Healey 100 designer Gerry Coker came up with "a working man's Ferrari," which could be kept in a bike shed, and used standard parts from BMC sedans
Question: What collectible automobile copied the chassis design of the Jaguar D-type, was introduced at the Monte Carlo Grand Prix, took first, second, and third at Sebring during its first year of production, and yet was intended "for a chap to park in his bike shed"?
Answer: The first generation Austin-Healey Sprite, known to generations of enthusiasts for the one design feature the otherwise-complimentary auto press criticized: the protruding headlamps that reminded us Americans of bug eyes and the English of frog eyes.
Celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, the Mk I Sprite, body style AN5 with a 4-cylinder BMC A-series engine, was produced for just over three years from mid-1958 to early 1961. In that time, 49,000 Bugeye Sprites were sold, making the Bugeye one of the most successful introductions ever by British Motor Corporation.
In fact, with very few changes, the basic design-restyled in 1961 to remove the protruding headlamps, replace the distinctive grille, and add a trunk lid-continued in production until 1974. Also starting in 1961, the badge-engineered MG Midget, an almost identical sibling, began production in parallel. By the end of production a combined 226,526 units had been built.
Ideal starter car for hands-on collector
The large number of Sprites and Midgets sold, as well as the car's economical design, built around a simple body and chassis that makes extensive use of parts common to other BMC cars of the period, make the first-generation Bugeye an ideal starter car for the hands-on collector. Examples are cheap to buy, easy to restore, instantly recognizable, and rewarding to drive.
But let's go back to that basic chassis design, which is the one area where the hobbyist new to the Bugeye will have to forget what he or she knows from more traditional classic cars, since it is unique to the Bugeyes and their successor Sprites and MG Midget siblings.
The story of this little car starts in the mid-1950s. Leonard Lord, head of British Motor Corporation and the godfather of the Austin-Healey 100, and Donald Healey, who was involved in many of the BMC policy discussions regarding sports car marketing, shared a view that there was an opening in the market for a simple, economical, two-seat sports roadster that would be easy to maintain and fun to drive.
Not since the pre-war Austin Seven "Nippy" had there been such a car, and with more English drivers taking to the road as prosperity finally returned to England in the mid-1950s, these two marketing geniuses knew that if properly designed and engineered, such a car would be an instant success.
But it was the engineering genius of Donald's son Geoffrey that made the package work. Able to work outside the lockstep design approaches of the British auto establishment, mustachioed, pipe-smoking Geoff Healey started almost from scratch in thinking about the design of this car.
Used the structure of a D-type Jaguar
Conventional approaches would have used either a heavy frame, which would have been bone-slow, or a tube chassis, which would have been disastrously expensive, to design a sporting roadster. Instead, the younger Healey took as the basis for his design the structure of the D-type Jaguar, with its boxed monocoque main chassis and tubular extensions in front to support the engine and link to the front suspension.
Though his chassis design required 55 separate pieces of sheet metal to be formed and welded together, construction was simple and inexpensive, and the result was a strong, lightweight chassis that did away with frame rails. The rear axle was suspended with quarter-elliptic springs positioned by torque boxes, while the front suspension used Austin A35 springs and A-arms, Armstrong lever shocks, and rack-and-pinion steering from the Morris Minor.
With the basics of the chassis and suspension defined, Healey designer Gerry Coker, who had penned the now-classic lines of the Healey 100, was given the mandate of designing a "working man's Ferrari." Taking Donald Healey at his word, Coker drew a simple barchetta shape composed of front and rear body shells, one extending from the B-pillars back and simple to the point where it didn't even have a trunk opening, and one extending from the firewall forward and incorporating the hood, fenders, and grille into a single structure hinged at the firewall.
As Coker designed it, the front clip was, in fact, quite Ferrari-looking, with a grille that tucked backward from top to bottom and headlamps that folded sleekly down into the bonnet when not in use.
It lost the folding headlights and Ferrari grille
Unfortunately, Coker left the project before the car went into final design, so he wasn't able to fight for the purity of his design against the more practical considerations of stamping limitations, component costs, and headlamp stability. Consequently, when the Sprite went into production, the grille was straight up and down and the folding headlamps had been replaced by motorcycle-like headlamps fastened on the bonnet. To this day, Coker understands the production issues that motivated the changes but thinks the placement of the lights was clumsy and out of proportion.
The motoring press agreed with him at the introduction, but fortunately, customers did not, instead seeing a smiling, happy face on the front of the car, totally in keeping with its Spritely name and performance. Today, in spite of the large, awkward, and expensive-to-fix bugeyed bonnet and the luggage space in the boot accessible only by diving headfirst into the cave behind the seats, because of that distinctive design feature, Bugeyes are far more valuable than the later, and considerably more practical, "box" Sprites.
Concours examples top out at $25,000
Perhaps because of the large number of examples in existence and the relatively limited straight-line performance-with the stock 948-cc, 43-hp A-series engine, 20.5 seconds is required to reach 60 mph and speed tops out at a very buzzy 85 mph-a Bugeye Sprite in easily restorable or good original condition can be found for around $5,000. If the body panels are in good, unrusted condition (or replacements can be found on eBay), restoration is straightforward and can be accomplished with basic tools in a home garage (or bike shed, if you've still got one of those).
Though examples restored to exact original standards are starting to sell for a slight premium, most owners will take liberties in creating a car that suits their own tastes, since even a completely restored and concours-ready example isn't going to sell for much more than $25,000. Typical upgrades include front-hinged fiberglass bonnets, 1275 engines adapted from Mini Coopers, and modern 5-speed transmissions. Every British car show is likely to include one or two full-on hot rods with modern engines hiding under moderately modified body work.
Regardless, these little grin-catchers are now starting to come into their own as fun cars to own, show, and drive on backroads tours. It's been 50 years now since their introduction to the press in Monte Carlo, and they can still be counted on to be instantly recognizable and to offer the cheapest fun that can be found in the classic car hobby.