1958 Austin-Healey Sprite

   At the end of 1951 Donald Healey and his son, Geoffrey, decided to produce a new sports car and they approached Austin for assistance, bringing about the Austin-Healey 100-6. During negotiations with Leonard Lord and B.M.C. in the early months of 1956 agreement was reached to produce another Healey designed car, eventually to be called the Sprite. The aim was to fill a gap left in the market when MG's old midgets were deleted and replaced by the larger MGA. Put simply Austin and Healey wanted a fun two-seater sports car that "a chap could keep in his bike shed", basic and affordable, a sort of successor to the sporty versions of the pre-war Austin 7 for the price of a Morris Minor; around £600.

   The announcement for the new venture was made on the 20th of May 1958 made in Monte Carlo, just before the Monaco GP, and read :-

“Today the Austin Motor Company makes motoring history with the announcement of a completely new and inexpensive sports car … the Austin-Healey Sprite. It is some 20 years since Austin made a small sports car, but the Sprite lives up fully to the fine traditions established in the 1920s and ’30s, and more recently by the Austin-Healey 100. It has maximum speed in the eighties and rapid acceleration, but with fuel consumption ranging from 30-45 mpg.”

   Donald Healey's son Geoffrey was in overall charge of the design with the body by Gerry Coker, which had later alterations by Les Ireland when Coker emigrated to the US in 1957, Barry Bilbie designed the chassis. The end result being a cheeky looking car with distinctive styling that would not only be a commercial success but be a beloved motif of a motoring era.

   In order to keep the price down many parts came straight off the shelf in the BMC stores, largely parts from the Austin A35 and Morris Minor. This approach also reduced development costs contributing to the aim of a low overall price for the car. The Sprite first went on sale at the price of £669. From 1961 the badge-engineered MG Midget joined the range and in reviving this MG model name a new nick name for the range was born. These cars are often collectively referred to by enthusiasts as "Spridgets."

   Production of the Sprite began in 1958 at the MG factory in Abingdon, the primary reason being the need to install the engine from above. In the end approaching 49,000 Mk1 Sprites were built between 1958 and 1961, thereafter the Mk2 Sprite went into production.

   Our model is of a Mk1 1958 Sprite, the world's first mass-produced sports car to use unitary construction. In a similar manner to the D-type Jaguar the floor pan, sills and transmission tunnel give the basic strength of the structure providing a rigid frame capable of handling the stresses of the rear suspension, thus resolving the weaknesses and chassis flexibility of open-topped sports cars. The front suspension is mounted on two legs projecting forward from the passenger compartment, again much like the D type Jag', so it isn't an actual monocoque structure but it did proved to be a very sturdy and practical design. Additional strength came from having no traditional boot (or trunk), lid. Access to the spare wheel and luggage area was by tilting the back seats forward, it may sound a little awkward but the space proved to be huge for such a small car.

   It should be noted at this point that the thickness of sheet steel specified by Bilbie for the rear structure was reduced by the Austin Design Office as part of the money saving programme, but when the rear structure suffered deformation during testing at M.I.R.A. (Motor Industry Research Association) the original spec' was reinstated.

   The final part of the bodywork is the one piece bonnet (hood) and wings. This gave easy access to the engine compartment but was rather easily damaged. However, it also provided the car with it's signature design feature; the lights.

   Originally it had been intended to have lights that retracted so the lenses face skyward when not in use. This feature was axed in the continuous cost cutting so the headlights were prominently fixed in the working position on top of the bonnet, inboard of the front wings. In doing so BMC opened the door to the universally adopted nickname of ‘Frog-eyed Sprite’ (or Bugeye in the USA).

   The final feature of the body was actually the lack of an item(s); exterior door handles. To open the doors the driver and passenger just reached inside and used the interior mechanism, simple.

   The running gear was largely from the then-current Austin A35, the front suspension being a coil spring and wishbone arrangement, with the arm of the Armstrong lever shock absorber serving as the top suspension link. The rear suspension was by quarter-elliptical leaf springs which also located the rear axle, again with lever-arm shock absorbers and top links. Braking was by drums on all four wheels ( front discs were fitted for the Mk2), and steering was the same rack and pinion steering as the Morris Minor 1000.

   The four cylinder OHV 948cc BMC A series engine, which gave 34bhp in the Austin A35, was up-rated by the use of twin 11⁄8" inch SU carburettors to develop 43 bhp, giving a top speed of 85mph and accelerating from 0-60mph in 20.5 seconds. Later Sprite/Midget models were fitter with 1098cc or 1275cc units boosting power through 59 bhp to 65 bhp. Power was transmitted to the rear wheels through a four speed box taken from the A35.

   The performance figures for the Sprite might not appear startling but the little Sprite had a great power to weight ratio and was very compact, agile, with exceptional handling that loved to hug the corners. The BMC Competition Department saw this potential class success and developed the Austin Healey Sprite into a formidable competition car. John Sprinzel and Willy Cave gave the Sprite its first major success when they won their class on the 1958 Alpine Rally. Sprites also took class wins in the 1961 RAC Rally, the 1963 Monte Carlo Rally and the 1965 Sebring race and are still raced in MG and Austin club racing today.

Racing variants were also built by Speedwell, John Sprinzel and WSM.

1/32nd scale kit.

1/24th  scale kit.

Built by Rod.

   The 1/32nd scale Airfix kit # M2C, was first release in a bag in 1961 and is a simple kit in keeping with the era of it's release. Re-released several times since then, most recently in 1998, these subsequent releases have increasingly suffered with all the signs of mould wear; flash and misalignment to name the most obvious. That said the end product does look like a Mk1 Sprite and certain details, like the AH in the hub caps are nice.

   The model was built in the early 1960s and is constructed with tube cement and painted with brush applied Humbrol enamel paints.

   A 1992 release in 1/24th scale Gunze-Sangyo (G187) this kit is typical of the company's products in that Gunze-Sangyo kits are usually nice kits that fit together and are well moulded. They don't always have the level of detail of a Tamiya kit but do usually have enough detail for the areas of the model that are visible. There is a second Sprite kit by Gunze-Sangyo in their “High-Tech” series which was also shared with Airfix. Both versions are rare in the UK.

   Rod built this model straight from the box in March 2000 using “liquid poly” adhesive and Halfords acrylic car spray paints. Detail painting was done with Citadel ink washes and Humbrol enamel paints, all brush applied. The use of Bare Metal Foil is also in evidence.

   This pair of models make an interesting contrast between the eras of manufacture and building. Moulding technology and model making accessories have changed such a lot in the last 50 years that we forget just how fettered our modelling forefathers were.