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Austin Healey FrogEye Sprite

Published: 21st Jun 2011 - 0 Comments - Be the first, contribute now!

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Fancy owning a motorsport legend for road and track use? Paul Davies looks at true classics that made their names on stages and circuits, and still provide fine drives today

Why don’t they make a frogeye Sprite today? Cheap, cheerful, and above all cheeky, with those headlampsplonked on top of the bonnet likethe amphibian’s eyes, it would be a winner. Only, the most famous Sprite of all lost its trademark when it became a race winner. Fifty years ago for British sports car fans there were just two motor races that mattered. In Europe it was Le Mans, with the heady success ofBentley and Jaguar to remember, on the other side of the Atlantic, in Florida, there was Sebring. The granddaddy of USA long distance races interested the Brits for just one reason: in those daysNorth America was the sports car market. No one recognised the commercial importance of the Sebring 12 Hours (and the Four Hours) more than Austin Healey. In 1959, almost before the first Mk 1 Sprites were rolling into showrooms, the works team was notching up a 1-2-3 Class walkover in the 12 Hours for the little car. The following year Stirling Moss was second overall in the ‘short’ race, and John Sprinzel won his class at the longer distance. Sprite successes at the track would continue for many years – and US sales soared as a result. John Sprinzel founded the Speedwell tuning company (later to sell out to Graham Hill) and raced an A35. When the Frog-eye Sprite came along he produced his own Speedwell GT version. Then he made the Sebring. Sprinzel’s Sebring Sprite was a more powerful, better braked, better handling, version of the production car, and with lightweight bodywork in alloy and glass fibre by Williams and Pritchard it looked very different – with, in the interests of aerodynamics, those frog-like headlamps fitting flush into the wings. With capacity increased to 995cc, race-specification internals and bigger SU carburettors, the Sebring engine gave 80bhp in race trim (65bhp for rallies), and Girling front disc brakes, and big rear drums, replaced the standard, puny, drums. The Achilles heel was always the BMC A-Series gearbox and clutch. Sprinzel, and several famous names including Stirling and Pat Moss, won races and rallies in his own Sebring, registration PMO 200, and he made five other cars, to be driven by the likes of Ian Walker, Andrew Hedges and Chris Williams. On PMO’s roll of honour is victory in the 1959 RAC Rally Championship, 2nd overall on the RAC Rally (1960), class wins on the Liege-Rome- Liege and London rallies, and fifth overall in the Sebring Four Hours (1961). Four of the six ‘real’ Sebrings still exist. PMO raced at Goodwood 2006 with Stirling Moss at the wheel, and is now even sometimes used for the daily commute in the hands of enthusiastic owner Paul Woolmer. Also, Sprinzel’s Sprite story lives on in the 60-or-so ‘replicas’ built over the years by Brian Archer. Today, just don’t think you’ll be able to bag an original Sebring (they’re much prized by their current owners) but you might find an Archerreplica. More to the point there are still ordinary Frogeyes out there to be had, in restored condition or in various stages of decay. Today it’s a great little car for autotests, an economical way to go sprinting or hillclimbing, and – although outclassed in historic rallying by the Mini – a competitive car for AH Owner’s Club racing. And Archer’s Garage (run by Andrew Forster since the death last year of Brian Archer) will sell you all the panels you need to make your very own Sebring. How cheeky could you get?

Austin Healey FrogEye Sprite Summary

Production

1958-61: 48,987

Technical

Engine: BMC A-Series in-line, all cast iron, four-cylinder, pushrod operated valves. 2 x HS2 SU carbs, 948cc.
Power: Standard 43bhp; 995cc race engine (2 x HS4 carbs) 80bhp.
Gearbox: Four speed, three-synchro.
Drive: Rear wheels.
Suspension: Front, independent wishbones with coils springs and lever shock absorbers; Rear, live axle with quarter-elliptic leaf springs and lever shock absorbers.
Brakes: Drums all round. Sebring with front discs and larger diameter rear drums.
Steering: Rack and pinion.

Claim to fame

Numerous international class wins with BMC works team and Donald Healey. Racing success include Sebring, Daytona, Targa Florio, Le Mans. Rallying successes: Liege-Rome-Liege, Tulip, Monte Carlo, RAC

Famous names

Tommy Wisdom, John Sprinzel, Rauno Aaltonen, Andrew Hedges, Alec Poole, Roger Enever, Innes Ireland, Steve McQueen (yes him!), Sir Stirling Moss, Pat Moss, Ian Walker, Paddy Hopkirk, Paul Hawkins, Roger Mac, Paul Woolmer.

Where to buy

Sebrings are hard to trac down, try an owners club. Normal Frogeyes are fairly thick on the ground.

What to look for

Rust in most places, particularly rear spring hangers, floors and door pillars. Check oil pressures (20psi idle, 40 psi minimum, hot) and watch out for worn gearboxes and rear axles. Beware updates such as Ford ‘boxes and telescopic shock absorbers if you’re looking for originality. Mechanicals can be cheaply replaced from many sources.

What to pay

Spend no less than £1500 on a driveable Sprite Mk1 project, whilst properly restored cars can cost £8000 -£18,000. Sebring replicas and cars with competition with history can be a lot more!

Clubs

Austin Healey Club: http://www.austin-healey-club.com Healey Sport Club: http://www.healeysport.org Info: http://www.sebringsprite.com

Maintenance, tuning and sport

Ultimate power means fitting a 1275cc engine (drops into any model) where 100bhp is easily obtainable with modded head, big SU’s (or single Weber) and 731/648 camshaft, but tuning of 948cc – and early 1098cc with smaller mains bearings – should be limited. Spares and tuning equipment from: Archers Garage (http://www.archersclassiccars.co.uk); AH Spares (http://www.ahspares.co.uk); Ahead for Healeys (http://www.ahead4healeys.co.uk); Austin Healey Workshop (http://www.austinhealeyspecialists.co.uk); Moss Europe
(http://www.moss-europe.co.uk); Classic Revival (http://www.frogeyesprite.co.uk);

Competitive Rating: 8



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