Tuesday March 20, 2018
One of the pleasures of visiting the Lancaster Insurance Spring Pride at Practical Classics Classic Car & Restoration Show is the opportunity to appreciate the sheer dedication that so many enthusiasts put into their car. Pay a visit to the Pride stand and you will hear stories of weeks, months and years spent in returning almost any marque that you could think of to a standard that would satisfy the most exacting of dealer-principals. And this year one of the stars of the event is certain to be a compact sports car that for the past 60 years has gone by the nickname of “Frogeye” – but is known to its proud owner Tracy Smith as “Doris”!
There is a very select group of cars that have a charisma that is out of all proportion to their dimensions and the original Austin-Healey Sprite certainly falls into this category. One’s first thought on encountering the first of the Sprites is ‘it really does look as though I would need two; one for each foot’ – and the second is that ‘I want one!’ The Frogeye is the world’s first unitary-bodied mass-production sports car and, to give an idea of its unique appeal, here is some priceless footage of one being taken through its paces by none other than Roy Salvadori - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uHre536AHrk
The Sprite dates back to 1956 when the British Motor Corporation and Donald Healey agreed to make a compact sports car that would cost around £600 and would therefore be affordable to the average motorist. One early casualty of these financial constraints was the plan to use “pop-up” head lamps as they proved to be too expensive to engineer and the result was that distinctive profile. As many standard BMC parts as possible were employed in the new Austin-Healey; the steering was from the Morris Minor and the gearbox and front suspension from the A35. Under the bonnet there was he familiar “A-Series” engine with twin SU carburettors and to further save weight there was no external access to the luggage compartment.
The Austin-Healey Sprite debuted in May 1958 and for just £678 17s the proud owner gained a machine capable of 80-mph that offered more automotive pleasure than many cars that were twice or even three times its price. Admittedly, the list of standard fittings could best be described as ‘minimal’ – there were no door handles and you would have to pay extra for the heater, rev counter and, in the home market, even the front bumper. But 60 years ago none of this would have been out of the ordinary, for this was a machine that Donald Healey thought ‘a chap might keep in his shed’ – and, besides, with an after-market luggage rack, who needed a boot lid?
It should also be remembered that in 1958 none of the ‘Big Five’ major car manufacturers of the UK offered a model that was remotely comparable to the Sprite. The Triumph Spitfire would not debut until 1962, the Rootes Group did not make a lightweight performance car until the Sunbeam Imp Sport of 1966 and that was never available in open top guise. Ford and Vauxhall never engaged with the open-two-seater market during the 1950s and 1960s and the potential Austin-Healey buyer would most probably considered the likes of Fairthorpe or Berkeley.
Autocar thought that the Sprite ‘might well be considered a successor to those small sporting versions of the Austin 7, the Speedy and Nippy, which were produced up to 1937’. By autumn of 1958 Autosport raved that ‘every credit is due to the manufacturers for instigating what will undoubtedly prove to be a new era in the popularity of small-capacity, open car motoring’. Two years later The Motor concluded that the Austin-Healey was ‘far more fun and far less frustration than I could ever have obtained from a saloon’ and the Frogeye attracted copious amounts of praise on both sides of the Atlantic. Road & Track thought that it ‘offers more fun per dollar than anything we have driven for a long time’.
The Frogeye was replaced by the slightly more sober-looking Mk .II in May 1961 and today it is – that overused but still very apt word – an iconic of post-war British motoring,. So, do visit the Pride Stand at the NEC to pay tribute to Doris as a prime example of an accessible, utterly enjoyable -ground-breaking – design that is the epitome of a true “fun car”.