Austin-Healey Sprite

An original road test taken from the Motor Sport archives, September 1958 | by Bill Boddy

After neglecting the small sports car market for many years the Austin Motor Company introduced the Austin-Healey Sprite two-seater last June. We have already described this interesting newcomer, but the proof is in the driving and 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 and handles well.

So far as the Sprite’s appearance goes, the high-set headlamps and upward curve of the radiator grille might not appeal to everyone. Driver and passenger look out over a falling bonnet from which the headlamps protrude like sore thumbs. However, if the new Austin-Healey is known affectionately as the ‘Frog’ this is offset by its many excellent qualities. 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 journeyed to Gloucestershire and back. In the course of these runs we formed a high opinion of the Sprite as a fun car.

If it is not particularly fast, it makes up for this with brisk acceleration, and quite outstandingly good road-holding and cornering. The driving position is good, the bucket seats being reasonably comfortable. The small two-spoke steering wheel is well placed but as the engine box protrudes into the driving compartment the driver’s legs are biased to the right. The central remote gear lever is conveniently located but could be shorter. The pull-up handbrake is convenient, although prudish girlfriends may disapprove of its location on the left of the transmission tunnel! In view of its modest price of under £669 the equipment is well planned, although it should be noted that heater, tachometer, front bumper and other items are extras.

The usual minor controls are found on the facia, together with a combined oil-pressure gauge and water thermometer and an optimistic petrol gauge. An old-fashioned turn-switch looks after the lamps, with the removable ignition key within. 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 use at night. It is difficult to know how such an experienced driver as Donald Healey can pass this out.

To gain access to the engine the whole bonnet, inclusive of headlamps, hinges up though shutting it provokes the response “ * * * * * * * ”, as one’s hand is trapped between bonnet and front number plate.

These are trifling criticisms balanced against the fun of getting into the Sprite and motoring it about. The two-carburettor BMC engine goes rapidly to 6000rpm if the tachometer doesn’t lie, and it is quite customary to see 5000rpm or 77mph in top gear. Given a decent run 80mph is just attainable in top gear. In its manner of motoring the little Austin-Healey Sprite goes very briskly, safely, pleasantly and withal exceedingly cheerfully.

The steering is unexpectedly high-geared. Even those accustomed to vintage cars will drive the Sprite with a bit of a twitch at first, but 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. The ride is very comfortable 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 none of the vicious oversteer that characterised early small sports cars. The axle judders only slightly when storming rough hills, such as Beggar’s Roost. Incidentally, the Sprite climbed this notorious trials hill strongly, unperturbed by deep gulleys.

This excellent road-holding and cornering 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 top gear rather stifles the 45bhp engine. The gear change is as rapid as the lever can be moved, but on the car we drove was rather stiff and 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 towards 6000rpm as the Sprite surges forward, accompanied by a fine hard exhaust note and a not unpleasing tinkle on the over-run. The surge forward is to the tune of 0-50mph in 14sec, 0-60mph in 21.1sec. The Sprite cruises effortlessly at 60mph (under 4000rpm) and is no less happy at 70mph, when the engine is running well within itself, at fractionally over 4500rpm.

All these facts add up to very respectable average speeds from this 948cc two-seater with a commendable absence of fatigue. 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 7in Lockheed brakes are adequate in normal circumstances but firm pressure is required to obtain much retardation. The clutch pedal is somewhat awkwardly placed, but the action is light and smooth. The hood fits snugly, the detachable frame being very close to the occupants’ heads.

The Sprite is as economical as it is sprightly. Driving hard we accomplished 37mpg. The fuel tank is alleged to hold six gallons but a check of the range gave a mere 180 miles.

Altogether we were agreeably surprised at the Sprite’s very real merit. It will prove extremely popular, we predict, amongst those greying old men (like the editor) who no longer drive fantastically fast but fancy a sports car that handles well, those who want a lightweight vehicle they can tune, and, of course, those who merely want an inexpensive boy’s racer. Its appearance is unfortunate, but at the price this latest product of Donald Healey and Austin is a vehicle of many merits and no vices.

Austin-Healey Sprite factfile

Production: 1958-71
Power: 43bhp
0-60mph: 21.1sec
Max speed: 82mph
Ingenious design with simple parts from BMC range. Crude weather kit, lidless boot and 43bhp engine a small price to pay for cheeky looks and tweakable chassis. Clever 1961 redesign for Mk2, Mk3 followed in ’64 and 1275 motor arrived in Mk4 two years on. Sprite name died in ’71, but similar MG Midget continued. Perfect spec: the most mods you can fit under a Mk1 body – but don’t tell…

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