Austin-Healey Sprite

It made sportsters affordable and looked good, too. Giles Chapman tells the story of a great little legend
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Indy Lifestyle Online

The Austin-Healey Sprite brought fun and fresh air to a whole generation of cash-strapped sports car fiends. During the 1950s, brand-new sports cars were the preserve of the wealthy but, upon its arrival in 1958, the Sprite stopped all that. It was easily the cheapest two-seater made by a proper manufacturer, and the fact it sold nearly 50,000 in three years says it all. But it also had the name of Britain's "Mister Sports Car" himself: Donald Healey.

The Austin-Healey Sprite brought fun and fresh air to a whole generation of cash-strapped sports car fiends. During the 1950s, brand-new sports cars were the preserve of the wealthy but, upon its arrival in 1958, the Sprite stopped all that. It was easily the cheapest two-seater made by a proper manufacturer, and the fact it sold nearly 50,000 in three years says it all. But it also had the name of Britain's "Mister Sports Car" himself: Donald Healey.

Healey had a talent for recognising what people wanted from sports cars. The diminutive Cornish entrepreneur began racing cars in the 1930s and later secured a job at Triumph, designing models such as the Gloria and Dolomite.

After the Second World War, Healey decided to go it alone, and his 1946 Healey Westland model was, at 105mph, the fastest British four-seater of its day. A deal with the British Motor Corporation to create the beautiful and pokey Austin-Healey 100, and later the 100/6 and 3000 models, meant he could stick to his métier - ideas - while leaving the tedious manufacturing side to his metal-bashing chums at Austin.

Still, the BMC chairman, Sir Leonard Lord, wanted a smaller sports car that he could use to tap into Britain's steadily swelling prosperity of the late 1950s. His acumen was pin sharp. The cheapest sports cars from major manufacturers cost over £1,000 (about £20,000 now), so many hard-up enthusiasts had little choice but to run pre-war two-seaters or build their own kit cars, using a wrecked Ford Popular as a basis.

In 1956, Lord broached his plan to Healey. By coincidence, Healey's design chief, Gerry Coker, had already devised a neat little sports car based wholesale on the Austin A35, and that suited Lord's requirements perfectly. Coker and Healey, plus Healey's engineer son, Geoffrey, modified that original proposal to become a new small Austin-Healey.

The A35's 948cc A-Series engine was bestowed with twin SU carburettors to give 43bhp (a 9bhp power boost), while the A35's four-speed gearbox, front suspension and rear axle went in unaltered. However, not all A35 organs were conducive to seat-of-the-pants driving, so the rack-and-pinion steering came from the Morris Minor and the brake and clutch master cylinders from MG.

The construction of the new Austin-Healey was advanced. Its designer, Barry Bilbie, followed the ethos of the Le Mans-winning Jaguar D-Type: a stiff central unitary structure, with outriggers front and rear to carry the drivetrain and suspension. All panels were kept as simple as possible: the entire inner body structure was flat metal, and there was even a proposal to make the front and rear bodywork identical.

As it was, the dinky little body didn't look far off that concept anyway, with a huge one-piece bonnet/wings section opening up, hippopotamus-style, for superb engine access.

There were sidescreens instead of windows, no external door handles and no boot lid; luggage had to be stuffed in from behind the two wafer-thin seats.

The Austin-Healey Sprite (Healey himself chose the name) was a bold stride into uncharted marketing territory - its rivals being, principally, horrible, home-build, plastic kit cars.

To the credit of Healey and Coker, they got it bang on. The Sprite was going to have pop-up headlights, until the idea was quashed on cost grounds, so Healey stuck them on top of the bonnet, close together and bug-like.

There were contemporary grumblings at this kooky headlamp treatment - highly ironic since the headlamps instantly made the Sprite one of the most characterful cars on the road, and quickly garnered the "Frogeye" nickname it's never lost.

Austin launched the new sports car in 1958, at £660 including purchase tax. At that price, the Sprite simply had no rivals: an MGA cost £995, a Triumph TR3 was £1,050.

To keep the price down, though, Austin relegated to the options list anything that wasn't absolutely essential, and that even included a front bumper and a heater. The Sprite sold admirably, opening over 21,500 chequebooks in 1959.

It looked, behaved and felt like a true sportster, and even in the comparative affluence of the US it found many admirers, because it was compact and fun to drive, and it was four years before it faced a serious rival in the shapely form of the Triumph Spitfire.

The Frogeye was hardly a performance car, with a top speed of only 83mph, but its meagre weight still allowed it to dance around many conventional sports saloons in the handling stakes; well, until the advent of the Mini Cooper, anyway.

The crude specification, reptilian looks and annoying luggage access led to a heavily revised Sprite Mk II in 1961, with entirely new front and rear bodywork, an exterior boot lid, and a bigger, 1,098cc engine. In the process, the original's cheeky if homespun charm was completely banished; a "badge-engineered" version, the MG Midget, arrived simultaneously.

Sprites were made until 1971 (the last few badged simply as Austins rather than Austin-Healeys, in a petty row over royalty payments between Donald Healey and BMC successor British Leyland) but the Midget lasted until 1979.

The Frogeye Sprite still receives accolades. Suzuki freely acknowledged its inspiration when it launched its own miniature sports car, the Cappuccino, in 1991. And of all the "Spridgets" that have been built over 21 years, the Frogeye Sprite remains the most captivating. By miles.

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