The Austin Healey Sprite Mk I- Frogeye
The Mark I Austin Healey Sprite is known amongst classic car aficionados as the ‘frogeye’. That is because of the arrangement of the headlamps which are part of the bonnet rather than part of the wings. They stick up from the car resembling the eyes of guess what … a frog!
The Austin Healey Sprite was designed by Donald Healey of the Healey Motor Company and was built in partnership with the British Motor Corporation. It was announced as a low-cost sports car replacing the pre-war Austin seven range. Built at the Abingdon factory, the Sprite was immensely successful and lead to the development of the MG Midget. Classic car enthusiasts refer to the sprites and midgets as ‘Spridgets’ because of this close association.To ensure smooth exterior lines, the door handles were inside, something which was carried over to the Mk I Midget. Nor were the doors lockable – a car that cannot be locked would be unthinkable nowadays! Another feature that seems bizarre today is that there was boot space, but it (and the spare wheel) could only be accessed by tilting the seats forward and reaching under the deck at the back. Unless you were about the size of a Victorian chimney sweep’s child, it was pretty much impossible to see what you were doing. So if you buy a sprite, send in a small person with a torch to see if there are any hidden treasures from a bygone age!! I suspect that one of the reasons for this arrangement was because a good proportion of the car’s strength came from the bodywork. It was the first mass production sports car to adopt this technique. There were initial problems with this design and the very first Sprite Mk I’s had to be recalled to have strengthening brackets welded into the boot area. From September ’58, a modified body design was put into production.
Almost 50,000 Frogeye Sprites were built in the 3 years or so of production. They were very much a budget sports car and so many of the parts used were already in the BMC parts bins from models already in production. The 948 cc overhead valve engine came from the Austin A35 and Morris Minor 1000 (upgraded a bit of course by changing the carburettors to 1 1/8th twin SU carbs. The engine developed about 43 HP and gave the Sprite a top speed of a shade over 80 mph. Acceleration from 0-60 took just over 20 seconds but compared with modern cars, the Sprite was remarkably economical, returning a fuel consumption of over 40 mpg. Many variants of the Austin Healey Sprite were developed for racing, perhaps the most iconic being the Sebring Sprite. This was fitted with disc brakes and the engine and chassis were also improved. The term Sebring Sprite is now often used to describe any sprite with disc brakes and/or coupe bodywork. During 1959 to 1961 races, Sebring Sprites were dominant in their class. The rarity of the original Sebring Sprites means that they are pretty much affordable to the average classic car enthusiast but happily, there are replicas available, which can be built on a Midget Chassis – http://www.sebringracing.co.uk/. The Frogeye Car Company are based on the Isle of Wight and they produce an updated version, called the Healy Frogeye which retains the character of the original Sprite but with modern components such as a fibreglass and Kevlar body – http://www.healey-frogeye.co.uk/index.html
The front suspension and steering came from the A35 and Minor 1000 respectively. The A35′s front suspension was a neat and compact design, small enough to fit the Sprite, whilst the rack and pinion steering from the Morris 1000 was much more responsive than that of the A35 and therefore much more suitable to use in a sports car. The original plan was to make the headlights flip up and down as needed, however, this idea was shelved in the interest of cost saving. A great decision which gave us this fabulous little classic sports car. The headlights were fixed to the bonnet which was also integral with the wings – to get at the engine, the whole of the bonnet/wing assembly lifts up from just in front of the windscreen and tips forward. Despite the significant changes to the design for the Midget, such as having a boot lid and a bonnet separate to the wings, the Sprite influence can easily be seen.