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Austin Healey Sprite

Austin Healey Sprite Published: 17th Aug 2017 - 0 Comments - Be the first, contribute now!

Austin Healey Sprite

Fast Facts

  • Best model: Cars with sympathetic upgrades
  • Worst model: Anything ropey; resto costs high
  • Budget buy: Average cars with no mods
  • OK for unleaded?: No; need an additive or inserts
  • Will it fit in the garage? (mm): L 3499 x W 1346mm
  • Spares situation: Excellent
  • DIY ease?: Oily bits easy, bodies trickier
  • Club support: Top-notch
  • Appreciating asset?: Yes, some as dear as a TR6
  • Good buy or good-bye?: Proof that the best things can come in the smallest packages
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Original ‘Spridget’ that’s full of fun and character although a lot cruder than the later models. Good ones are TR6 expensive but you are increasingly getting what you pay for with this charming funny-faced classic sportster

Cheap and cheerful might be deemed a somewhat derogatory phrase by some – but when it comes to sports cars, it epitomises the Frogeye Sprite. Launched back in 1958 it was a momentous occasion for Britain’s car industry, because here was a sports car that was more affordable than anything that came before. It may have been cheap but it certainly wasn’t nasty – the Sprite was a hoot to drive thanks to its low kerb weight and simple, rugged running gear.

Powered by the same A-Series engine seen in the Austin A35 and Morris Minor, the Frogeye might have had just 43bhp on tap but it punched well above its weight – all 664kg of it. As a result, while the driving experience is raw, the Sprite is also beautifully agile; small wonder they couldn’t make them fast enough. The launch price of £679 ensured a steady flow of buyers over a four-year production run; 48,584 examples rolled off the production lines including CKD cars built overseas. Now, thanks to rising values, there has never been as many really good examples available, as owners pour money into their cars. But there’s still a lot of tat out there that won’t turn into a Princess…

History

1958 The Austin-Healey Sprite MkI makes its debut in May; it’s the first British sports car to feature monocoque construction. Designed to be as basic as possible to keep costs down, there’s no heater or door handles – and not even a bootlid to get into the luggage compartment. Instead, this has to be accessed from behind the seats. The car is well received, but within five months the screen and hood fittings are redesigned to improve the levels of weatherproofing.

Power is provided by a 948cc engine taken from the A35 saloon. With some mild tuning and special 11/8in twin SU carbs there’s 42.5bhp available along with 52lbft of torque. The Morris Minor donates its steering rack while the gearbox, front suspension and rear axle are all taken from the A35 saloon.

1960 From March redesigned sidescreens are fitted as standard. They now feature a sliding window instead of just a flap; previously sidescreens were an optional extra, but standard if the car was ordered with a factory hard top.

In little more than a year the model would be defunct, replaced by the far less characterful Sprite MkII, which was also available as an MG Midget, the later continuing for almost a further 20 years in production. Alas, the Sprite was killed off in 1972 after losing its iconic Austin-Healey name a year before.

Driving and press comments

The Motor was allowed to test the Frogeye before it had been publicly revealed, putting 2000 miles under the wheels of one in the run up to the car’s official launch.

It was pretty obvious that despite the car’s simplicity and keen price, the test team were bowled over by it: “Were it possible to define quantitatively a pleasureto- price ratio for cars, the new Austin- Healey Sprite would register an amazingly high figure for this desirable virtue. Costing about as much to buy as do many popular saloons of similar 1-litre engine size, and perhaps even cheaper than such saloons to run, this open two-seater offers much better acceleration up to a top speed which is higher by some 10mph, but responsiveness to the slightest touch on the controls is what really makes it such a joy to drive.

“Small in size, the Sprite is certainly not a ‘miniature’ car nor should it be regarded as merely a fragile toy. Modern full-width styling of the low-drag body enables it to provide generous room for two big men on excellent seats and there is substantial (if awkwardly arranged) accommodation for luggage also.

“Weighing 2-3cwt less than the saloons which use basically the same power unit, and with wind resistance minimised by a 10-15-inch saving in overall height, the Sprite has required only mild engine tuning to gain performance fully comparable with lively modern saloons of double its size.”

The rest of the review was generally positive, with remarks made about the engine’s flexibility and low oil consumption (just one pint per 1000 miles!) although its propensity to run hot when stuck in traffic was worrying. The direct steering (under two-and-a half turns between locks) went down well also, but the spacing of the four gearbox ratios was less than ideal. With plenty of grip, strong handling, strong brakes (prone to quickly fade with only moderate use) and excellent economy, the car was proclaimed to be a winner.

No Sprite or Midget was ever anything than merely Spartan but the Frogeye was basic to the extreme, more in line with a Caterham and so may be a culture shock even to Spridget owners. There again, they have been compared to the Seven in terms of raw, seat-of-the-pants driving thrills and while they are not in the same performance league, a Frog still feels frisky and many have been further uprated in line with later models such as 1275cc engine, front disc brakes and so on.

Values and marketplace

Gordon Elwell runs Nottinghamshire-based Classic Revival, which works exclusively on Frogeyes, restoring, upgrading, race preparing and maintaining them. Classic Revival also sells Frogeyes and their associated parts while Gordon also offers pre-purchase inspections and valuations. Gordon bought his first Frogeye in ’63 and in his three-strong current collection is a car he’s owned since 1966, so he’s definitely been bitten by the bug-eyed sportster.

Says Gordon: “Values have steadily increased in recent years to the point where anything less than £6000 buys a parts car only. Spend this amount and you might get a steel bonnet but the chances are it’ll be a glassfibre item instead. That’s not necessarily a problem though as some buyers don’t frown upon these because they don’t rust, they’re lighter than the steel alternative and they provide better engine bay access. The fact that decent steel bonnets rarely come up for sale and new ones are very costly (around £4000) has led to some pragmatism in the marketplace.

“For £12K you might buy a car that’s clinging to an MoT, but good Frogeyes generally start at £15K and go all the way up to £25,000 for something really nice. The very best Sprites can breach the £30,000 barrier, although such cars are exceptional”.

Frogeyes are still being brought in from the US, but not in the volumes witnessed 15-20 years ago as so many have already been imported. Genuine right-hand drive cars fetch a premium whatever the condition; most LHD examples are projects brought in from America.

Gordon adds: “You have to tread very carefully when buying from the US because there are so many poorly restored and badly modified cars over there. I’ve never bought a Frogeye direct from the US as the risks are so great; the key is to buy from someone once the car is already in the UK.

Over the years I’ve seen too many Frogeyes that I wouldn’t have bought at any price; many are beyond redemption and I’ve got one of the biggest stocks of parts in the UK”.

Gordon confirms that it’s the instruments and interior trim that are the hardest to get right, so if you can find a car that isn’t lacking in these departments you could be onto a winner – although the state of the bodywork is also key too, of course. Most Frogs are bought by people who want to use them, even if that’s only sparingly. As a result originality isn’t always essential, with items such as a 1275cc engine and disc brakes usually seen as very desirable.

Between 1985 and 1999 the Frogeye Car Company built 130 glassfibre-bodied Frogeyes. Initially offered as a bodyshell into which a rotten Frogeye’s mechanicals would be installed, many cars ended up being fitted with modern running gear. More usable and with no worries about originality, these modern-day Sprites are hard to value as they come up relatively rarely, but they’re worth less than a genuine car which means that in theory prices start probably at around £12,000.

Gordon concludes: “What you’re going to use the car for will dictate what you should buy. Don’t worry too much about buying an upgraded Frogeye if you’re going to do a few hundred local miles each year just pootling about locally – while an original car isn’t really suited to long-distance touring. Whatever you buy, don’t pay over the odds for it as there are a lot of overpriced cars out there. I’ve been to buy cars that have been spectacularly misdescribed where the vendor could have halved the price and I still wouldn’t have been interested – you really do have to buy a Frogeye with your eyes open”.

Improvements

Most Frogeye owners prefer their cars to be as original as possible within reason, so if you’re not aiming to hold on to your car forever, be careful before making any significant changes. It’s always best to stick with upgrades that are reversible, although most owners are happy to have a peppier engine fitted along with stronger brakes. Because a 948cc engine was fitted to all, swapping this for a 1098cc edition or a 1275cc unit is acceptable to most potential buyers – but it’s essential that the brakes are uprated too. These need to be swapped for discs and with the conversion currently pegged at around £1000 it’s quite a costly job – but one that’s worth every penny although if only mildly tuned, just harder linings (try Mintex Classic) may well suffice although deal pressure will probably be high.

The A-Series engine always produced plenty of tappet noise, while a rattling timing chain is common too. If you find the timing chain too noisy a Duplex assembly can be fitted to make it run more quietly; a kit of parts is available for around £35.

Telescopic damper conversions aren’t unusual, but some owners have gone back to a lever arm set-up having realised that the changes aren’t necessarily a good thing. The key problem is that telescopic dampers don’t have the generous travel of the lever arm alternative. A kit of parts is readily available for around £300, but don’t rush into making the change without seeking advice first.

Other than this it’s the usual items that you can attend to; halogen headlights, electronic ignition, wire wheels and so forth. All of these are reversible but they make the Frogeye more usable which is why they’re all worth doing, although switching to wire wheels is a matter of personal taste. Move over to these and you’ll need to find around £400 for the hub conversion kit while wheels are £155 for painted rims and around £210 for chromed items. With cleaning much more involved and wear much more likely, don’t bin those disc wheels without careful consideration first. If you need technical info and parts, apart from Gordon Elwell, call John Street at Frogeye Spares on 01204 604017.

What To Look For

Engine

  • Not many still have their original 948cc engine as most have either bigger units or rebuilt items fitted by now. If you’re after a Sprite still featuring its original powerplant, see 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 certificate for that), but can at least tell if it’s the correct version.
  • The A-series engine doesn’t like unleaded, so an additive has to be used or valve seat inserts have to be fitted. This is usually done as part of a top-end overhaul, with rebuilt heads typically costing £450; may have been done already.
  • 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.
  • Starting from cold the oil pressure should be 60psi – once warmed up expect 40psi at 1000rpm. If there’s much less than this expect a rebuild before long.
  • Tappet noise is a part of Sprite ownership, as is a rattling timing chain. If you find the latter too noisy a Cooper S Duplex assembly can be fitted.
  • 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 is pretty durable and will take a lot of abuse, continuing to run even when badly worn. In 948cc form a set of big end shells may last just 40,000 miles however 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 it with the oil filler cap removed. If any fumes are evident a rebore is due. Blue smoke from the exhaust when accelerating after an over-run is the sure-fire check.
  • Check for a white emulsion on the oil filler cap on 1275s, which can suffer from failed head gaskets because the block hasn’t been skimmed at rebuild time as it’s an engine out job.
  • Many cars are fitted with electric fuel pumps, most of which were fitted in the 1980s when the correct mechanical pumps were hard to source. It’s now possible to get the right bits again (for around £25), so returning the car to original specification is easy.

General

  • There’s not much interior trim. Carpeting wasn’t a feature – rubber mats graced the floors instead. Many interiors now have carpets on the floors, but rubber mat sets are available at £50 – although they’re not perfect replicas of the originals.
  • Few wear their original (over-sized) two-spoke steering wheel, as even when they were new many were thrown away in favour of a smaller woodrimmed alternative. Original wheels are now hard to find, although few people seem to worry about anything non-original.
  • The rev counter works via a mechanical drive from the back of the dynamo. Replacements are expensive but the original units are reliable. Instrumentation is often incorrect or not working – and replacements are dear so make sure you won’t need to buy anything.
  • The Sprite’s electrical system is very simple, so there’s not much to go wrong. Heaters were an optional extra so there’s often 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 all sorts of problems.
  • 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 can fail, but as there are no moving parts it’s impossible to tell how much life is left in a unit, and they tend to last well. Replacements weigh in at around £25.
  • Parts supply is generally excellent: try Frogeye Spares on 01204 604017.

Body and chassis

  • The body is the Frogeye’s weakness. What looks like a good car may actually be full of filler, so inspect the panelwork very closely and make sure you take a magnet with you to check for filler. The car’s monocoque construction can cause tremendous problems with weakening of the structure – by far the biggest problem with Mk1 Sprites is bodywork rot.
  • Worst culprits are the rear spring mounting boxes in the floor 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. A low ride height at the rear can also be down to a a collapsed spring mounting.
  • Sills and A-posts corrode, so check gaps between the door and both the A-post and the B-post, which should be even. It’s common for the gap to be narrower at the top, indicating sag in the bodyshell. To fix properly requires jigs and lots of time.
  • The rear-hinged bonnet incorporates the front wings and valance. Both of these tend to rust badly and the area around the bonnet hinges also dissolves. While you’re in this area inspect the grille surround. Another weak point is the battery tray.
  • It doesn’t stop there, as the combined brake and clutch master cylinder can leak brake fluid onto the surrounding bodywork.
  • Check the boot floor where it joins the rear panel along with the footwells and area behind the seats. The lack of a bootlid makes checking the boot from inside a tricky proposition.
  • If the inner sills have rotted badly, repairs will be involved. Similarly, 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 wheelarches look tatty it’s a sure bet the inner ones will be in at least as poor a state.
  • Because there’s no bootlid, many have a luggage rack. This can lead to distorted rear shrouds due to overloading or poor fitment. Check all beading.

Running gear

  • Erly gearboxes had weak syncromesh 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 (1098/1275cc) ribbed version, offering greater strength, improved synchromesh and better ratios. If the gearbox is getting worn it’ll jump out of gear; rebuilt gearboxes are available for £510.
  • Early steel-wheel half-shafts can break, especially if a bigger engine is fitted. Replacement half-shafts are available at £174 if fitted with disc wheels.
  • The steering should be light and positive. If it isn’t the chances are the suspension hasn’t been greased regularly. To check for wear jack up the front of the car (spread the load as the centre of the crossmember is thin), and rock the road wheel at top and bottom – if there’s any play it may indicate kingpin wear. To be certain, get somebody to apply the footbrake. 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.
  • Lever arm dampers lose their effectiveness very quickly. Some cars have had a telescopic damper conversion, which is quite involved. Doesn’t feel any better, but the dampers will be much more durable.
  • Master cylinder, controls both brake and clutch hydraulics. Look for leaks’ if one of the bores is damaged or worn you’ll have to scrap the whole unit and replace it with a new one, from £75 although double this for a quality alternative.

Three Of A Kind

Mazda MX-5
Mazda MX-5
It’s more modern and much more usable than the Sprite, but with so many built and low pricing to start with, the MX-5 is a classic sports car bargain like no other. Fabulous to drive, reliable and supported by a raft of clubs and specialists the MX-5 is a modern-day Sprite. But despite its modernity the Mazda (Mk1 and Mk2) can corrode badly, so don’t assume that a potential buy is automatically rustfree – because it probably won’t be.
Smart Brabus Roadster
Smart Brabus Roadster
Arguably this Mercedes offshoot it’s the closest modern interpretation to the Frogeye, sporting a rear mounted 100bhp three-cylinder 698cc turbocharged engine for really vivid high rev performance (0-60 under 10 sec). Launched in 2003, it has curious styling and a five-speed semi auto that’s also a matter of taste as it can be annoyingly slow-witted. But the handling is great and spares and running one is no problem; go to the forum Roadster.net for help.
Suzuki Cappuccino
Suzuki Cappuccino
This is another car that tries to rekindle Frogey fun but they can rot badly and with relatively few sold in the UK to start with, you’re going to have to be prepared to wait and search to find your ideal car. But as with the Mazda you don’t need much money to scoop a good example when you do find one. With its 657cc turbocharged three-cylinder engine limited to 9300rpm it’s a blast to drive, but it’s the agility that’ll clinch it when you drive one.

Verdict

The Frogeye Sprite was created for those who wanted fun on a tight budget and until fairly recently this has remained one of the most financially accessible sports cars you can buy. But as with most classic cars, Sprite values have shot up to the point where you’ll need surprisingly deep pockets to buy something really nice.

However, if you don’t mind something that’s less than pristine – something that’s good enough to use on a regular basis – you don’t need to spend huge amounts of cash. Whichever end of the market you’re buying from, as long as you buy a good example you’ll have a whale of a time. The Frogeye’s simplicity means you’re exposed to the elements rather than insulated from them and that ensures each drive is a riot. Spend some time in one of these diminutive sportsters and you’ll realise just how bloated all other sports cars later became.



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