During the 1950s, brand-new sports cars were the toys of the rich and wealthy but the arrival of the Austin Healey Sprite in 1958 would bring joy and an abundance of fresh air to a new generation of sports car fans. It had a lot going for it and was the cheapest two-seater made by a car manufacturer, and the fact it sold nearly 50,000 in three years says it all. You also had the name of Britain’s “Mister Sports Car” himself: Donald Healey obviously linked with the car.
Donald Healey began racing cars in the 1930’s and would go on to work for Triumph where he designed such models as the Gloria and Dolomite. Healey had a fantastic ability to recognise what people wanted from sports cars.
The end of World War 2 saw Healey go solo and by the end of 1946 the Healey Westland was the fastest British four seat car of the time being capable of 105mph. An agreement with the British Motor Corporation to create the Austin-Healey 100, and later the 100/6 and 3000 models meant he could work on more exciting and sexier ideas whilst leaving the tedious manufacturing side to Austin.
The growing prosperity of 1950’s Britain was becoming a marketplace of great potential as far as the BMC chairman, Sir Leonard Lord, was concerned. He was looking for a smaller sports car that he could use to tap into the steadily swelling prosperity. His thinking was on the ball as the cheapest sports cars from major manufacturers cost over £1,000 (about £20,000 now) and many hard-up enthusiasts had little choice but to run pre-war two-seaters or build their own kit cars, using old or scrapped Fords as a basis.
Sir Leonard Lord approached Healey with his idea in 1956, however Healey and his chief designer, Gerry Coker, had already come up with a design for a small sports car that suited Sir Leonard Lords requirements exactly. The car was based on the Austin A35 and Coker, Healey and Healey’s son, Geoffrey modified the first plans and the new car became the Austin-Healey.
The build of the new Austin Healey was way ahead of its time with a stiff central unitary structure, similar to the Jaguar D-Type. It had outriggers front and back to support the drive train and suspension. A proposal to make the front and rear bodywork identical did not come to fruition however all panels were kept as simple as possible with the inner body structure made entirely of flat metal. A huge one piece bonnet and wing section opened up to allow excellent access to the engine. The side windows were little more than side screens, external door handles were dispensed with, no boot lid was available and any luggage had to be squeezed in behind the two seats.
The headlamps have had their share of grumblings with their strange set up. The Sprite was going to have pop-up headlights but due to cost restraints these were quashed, so Healey simply stuck them on the bonnet, close together and looking like a bug! This move instantly made the Sprite one of the most easily recognised cars on the road. The “Frogeye” nickname soon stuck and has never been lost.
The Sprite looked and drove like a true Sportster and it found many admirers in the US due to its compact shape, great fun to drive and without any real rival until the arrival of the Triumph Spitfire some four years later.
In an attempt to keep prices reasonable Austin removed any item deemed not absolutely essential to the optional extra list, this included the front bumper and heater! With a top speed of 83mph the Sprite could hardly be ranked as a hard faced performance car but the low weight allowed it to out handle many standard sports salons of the day, until the Mini Cooper arrived on the scene.
The initial basic specification, poor luggage access and bug-eye look led to the Sprite MK II, launched in 1961, with new front and rear bodywork, a boot lid and a larger 1098cc engine. The character and charm of the original was lost with this over engineered version.
Sprites were produced until 1971 with the last few off the assembly lines badged simply as Austin rather than Austin-Healey due to a row over royalty payments between Donald Healey and BMC successor British Leyland.
The Austin-Healey Sprite (Healey himself chose the name) was a brave move into uncharted marketing territory – its rivals being, principally, horrible, self-build, plastic kit cars. Austin launched the new sports car in 1958, at £660 including purchase tax. At that price, the Sprite simply had no rivals with the cost of an MGA at £995 and a Triumph TR3 at £1,050. The Sprite sold admirably with 21,500 sold in 1959.
The Frogeye Sprite still receives accolades. Suzuki freely admitted its inspiration behind the Cappuccino when it launched in 1991. And of all the “Spridgets” that have been built over 21 years, the Frogeye Sprite remains the most captivating.