Friday May 18, 2018
The 20th May 1958 marked the debut of a very compact two-seater with unmistakable looks and unmissable charisma. It was of course the Austin-Healey Sprite and to celebrate six decades of ‘The Car That Offers So Much” here are six stages in its 21-year career -
Austin-Healey “Frogeye” Sprite
The “Frogeye” was not only the first unitary-bodied mass-produced sports car in the world but it also instantly appealed to a cross-section of motorists. Whether you were a veteran of the kit-car scene, a motorist with fond memories of the Austin Seven Nippy of the 1930s or an ambitious young professional the Sprite was the perfect car. For just £669 it offered a sense of sheer exuberance – even if there was no external luggage competent access – and, in Donald Healey’s own words it was a car ‘a chap could keep in his bike shed’.
Austin-Healey Sprite Mk. II/MG Midget
The spring of 1961 saw the debut and twin 1 ¼ -inch SU carburettors for enhanced power. There was also a slightly more expensive MG Midget version which boasted a higher standard of trim and in October 1962 they both gained the 1,098 cc A-series engine with front disc brakes. This brochure depicts an Austin-Healey that is, frankly, beyond dashing - even if the couple in one airbrushed illustration must been exceptionally short – as well as being practical everyday transport. Or, as BMC put it, here was a car that definitely possessed ‘Style and Character’ – and by now it even came with a boot lid!
Austin-Healey Sprite Mk. III/MG Midget Mk. II
The Austin-Healey and the MG were facelifted in 1964 but the Sprite Mk. III Midget Mk. II shocked many old-school sports car enthusiasts, not because of their modified rear suspension but because of their exterior door handles and winding windows. Some die-hards even thought that these extravagant luxuries were further proof that the country was going to the dogs although the young couple in the picture seemed blithely unconcerned. They were probably too busy listening to Unit 4 +2 singing about Concreate and Clay on Radio Luxembourg, or possibly the wild sounds of Freddie and The Dreamers.
Austin-Healey Sprite Mk. IV/MG Midget Mk. IV
The big news for 1966 was that the Sprite Mk. IV/Midget Mk. III had the 1,275cc engine (albeit in 65 bhp rather than Mini Cooper S form) a more practical hood. Both were extensively revised in late 1969, gaining black grilles and Ro-Style wheels for a look that was in tune with the MGB and with the Austin/Morris 1300GT and the Mini 1275GT. The image for the BLMC sporting cars was now less blazer and cravat and more long sideboards and approximately five gallons of Hai Karate aftershave.
1971 saw the end of British Leyland’s licensing agreements with Cooper and with Healey. The MG Midget was to continue for several more years but a short run of 1,022 plain Austin badged models was to mark the end of the Sprite name. However, there was one last hurrah with a guest appearance in Carry On at Your Convenience.
MG Midget 1500 “Rubber Bumper”
In order to comply with the stringent US safety and emissions regulations, the Midget gained those distinctive rubber bumpers and power from its deadly in-house rival the Spitfire; the Triumph plant already met with the demanding standards of the States and it was cheaper to us it in the MG rather than modify the A-Series engine. The new front and rear treatment proved controversial and together with an altered ride height, the stance and overall look of the Midget had been radically transformed – (See Video Below) However, there was also an all-synchromesh gearbox and for less than £1,600, a buyer gained a 100 mph open two-seater of undoubted charm. When production finally ceased on 7th December 1979 it was much mourned by drivers around the world.
And finally, as a further celebration of 60 years of a truly ground-breaking sports car, here are Roy Salvadori and John Bolster testing a Frogeye at Silverstone; who could possibly ask for more from a film?