Proving that less is more, the original Austin-Healey Sprite arguably started the trend for low-budget sports cars. We look into buying one today...
The original ‘Frogeye’ Sprite was a cheap and cheerful mass-produced sporting convertible that was also tremendous fun. Cheeky looks - the headlamps were initially planned to be retractable, until BMC realised that this innovative feature would put the price up – covered up the fact that underneath the skin it was mainly a blend of Austin A35 and Morris Minor. However, the humble ingredients were still capable of providing entertaining levels of performance. The 948 cc OHV engine (coded 9CC) was upgraded with twin 1.25 inch SU carburettors, giving 43bhp. The BMC Competition Department entered Austin-Healey Sprites in major international races and rallies, their first major success coming when John Sprinzel and Willy Cave won their class on the 1958 Alpine Rally. Prices today are out of all proportion to the Sprite’s budget origins, but they remain popular with sports car enthusiasts.
Despite the diminutive proportions of the Frogeye, even tall or bulky drivers can get comfortable behind the wheel pretty easily. Given that it weighs little more than half a ton, it is amazingly agile and this leads to the feeling the car is quicker than you’d expect. The 948cc engine revs freely up to about 400rpm, but begins to feel a little strained after that. The steering is light and impressively responsive too, while the non-servo-assisted brakes are positive and the gearchange is reasonably precise. The bodyshell is surprisingly rigid and the ride, although a little on the frim side, is not too jarringly firm. It gives both driver and passenger intimate knowledge of every surface irregularity along the way. At the same time however, there is a feeling of manoeuvrability control. Eventually the bumps fade away, to be replaced by a fiendish desire to slice around everything else blocking your way.
1958 Austin-Healey Sprite
Power (bhp@rpm) 45bhp@5500rpm
Torque (lb ft@rpm) 52lb ft@3000rpm
Top speed 80mph
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.
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.
The top-model 300SE and 300SEL had air suspension, which was high-tech stuff for the early 1960s. The ride it gives is quite remarkable, but problems can be very expensive indeed to fix, and parts are not plentiful. Buy an air-sprung Fintail with your eyes wide open, and have the phone numbers of a specialist and your bank manager close at hand.
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.
If we haven’t put you off already, there’s one more hidden area to examine for corrosion. This is the ledge on the bulkhead that supports the brake servo. Debris accumulates here and, especially if combined with leaking brake fluid, can cause the metal underneath to rot through.
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.
There isn’t much that isn’t available new for the Austin-Healey Sprite. That said, if work is required, then restoration costs can quickly mount up. The simple construction of the car allows for a thorough inspection to be made of a prospective purchase before you actually part with your hard earned cash, so there is no reason for you to get your fingers burned.
Running costs are also very low – the road tax is free and insurance should be cheap too. Whatever you buy – and as long as you don’t pay over the odds – you’ll be having a whale of a time from the first moment you drive it. There’s not much that can touch the Frogeye for simplicity, even after more than half a century has passed since it first saw the light of day. So what are you waiting for?