by Bill Vance
Although the Austin Healey was the essence of 1950s simplicity, it yielded driving enjoyment way beyond its basic mechanical credentials.
A new element of fun had been introduced to our driving in the late 1940s and early ’50s by English sports cars. The MG TC and TD roadsters arrived first, and the MG was the quintessential definition of a sports car: fun to drive and almost totally impractical. The fabulous Jaguar XK120, Triumph TR2 and Austin-Healey 100 followed.
Then, as later, 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., formed in 1952 by the merger of Britain’s two largest automakers, Austin and Nuffield (Morris, et al.), saw a need to return to sports car basics. Something was needed for the entry-level enthusiasts who formerly bought MGs.
Lord knew who to see about such a project: his old friend Donald Healey. Healey had organized his Donald Healey Motor Co. of Warwick, England, in 1946 where he built sporty cars, notably the Silverstone model. He had collaborated with Nash Motors of the U.S. on the Nash Healey, and had worked with Lord in the development of the popular Austin-Healey 100.
To hold the price of his basic sport car down, Healey needed to keep the design of the little sportster simple and basic, and use as many existing components as possible. Fortunately, BMC had plenty to choose from.
The tiny Austin A-35 sedan provided the A-arm-and-coil-spring front suspension, four-speed transmission and rear axle. Power came from the 948 cc (58 cu in.) BMC A-series overhead valve Morris Minor inline four. It was, in the true British sports car tradition, fitted with twin S.U. carburetors, which helped boost horsepower to 43 from the Minor’s 37.
Morris Minor rack and pinion steering was used, and the rear suspension was by basic quarter elliptic leaf springs, also courtesy of the Austin A-35. These concentrated rear suspension loads near the middle of the car, and 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 kg (1,460 lb).
This simple but well proved hardware was wrapped in a steel, unit construction envelope body which had 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. Almost immediately the Sprite was given its “Bugeye” nickname.
The original design had called for concealed flip-up headlamps, but cost considerations eliminated them. As it turned out, those bugeye lights would rebound to the Sprite’s favour and become its 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 luggage space behind the two bucket seats, but it did contribute to a body that was more resistant to twisting, a common problem in open cars.
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 like it was going to “eat” the attendant. In fact care had to be taken with the somewhat flimsy props or that could happen.
The Sprite was really diminutive, riding on a 2,032 mm (88 in.) wheelbase, and being only 3,480 mm (137 in.) long. It stood just 1,219 mm (48 in.) 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. They were an instant success, both on the road and the track, because of their reasonable initial price (under $2,000), ease of maintenance, excellent yet forgiving handling, and quick precise steering.
Performance, according to Road & Track magazine (8/58), could only be termed moderate. They recorded a zero to 96 km/h (60 mph) time of 20.8 seconds, and a top speed of 126 km/h (78.5 mph). But aftermarket parts were readily available to transform the Sprite into a much faster machine.
Most of the Sprites were exported to North America. Bug-eye production was discontinued in 1961 when it was replaced by the Mark II version whose headlamps were conventional, although not nearly so distinctive.
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 fondly at what many consider to be the “real” Sprite, the 1958 to ’61 Bugeye.