Classics World’s Iain Wakefield test drives and reviews the 1959 Austin-Healey MkI Sprite
Back to basics British-built sports cars are renowned the world over for providing wind in the hair classic motoring and they don’t come more basic than the first generation of the Austin-Healey Sprite. Launched in 1958, the A-H Sprite was Donald Healey’s second mass produced sports car and cemented his association with the all-conquering British Motor Corporation. Healey’s new sports car had been developed to be far more affordable than the previously launched Austin-Healey 100/4 and despite its lack of creature comforts, the gutsy little two-seat Sprite proved an instant success in the showroom.
Cost constraints imposed by BMC’s money-conscious bean counters resulted with the Sprite’s planned pop-up headlights being replaced by fixed pods sitting on top of the little sports car’s one-piece rear hinged bonnet. This bug-like appearance prompted an affectionate nickname for Donald Healey’s new BMC produced baby sportscar, one that has stuck right up to the present day.
The Frogeye (or Bugeye on the other side of the Atlantic) Sprite really was a back-to-basics affair. As the monocoque was produced without an opening bootlid to increase torsional stiffness, owners required a certain amount of caving experience to retrieve items from the far-flung corners of the boot. Rather than being an inconvenience, this feature, combined with the lack of external door handles and removable plastic side screens complete with sliding ‘windows’, provided the cheeky little Sprite a certain degree of charm that customers actually expected with a Fifties-built British sports car.
Power for the Frogeye came from the well-proven 948cc A-Series inline-four driving the rear wheels through a four-speed gearbox. Only the top three ratios enjoyed the luxury of synchromesh and the Sprite’s front suspension set-up was pure period BMC, virtually identical to the Austin A35 and Morris Minor with the live rear axle suspended on quarter elliptic springs.
When it came to providing creature comforts for the car’s occupants, amenities in the Sprite’s cabin can be considered rather sparse. Although there’s a decent amount of legroom when installed into the Sprite’s comfortable bucket seats, getting long legs through the small door opening when the hood is raised or a hard top fitted can be somewhat of a challenge for taller drivers, such as your scribe.
The MkI Sprite we’re putting through its paces here is currently being offered for sale by Nottinghamshire-based Sherwood Restorations and can’t be described as your usual run-of-the-mill Frogeye. A glance at the price tag provides a clue that there’s something very special about this example and raising the bonnet instantly gives the game away.
Rather than the standard 958cc A Series engine nestling under the bonnet, this benefits from the installation of a 1380cc race tuned engine connected to a Ford Type 9 five-speed gearbox. Invoices show that S.H. Engineering were responsible for tuning the engine and a stint on a rolling road showed how this Sprite produced 105bhp at the wheels.
Out on the road, all the magic happens in second and third gear, the perfectly spaced ratios provided by the five-speed gearbox making the most of the extra horsepower. This Frogeye nudges up to sixty in double quick time and with one more gear to go this little Austin-Healey could easily hold its own on a busy motorway and would provide a very relaxing, but no doubt noisy, drive.
The car’s suspension has been upgraded to handle the extra power and when the centre pedal is pushed hard, the uprated front discs bring the car to a halt without causing any fuss or alarm. Someone who really knew how to build a fast road car has obviously been involved in the preparation of this Sprite.
It comes with a white painted glass-fibre hard top and the seats and dashboard have recently been re-trimmed in dark blue leather complementing the Sprite’s Iris Blue paintwork. The vendor pointed out how the bonnet will be repainted to deal with a couple of very small imperfections before the car is handed over.
Anyone wanting to just pootle around country lanes in a classic British sports car should really look elsewhere. This very special Frogeye is going to appeal to an enthusiastic owner who wants to get involved with weekend historic racing or would like to take part in long-distance continental classic touring events in the car. The conversion has been completed to a very high standard and this tidy little Sprite comes highly recommended.