AUSTIN-HEALEY FROGEYE SPRITE REVIEW

The car that went on to spawn generations of MG Midgets is now one of the most valuable examples of the breed. We assess one as a classic buy today...

It’s a little-known fact that the singlemost striking element of the Austin-Healey Sprite Mk1 – which gave the car its nick-name, in fact – was never intended to be there. Where the production car’s bulging headlights garnered it the world-famous ‘Frogeye’ moniker, BMC actually wanted the sort of flip-up headlights that would eventually appear on the Porsche 928. Budget constraints, however, saw them consigned to the cutting floor – and a legend was born.

VITAL STATISTICS

AUSTIN-HEALEY ‘FROGEYE’ SPRITE MK1

 

Engine                                     948cc/4-cyl/OHV 

Power (bhp@rpm)                   43bhp@4750rpm

Torque (lb ft@rpm)                  52lb/ft@3300rpm

Top speed                                 83mph

0-60mph                                   21sec

Consumption                            43mpg

Gearbox                                    4-speed manual

WHAT TO LOOK FOR

BODYWORK & CHASSIS

The Frogeye was one of the first sports cars to sport monococque construction, so clearly any major body rot is not just going to be unsightly – potentially, it can be a complete deal-breaker.

As such, as well as all the usual places – arches, bonnet lip, etc. – check all the reinforcing box sections around the bulkheads, sills and jacking points – if there’s more frilly ferrous oxide here than metal, then only truly dedicated DIY restorers should proceed.

Close inspection of the enormous one-piece front is a must, too: the entire front end – bonnet, wings and front panel – lifts in one piece to afford access to the engine, so it’s regularly put under a lot of structural stress. Ensure the rear hinges and surrounding metalwork are sound. 

 

ENGINE

 

One of the major parameters for the Frogeye was always affordability – both for the buyer and for the manufacturer. To wit, the engine that nestles beneath that grinning front is a derivation of BMC’s venerable 948cc engine, which also did sterling service in the Austin A35 and Morris Minor.

And that’s good news, because engines don’t come much simpler than this. Performance was racked up to a dizzying 43bhp by the addition of twin SU carbs, although it’s not unheard of for Frogeyes to end up with a tuned Mini engine of some description – the 1275cc is the most popular – under the bonnet. This isn’t a problem in itself, although anything other than complete adherence to originality can have a detrimental effect on values.

Being of such simple design, major problems on well-maintained cars are rare, although the causes of any of the usual warning signs – blue smoke on the overrun, uneven idling, persistent cutting out, reluctance to run smoothly when hot – are usually very easy to trace.

 

RUNNING GEAR

The Frogeye’s steering and suspension were also lifted from the Morris Minor. Quarter elliptic rear springs and lever arm dampers don’t sound terribly exciting, but the addition of an upper radius arm above the rear axle virtually eliminated axle tramp. Anything other than ultra-alert handling, then, suggests that something is amiss.

Leaf spring breakage is common, as is rust both where the radius arms attach and around the spring location boxes on the rear bulkhead. Up front, worn damper bearings and kingpin bushes (these latter as a result of indifferent greasing) should always start alarm bells ringing.

Elsewhere, the differential is prone to oil leaks and halfshafts have a habit of breaking. The rack-and-pinion steering is reassuringly robust, though, with split gaiters the only known recurring problem.


INTERIOR

 

There’s not a great deal to the Frogeye’s interior, and while wear and tear to seats, carpets, etc. is inevitable, excellent aftermarket parts back-up means replacements – while hardly cheap – are reasonably plentiful.

Expect most of the wear to centre on the area behind the seats: exterior appearances notwithstanding, the Frogeye isn’t actually fitted with an opening bootlid, so luggage must be hauled in and out via the open area immediately behind the seats. Inevitably, then, wear and tear is accelerated here, although the fact that full replacement carpet sets are readily available for less than £120 means this isn’t a huge problem.

Elsewhere, wavering speedometer needles are common, but not the end of the world, although replacing a failed water temperature gauge can get expensive as the dial is combined with the oil pressure gauge, thereby effectively doubling the re-wiring job.

OUR VERDICT

Not for rarity, that’s for sure – only the run-out 1500 shifted more examples than the Frogeye. No, you buy a Frogeye for its laugh-out-loud handling and cheeky looks.

The former is dependant on the suspension and monococque being in good order, but the latter comes part of the package, irrespective of condition – those lights and that cheeky grille grin are near-impossible to resist.

 

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