll sort of way. I don’t want to rip out any wire wheel centers, so I behave in the thing. Smooth, gentle, and treat her like the old thing she is. As to safety, fugettaboudit. The fiberglass bodywork is like a thin eggshell. Break one end of it, and it is likely to go all to pieces, given the age and the thinness of the fiberglass. The rear wheel arches are thick and solid, but the rest of it, no.
So, of all my “toy” cars, this one has been the the most toy-like, fun but fragile. And tiny. How tiny? On the freeway, people have looked right over the top of the thing and have almost run into me, while changing lanes. At other times, people staring at it sometimes start driving towards it (it’s a thing that can happen). People on the highway shadow it and video it on their smartphones. It’s actually a very disruptive car out there, and one has to drive it extremely defensively.
Like the Mustang, the RX-3, the Jeep, and the race car, I keep it but not too much happens with it. But, like the others, it makes me smile, every time I am in its presence. I will keep it until I age out or lose the space. Of all the cars, I love the eager sound this car makes when I start it up and run it through its paces. Like the Mustang, it is now very old and mostly untouched and unaltered, giving off the “time warp” vibe. But unlike the Mustang, I have never, ever seen another one anywhere.