Tuesday, April 24, 2012

1958-1961 Austin-Healey Sprite Mark I

"The new Sprite is a very pretty little car, with a lot of clever ideas under its sleek body. Unitary construction is used, resulting in a great saving of weight and an overall smoothness of line to bring joy to the eyes of a connoisseur. And it's as practical as pretty. The whole bonnet and wings assembly of the Sprite lifts up to give quick accessibility to the engine and front suspension. This should make home maintenance delightfully easy. There's fresh thought, too, in the rear suspension. Trailing links are used for improved road-holding and to reduce unsprung weight. The Sprite engine is the brilliant BMC 'A' series 948cc. engine. Twin S.U. carburettors lift its maximum output to 43 BHP at 5,200 rpm – making this great little engine an ideal power unit. Not the least of the many delightful features of this car is the price. At £668.17s, tax paid, it is the most astounding value offered to the enthusiast today. For the Sprite is everything a touring car ought to be and yet costs no more than a small saloon."

The english sales brochure from 1958 brings the advantages of the "fun" sportscar of the decade quite down to the point. Interesting, how american and english concepts of advertisement in the same era can differ: blatant superlatives there, while rather modest and explanatory here.

The concept behind the Healey Sprite was appealing: make a simple, affordable and lightweight roadster for the enthusiast driver. Already in the mid-50s, BMC boss Leonard Lord and Donald Healey had started thinking about a smaller companion car to the Austin-Healey 100 and the MG A, which were very successful on american shores. In May 1958, Austin-Healey presented the Sprite, Britain's first sports car which used an unitized construction instead of a classic body-on-frame architecture. The Sprite really was a basic car: it wasn't even delivered with a soft top, the doors were lacking inner panels, and to enhance rigidity, Donald Healey omitted even a trunk lid, forcing Sprite owners to access luggage and spare tire through the interior. The whole front end was made of one piece, and popping the hood was a spectacular procedure, because, like in a race car, the whole front swung up. To cut costs, the Sprite shared most of its mechanics with other BMC cars, and used the same engine that powered the tiny Austin A35 sedan. With 43 h.p., it wasn't the most powerful engine, and it was quite heavy, too. Hence, the Sprite was tiny and affordable, but not so lightweight after all. Still, you could throw the Sprite around at wish and go sideways in curves, or, in other words: have fun! The rudimentary design provided a pure driving pleasure which definitely attracted the enthusiast drivers it was conceived for.

Gerry Coker, who had already drawn the beautiful Austin-Healey 100, was responsible for the styling of the Sprite, and if you judge the lines and proportions, he did an awesome job, especially for such a small car. The only disturbing detail are the strangely positioned headlights, which were originally intended to be retractable. Last-minute cost cutting demanded fixed headlights, which perhaps did hurt the designer's ego, but on the other hand gave the car its unmistakable identity. The small Austin-Healey soon became nicknamed "Frogeye" in Europe and "Bugeye" in the U.S., and with 48.987 cars produced between 1958 and 1961, it was very successful on both sides of the Atlantic.

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