Happy Anniversary - Austin-Healey bug-eyed Sprite

By: Guy Allen, Unique Cars magazine

Presented by

1958 Austin-Healey Sprite MkI advertisement. 1958 Austin-Healey Sprite MkI advertisement. 1958 Austin-Healey Sprite MkI advertisement.

Known as the bug-eye here, or frog-eye across the Pacific, this model got a generation into sports cars

It was 1958, 13 years after WWII, and there was a burgeoning market for luxury goods as rationing had become a recent memory and Britain's economy got into gear.

In May, the Austin Motor Company announced a new toy, the Sprite, a budget-build mini sports car.

To give you some idea of the economies involved, the headlights were originally designed to be retractable, however the extra production costs and complications meant they became fixed.

There was no bootlid - you got into the rear space by tipping forward the seats. It's been argued that was both an economy and a way of assisting rigidity of the miniature sportster.

What you did get was a monocoque body, using as many existing Austin components as possible. That included the engine and transmission, front suspension, rear axle and brakes.

The powerplant was a 948cc inline four, claiming 45 horses (34kW) at 5500rpm and a torque figure of 70Nm at a relatively accessible 3000rpm. That was matched to a four-speed manual transmission and, all up, it weighed a feather-light 664kg.

Performance was respectable for the time. Top speed was said to be over 80mph (130km/h), and acceleration was more like 20sec to 100km/h.

In Britain, they sold like the proverbial hotcakes. That was helped by an ultra-competitive retail price of 670 quid. In Australia, those early models were heavily taxed and cost a great deal more. It wasn't until assembly started here in 1960 that the prices were pulled back.

Here, the UK and the USA, a mini industry popped up, modifying these things for competition. They were a cheap entry to motorsport and parts were easy to get, while overall they were a very simple thing to work on.

The Sprite name went on to grace several generations, all the way through to 1971. However it was only the MkI of 1958-61 which carried the distinctive 'bug-eyed' appearance. 

Over the decades, the Sprite has become something of an evergreen - pretty well any classic race meeting will have at least a few of them being thrown around the track, their drivers grinning from ear to ear.

See our Austin-Healey features.

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