Austin-Healey Sprite (1958-1961)
Measuring nearly two feet shorter and weighing three hundred pounds less than a Sixties Beetle, the bug-eye Sprite is positively tiny. Designed to be simple and affordable, they are also great fun to drive. It's not surprising to see, fifty years later, that Sprites are not only popular as collector cars, but also competitive in many vintage racing venues.
Donald Healey's first production sports car was a joint venture with Nash Motors, pairing his frame and aluminum bodies with Nash's 3.8-litre straight-six engines, gearboxes and rear axles. Debuting in 1951, these cars were fast and beautiful, but a price tag of over $3,700 saw only 507 examples of the Nash-Healey built in the four years produced.
Healey's second sports car, which started his successful twenty-year contract with the BMC (British Motor Company), was the rugged Austin-Healey Hundred. The 2660cc powered roadster was fast on straights and handled well in curves, but also priced out of reach for most buyers.
As early as 1956, Healey started plans on another sports car. This one was to be affordable, with every effort made to keep production costs to a minimum. His partnership with the BMC, which comprised Austin, Morris, MG, Riley and Wolseley, presented him the unique opportunity of using existing parts from other BMC marques. The motor chosen was the 948cc (57cid) engine used in the Austin A35 and the Morris Minor 1000; the latter also sharing its rack and pinion steering and suspension components with the new car. Transmission was a four-speed gearbox.
Other cost-cutting measures included a chassis which would not require complex dies to be pressed. There were to be no outside door handles or roll-up side windows. Nor was there a trunk lid; accessing the spare tire and rear storage would be done by tilting the seat-backs forward. Two years after its inception, in May of 1958, the Austin-Healey Sprite debuted with a price tag of $1,795.
The most prominent feature on these first-series Sprites are the unique bug-eye headlights. The original design of retracting headlights into the hood (and facing skyward when not in use) was dropped, due largely to production costs, but also concerns of adding additional weight to the hood assembly. The unitized steel body featured a one-piece clamshell-style hood which opened from the front and allowed access for service. A few aftermarket companies would offer replacement hood assemblies that did have the headlamps move in and out, but these were not very popular.
The Austin-designed engine was small and durable, with the Sprite version getting twin S.U. carburetors and producing 40 horsepower. Out of the box, performance was lackluster; zero-to-sixty times were about 20 seconds, with top speeds around 80 mph. It wasn't long before high-performance parts became available, and the 1,300 pound roadster soon became a formidable competitor. Sprite owners on both sides of the Atlantic began adding roll bars and lap belts and heading to the racetrack. Factory-backed racers soon appeared, and racetrack wins began tallying up.
In March of 1959, the BMC Competition Department entered three Sprites in the International Sebring G.T. and Sports Car race in Florida, U.S.A. These cars were specially prepared by Donald Healey's son Geoffrey, and were equipped with wire wheels, four-wheel disc brakes. upgraded tires, and tweaked suspension. The motor received high-compression pistons, hotter cam, larger S.U. carburetors, and special cylinder-head work. With free-flowing exhaust, engine output was bumped to 57 horsepower. In this first-year racing, the Sebring Sprites finished first, second, and third in their class. In 1960 a fiberglass-bodied Sprite finished first in class, and the following year Sprites finished 2nd, 3rd and 4th in class.
The three consecutive class victories resulted in an explosion of sales in North America. Following changes in FIA regulations, Sprite coupes started appearing in the 1961 season. The most well-known of these are the aluminum-bodied versions built by coachbuilders Williams and Pritchard, and driven by British race-car driver John Sprinzel. One race fan commented; "each year they got a little faster and little less bug-eyed."
The arrival of the second, square-bodied series in 1961 marked the end of the bug-eyes. Although the later Austin-Healey Sprite models, with door handles, roll-up windows, and larger engines, were certainly more livable, some feel they lacked the charm of the original.
From 1958 to 1960, nearly 49,000 first-series Sprites were sold, more than any of the three series that followed. Most of the cars were exported to America. Donald Healey had recognized the potential of the American market early on. He had said, "I was in business to make motorcars and make money."