I wanted to share some of the things that I have learned about the Austin Healey Sprite during the first year of ownership of one of these cars.
Back in the 1920’s the Morris Minor M-Type Midget was developed, resulting in basic, cheap, fun two-seater. The Midget series had established MG as a manufacturer of sports cars with an excellent reputation in motor sport. In 1953 final version of this midget was the TF, by this time the design was out of date and out of step with what the car buying public wanted. Cars of the 1950’s were becoming bigger, more sophisticated, more powerful, and more expensive. After the production of the TF ended in 1955, we thought that we would ever see a Midget sized sports car again.
In 1958 Donald Healey introduced a new sports car, its was designed to be a basic, affordable and most of all a fun two-seater. Using parts from the BMC, the Austin A35 and Morris Minor this new two-seater, the Austin-Healey Sprite, appeared. It was to be built at the MG factory Abingdon because the deigned of car required the engine be installed from above.
The Sprite was designed to use a many off the shelf parts as possible. This approach minimized development costs and thus lowered the overall cost of the car. Austin provided the A-Series 948cc engine and transmission, The Austin Engine was a 948cc pushrod, overhead valve, four-cylinder A-series unit, with its twin SU carburetors it developed around 42bhp. The suspension and brakes were from the Austin A35. With its power plant along with its light weight the little car had a top speed of around 80mph, and was its suspension was agile enough to hug the corners.
With Sprite’s design for its headlights mounted on top of the hood, it quickly became known as the “Frogeye” or “Bugeye” Sprite. Healey’s designers wanted the body of the car to be of unitary construction, that is the entire car was its frame or structure. The Sprite was the first mass-produced car with this type of structure. Although it can’t be called it a true monocoque structure because of the front chassis legs in the front of the car. Nevertheless it proved to be a very sturdy and practical design.
The Sprite’s styling was originally by Garry Coker with Les Ireland taking over following Garry’s move to the United States. One of the famous styling changes was to the headlights, originally the headlights where to rest inside the hood, and pop out when the lights were on. This design was change because of cost. I for one am glad they decided to make this change. The headlights are what gave the first sprite its charm, and why today they are beloved by their owners.
Some of the other signature design elements given to the sprite was it’s single piece hood that allowed easy access to the engine compartment. Its lack of trunk or boot lid was inconvenient get the spare tire or luggage out, but it did add to the strength of the car. The Sprite also did not have door handles or locks, to open the door you simply reached inside the car and opened the door.
The Sprite was introduced to the public on May 20, 1958.
“Today the Austin Motor Company makes motoring history with the announcement of a completely new and inexpensive sports car … the Austin Healey Sprite. It is some 20 years since Austin made a small sports car, but the Sprite lives up fully to the fine traditions established in the 1920s and ’30s, and more recently by the Austin Healey 100. It has maximum speed in the eighties and rapid acceleration, but with fuel consumption ranging from 30-45 mpg.”
Soon after the sprite went on sale in the U.K. for £669, and proved successful for British Motor Company and Donald Healey. 46,967 Sprite Mark I, as they became known after the restyling in 1961, were made in the three short years between 1958 and 1961.