Having forged strong links with BMC in the process of developing the successful Austin-Healey 100, Donald Healey turned his attention to designing a smaller version intended to make sports-car motoring affordable to a wider sector of the market.
Although its powertrain and running gear were entirely conventional and were thoroughly tried and tested, Healey’s new baby was notable for its state-of-the-art unitary construction body/chassis. Christened “Sprite,” the new sports car entered production in March 1958 and featured a distinctive, forward-hinging bonnet and wings topped by two fixed “bug eye” headlamps, thus ensuring instant recognition and the now-familiar nickname.
This example is prepared for historic racing. It was campaigned actively by its last owner extensively in the Pacific Northwest. Included in the sale is the car’s logbook, which lists all its former track outings.
|1959 Austin-Healey “Bugeye” Sprite Mk I Racer
|48,987 (about half to the U.S.)
|Chassis Number Location:
|Left inner wheel valance
|Engine Number Location:
|Front left side of block
|Austin Healey Club
|1958–69 Elva Courier, 1962–69 Triumph Spitfire, 1959–68 Austin/Morris Mini
This car, Lot 75, sold for $17,920, including buyer’s premium, at Bonhams’ Scottsdale, AZ, auction, on January 27, 2022.
Many years ago, before I was quite so committed to racing old cars, I was a sailboat racer. Specifically, I ran the crew on a series of what we called “1-Ton” racers. They were the big dogs of their time, about 40 feet long, crew of 10, surfing hull and clouds of sail, with no interior to speak of. Purely weapons to finish first, or close to it. In the fleet, they were the ones everyone watched, and being on the crew allowed a certain swagger at the club afterwards. But it came with responsibilities. The racing was serious — no quarter asked or given — but in the back of your mind, you were always aware that the power could hurt you badly if you made a mistake. The thrill was balanced by a bit of fear.
At the same time, I kept a couple of “Force 5” dinghies on the beach where I lived. They were 12 feet long, one-person racers with a daggerboard and single sail; fast for what they were, but ultimately simple and friendly. They were the opposite of the big boats: If you messed up in too much wind and dumped it, you got wet, laughed, stood the boat back up, and went and did it again. All these years later, which do I remember as being the most fun? Probably the dinghy. Power, prestige and great expense have their attractions, but giggles endure in your memory.
Which brings us to Bugeye Sprites. There was never anything fancy or snazzy about Sprites; they were conceived, built and sold as entry-level sports cars. They were also ubiquitous. If you polled every sports-car fan who came of driving age before 1965, probably 75% of us have had some experience with Sprites. I don’t want to guess at how many racing careers started in one.
Cheap, simple, slow
Let’s talk about some basics. The Sprite was among the first production unibody sports cars, in that it used the body from the firewall back as the structural basis of the whole car. Unless you want to count the two arms that come forward to support the engine and front suspension, there was no frame. If you ever wondered why a Sprite doesn’t have a trunk lid, that’s why: It needs the stiff rear body section to work. Everything about the car is as simple, light and inexpensive as possible to build. The engine, rear axle, suspension, brakes and steering were all taken from existing BMC models.
The fact that it was light, simple and cheap made the Sprite desirable as a racing car pretty much from the beginning. In the early 1960s, entire grids of Sprites were not unusual. Preparing one for racing was mostly a matter of putting in a roll bar and suitable seat belts; there wasn’t even much of an interior to remove for lightness. The original 998-cc engine made 43 horsepower stock, but you could improve that a bit. Racing weight was 1,300 pounds, and the tires were 5.60-by-13-inch bias-ply, so neither the speeds nor the cornering forces were all that great. Everybody else had exactly the same thing, though, so the racing was intense. It really was all about the driver.
Six decades of improvements
Fast-forward 60 years or so and racing Sprites are still with us. The basic chassis and suspension remain the same, though shorter and stiffer springs make the car look more aggressive. Disc brakes are now on the front, wheels are wider and tires are far stickier. Shock absorbers are generations better and the differential is normally a limited-slip to get the horsepower to the ground.
Oh, yes! Horsepower. Funny that should be mentioned! There are a few people who still run 998-cc Sprites, but the A-Series engine enlarges easily to 1,275 cc, and modern engineering produces about 110 hp if you want it. Our 1,300-pound Sprite is suddenly far from slow.
Another advantage is that because BMC used a differential out of the standard parts bin, all kinds of final ratios are available and changing them is not a big deal. So, for example, if you are running your Sprite on a short track, there is a little-known but available ring-and-pinion set that was produced for English Morris Minor mail trucks. It will give you 7,000 rpm in top gear going under the bridge at Laguna, which is about perfect. Another one works the same at fast tracks like Elkhart Lake.
Another tweak that has become largely standard in racing Sprites is installing Hewland dog gears, available in a wide variety of ratios, into standard synchromesh 4-speed transmission cases. This allows a very close-ratio gearbox and incredibly fast shifting; no clutch, just flinch the throttle and move the lever.
All of which gets us to the essential point: Although it looks similar, this is no longer your dad’s Sprite. It is much faster and, with a modern fuel cell and safety equipment, much safer. It is still, however, the same giggling blast to drive. Particularly if you are used to handling faster, heavier cars, there is something exhilarating, an exuberant freedom about flinging a Sprite around. Though it feels fast, you really aren’t carrying that much momentum. I recall messing up the exit to turn 2 at Pacific Raceways on a damp afternoon. I don’t recall how many times I went around, but when I left the track and hit gravel, I just stopped. No damage, no worries. Grin and try to get it right next time.
A fun toy, fairly sold
That said, the professional car person in me must check my enthusiasm and admit that these cars no longer and never will again carry much market value. Forget the purchase price; no racing car is ever cheap to run. Tires, engine rebuilds, race gas and entry fees cost money whether you run a Sprite or something newer, and most people these days have a difficult time spending that much money to race a car that is not even close to as quick as their kid’s BMW 3 Series. Joy that they are, cars like this are not the future of the sport. They can be a great place to start, and, candidly, not a bad place to go back to when your extra years have limited the advisability of seriously fast rides. They still have a place and I hope always will.
A good friend of mine is a serious collector and vintage racer. He has owned and raced many of the greatest and most lusted-after competition cars of the past hundred years. From local races to Monaco, he has done it all. He also owns a Sprite (which is where he started about 50 years ago). Of all the times I have watched him come off the track, in all the various cars, the biggest smile on his face is inevitably when he drives his Sprite. If it is just about fun, it’s tough to do better.
These are not valuable cars, and racers tend to sell at a bit of a discount when they come to auction. Today’s subject Sprite is no exception, a better deal for the buyer than the seller, but still fairly sold. ♦
(Introductory description courtesy of Bonhams)