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Austin Healey Sprite

Posted by donaldwhite on September 9, 2008

Simplistic design of 1958- 61 ‘ Bugeye’ was instant success

Although the AustinHealey Sprite was the essence of 1950s simplicity, it yielded driving enjoyment way beyond its basic mechanical credentials and low price. It resurrected the small, eager sports car spirit of its namesake, the 1930s Riley Sprite.

 

The 1960 Austin-Healey Sprite. The headlamps, which became its most distinctive feature, stood up like a frog’s eyes and provided its affectionate “Bugeye” nickname.A new element of fun had been introduced to North American driving in the late 1940s and early ’50s by English sports cars. The MG TC and TD roadsters arrived first and the MG became the quintessential definition of a sports car. The fabulous Jaguar XK120, Triumph TR2, AustinHealey 100 and others followed.

Then the trend was to gradually make cars — including the MG — larger and more expensive. By the mid-’50s, Sir Leonard Lord, head of the British Motor Corp. — which was formed in 1952 by the merger of Austin and Morris, Britain’s two largest automakers — saw a need to return to sports car basics for the entrylevel enthusiasts who formerly bought those MG TCs and TDs.

Lord contacted his old friend Donald Healey. Healey, a practical engineer and former competition driver, had established the Donald Healey Motor Co. in 1946, where he built sporty cars, notably the Silverstone model. He had worked with Lord in the development of the popular Austin-Healey 100.

To hold the price of his basic sports car down, Healey needed to keep its design simple and straightforward. The answer was to use as many existing components as possible.

The tiny Austin A-35 sedan provided the A-arm-and-coilspring front suspension, fourspeed transmission and rear axle. Power came from the 948cubic-centimetre, BMC A-series, overhead-valve, Morris Minor 1000/Austin A-35 four-cylinder, fitted with twin S.U. carburetors. It produced 43 horsepower, up from the Minor’s 37.

Steering was Morris Minor rack and pinion and the rear suspension was by basic quarter-elliptic leaf springs, also courtesy of the Austin A-35. These concentrated the rear suspension loads near the middle of the car; the rear end of the vehicle, thus freed from having to support much weight, could be kept quite light. The Sprite’s curb weight was only 662 kilograms.

This well-proven hardware was wrapped in a simple, steel unit construction — a first for British sports cars — envelope body with rudimentary but attractive lines. The only jarring note was the headlamps, which, although semi-recessed into the hood, stood up like a frog’s eyes. The Sprite was almost immediately given its affectionate “Bugeye” nickname.

The original design called for concealed flip-up headlamps, but cost considerations had eliminated them. As it turned out, those bugeye lights would become the Sprite’s most distinctive feature.

Further cost cutting was evident in the elimination of a trunk lid. This made it awkward to reach the spare tire and limited the luggage space behind the two bucket seats, but it contributed to a body that was more resistant to twisting, a common problem in open cars. A fabric top and side curtains provided minimal weather protection, although a metal top would soon be made optional.

Access to the engine, front suspension and steering was excellent because the whole front section of the body hinged upward, looking for all the world as if it were going to eat anyone working on the car.

The Sprite was diminutive, riding on a short 2,032-millimetre wheelbase, and being only 3,480 mm long, it stood just 1,219 mm high with the top up.

The Bugeye Sprite was built from May 1958 to April 1961, by which time almost 50,000 had been produced. It was an instant success both on road and track because of a reasonable initial price (less than $2,000), ease of maintenance, excellent yet forgiving handling and quick, precise steering.

Performance, according to Road & Track magazine (8/’58), could be termed moderate. It recorded a zero-to-96 km/h time of 20.8 seconds and a top speed of 126 km/h. But it at least felt faster — for the more serious enthusiast who wanted to go racing, aftermarket parts were readily available that transformed the Sprite.

Most Sprites were exported to North America. Bugeye production was discontinued in 1961 and it was replaced by the Mark II version, which had more conventional — although not nearly so distinctive — headlights.

As was typical of BMC, a badge-engineered corporate clone — the MG Midget Mark I — was also spun off at that time, so the Sprite lost its exclusivity.

While Sprite production continued until 1969, countless sports car enthusiasts still look back with fond memories at what many consider to be the “real” Sprite, the 1958 to ’61 Bugeye.

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