The Austin Healey Sprite was launched in Monte Carlo on
20th May 1958
This Special Edition of the WHMCA Bulletin celebrates the 60th Anniversary of the Sprite’s launch. The Austin-Healey Sprite is a small open sports car that was announced to the press in Monte Carlo by the British Motor Corporation (BMC) on 20 May 1958, just before that year’s Monaco Grand Prix. It was intended to be a low-cost model that “a chap could keep in his bike shed”, yet be the successor to the sporting versions of the pre-war Austin Seven, such as the Nippy, Ulster and the Gordon England Brooklands specials.
The Sprite was designed by Gerry Coker, the Donald Healey Motor Company’s stylist. As readers of this Bulletin know, Gerry had also created the design for the Healey 100 in 1952. It was this car that had brought Austin and Healey together. Gerry left Healey’s employ to join Ford in the USA in 1957 before the launch of the Sprite.
The car that Gerry had designed had a longer nose with slant back grill and with ‘pop up’ headlights. When he first saw a production car in a U.S. Austin dealer’s showroom he thought Donald and his team had taken leave of their senses after he (Gerry) had left the Warwick based company. He thought that it resembled a headlamp test mule rather than a real motor car. But sometimes ‘quirky’ captures the imagination and endears itself to customers. So it was with the Mark I AH Sprite. And it’s a fondness that has grown with age, it is a car that is loved now even more than when it was being produced.
Healey received royalty payments from BMC for each AH 100 and AH Sprite sold. The retail price of the Sprite when it first went on sale in the U.K. was £669. It used a tuned version of the Austin A-Series engine and as
BMC’s ability to sell the Sprite at such an attractive price, for a sports car, was a result of the car using many components from the BMC corporate parts bin. For instance, the A series engine was being used by the Austin A35 and Morris Minor. Likewise the four-speed gearbox, front suspension and back axle were A35 based units and the rack and pinion steering unit came from the Morris Minor. These savings allowed money to be spent on improving the power output of the A series engine, from the A35’s and Morris Minor’s 34 and 37 bhp respectively to 43 bhp for the Sprite version. The major contributor to this power improvement was the use of twin 1 1/8 inch SU carburettors with attendant changes to the manifolding.
The Sprite was made at the MG factory in Abingdon and it was inevitable that the success of the design would spawn an MG version known as the Midget, reviving a popular pre-war model name for that marque, also owned by BMC. The Midget Mk. I was introduced when the Sprite Mk II was launched in June 1961. The body styling for both cars came from the BMC corporate pen, its lines aped those of the Midget’s big brother the MGB. It was certainly more conventional than the Mk I Sprite, with normal headlamps and a boot (trunk) with a separate lid. But above all it was still a low cost sports car aimed at young men and women around the World but especially the U.S. Enthusiasts often refer to A.H. Sprites and MG Midgets collectively as “Spridgets”, there is a successful club in the U.K., for owners of both marques, called the Midget and Sprite Club (MASC).
In 1971 British Leyland, the successor to BMC, cut its links with Donald Healey and just over one thousand Sprites were badged Austin Sprites not Austin Healey Sprites. The Sprite’s sibling, the MG Midget, continued in production until 1979. The Mk III (basically the same as the Sprite Mk IV) was produce up to 1974 when the Midget 1500 was introduced. In 1972 the rear wheel arches were changed from square to round but were changed back to square in 1976. The Midget 1500 (Mk IV) was fitted with a Triumph Spitfire engine (sacre bleu! did Lord Stokes have no soul?) and Morris Marina gearbox.
The Austin Healey Sprite and MG Midget provided entry to sports car ownership for thousands of enthusiasts. But that wasn’t confined to road use, these cars were ideal for entering into budget level motor racing. Then, if you got the ‘bug’ the design lent itself to development and tuning and soon you found that you were competing successfully with much larger cars. The ‘Spridget’ also spawned a small industry in its own right; that of making replacement bonnets (hoods), hard-tops and complete ‘fastback’ bodies. Many of the latter were and are a delight to behold i.m.o. Here are just a few, that immediately spring to mind, of the U.K. based companies, who were part of that fraternity. – Ashley, Archer, Lenham, Speedwell and WSM.
Here are some ‘Sprite’ photos from the Warwick Healey Archive –
** CR4804/2/164 Photograph showing four Mark II alloy-bodied and one special-bodied Sprite on a transporter for delivery to the Sebring three hour race in March 1962. Includes 9251 WD, 9252 WD, 9253 WD, 9254 WD (alloy-bodied) and 1411 WD (special bodied Sprite built for the 1961 Le Mans race). The cars were driven by Stirling Moss, Steve McQueen, Innes Ireland and Pedro Rodriguez.
The items (marked thus**) are credited on the website as ‘Part of the Warwick Healey Motor Company Archive held at Warwickshire County Record Office.’
See the ‘Objectives and Legal‘ link at the bottom of the page.
The Italian Connection
BMC had a strong connection with the Innocenti Company of Milan, Italy, which was originally famous after WWII for making Lambretta scooters. From 1961 to 1976 it built Minis under licence and developed quite a reputation for itself. In 1960 Innocenti joined forces with a Ghia executive to form a a jointly held automotive body stamping company called Officine Stampaggi Industriali (OSI). It proved not to be a success as a business but one of the first cars that it built was the Innocenti 950 Spider. Via its BMC connection Innocenti came to an agreement to produce a sports car based upon the Austin Healey Sprite Mk II platform and running gear. This was to be called the Innocenti 950 Spider. Carrozzeria Ghia (currently owned by Ford) was responsible for the styling and gave the job to a young American intern, Tom Tjaarda originally from Detroit. Tom, who died last year, went on to style the Ferrari 365 GT California and De Tomaso Pantera, amongst others, including the more prosaic Ford Fiesta.
Certainly the 950 Spider and its successor the 1100 Spider were good looking ‘up market’ cars built to a high specification. But they were more ‘Boulevard’ cars than sports cars, their additional creature comforts came with the attendant penalties of weight and cost. This diminished performance and increased selling price proved detrimental to sales. Less than eight thousand cars, including the much revised Coupe version, introduced in 1966, were sold in total.
And there’s more ……
Another ‘Frogeye’ born in 1958
|Further reading and viewing – *These links are provided in the hope that they give an additional insight into this Bulletin’s topic. The editor cannot vouch for the veracity of the information contained them.
*AH Sprite Story – http://www.classiccars.co.uk/cars/austin_healey/sprite/
*AH Sprite Launch Test Drive (courtesy of British Pathe) – https://vimeo.com/133230796
Seen before but worth looking at again in this context – http://www.carsceneinternational.com/warwick-healey-motor-company-bulletin-v/
*The ‘Empire Aristocrat’ Story – http://car-from-uk.com/sale.php?id=7140
Warwick Healey Archive Catalogue pdf – https://apps.warwickshire.gov.uk/api/documents/WCCC-863-738
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