Mr. Harriman, Chairman of the great British Motor Corporation, has said that sports cars are the mainstay of B.M.C.'s exports, so we were interested to try the latest Austin Healey Sprite, which came to us in Mk. II De Luxe hard-top form.
For just over £655, p.t. paid, you get a small and lively 2-seater capable of 85½ m.p.h. which clings well to the road, has adequate brakes, and is generally fun to drive, albeit acceleration is only average (is a car a sports car that needs nearly 22 sec. for a s.s. ¼-mile, or 20 sec. to reach 60 m.p.h. from rest?). With a 948-c.c. engine developing nearly 50 b.h.p. and simple hard-top body, the Sprite is not exactly quiet and refined over its work. With hardtop and other extras the price tops £781.
The revised Sprite has more power, a close-ratio gearbox as standard, and conventional body-styling with headlamps recessed in the front wings and a lift-up boot-lid. Indeed, the appearance is less distinguished than before, one person mistaking the Sprite for a Turner.
The essence of this little Austin Healey is simplicity. The central remote gear-lever is in the best sports-car tradition, but is placed too high and works well but not with the outstanding merit of certain B.M.C. sports-car gear-changes. The pull-up hand-brake, on the near side of the prop.-shaft tunnel, has no fly-off action. Minor controls consist of flick-switches for the non-cancelling direction-flashers, lamps and wipers, and knobs for starter, choke, heater, cigarette igniter, and screen-washers, while instrumentation is confined to a fuel gauge, combined thermometer and oil gauge (reading 160° F. and up to 6o lb./sq. in.) and matching 100-m.p.h. speedometer with total and trip with decimal distance recorders and a simple 6,000-r.p.m. tachometer. The latter is straked between 5,500 and 6,000 r.p.m.
There is a grab-handle for the passenger, an indifferent rearview mirror which should be supplemented by wing-mirrors, and single-spoke steering wheel with horn-push in the hub. Crash padding is dispensed with, instrument lighting can be switched out by an under-facia switch, and the doors have good pockets. Forward visibility is fine but the roof-line is low, which, coupled with Perspex sliding side windows, restricts the view to the sides. The hard-top is crude, the sliding windows becoming stiff to open in frosty weather (and, as no external door handles are fitted, they have to be opened to gain entry to the car) and exhaust resonance on the over-run is magnified by it.
The rack-and-pinion steering functions well, without kickback, is delightfully "quick" and light, geared 2⅓ turns lock-to-lock with scarcely any lost motion, and the car possesses roadholding in keeping with its character although the rigid back axle tends to rock the tail on laterally undulating surfaces. The seats, with folding backs to give access to a high luggage shelf, are only mediocre, but hold the driver securely.
Taking the engine to 6,000 r.p.m. produces speedometer maxima In the gears of 30, 50 and 70 m.p.h., and on the open road the needle will sit at 80 m.p.h. for mile after mile. For the fun it provides the Sprite is notably economical. All types of driving gave an m.p.g. figure of 38.5 and fast A30 cruising dropped this to 37.6 m.p.g., an average of 38 m.p.g. With the raised compression-ratio it is desirable to use 100-octane petrol to kill pinking but, even so, expressed in terms of gallons against average speed this is very real economy motoring. In a total mileage of 660, rather less than ½-a-pint of oil was consumed. Twelve points need greasing and other points oiling every 1,000 miles, which hardly add up to "moderate servicing requirements," as one weekly puts it, in my estimation, especially as all chassis greasing is eliminated on the Lotus 7.
In spite of the scathing remarks of a motor trader in last month's correspondence pages to the effect that if I knew anything about cars I would know that manufacturers invariably provide keys in pairs, one square-headed, one round-headed, I have to report that this Sprite had three round-headed keys, one for ignition, one for the boot lid, one for a petrol filler lock; there is no means of locking the doors. The filler lock is an extra that I have no use for, especially as its lock protector and the lock itself proved prone to freeze-up. Other extras included Radiomobile radio, heater, lighter, wheel discs, laminated screen, hard-top, twin horns and tonneau cover.
I enjoyed driving this little sports coupé but was disappointed that on a rainy day water swilled about the floor, that the heater wouldn't work and that carburation was such that the engine repeatedly stalled after braking to a low speed, matters that reflect a lack of pride in good workmanship and inspection on the part of the Austin Motor Company. Its main purpose in life is fun and fresh air, for a Cooper-Mini saloon is as fast and 2.7 sec. quicker to 60 m.p.h., 1.3 sec. faster over a s.s. ¼-mile than this so-called sports car.
Although the Sprite saw the light of day in 1958 it was announced in MOTOR SPORT of June that year—only one standard version of the old model ever came to me for road-test, of which memories are now hazy. However, a member of the staff uses one as everyday transport and his comparison between the old and new versions is appended.—W. B.
The outcry that greeted the new Sprite was only equalled by the scorn showered on the M.G. Midget, and 200 miles at the wheel of the Mk. II gave me no great desire to own the latest model. The new bodywork, which is patently a copy of the pretty Innocenti Sprite, is not so attractive, and apart from the external boot does little for the car except add an extra I cwt., which is the main reason why competition drivers have stuck to the old "frog's eyes" model.
The driving compartment is virtually the same as before but the seats have a thicker cushion, reducing the gap between the lower edge of the steering wheel and the top of the cushion, so that trousers tend to be rubbed by the steering wheel. The instruments and controls are much the same except that the two-position circular combined lights and ignition switch has been replaced by a toggle switch which is much more difficult to find in the dark. As the windscreen wiper knob has also been replaced by a toggle switch these two can easily be confused.
The odometer registered over 12,000 miles, at the start of our test but the engine and gearbox were extremely tight, indicating that these components had been replaced fairly recently. The "A" series gearbox loosens up within 5,000 miles and becomes quite pleasant to use if double clutching is used but the gearbox of the test car was very stiff, especially across the gate from 2nd to 3rd. On the credit side the ratios are a great improvement and when the lever is placed in 3rd gear the car continues to accelerate, unlike the Mk. I which stands still for seemingly minutes. Perhaps B.M.C. could follow aircraft practice and send out a modification kit of a new gearbox to all Mk. I owners!
Handling is virtually the same as the previous model, slightly more roll being present, although easily curable with an anti-roll bar. The back axle, well located, does not hop on bumps and gives an excellent ride as well as good understeering handling qualities. The Sprite certainly handles as well as any rigid axle car can be expected to and combined with light rack-and-pinion steering is pleasant enough to drive, although the performance and handling of the family car has been brought to such a pitch that well-driven ones are now something of an embarrassment to Sprite drivers. The Mk. II is slower up to 50 m.p.h. than the Mk. I and a good deal slower than the Cooper-Mini, which is also its equal on corners. If this trend continues, the small-capacity sports car will soon become a useless anachronism if its specification is not improved in line with family car design.
Meanwhile the Sprite remains an interesting if rather fatiguing car to drive, the restricted driving position and high noise level, combining with a recalcitrant heater and draughty hard-top (which also leaked), to give the occupants a headache at the end of a long journey, which the antics of the Archers on the not entirely static-free radio did little to alleviate.—M. L. T.