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Aloha Sprinzel

Casey Annis

In my experience, most auto enthusiasts tend to live dual lives, we have our automotive life (cars, car-friends, events, etc) and then we tend to have a separate parallel life (work, family, other hobbies). But I always find it a little surreal when—once in blue moon—these two separate lives intersect.

As you read through the Racecar Profile and Fast Exposure installments this month, you’ll see the name John Sprinzel pop up numerous times. Not only was Sprinzel an accomplished rally driver from the 1950s through to the early ’70s, but he was also instrumental in the aftermarket tuning and performance of the Austin-Healey Sprite and the very special Sebring Sprites.

In 1957, Sprinzel (and partners Len Adams and George Hulbert) founded Speedwell, where they tuned and prepared Austin A35s and Morris Minors for rallies and competition. By 1959, Sprinzel sold his share in Speedwell to a young mechanic and up-and-coming driver named Graham Hill, and took up a position with the Donald Healey Motor Company as their Manager of Special Equipment. At the DHMC, Sprinzel focused on the race preparation of the Austin-Healey Sprite for both rallying and road racing, including development of the now legendary Sebring Sprite. By 1960, Sprinzel purchased the business from the DHMC and opened his own John Sprinzel Racing, which would further develop and homologate the Sebring Sprite, with an all-alloy body, into what would become known as the Sprinzel Sprite.

Sprinzel, behind the wheel, during the 1966 Monte Carlo Rally.

During this time and into the early 1970s, Sprinzel continued to race in a variety of his own and others vehicles, including several years as the Triumph rally team’s captain, as well as rallying stints with BMC, Rover, Mercedes-Benz, Peugeot and Saab. By 1973, Sprinzel retired from racing and went into journalism for a few years before pursuing other interests.

I first came in contact with Sprinzel in 2009, just after we had run an interview with him (Click here to read our interview with Sprinzel) about his racing career. That first email was riddled with puns and jokes, which I would later come to realize is quite indicative of Sprinzel’s affable, if not jovial, good nature. I also found it interesting that he signed his name “Aloha John.”

From the closing question in our interview with him, I knew that around 1979, John became enamored with the then new sport of windsurfing and, in fact, became so besotted that he sold all his holdings in the UK and moved to Corfu to open a windsurfing school! Not only did John teach windsurfing, but he also raced and competed on an international level. And so it is here, where my intersection of disparate worlds comes in. John had two clearly separate lives, his automotive life and his windsurfing life, which struck a chord with me, because I too was living a similar dual life. I had my automotive life, but also enjoyed a dramatically different existence racing prone paddleboards in long distance, open ocean races.

So seeing John’s “Aloha John” signature, I immediately knew he must be living in Hawaii somewhere, so I asked him what island. John responded Molokai, which is the least developed and least accessible of all the Hawaiian islands. Surprised by the strange double intersection of our lives, I wrote back to say that I was going to be doing a 32-mile race from Molokai to Oahu and what a small world it was. Then John—being John—generously offered to pick me up at the tiny Molokai airport (nee landing strip) and look after me while I was on his tiny, former leper colony island! I was struck by what an unbelievably generous offer this was considering we only knew each other via a handful of emails…but that’s John for you.

John Sprinzel

Flash forward almost a year and as I stepped off the tiny twin-engined commuter plane and walked across the hot Molokai tarmac there, standing in the bright Hawaiian sun was an unmistakably British looking man, wearing a Hawaiian print shirt, shorts and sandals—John Sprinzel!

Right from the moment we shook hands, it was like we had been friends for years. He loaded my gear in his truck and we trundled out onto the small, rough road that runs from the airport to the far side of the island, where my race would start from. As we made the long journey, John regaled me with a brief history of the island and its people. He went on to share how he and his wife had moved to the very provincial Molokai for the windsurfing and were at first mostly shunned by the native islanders as Haoles, or outsiders. But after years of investing their time with various social service programs on the small island and getting to know the native islanders, John revealed that he and his wife had eventually won their trust and respect were now treated like one of their own. In fact, so much so that John now sits as a commissioner on the island’s influential Planning Commission. No small feat, but also a clear testament to the type of people the Sprinzels are.

It’s been almost seven years, since I received a personal tour of Molokai, by one of the world’s legendary rally drivers. But as surreal as that still seems to me, I also know that if I were to go back tomorrow, I’d have much the same reception as if only a few days had lapsed, because that’s the kind of guy John is.

Aloha, John Sprinzel.

Editor’s note: John Sprinzel passed away the last week of May 2021, at the age of 90.