Curbside Classic: 1958-61 Austin-Healey Mark I Sprite – A Sports Car For The Masses


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Following a decent 14,634 unit run of the Austin-Healey 100 from 1953–56, Leonard Lord, the Managing Director of Austin, asked Donald Healey  to design an affordable, small engined sports car — the 100 and Nash-Healey sports car that preceded it both being a bit pricey for the general market. The Austin-Healey 100 had marked the start of a twenty year relationship between Austin and the British Motor Company (BMC), and the Sprite (all Marks included) would go on to sell nearly 130,000 units from 1958–71.

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The Sprite was styled by Garry Coker and Les Ireland (some sources mention a G. Jones, Chief Experimental Engineer and A. H. Moore, Chief Car Designer as having been instrumental in the car’s design), and was originally intended to have retractable headlights that would fold back flat with the bonnet when not in use. Certainly the most distinctive aspect of the design, the “bug eye” (or “frog eye” for those in the U.K.) headlights were a happy accident of cost reduction, the linkage and mechanism required being found too complex and expensive. Reviewers at the time of the Sprite’s introduction panned the look, but it quickly became a big part of the car’s appeal. Many a complaint was lodged when the Mark II Sprite integrated the headlights into the wings.

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After two years of development, the Austin-Healey Sprite debuted in May of 1958 with a price tag of £455 (£679 with tax); the US import price was $1,795. For comparison, an MGA would set an American buyer back an additional $700, or almost $1,000 more if one desired a Triumph TR3A. Or, for something we might better relate to, a new 1958 VW Type I “Beetle” cost about $1,500.

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The four-cylinder engine selected for the Sprite dated to 1951 and was used in both the Austin A35 and Morris Minor 1000. Displacement was 57 c.i.d (948cc) and all of 42-1/2 hp @ 5,000rpm and 52 ft. lb. torque were on tap – the only “tuning” done for the Sprite application was the use of stronger valve springs and the fitting of dual S.U. updraught carburetors. To the delight of many, the engine could be warmed up quite nicely with a selection of parts both from the manufacturer and the aftermarket – power in the neighborhood of 70hp was achievable through various upgrades, including an aftermarket Shorrock supercharger. The ubiquitous BMC A-series gearbox was fitted, providing four forward gears, the top three being synchronized. Reviewers of the day complained about the “indifferent” gear spacing, but praised the smoothness of the shift, especially after broken in. A top speed of 80mph in stock trim was possible, with 0-50 mph times of 14.1 seconds (0-60 in ~20) being recorded.

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The Sprite was the first sports car ever mass-produced with a unitized body. The suspension was designed by Barry Bilbie of Healey and patterned after the system employed on the Jaguar D Type. It was not, however, a fully monocoque design, as the forward suspension and engine were carried on front “legs,” with the hinged front bonnet carrying no suspension loads at all. Since Healey’s relationship with BMC  gave access to the combined parts bins of Austin, Morris, MG, Riley and Wolseley, the development team was able to pick and choose from a wide array of components with minimal development expense. The Minor donated its rear brakes, rack & pinion steering and front wishbone suspension to the effort while the A35/40 offered its rear axle and front brakes. Ride characteristics were understandably a bit harsh, but reviewers almost universally praised the light and quick steering and flat cornering capabilities.

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To save cost, such niceties as exterior door handles, roll-up glass side-lites and a boot lid were summarily dispensed with. A spare tire was fitted under the rear deck, with access through the cabin by folding the seats forward and then leaving the job of retrieving the spare to a “trained monkey,” as one reviewer put it. Access to the engine end of the car, on the other hand, was superb due to the whole bonnet and wings raising together as one.

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In addition to engine and suspension upgrades, various other accessories were available including the hard top our subject car is sporting. Jensen was first to offer a hard top for the Sprite (in 1959), but sources indicate these were only offered in white, so unless this unit has been repainted at least twice, it’s likely from another source. Interestingly, replacement bonnets with retractable headlights were offered in the aftermarket – ostensibly to correct the “wrong” of the fixed lamps, but these proved unpopular and few were sold.

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Sprites, unfortunately, were deficient in the area of corrosion prevention, and are known to be “furious rusters.” As this car shows less than 3″ between the tops of the rear tires and fender opening, it’s quite likely the mounting boxes for the rear leaf springs are rotting out allowing the rear end to sag. You don’t need eagle eyes to spot the other creeping rust issues this car has, and yet, the patina only seems to add to the charm of its happy, smiling face.

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As a brief aside, I photographed this car in front of an old storefront in the older part of downtown Peoria, Illinois, which is probably deserving of an “Other Side of the Curb” essay.

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There was quite the quirky collection of car and bike parts on display in window, and a bit of a yellow something-or-other hiding in the background.

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I was quite drawn to both the car and the storefront – they share a certain eccentricity that appeals to me!

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So in closing, I’ll quote a review of the Sprite from the August 1958 issue of Motor Sport magazine:

“The Austin-Healey Sprite will prove extremely popular, we predict, amongst those greying old men (like the Editor?) who no longer drive fantastically fast but who fancy a sports car that handles well and is thus a good safe introduction to faster stuff and those who want a lightweight vehicle with a B.M .C. engine they can tune to great speeds. And, of course, amongst those who merely want an inexpensive boy’s-racer.”

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With the Austin-Healey Sprite, Donald Healey indeed succeeded in creating a true “sports car for the masses.” Good-O!

A sizable collection of period scanned magazine articles and reviews of the Sprite can be seen at www.spridgetguru.com.