Following our dictum of practising what we preach, it was decided to purchase an Austin-Healey Sprite when it became necessary to replace one of our staff cars in March of this year.
The writer had formed a very high opinion of this little “fast tourer” during spells at the wheel of three different examples of the Sprite and it seemed to fill the bill in almost all respects for the job it had to perform. The car chosen would have to spend a good proportion of its life trickling through city traffic almost every day of its life, but it would also have to undertake long, fast trips to race meetings at weekends. Since the car would cover at least 50 miles every weekday driving to and from the office, it was desirable that the vehicle should be economical as well as lively. With these objects in mind the Sprite was just about the only answer.
Consequently, an order was placed for a British racing green example, although the pale blue and yellow models were considered to be more attractive. Unfortunately they are also liable to show the dirt more than the darker colour, and Sunday morning polishing is one thing that motoring journalists do not have time for. The “optional extra” bumpers were ordered as was a windscreen washer and heater. All of these items are of course essential for the high mileage motorist, especially as parking in London is increasingly done by bumper contact. Even so the rear “bumper” consists of two overriders which are very efficient if level contact is made, but we have seen several Sprites with badly mangled rear-ends where other cars have obviously been driven into them diagonally.
Eventually the car arrived and to our surprise it was painted a rather attractive mid green, the name of which we have not yet discovered. The normal driver of our Sprite is just six-feet tall, but no difficulty was found in fitting his fairly bulky frame into the compartment and in fact the cockpit is larger than many more expensive sports cars. After the initial surprise of finding a dip-switch on the floor, giving the foot somewhere to rest (something the Farina A40 lacks) the Sprite is found to be an easy car to drive. The first few gear changes will be made with the dip-switch and the car will twitch about on corners until the wheel is allowed to play through the hands, but one is soon at home in the driving seat of a Sprite.
The first 500 miles passed off without incident except that it was found the front bumper was lower than that of the Ford Prefect which reversed into it at Goodwood, smashing the offside winking indicator. Before many more miles a rear winker was smashed in a similar way and we began to think that a wholesale supply of bulbs and glasses would be necessary, but the incident has not been repeated to date.
After the 500-mile check the carburetters began to fluff out on the over-run and it was necessary to weaken them a little to eliminate the misfiring, but the trouble has not yet been completely cured owing, no doubt, to some trivial fault. The engine was changed to B.P. Visco-Static oil as we had not previously experimented with this type of lubricant and after 6,000 miles we have no complaints.
The engine was being run-in carefully, although a little impatiently, but the rev.-counter was not allowed to rise above the 3,000 mark for over 1,500 miles, but this was gradually increased until full power was used at around the 2,000-mile mark.
Unfortunately, just when the speed was being increased to around 60 m.p.h. (around 3,800 r.p.m.) an unpleasant loss of hydraulic brake fluid occurred one evening when approaching a set of traffic lights on the Great West Road. Fortunately, the mechanical handbrake is more than a parking brake and the car was brought to rest quite safely on this after the pedal had been pushed to the floor several times. Subsequent investigation showed that the central nut in the union forward of the master cylinder had unscrewed itself (or never been screwed up tight) and allowed the fluid to pour out all over the engine compartment. The local B.M.C. agent being “booked up until after Easter old chap,” a small garage tightened the nut and the system in an hour or so. The ground clearance of the Sprite is such that this job or any other for that matter is not easily done at home unless a pit is available. B.M.C. have since listed this particular nut for a double check and have assured us that it will not happen on any future production models. In our case the car was overdue for its 2,000-mile check, so the fault may have been discovered if it had gone in at the right time. This business of servicing every 1,000 miles is also irksome as our car covers 400-500 miles in a week, and the car has to be out of our hands for at least a day. How the commercial traveller fares with his 1,000 or more miles a week is beyond us. In fact we have heard of some representatives who must have two cars because of this problem and the fear of a breakdown affecting their sales.
The car was now occasionally being let out to its maximum speed of 85 m.p.h. (speedo reading) and the road-holding was found to be practically the equal of anything else on the road, in fact some embarrassment has been encountered when following much more powerful sports cars into corners because the Sprite usually catches up half-way round the bend and consequently the throttle foot has to be lifted. In circuit races the Sprite has humbled many illustrious marques when there is any cornering to be done. One annoying fact of the Sprite’s 80 m.p.h. maximum is that well-driven Ford Zephyrs and so on can pass fairly easily, but have to back off early for corners, allowing the Sprite to close up again. This is amusing for a while, but on a winding road the baulking can become annoying, and for anyone who does not like being passed one of the proprietary tuning kits would seem to be essential.
The Dunlop Gold Seal tubeless tyres have proved adequate in normal motoring, but when pressed to the limit they squeal a great deal and our experience in the wet when the car slid broadside out of three consecutive roundabouts led us to search for a tyre suitable for faster cornering. We did not have to look very long, because shortly afterwards a brochure describing the new Dunlop Duraband tyre was deposited on the Editorial desk. The “Duraband RB1” as it is called is similar to the Michelin “X” tyre in that it has a flexible casing and a stiff reinforcing layer between the tread and the casing. The basic idea behind the tyre is that the sidewalls flex under cornering stresses leaving the braced tread in flat contact with the road, but Dunlops admit that this kind of construction has its disadvantages. These are listed in the brochure as giving a harder ride and heavy steering at low speeds and that the dreaded sideslip occurs very suddenly albeit at much higher speeds than with normal tyres. It is also necessary to avoid hitting the kerb too much as the sidewalls are more vulnerable to damage. Since the advantages were listed as reduced tread wear, lack of squeal and far better roadholding of the “cornering on rails” type we decided to obtain a set which were fitted at the London depot. At the same time the wheels were balanced. The tyres were inflated to the recommended pressures of 18 lb. for the front and 20 lb. for the rear tyres, but it became apparent on the first bend taken at any speed that something was amiss — the car weaved all over the road in an alarming manner while steering on the straight was very sensitive.
A further glance at the booklet showed that for fast touring the tyre pressures should be increased by 6 lb. per sq. in. and if maximum speed was to be used for long periods they should go up by 12 lb. per sq. in. So 6 lb. were put into the tyres bringing them to 24 lb. per sq. in. for the front and 26 lb. per sq. in. for the rear. An immediate improvement was noticed in the road-holding, cornering being exactly as claimed by Dunlop. The “running on rails” effect is quite remarkable. There is virtually no squeal from the tyres unless the wheel is turned very quickly at low speeds and there is a noticeable improvement in wet weather road-holding. Returning from a recent Prescott meeting to Chertsey in Surrey, the 99 miles were covered in exactly two hours in pouring rain. The first hour saw 54 miles on the clock, but heavier traffic nearing London slowed the average. One other “modification” has been carried out mainly because of laziness. All chrome parts were polished and then painted with colourless Solvol Chromekote which protects chromium plating from the ravages of the weather. This is applied with a brush and dries very quickly, consequently it is difficult to obtain a smooth finish. Nevertheless, all that is necessary to bring the chrome back to its pristine glory is a quick wash.
The Sprite has given very little trouble over its 6,000 miles, the only other faults, apart from those mentioned, occurred when the bolts holding the external oil filter to the crankcase worked loose, allowing the major part of the sump contents to be ejected onto the road. Fortunately, the car has a pressure gauge and when it dropped from its normal 40/60 lb. per sq. in. a quick stop was made to investigate and cure the leak. A bout of non-starting and dirty points was traced to a faulty condenser, but before this was replaced the difficulties of working on a Sprite were encountered. In order to remove the distributor cap it is necessary first to disconnect the rev.-counter drive. The clips holding the cap on are very awkwardly placed and take some time to remove. Because of the rear hinging of the bonnet one must remain in a stooping position to work on the engine and this becomes painful after a short while. The battery is also rather difficult to reach, being placed in the angle made by the bonnet and the bulkhead. These are, of course, relatively minor inconveniences unless one works on the engine very frequently.
In view of the fact that we intend to modify the Sprite shortly we took some snap performance figures on the speedometer for comparison purposes. These worked out at 0-30 m.p.h. 5.9 sec., 0-40 m.p.h. 10 sec., 0-50 m.p.h. 12.9 sec., and 0-60 m.p.h. 17.7 sec. The true acceleration data of the Sprite is given in our road test report in the September 1958 issue.
All in all the Sprite can be summed up as a comfortable, easy car to drive with very few faults and a great deal to commend it both to the novice buying his first sports car and the expert who does not require blinding speed. — M.L.T.