Austin Healey FrogEye SpriteCrazy Frog Published: 4th May 2011 - 0 Comments - Be the first, contribute now!
- Best model: A minter
- Worst model: Bodged restos
- Budget buy: Sound original car
- OK for unleaded?: No - needs addictive
- Will it fit in the garage? (mm): Very easily
- Spares situation: Very good
- DIY ease?: No problem
- Club support: Superb
- Appreciating asset?: Oh yes!
- Good buy or good-bye?: Good buy
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A cheeky chappie that gives you more smiles per mile than any other sportster, the Frogeye is still fun at 50
Pros & Cons
One of the standard cliches in ‘modern’ car magazines is the desire for a modern-day Sprite - a synonym for an open-topped two seater that’s cheap to buy and run. When Austin Healey launched its MkI Sprite in May 1958 it cost £679, or not much more than a four-door Morris Minor. Thanks to a poverty spec (even bumpers were an extra) both weight and price could be kept to a minimum, but the days of students running Frogeyes on a shoestring disappeared long ago, and values have climbed steadily as restoration costs soar and the number of decent examples dwindles further. Originality is especially important with these cars, so don’t even think of making major modifi cations to yours unless you can either reverse them or be prepared to make a loss when it comes to getting rid. The exception to this is under the bonnet - a larger capacity powerplant is okay as long as it’s an A-Series and is joined by uprated brakes. Later Sprites had a 1098cc engine in place of the Frogeye’s 948cc version, and swapping the earlier powerplant for the later one is both easy and popular. Some owners go even further and put in the 1275cc engine from the MkIV Sprite.
Whatever you buy, as long as you don’t pay over the odds you’ll be having a whale of a time. There’s not much than can touch the simplicity and purity of a Frogeye, nearly half a century after it fi rst saw the light of day. Sprites got more and more complex as the series developed – the MkIII even had door handles! Three years after its launch the Frogeye was replaced by the MkII Sprite and MG Midget, with their far less distinctive front ends. Between 1958 and 1961 48,584 Frogeyes rolled off the production line.
The rev counter was an option on early cars!
Sprite MkI introduced May 1958 Screen and hood fittings modified October 1958 Sliding side windows introduced March 1960 Sprite MkII launched May 1961. And that was the sum of it.
Weighing little more than half a ton the Sprite is amazingly agile and zippy. Steering is light and sharp the unservoed brakes are positive and effective if in good order. The gearchange is reasonably precise and the Frogeye is a fun car to punt around - and still return almost 40mpg. Thanks to a surprisingly rigid bodyshell the handling was way ahead of its time and – thanks to quarter elliptic rear springs handles even better than later Spridgets plus suffers less from axle tramp although ride is always although a little hard. In terms of civility, the Frogeye has virtually nil, while boot space is only accessed from the cockpit. But for the purist, that’s all part of the car’s charm.
Tappet noise is a part of Sprite ownership, as is a rattling timing chain. If you fi nd the timing chain too noisy a Duplex assembly can be fi tted to make it run more quietly.Some cars boast telescopic damper conversions which is quite involved. The end result doesn’t feel any better, but the replacement dampers will be much more durable than the original lever arm units (where many ‘recon’ units are poorly done). Later Sprites used disc brakes at the front, which are interchangeable with the Frogeye. If the swap has already been made make sure the master cylinder from a later Sprite (Mk2) has been fi tted with a 3/4 inch bore. Master cylinders from the MK3/4 Spridgets can be fi tted but it’s very involved as it means ditching the original heater assembly and modifying the bulkhead. The standard drum brakes can be made effective enough for most needs by simply searching for New Old Stock linings where their asbestos make up works best. Better still, try to fi nd old uprated AM4/AM8 stuff. How far you want to tune the engine is up to you but 135bhp from a 1380cc A-Series is not unknown although a bet too racey for road use. But certainly a nice 1275cc unit can turn the Frog into frisky. If you want, a Ford Sierra fi ve-speed ‘box can be grafted on but many believe it spoils the car’s inherent nature. And we have to agree.
If you’re handy with the MIG and you want to give your socket set a good airing you’ll be able to buy a project for £1500-£2000, but that’ll cost a fair bit in parts and will take a lot of your time to get to a roadworthy condition. If you want something that you can use without having to put any effort in you can pick something up for £6-7000. The best cars can fetch up to £11,000 and we’ve even heard of restored cars touching almost £20,000 but they have to be absolutely superb for this money.
What To Look For
- The monocoque construction can corrode badly - by far the biggest problem with Mk1 Sprites is rot. Worst culprits are the rear spring mounting boxes in the fl oor behind the seats. There should be a gap of three inches or so between the top of the rear tyre and the wheelarch. If the gap is much less than this the rear spring box has almost certainly collapsed, which means major surgery is needed.
- Sills and A-posts are rot-prone. Check the gaps between the door and both the A and B-posts, which should be even. It’s common for the gap to be narrower at the top, indicating sag in the bodyshell; it’s involved to fi x.
- The rear-hinged bonnet incorporates the front wings and valance. Both of these rust badly and the area around the bonnet hinges also dissolves. While you’re here, inspect the grille surround and the seams between the wings and bonnet top, all of which get very frilly
- Another weak point is the battery tray, which collects water then rots through. It doesn’t stop there, as the combined brake and clutch master cylinder can leak brake fl uid onto the surrounding bodywork. This strips the paint then allows the elements to attack the bodywork - with predictable results
- Check the boot fl oor where it joins the rear panel along with the footwells and area behind the seats. If the car has been fi tted with carpets make sure they’re not hiding serious corrosion.
- The lack of a bootlid makes it tricky checking the boot from inside. Rust can also appear on the join between the boot fl oor and the rear panels as well as underneath the rear number plate .
- Rear wheelarches and lower rear wings can rust badly, and although repair sections are available it’s not easy to effect a repair. If the outer rear wheelarch looks as though it has seen better days it’s a sure bet that the inner one will be in at least as poor a state. Bodged repairs are common in this area, while new sills are sometimes fi tted over the old ones - the old sill must be completely removed and every trace of rust must be cut out.
- Inspect the leading edge of the scuttle, as paint damage here may indicate a poorly aligned bonnet which in turn may indicate badly repaired accident damage.
- Because there’s no bootlid fi tted to the Frogeye many cars have been fi tted with luggage racks. This can lead to distorted rear shrouds due to overloading or poor fi tment of the rack.
- Check all the beading along the length of each front and rear wing. This is used to separate the wings from the shrouds, but it can cause problems when water sits under the head of the beading and rots away the panels. Replacing the beading means separating the panels, which if it needs to be done either side, front and rear is going to be rather time consuming - and hence expensive if entrusted to a specialist.
- The engine was the same as the A35’s, but with twin SU carburettors instead of the A35’s single Zenith. It was also fi tted with stronger bearings, valve springs and exhaust valves. Not many cars still have their original 948cc engine as most have either bigger units or rebuilt items by now. If you’re after one with its original powerplant you can check if all is present and correct by seeing if its serial number begins with 9C-U-H. That won’t tell you if it’s the original engine (you’ll need a Heritage trace certifi cate for that), but you can at least tell if it’s the correct version for the car.
- The A-Series engine isn’t known for its ability to retain oil, and if you’re looking at a 948cc version fi tted with a scroll-type rear crank seal there’s almost no chance of it being oil-tight.
- If your quest is to track down a car that’s original in every respect, make sure the carburettors have brass tops, indicating the correct 1 1/8in versions. Later plastictopped 1 1/4in units are often substituted.
- Starting from cold the oil pressure should be 60psi - once warmed up expect 40psi at 1000rpm. If there’s much less than this you can expect to have to rebuild it before long.
- A loud rattle when starting probably comes from a fractured carburettor heat shield. Over-enthusiastic tightening can break the rear lug on the manifold.
- The A-Series engine isn’t famed for its durability, although it will take hard use without complaint. In 948cc form a set of big end shells may last just 40,000 miles and 1275cc versions will probably suffer from worn piston rings and bores by the time 70,000 miles have been racked up. To check for the early stages of this, run the engine with the oil fi ller cap removed. If any fumes are evident it’ll be time for a rebore before long.
- Check for a white emulsion on the oil fi ller cap on 1275cc engines, which are prone to failed head gaskets. Many cars are fi tted with electric fuel pumps, most of which were fi tted in the 1980s when the correct mechanical pumps were hard to source. It’s now possible to get the right bits again, so returning the car to original specifi cation is easy.
- The gearbox and back axle are the same as the A35’s. There’s syncro on second, third and fourth, although early gearboxes had weak syncro mesh on second gear. Original cars will have a smooth gearbox casing (visible down the back of the engine), which is often substituted for the later ribbed version, offering greater strength and improved syncromesh. If the gearbox is getting worn it’ll jump out of gear while you’re giving it a test drive - rebuilding the gearbox costs around £200 if you do it yourself. Having it done by a specialist will cost closer to £600.
- Half-shafts are prone to breaking, and with engine upgrades being popular they have an even harder time. A lack of soundproofi ng makes it easy to hear whines and knocks from the half-shaft splines once they begin to wear.
- Front suspension is A35-sourced, but the rack and pinion steering is borrowed from the Minor. If it doesn’t feel really precise there’s a problem - the steering should be light and positive. If it isn’t the chances are the front suspension hasn’t been greased regularly. The front king pins and fulcrums should have been greased every three months to prevent premature wear. To check if a rebuild is due, jack up the front of the car by supporting it under the front crossmember, and grip the road wheel at top and bottom. Try to rock it - if there’s any play it may indicate kingpin wear. To be certain, get somebody to apply the footbrake while you repeat the process. If it’s ‘cured’ a new wheel bearing is needed - if there’s still play the kingpin bushes or lower links (fulcrum pins) are due for replacement.
- The front lever arm dampers lose their effectiveness quickly (especially some aftermarket recon stuff), so check them by bouncing each front corner. The rears are far more durable.
- Drum brakes were fi tted all round, and these are perfectly adequate for the car’s performance. Fronts were taken from the A35 and rears from the Minor. Pedal pressures are a bit higher than with a disc/drum set up, but there should be plenty of feel through the pedal.
- The master cylinder is a dual item, which means it controls both the brake and clutch hydraulic systems. Check the braking effi ciency and look for leaks around the master cylinder, because if one of the bores is damaged or worn you’ll probably have to scrap the whole unit and replace it with a new one - at £230.
- There’s not much interior trim; carpeting wasn’t a feature as rubber mats graced the fl oors instead. Many interiors now have carpets on the fl oors, and original rubber matting is very scarce.
- Few cars carry their original two-spoke steering wheel, as even when they were new many were thrown away in favour of a wood-rimmed one. Sourcing original wheels isn’t diffi cult, although few people seem to worry about anything non-original.
- Instrumentation is often incorrect or not working - and replacements are expensive so make sure you won’t need to buy any.
- The Sprite’s electrical system is simple; heaters were an optional extra so there’s only the car’s lighting and ignition wiring to consider. Despite this, electrical systems are frequently bodged. Its simplicity makes it easy to check, so have a good look round or you could end up with poor reliability and even some auxiliary heating you didn’t bank on.
- If the rear lights are damaged you can replace them with MGA or TR3 units, as they’re the same. Control boxes for the car’s electrical system also give up the ghost, but as there are no moving parts it’s impossible to tell how much life is left in a unit. Replacements are around £25.
Three Of A Kind
Triumph Spitfi reThe Spitfi re always came with engines a little less junior than the Frogeye, but two-seater rag-tops don’t come much more affordable than this. With mechanical simplicity and plenty of parts available new and used, it’s easy to run a Spitty on a budget. Watch out for dodgy restorations though; they’re rife. MK3/IV best
MG MidgetIt’s effectively a bad engineered version of the Frogeye’s successor, the MkII Sprite - and none the worse for that. With great club support, superb parts availability and more affordable prices, the Midget (and later Sprites of course) is perhaps the ideal starter sportster. Later cars became more civilised and faster.
Turner 950You won’t fi nd one of these very easily, but this is the closest you’ll get to a Frogeye thanks to the use of A-Series power and the same diminutive proportions. The 950 was also a contemporary of the Frogeye, and thanks to a glassfi bre bodyshell, rust isn’t an issue. The chassis can corrode though, while the plastic panels can crack and craze.
There isn’t much that isn’t available new for the Sprite, although restoration costs can add up very quickly. What isn’t available new is generally available second-hand. The simple construction of the car allows an easy inspection to be made before parting with your cash, so there’s really no excuse if you get caught out. Running costs are also very low and it’s hard to get fuel consumption below 40mpg plus the road tax is free. Insurance should be cheap too, so what are you waiting for?
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