Austin-Healey "frogeye" Sprite.

It didn't take long for BMC's new sportscar of 1958, the Austin-Healey Sprite (retrospectively known as the Mk1 Sprite) to earn the nickname Frogeye Sprite (or Bugeye Sprite if you lived in the USA), and it isn't hard to see why, thanks to its protruding headlamps set into the one-piece, rear-hinged steel bonnet.
Side view of a Frogeye Sprite with its roof raised
In the mid-1950s companies within the lumbering BMC combine were producing a wide variety of cars large and small, to satisfy the post-war appetite for up-to-the-minute motor-cars. A gap though remained un-plugged in BMC's line-up, one that cars such as sporting versions of the Austin 7 and to a lesser extent the Morris Minor had fitted into prior to WW2. They had no small, affordable sportscar to offer the enthusiastic motorist who wasn't necessarily blessed with deep pockets. Austin had looked into producing an open two-seater powered by the A30's 803cc engine in the early 1950s, but this had come to nothing. Inspiration for the Sprite could well have come from a sportscar produced by the Turner factory in Wolverhampton. Led by company boss Jack Turner, their designers took the A30's A-Series engine and running gear, and slotted it into a new, diminutive, two-seat open-top sportscar.

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What BMC made of the Turner isn't clear, but in 1956 a meeting between Donald Healey and Leonard Lord of BMC led to plans being drawn up for a new, low-cost sportscar, using running gear sourced from BMC's parts bins. Designed by Gerry Coker of the Healey Motor Company, and ultimately to be produced at Abingdon rather than Longbridge utilising the 948cc A-Series Austin engine, the new Sprite would be sold via BMC outlets, with a royalty for each car sold being paid to Healey as a result.
Frogeye Sprite photo

Overview of the Sprite's basic design.

A key priority during the design process was to keep tooling and production costs as low as possible. One suggestion put forward was to make front and rear wings interchangeable, although it soon became apparent that working to this particular requirement would have resulted in a particularly ugly car by all accounts. Early thoughts of retractable headlamps were also ditched on cost grounds, resulting in the charismatic "frogeye" look that defines the car so strongly. No opening bootlid would feature on the Mk1 Austin-Healey Sprite, owners having to put their luggage in the "boot" by folding the seat backrests forward, in a similar vein to the arrangement found on the cut-price, and distinctly un-sporting, Standard 8 saloon.
Much of the car's running gear was borrowed from existing BMC/Austin cars, the A35 in particular. The A35's compact front suspension was put to good use under the Sprite's sporty bodywork, although a fully hydraulic braking system, rather than the part-hydraulic arrangement found on the A35, was employed. The mildly vague steering box of the A35 wasn't deemed to be suitable for a nippy sportscar, but fortunately Morris already had an ideal steering rack design fitted to the contemporary Minor, so this was swiftly included into the Sprite's design too.
For cost reasons, the 948cc A-Series unit from the A35 (again originally a Morris rather than Austin design) was always going to be used, although it was pepped up for its new role, thanks to the fitment of twin SU carburettors, resulting in a power output of 42.5bhp, not a sizzling amount perhaps but a useful step forward from its specification in the A35, and enough to endow the lightweight roadster with a decent turn of speed for the day. Healey did look into the idea of producing an uprated version of the Sprite, powered by an 1100cc Coventry Climax engine, with the car featuring heavily re-styled bodywork, possibly made from fibreglass. BMC though, unhappy at the idea of Healey's producing their own version of the Sprite, soon knocked that particular plan on the head.
Rear view of the Sprite showing its lack of opening bootlid
The public first heard of the new Austin-Healey Sprite in May of 1958, by which time production had been underway for a couple of months at Abingdon. Things behind the scenes though weren't all plain sailing, as a test of an early car by the factory at MIRA revealed weaknesses in the Sprite's bodyshell, only fixed by the addition of re-inforcing brackets, welded into the boot area. Cars that had already been built were brought back into the factory to have the brackets added retrospectively. Early, 1958, cars also received alterations to the structure behind the doors, to aid support of the back end bodywork. By September of 1958 a new box section, running down either side of the boot floor, had been designed, and was incorporated on all new cars from that point onwards.
It was very clear that the Sprite was being sold as a no-frills, high-thrills, affordable sportscar. Fun behind the wheel was virtually guaranteed, although the downside to the car's �679 price tag was that creature comforts were not overly plentiful. There was no opening bootlid (something rectified on the Mk2 Sprite of 1961 however), and a rubber mat rather than carpet was fitted inside the cabin. The hood frame had to be assembled from poles, and sidescreens rather than winding door glasses were fitted. A front bumper was an extra-cost option, for UK buyers at any rate, with no rear bumper offered at all bar two vertical overriders.
Aftermarket suppliers of Frogeye tuning parts and accessories soon brought out items to tempt the Mk1 Frogeye Sprite owner into parting with their cash, in a bid to improve on the little car's basic specification. Changes and upgrades introduced by the factory though during the Mk1's production run, by comparison, were pretty trifling. Their plans for an updated, Mk2 Sprite, were already well in hand by the beginning of the 1960s, and in 1961 the square-rigged, "Spridget" took over from the original model. Improved most definitely, but many believed that there were still buyers out there who preferred the styling, and cut-price fun, offered by the Mk1 incarnation. Indeed so popular is the Mk1 Sprite today, that various replicas have been put onto the market over recent years.
A restored Austin-Healey sportscar
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