Fun with a Sprite

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76

The new Junior Austin-Healey proves an excellent small sports car. A maximum speed of 80 m.p.h. allied to notable economy of petrol and good all-round handling qualities.

AFTER neglecting the small sports car market for many years the Austin Motor Company introduced the Austin-Healey Sprite two-seater with 948-c.c. B-series B.M.C. engine last June. We have already described this interesting newcomer (MOTOR SPORT, June, page 386) and expressed an opinion on it, but the proof is in the driving and consequently we welcomed a recent opportunity to drive a Sprite over an appreciable distance.

We can state right away that the Sprite belies its rather amusing appearance—it is pleasing to drive, handles well and, without possessing either particularly exciting speed or acceleration in its standard form, it can establish excellent average speeds over give-and-take roads.

So far as the Sprite’s appearance goes, the high-set headlamps and upward curve of the radiator grille may not appeal to everyone. Moreover, although it is generally true that once inside a car the occupants are not aware of what the vehicle looks like, this isn’t quite true in the case of the baby Austin-Healey, because always driver and passenger look out over a brief, falling bonnet from which the headlamps protrude like sore thumbs. However, appearance is not everything, and if the new Austin-Healey is referred to affectionately as the “Frog” or “Pram” as often as the “Sprite” this is more than offset by its many excellent qualities.

We recalled, when looking forward to our spell with the Sprite, that small British sports cars were once traditional and that motoring writers before us had enthused over long runs in vehicles such as the blown Ulster Austin and “Double Twelve” M.G. Midget.

In order to put the small Austin-Healey to at least as thorough a test we took it down to the West Country and back in a day, setting it to climb Porlock, Lynton and Beggars’ Roost, and the next day made a rather less ambitious journey to Gloucestershire and back between a late breakfast and tea, our starting point in both cases being within an hour’s motoring of London’s southern extremities.

In the course of these runs we formed a high opinion of the Austin-Healey Sprite as a “fun” car. If it is not particularly fast as sports cars go, it makes up for this with brisk acceleration, and quite outstandingly good road-holding and cornering.

The driving position is good, the bucket seats providing good support and being very reasonably comfortable even when occupied for hours at a stretch. Visibility is good, although if the sidescreens are erect they impede the sideways view of a driver of average height and the central mirror blanks off his view of the near-side wing. Otherwise, the bonnet is so short as to offer an excellent view of the road, although in fog peering down into the beams of those prominent headlamps might not be so advantageous. The small two-spoke steering wheel is well placed but as the engine box protrudes into the driving compartment the driver’s legs are of necessity biased to the right, while the pedals and dimmer button are all close-spaced. The central remote gear lever is conveniently located but could with advantage be shorter, or set lower in the car. The pull-up handbrake is convenient to use, although prudish girl-friends may disapprove of its location on the left of the transmission tunnel.

In view of its modest price of under £669 the equipment, with a few exceptions, is well planned and beyond criticism, although it should be noted that heater, tachometer, front bumper and other rather essential items are extras, these alone inflating the price, inclusive of p.t., to over £700.

Neither tachometer nor speedometer, both small-dial Smiths, are very convincing, the former being calibrated in figures every 1,000 r.p.m., the speedometer merely every 20 m.p.h., the latter having, however, trip, with decimal, and total mileage recorders. The tachometer is shaded between 5,500 and 6,000 r.p.m.

The usual minor controls are found on the facia, together with a combined oil-pressure gauge and water thermometer (normally reading, respectively, 40 lb/sq. in. and 175 deg. F., although a long hill-climb, such as Porlock, or crawling in traffic elevates the temperature to 190 deg. F.) and a rather unfortunately optimistic petrol gauge. An old-fashioned turn-switch looks after the lamps, with the removable ignition key within it, the starter knob pulls out and the spring-loaded mixture control requires holding out. While the headlamps full-beam indicator is barely bright enough the direction-flashers indicator is sheer gross stupidity, because it flashes a blinding yellow light directly in the driver’s eyes, virtually prohibiting its use at night. It is difficult to understand how such an experienced driver as Donald Healey, or indeed any test driver, can pass this out. The central flick-switch for the flashers is very conveniently placed but has to be cancelled manually.

There is a grab-handle on the facia for the passenger and although no cubby hole is provided both trailing doors possess excellent, deep full-width pockets. Behind the folding squabs of the separate seats is stowage virtually unlimited; indeed, the boot is really too deep, in view of the fact that there is no lid to it and all objects, spare wheel included, have to be drawn forward and out over the seats. The screen is fixed and we disliked the sharp-edged flanges that take the side screens; anyone unlucky enough to let his Sprite tumble over might be badly hurt by these if the screen collapsed.

To gain access to the engine compartment the whole bonnet, inclusive of headlamps, hinges up and is automatically propped open, alter a toggle lever has been turned and a safety catch released. The bonnet is very heavy, making this no light task. It could be fatal were the stay to collapse with the owner “under the lid,” while shutting the bonnet provokes the response “* * * * * * * !,” as one’s hand is trapped between bonnet and front number plate. After this one tended to drop the lid, but a sidelamp, secured only by its rubber flange, fell into the road. Engine accessibility is somewhat restricted but all essentials are at least in full view. These are trifling criticisms balanced against the fun of getting into the Sprite and motoring it about.

The two-carburetter B.M.C. engine goes rapidly to 6.000 r.p.m. in the two lower ratios and to 5,500 r.p.m. in third gear, if the tachometer doesn’t lie, and it is quite customary to see 5,000 r.p.m. or 77 m.p.h., in top gear. The maxima in the indirect gears, per speedometer, are, respectively, 25, 40 and 62 m.p.h., the speedometer not being more than averagely fast. Given a decent run 80 m.p.h. is just attainable in top gear.

These are mere figures, and from them it can be inferred, correctly, that first and second gears are rather too low. But in its manner of motoring the little Austin-Healey Sprite again overcomes such shortcomings. It motors, indeed, very briskly, very safely, pleasantly and withal exceedingly cheerfully.

The steering is unexpectedly high-geared. The wheel requires only 2 1/4 turns, lock-to-lock, and the sock is distinctly good (turning circle 31 ft. 9 in.). Even those accustomed to vintage cars will drive the Sprite with a bit of a twitch at first and those who have acquired the art of motoring within recent years will probably wish for a rather lower-geared action. But this is splendid steering for “dodging” and it has the very real merit of being light, practically devoid of kick-back and with only slight vibration coming back via the steering wheel. There is very mild castor return action.

Once the technique of steering the Sprite virtually by wrist movement alone has been mastered the little car becomes safe and very fast through corners. In this the driver is aided by the truly commendable design of the suspension (coil spring and wishbone i.f.s., 1/2-elliptic back springs with anti-roll bar). The ride is very comfortable and outstandingly level for such a short, slight vehicle, but when cornering there is just sufficient lean to warn the ambitious driver that rear-end breakaway will soon occur. There is otherwise nothing supple about the springing, or, indeed, about the car as a whole. There is no scuttle shake, no flexibility about the chassis, and consequently the driver feels at one with the Sprite when driving fast. There is none of the vicious oversteer which characterised early small sports cars and the clever 1/2-elliptic back suspension appears to have no vices, except when a sudden bump of camber change may affect slightly the cornering line. The axle judders only slightly when storming rough hills, such as Beggar’s Roost. Incidentally, the Sprite climbed this notorious trials hill strongly from a standing start, two up, and was unperturbed by the shale and deep galleys; admittedly the gradient was dry at the time of our visit.

This excellent mad-holding and cornering and the light, extremely quick steering make the Austin-Healey Sprite what it purports to be—a genuine little sports car. Third gear will be used frequently before corners and in traffic, as the 4.22 to 1 top gear rather stifles the 45-b.h.p. engine, although no doubt contributing to durability. It is rather a pity the gap between third and second gears is so wide, otherwise both these ratios would be in frequent use. Reverse is over beyond top-gear position, with safety spring, excellent on the road if less convenient for rally tests. The lever is not otherwise spring loaded. The gear change is as rapid as the lever can be moved, and beats the synchromesh during snap changes. The little remote gear lever is pleasant to operate but on the car we drove the action was rather stiff which, coupled with the high-set lever, made frequent use of the gearbox somewhat less of a joy than it could be. Even this labour is forgotten in the exhilaration of seeing the tachometer needle swing round towards 6,000 r.p.m. as the Sprite surges forward, accompanied by a fine hard exhaust note and a not unpleasing tinkle on the over-run, which seemed to be a combination of mechanical vibration around 3,500 r.p.m. and a loose exhaust pipe. The surge forward is to the tune of 0-50 m.p.h. in 14 seconds, 0-60 m.p.h. in 21.1 seconds, the s.s. 1/4-mile being devoured in 22 seconds. The Sprite cruises effortlessly at 60 m.p.h. (under 4,000 r.p.m.) and is no less happy at 70 m.p.h., when the engine is running well within itself, at fractionally over 4,500 r.p.m.

All these facts add up to very respectable average speeds from this 948-c.c. two-seater with a commendable absence of fatigue. The support afforded by the bucket seats, the absence of squeal from the Dunlop Gold Seal tyres in normal fast motoring and the level ride contributing greatly to the low fatigue factor. In towns the exhaust note is completely unobtrusive unless high revs are used. The mirror provides an adequate rear view and can be swivelled down to obviate dazzle and a little push-button on the facia edge brings in panel lighting. The inbuilt lamps do not provide sufficient light when dimmed (a spotlamp within the grille is a possible solution) and on the test car the not very penetrating full beam was handicapped by pointing skywards.

The 7-in. Lockheed brakes are adequate in normal circumstances and free from vice but the pedal has practically no range of travel, the action feeling spongy, and firm pressure is required to obtain much retardation. In making crash stops from 60 m.p.h. we were disappointed to discover that it is not possible to lock the wheels on a dry road, albeit this could be an asset when braking on slippery surfaces. The hand brake lever has rather a long travel but held the car securely. The clutch pedal is somewhat awkwardly placed, but the action is light and smooth. The steering has stops to prevent the tyres fouling the chassis and no lost motion was evident in the steering gear after 2,600 miles. The horn could be more powerful with advantage.

There is a hood which fits snugly, the detachable frame being very close to the occupants’ heads. The side screens are rigid and can be left, in place with advantage to obviate side draughts. With the hood and side screens erect in summer the interior gets very stuffy, especially as the gear lever extension become quite warm. The doors shut well; they have slightly inconvenient inside lever-type handles.

The Sprite is as economical as it is sprightly. Driving hard we accomplished a petrol consumption of 37 m.p.g. and rather more sedately, but with one fast spell, this decreased to 39.3 m.p.g. of Cleveland Discol. In a mileage of 700 about a pint of oil but no water was required, and the engine neither pinked nor ran-on. The fuel tank is alleged to hold six gallons but a check of the range gave a more 180 miles from a brimful tank; it really is time the B.M.C. fitted larger reservoirs! The filler cap on the tail is not secured to the filler neck but it, and the rear lamps incidentally, are visible from the driving seat.

Altogether we were agreeably surprised at the very real merit displayed by this low-priced sports car. The Austin-Healey Sprite will prove extremely popular, we predict, amongst those greying old men (like the Editor?) who no longer drive fantastically fast but who fancy a sports car that handles well and is thus a good safe introduction to faster stuff and those who want a lightweight vehicle with a B.M.C. engine they can tune to great speeds. And, of course, amongst those who merely want an inexpensive boy’s racer.

The appearance of the Sprite is unfortunate, there are a few details that could be improved but at the price this latest product of Donald Healey and the Austin Motor Company is a vehicle of many merits and no vices.—W. B.

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