Few cars have been more adroitly timed -- or more right for their time -- than the original Austin-Healey Sprite, the beloved “Bugeye.” It was conceived to fill an obvious market gap that existed by the time the genuinely small sporting MGs, the Midgets of the 1930s and 1940s, had evolved into the larger, costlier, more modern and “mature” MGA of the 1950s.
BMC chairman Sir Leonard Lord rarely missed a commercial trick, and invited the Healey family to design a small, back-to-basics sports car that would complement, rather than compete with, the popular MGA. As this collaboration had already led to the Austin-Healey 100, which was selling very well in the U.S., Lord was convinced that the new small Healey would have similar success. As it turned out, he was right.
Donald Healey and sons went to work at Warwick, though their creation was finalized by MG at Abingdon and put into production there beginning in mid-1958. The “olde worlde” Berkshire works thus found itself building three different sports cars: the MGA, the Austin-Healey 100 Six, and the new Sprite. BMC delved into its big box of registered trademarks for the model name, which had graced a Riley sports car of the 1930s. (The Nuffield Organisation had acquired Riley in 1938, then joined Austin in 1952 to form BMC.)
Riding an 80-inch wheelbase, the Austin-Healey Sprite was tiny by the standards of its day (and ours, come to that) though larger and heavier than 1930s Midgets. Alfa Romeo and Fiat had already produced unit-construction sports cars (both on shortened mass-market sedan platforms) but the Sprite was the first unitized British sports car. It was, of course, a spare two-seat roadster but, with a 1460-pound curb weight, wasn’t all that light for its size.
To keep the Austin-Healey Sprite structure as simple and rigid as possible, the Healeys omitted an external trunklid; you loaded luggage through the cockpit by folding down the seats. Front sheetmetal -- hood, fenders, and surrounding panels -- was hinged at the firewall to lift up as a unit, thus providing almost unrestricted access to engine and front suspension. Doors were mere shells (scooped out for storage) to which sliding side curtains could be attached. Per British tradition, the soft top was of the “build-it-yourself” variety, though an optional bolt-on hardtop was offered soon after introduction.
What everybody noticed, of course, was the protruding headlamps that gave the Sprite a “bugeye” or “frogeye” look, hence the nicknames that persist to this day. This appearance distinction was quite accidental. Retractable lights had been contemplated (prototypes had them) but were cancelled at the last minute as too costly (so was a fold-down windshield), by which time it was too late to change the styling.
Cost considerations also dictated off-the-shelf running gear and chassis components, a mixture of items from two small BMC family sedans. The Morris Minor 1000 donated its rack-and-pinion steering, while the Sprite’s 4-speed gearbox, firmed-up front suspension, and venerable BMC A-series four-cylinder engine came from the Austin A35. The last also contributed its rear suspension, with a live axle located by upper radius arms and cantilevered quarter-elliptic leaf springs.
The result was a cheeky little car with enormous character and joie de vivre. With its rudimentary rear end, the Bugeye could be darty and prone to oversteer, but since the steering was so responsive -- and top speed only 80 mph -- it rarely got away from you.
And because it could be flung about with abandon, the Sprite was perfect for slaloms, gymkhanas, and other competition, and demand from weekend warriors soon prompted all sorts of hop-up and handling goodies from aftermarket sources. Much-modified Sprites, with front disc brakes, heated engines, and smoothed-out bodywork competed gamely but with distinction against far larger and more powerful machines at places like Sebring and Daytona.
Inherent mechanical sturdiness and race-and-ride versatility helped sales, but price was the big factor. At about $1500 new, the Sprite was cheap -- $1000 or so less than an MGA and Triumph TR3 -- and a whale of a buy. Alas, it wouldn’t last long: just three years and near 49,000 units. Its successor, the Sprite Mark II of 1961 (also cloned for a new MG Midget), was much the same car with extra amenities and more conventional, square-rigged styling.
But Len Lord’s bargain-basement roadster had done its job, reestablishing a popular market class while teaching an entire generation what real sports-car motoring was all about. While it’s likely that fewer than half the original Bugeyes survive today, it’s almost possible to build a new one from scratch, so numerous are the reproductions of virtually everything -- mechanical parts, body panels, trim, the works. That “cheap wheels” can inspire such long-lived affection may be surprising, but then, the Bugeye was much more than the sum of its humble parts.