Sports cars under £700: the £587 Austin Healey Sprite MK II

To complete the series of tests on under-£700 sports cars we tried the Mk. II Austin Healey Sprite in 1,098-c.c. form, which is identical in nearly every respect with the M.G. Midget dealt with last month. The only differences concern slightly opulent interior trim, a different radiator grille and the deletion of a rubbing strip used on the bodyside of the Midget, all of which reduces the cost by £12, the Sprite costing £587 and Midget £599.

The Editor handed the car over to me for a major portion of the test, partly because he had done most of the driving of the Midget and partly because I drive a Mk. I Sprite and would be better able to compare the two. Most owners of the Mk. I model feel that the Mk. II has “gone soft” and this is true to a great extent, for on the 1,098-c.c. version a great deal of unnecessary trim has been added, such as carpeting round the gearbox tunnel, padding the door interiors and pockets, and crash padding on the facia, while the seats are plusher looking without being any more comfortable. A great boon is the extension of the rear bodywork and the fitting of a boot lid, but the extra stiffening required, together with the more luxurious trimming and larger bonnet, has put the weight up by a fair amount.

The 948-c.c. Mk. II was only fractionally faster than the Mk. I and made none of the competition impact of the “frog’s eyes” model but the 1,098-c.c. model has 56 b.h.p. at 5,750 r.p.m. against the 46.5 b.h.p. at 5,500 r.p.m. of the 948-cc. version and is now able to out-perform the old Mk. I quite easily but still seems to have little of the competition potential of the Mk. I, as witness the fact that the Sebring Sprite is still being made by John Sprinzel, using the Mk. I as its basis.

However, for the average sports-car buyer who intends to use the car only on the road the Mk. II is probably a better proposition. The interior is more attractive and less spartan, the boot is lockable and can be filled easily without the palaver that is necessary with the Mk. I. The close-ratio baulk-ring gearbox is an improvement over the old box, as are the disc brakes, which appear to need no greater pedal pressure than the drums. The handling is very similar, with perhaps a little more roll being apparent, but it can still be thrown about in a very enterprising manner and on a wet journey to Snetterton we were able to enjoy tail-sliding through roundabouts, sure in the knowledge that the high-geared light steering would kill the slide just when we wanted. At Snetterton we saw how good the Sprite is in the wet when Foster in Dick Jacobs’ M.G. Midget came third overall in the sports-car race, which was run in heavy rain, beating many sports/racing cars such as Brabhams and Lotus 23s and Elva Mk. VIIs. Engine and wind noise is pretty high, a good deal of buffeting being noticeable above 70 m.p.h., while the sidescreens do not keep out draughts and rainwater as well as those on the Mk. I, and a leak through the bonnet well, running through the radio and then on to passengers’ legs, leaving stained trousers and skirts, did not endear the car to some of our passengers. B.M.C. seem to have introduced the gear-lever rattle of the Mini-Cooper into the Sprite and Midget with this engine as it has not previously been noticeable. The rear suspension squeak which has always been a problem with the Sprite is still present.

Last year I compared the Sprite unfavourably with the Mini-Cooper, and with the introduction of the latest S-type Mini-Cooper with 70 b.h.p. the Sprite and Midget will definitely have to take a back seat as far as acceleration is concerned. But in the intervening 12 months I have mellowed slightly as well as having had a good deal more experience with the Cooper, and whilst giving it full marks for speed and handling I can well see why many people still stick to the arms-stretch driving position open-air motoring and the safe and uncomplicated handling of the Sprite, although at the same time deploring B.M.C.’s policy of building small capacity saloons which are quicker than sports cars from their own stable.

The Mk. II Sprite is the cheapest of the four under-£700 sports we have tested and at £587 is the cheapest method (aside from the kit cars) of attaining open-air motoring and well worth the cost.—M. L. T.

(The performance and fuel consumption of the Sprite are similar to the M.G. Midget tested last month.)