Sprite a bright

spark of British

sports cars

Austin-Healey Sprite

THE Austin Healey brand was a byword of automotive sporting excellence in the classic years of the 1950s and 1960s and one of its most enjoyable products was the new-generation Sprite of 1961.

This version took over from the famous frog-eye version, named after its prominent and somewhat alarming headlamps peering out of the bonnet.

It is known as a badge-engineered version of its MG Midget stablemate, earning the unkind nickname of Spridget.

The Sprite was a small open-topped sports car which was often the first experience of wind-in-the-hair motoring to many keen and often young drivers.

It was simple and affordable and very zestful to drive, especially with the hood up or down.

The Sprite revived a model name used by MG from the late 1920s through to the mid-1950s. Owners BMC could do that because it owned both companies.

Under the bonnet was the 948cc engine of the previous model, but with larger twin one-and-a-quarter inch SU carbs, increasing power to 46.5bhp.

A close-ratio gearbox enhanced driving pleasure, but the big difference when compared with the Frog-Eye was the bodywork which was completely new with headlamps in the wings endowing a clean-cut and very attractive appearance.

There was a conventional boot lid and an equally conventional rear bumper.

I don't know why, but of the two similar cars, the Midget was the most popular and by 1972 it had completely supplanted the Sprite within the range.

There was an engine change in 1962 when the Sprite received the long-stroke 1,098cc engine used in the Austin A40 plus a strengthened gearbox with synchromesh by Porsche.

Front disc brakes were also introduced at the same time and wire wheels became an option and these transformed the look of the car no end.

The Mark III Sprite was, predictably a Midget, with some helpful changes including a curved windscreen and hinged quarter lights with wind-up windows.

Exterior door handles were provided for the first time, with separate door locks. Though the car could now be secured, with a soft-top roof the added protection was limited.

The rear suspension was modified from quarter-elliptic to semi-elliptic leaf springs, which gave a more comfortable ride.

A newer version presented at the London Motor Show of 1966 saw a larger 1,275cc engine.

Most notable was the change from a removable convertible top to a folding top of greatly improved design.

For the 1970 model year cast-alloy wheels were fitted and the grille was changed to resemble that fitted to the MG Midget.

In 1970 the Austin-Healey Sprite Mark IV appeared with a revised grille and cat-alloy wheels.

The loss of the Sprite was one of the saddest events in British sports car history. After the Midget also died off, Britain had to wait years for a new crop of small, affordable open two seaters.

I was fortunate enough to have road-tested a Sprite in my early years and the memory of it never faded.

I have driven sports cars capable of crazy speeds and standing start times of around four to five seconds, but the joy of driving the little Sprite on the open road and though winding country lanes was a realflashback to the golden years of motoring.

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