Austin Healey Sprite: small wonder

The Austin-Healey Sprite was proof that you don’t have to have the most powerful sports car to enjoy open-top driving. It was an embodiment of a classic British motoring idea: to offer the joy of driving without too much expense. Introduced to the public during the late 1950s, this small open-top sports car has ever since been loved by enthusiasts for its charming design and nimble handling. Built by the British Motor Corporation, it aimed to present a sports car that was accessible to a broader demographic, making the thrill of sports driving more attainable than ever before. It was intended to be a low-cost model that “a chap could keep in his bike shed”,

A red Austin Healey Sprite in a museum

Characterised by its cute appearance, known as the “Frogeye” in the UK due to the positioning of its headlights, the Sprite became a symbol of economical enjoyment on winding country lanes. They manufactured this low-cost model with a keen focus on simplicity and reliability, ensuring running costs remained within the means of an average buyer. The appeal of the Sprite extended well beyond its home shores, earning a favourable reception internationally, with an enthusiastic cohort of admirers drawn to its unpretentious charm and relative affordability.

A white Austin Healey Sprite on a road

“My first real car was a 1959 Austin-Healey ‘frogeye’ Sprite, which I bought from a colleague, Jack Badley, who had fitted it with a Shorrock supercharger. By the standards of the time, it was quite exciting.

A couple of years later though, I had a mishap whilst on holiday in Barcelona. It involved a collision with a friend, and the frogeye bonnet was too damaged to repair economically, so I had to sell the blower to pay for repairs. I replaced it with a fibreglass ‘Sebring’-style bonnet, which were very popular at the time. Sadly though, without the blower, and having lost its frogeye look, much of the appeal had gone out of it, so I sold the frogeye and bought a much-modified Sebring Sprite.”

Allen Harris, owner

With a production span that stretched from 1958 until 1971, the Sprite underwent several iterations. Although it never purported to be the most powerful machine on the road, its lightness and responsive steering conferred a sense of agility that made it a joy to drive. Today, the Sprite endures as a beloved member of the classic car scene, its legacy preserved by a dedicated community of owners who continue to celebrate this piece of British automotive heritage.

Historical Context and Design

Who Designed This Car

Gerry Coker, a stylist at the Donald Healey Motor Company, was the principal designer of the Austin-Healey Sprite. His vision was realised through the creation of a car that combined simplicity with charm, which later manifested as the iconic ‘bugeye’ or ‘frogeye’ in Britain, due to its distinctive headlamp design and cheerful smile.

A white Austin Healey Sprite in a museum

Inception and Evolution

The Sprite’s journey began under the British Motor Corporation (BMC) in 1958. Initially equipped with the 948cc Austin “A Series” engine, the Sprite was a demonstration of practical sports car engineering. Over time, the Austin-Healey Sprite evolved through various marks:

  • Mark I (1958 – 1961): Popularly known as the ‘bugeye’ in the US and ‘frogeye’ in the UK, this model featured the unique headlamp design and a 43hp engine.
  • Mark II (1961 – 1964): Introduced more conventional and family-friendly design changes and a slight power increase. It was then joined by it’s sister car, the badge-engineered MG Midget, reviving a model name used by MG from the late 1920s through to the mid-1950s. Enthusiasts often refer to these later Sprites and Midgets collectively as “Spridgets.” 
  • Mark III (1964 – 1966) and Mark IV (1966 – 1971): These brought in more refinements and a larger 1275cc engine, similar to that of the Mini Cooper S, improving performance and comfort.

John Sprinzel, a notable racing driver and motor sports figure, was instrumental in creating the Sprinzel Sebring Sprite, a modified version that made the Sprite competitive in racing during the 1960s.

This car was good fun, very basic inside, with a special one-piece aluminium roof and windscreen frame. There were lots of holes in the body panels for lightness, and the seats were just crudely shaped aluminium tubs with a block of foam to sit on. It was immensely noisy, and almost impossible to drive in traffic. It would oil up spark plugs every couple of miles, so I kept a stock in the car, and after each journey visited the local garage to have them sandblasted clean!

Allen Harris, owner

See Allen Harris’s film of it.

As ownership transitioned to British Leyland in the 1970s, the Austin-Healey collaborative era came to a close, marking the end of the Sprite’s production.

A black Austin Healey Sprite on a rally

Engineering Marvels

The Austin-Healey Sprite handling has charmed motoring enthusiasts for decades.

A red Austin Healey Sprite in a museum

The Powertrain

The Sprite was initially fitted with the robust Austin A-Series engine, which, in its early iterations like the Sprite Mark I, had a displacement of 948cc. It was later upgraded in the Sprite Mark II to a 1098cc engine, providing a notable boost in power. This had 2 inch main bearings to handle the long stroke, unlike the MG 1100’s crankshaft. This engine was paired with a manual 4-speed gearbox that allowed drivers to make the most of the engine’s capabilities. The car’s top speed and performance were spirited for its time, with even the standard models capable of making quite the impression on both road and track. Later models had a 1275cc engine like that of the Mini Cooper S.

Handling and Performance

The Sprite’s monocoque construction was a major departure from the separate chassis/body construction that was common at the time. This monocoque design significantly enhanced the rigidity of the Sprite’s bodywork, which in turn contributed to its nimble handling characteristics. The inclusion of front disc brakes marked a significant advancement in the Sprite’s braking performance, a novelty in small sports cars of that period. Additionally, the Sprite underwent continual improvements with later models, such as the Sprite Mark III and Sprite Mark IV, often benefiting from engine swaps and upgrades courtesy of companies like Speedwell, which specialized in performance enhancements.

Distinctive Features

The Austin-Healey Sprite captivates with its unique character marked by specific design elements and interior details. This section will delineate the vehicle’s notable external and internal attributes that distinguish it from other classic sports cars.

A white Austin Healey Sprite in a museum

Exterior Styling

The Sprite’s headlights are perhaps its most defining feature. Affectionately known as “frogeye” in the UK and “bugeye” in the US, these prominent rounded lights sit atop the bonnet, accentuating the car’s quirky visage. Unlike most vehicles, where headlights integrate into the wings, these protrude, giving the Sprite a friendly yet impish appearance. The bonnet opens by pivoting forward, revealing the engine and contributing to the Sprite’s unique frontal aspect.

The design choice not to include a boot lid initially meant that access to the luggage area was only through the interior of the car. The Sprite typically did not come standard with a front bumper, which reinforced its minimalist ethos.

A white Austin Healey Sprite in a museum

Interior Appointments

Moving inside, the interior retains a level of simplicity. The lack of door handles internally adheres to the minimalist philosophy—doors are operated by pull cords. This feature, while spartan, does not detract from the vehicle’s charm. Instead, it complements the straightforward approach taken throughout the car’s design.

In terms of function, the convertible top is a no-frills, manually operated system. While providing necessary protection from the elements, it also underscores the Sprite’s primary purpose as a driver’s car—a vehicle more about the experience of the open road than luxurious accommodation. Despite its compact cabin, the Sprite is designed to maximise the enjoyment of driving rather than extensive travel comfort.

A red Austin Healey Sprite in a museum

Cultural Impact and Legacy

The Austin-Healey Sprite enjoys a status among classic sports car enthusiasts. Its unique design and impressive racing pedigree, particularly at events such as the Alpine Rally and Sebring, render it a vehicle of significant cultural and historical value.

Market Valuation

The Austin-Healey Sprite and its close relative, the MG Midget, have seen a fluctuating market valuation over the years. As vintage sports cars, they often fetch higher prices at auctions when in good condition or with notable racing history. Data from recent years illustrate that pristine models, especially those with a verifiable history in racing, may command prices well into the tens of thousands.

  • Sebring Models: Notably higher in value due to their racing history.
  • Alpine Rally and Le Mans: Provenance from these events significantly increases valuation.

Restoration and Preservation

The restoration of an Austin-Healey Sprite can be a meticulous endeavour, reflecting a commitment to preserving automotive history. Enthusiasts who undertake such projects typically aim to adhere to original specifications, which can involve sourcing period-correct parts and employing traditional restoration techniques.

Restoration Highlights:

  • Originality: Staunch emphasis on maintaining factory specifications.
  • Parts Availability: Decent, with some specialists providing reproductions.

The Sprite’s legacy, fuelled by its distinctive “frogeye” appearance and racing history, has ensured that it remains a cherished classic, with communities dedicated to its preservation.

A red Austin Healey Sprite in a museum

Conservation and Rarity

The Austin-Healey Sprite is a classic British sports car whose conservation and rarity are of considerable interest to collectors and enthusiasts of vintage automobiles. They navigate the challenges of rust and the pursuit of original parts.

Surviving Examples

The Austin-Healey Sprite, recognised for its distinctive ‘frogeye’ headlamps, has become increasingly rare due to issues such as rust, which can severely compromise structural integrity. The Sprite’s market trends show a steady interest, with surviving examples prized for their historic and nostalgic value. The number of surviving Sprites is around 1,400 licenced and 471 SORN registered off the road.

What are they worth?

Average: $19,382

Top price: $95,700.

The top sale price of $95,700 was for a 1959 AUSTIN-HEALEY SPRITE CONVERTIBLE ‘SHELBY SPRITE’. See