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Austin Healey Sprite

Austin Healey Sprite Published: 14th May 2018 - 0 Comments - Be the first, contribute now!

Austin Healey Sprite
Austin Healey Sprite
Austin Healey Sprite
Austin Healey Sprite
Austin Healey Sprite
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Before the Frogeye, enthusiasts had to make their own kit-based sports cars to gain cheap thrills. But the Austin-Healey changed all that: Andrew Roberts

On the 25th May 1958 the latest edition of Autocar contained this intriguing report: For some months past, persistent rumours of a new small sports car under development by BMC have circulated amongst those with trade and sporting interests in such a vehicle. Most of these legends suggested new MG; in fact, the mystery car now described is designated an Austin-Healey, for the good reason that it owes its conception to the Healey design office in Warwick.

Sixty years ago, it would have been logical to assume that the latest offering from the British Motor Corporation would bear the octagon badge. After all, it was to be constructed at Abingdon and compact sports cars were part of the marque’s heritage. Indeed, when Leonard Lord, the Chairman of BMC, met with Donald Healey in 1956, the object was to plan a modern equivalent to the M-Type Midget, the Austin Seven Nippy and Ulster, and the Wolseley Hornet Special. The result was Austin-Healey Sprite, which brilliantly updated a pre-war form of motoring for the 1950s.


It was a combination of tried-andtested engineering with a low cost – and a verve and panache that were entirely its own, spurred on, perhaps, by the explosion of build it yourself kit cars based on pre-war Austins and Fords which provided a donor chassis to slap a new body on care of the that cheap new-fangled material called fibreglass.

One major criterion for the project was that it would sell for much the same price as a Morris Minor – i.e. around the £600 mark – and another was that it could be made with simple tooling. This meant the use of as many BMC components as possible, with the Sprite using the power plant, back axle casing, transmission and front suspension of the Austin A35 and rack and pinion steering from the Morris Minor. Yet, although the Sprite’s mechanics were – and are – familiar, this should not mask the fact that it was the first unitarybodied mass-production sports car in the world. Healey’s designer Gerry Coker also had the idea that having no boot lid would save on weight and cost and £sd was also the reason behind the car’s distinctive appearance and nickname. A plan to use ‘pop-up’ headlamps that anticipated the Porsche 928 had to be abandoned on the grounds that they were too expensive.

Monte carlo or bust

The Austin-Healey Sprite débuted on the 20th May 1958 at Monte Carlo and dashing young types across the land all instantly craved ‘the most exciting new car on the road’. The A-Series engine fitted with twin 11⁄8 inch SU carburettors was capable of 42bhp and over 80mph, the combined bonnet and front wings made for ease of maintenance and this was before the potential buyer considered those looks.

BMC claimed that the Frogeye had the ‘greyhound grace of a luxury touring car’, which was both over-the-top even by the standards of the day and wholly unnecessary. The Sprite was never intended for grand tours but affordable enjoyment. And that it surely did.

A further reason for the impact of the Sprite was that none of BMC rivals in the ‘Big Five’ of British car manufacturers offered a direct rival to the sports car which Donald Healey originally envisaged as “something a chap could keep in his cycle shed”. Its main competitors were the likes of the Berkeley SE492, the Fairthorpe Electron Minor and the (Austin A35 powered) Turner 950 Sports, for the latest Austin-Healey was aimed at the sort of motorist who might have otherwise considered a homemade plastic-bodied “special” based on pre-war cars.

But even if the Frogeye’s price included Purchase Tax (which was avoided by kit cars) it still cost a mere £678 17s – or just £109 more than the A35 although the list of optional extras was extensive: heater, a tachometer, windscreen washers, a tonneau cover and, in the home market, a front bumper for an extra £6. If you really wanted door handles, Speedwell would sell you an aftermarket set for £2 19s 6d; the fact that the Sprite came with no form of security whatsoever is a further sign of how absolutely remote 1958 now seems.

However, the Austin-Healey was launched at a time when many sports car enthusiasts regarded exterior door handles as decadent and the lack of external access to the luggage compartment as a small sacrifice for such a fine vehicle. The early brochures for the Sprite perfectly encapsulate its intended world; one of jovial Graham Hill look-a-likes and motorists who favour a dashing cap/cravat combination. Whether you specified your Austin-Healey in “Cherry Red”, “Leaf Green”, “Primrose Yellow”, “Speedwell Blue” or “Old English White”, you were almost guaranteed to be the envy of your neighbours.

 

The originaL MX-5?

The Sprite also received high praise in the motoring press; Autosport stating that “every credit is due to the manufacturers for instigating what will undoubtedly prove to be a new era in the popularity of small-capacity, open car motoring’. Meanwhile, the gentlemen of Motor Sport thought that although the Sprite was not “particularly fast, it makes up for this with brisk acceleration, and quite outstandingly good road-holding and cornering”. In the USA Road & Track stated that “it offers more fun ‘per dollar’ than anything we have driven for a long time” while Motor Trend raved that, “As it stands, the Sprite is one of the two best dollar bargains on today’s sports car market. Its amazing docility makes it perfect for city shopping”. It must be said however that a boot lid would have made the latter task easier while the very thought of a Frogeye dicing with Bel Airs and Peterbilt trucks on the freeway is the stuff of nightmares.

After problems with hood leakages, BMC modified the attachments atop the windshield and also replaced the flexible windows by Perspex side screens. Of greater interest to the press-on driver was the fact that shortly after the Sprite’s introduction, John Sprinzel and Willy Cave’s claimed class victory in the Alpine Rally and the following year the Frogeye scored a class win in the 12-hour race at Sebring. Back at home, 1959 saw the Frogeye become available with a Shorrocks Supercharger and by 1960 the keen owner could specify a 975cc Sebring engine from Healey’s ‘Speed Equipment Division’, together with front disc brakes and wire wheels. Such modifications would have set you back £240 but with the maximum speed would now be in the 90mph category and your dreams of becoming the next S. Moss seemed that vital stage closer.

The original Austin-Healey Sprite was succeeded in May 1961 by the more conventional looking MkII and its slightly more upmarket MG Midget sister model, which continued in various forms right up until 1979 although its ‘best before’ date had well expired. Of the 48,987 models, over 36,000 were sold in LHD export form and in its home market the Frogeye created its own niche as a mass-produced but utterly individual open car. In the words of the American writer Len Griffing “All you have to do is try one and you’re sold” – and 60 years later, that is still very much the case.

 

Remember when… 1958

The Sprite was launched just before the M1 was opened for 80mph thrills. Here’s some of the year’s other highlights…

The year started badly when on 6th February 23 people were killed in the Munich air disaster, which included eight Manchester United football players, on the return flight from Belgrave when the plane failed to take off in icy weather and slammed into a runway bunker

Our Mike Hawthorn becomes Britian’s first F1 champion as Cuban rebels kidnap five-time legend Juan Manuel Fangio, releasing him twenty-eight hours later. Hawthorn is killed in car crash on the A3 in January 1959.

While the M1 is credited for being our first motorway, in fact the Preston bypass was opened a year before and now forms part of the M6 and M55 motorways. No speed limit sounds heaven but the majority of cars back then could just about muster 70 anyway!

They were anti-motorist back then too as the first parking meters were introduced. Petrol was typically 22p per gallon and a new A35 (which the A-H was based upon cost £583. For the same money you could have a good used 1954 MG TF.

Private 53310761 is inducted into the US Army – but you possibly know him better as Elvis Presley… who still found the time to release hits like I’m Left, you’re Right, She’s gone, Hard Headed Woman, King Creole, Don’t. and One Night.

 



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