|Vehicle:||1961 Austin-Healey Sebring Sprite|
|Number Produced:||49,000 total Bugeye; approx. 35 Sebring Sprite|
|Original List Price:||$1,600 (Bugeye); Sebring Sprite varies|
|Chassis Number Location:||Frame rail under carburetors|
|Engine Number Location:||Riveted to block above generator|
|Club Info:||The Midget and Sprite Club (UK)|
This car sold for $44,000, including buyer’s premium, at RM’s Automobiles of Amelia Island Auction in Florida on March 13, 2010. All net proceeds benefited the Amelia Island Concours d’Elegance Foundation, Inc.
This column will endeavor to address those burning questions that lurk somewhere in the back of every vintage racer’s mind: “Just what is a Sebring Sprite, anyway? How are they different from a garden-variety Bugeye? And why are they worth so much more money?” If these hadn’t been haunting you, hopefully this mishmash will now keep you awake at night.
Let’s start with some Bugeye basics
In the late 1950s, BMC and Donald Healey decided there would be a good market for a true entry-level sports car, something that was tiny, cheap, and fun, to sell to the rapidly expanding post-war British market. They came up with the Sprite, which was introduced in the spring of 1958. It was a very innovative design, using stressed body panels as part of the structure, similar to the D-type Jaguar, and it was the first volume-production car to try it. The peculiar front design was the result of an intent to incorporate pop-up headlights in the bonnet. With an eye to keeping costs down, the idea was dropped but the lights stayed where they were, thus the “Bugeye” (“Frogeye,” if you’re a Brit) look. The car was an immediate success both in the U.K. and in America. They weren’t fast (43 hp stock, 80 mph top speed, 0-60 mph in 20 seconds), but they were an absolute giggle to drive and cheap enough (about $1,600) that they were accessible to virtually anyone who could fit in one. The early Baby Boomers learned about sports cars in them.
Amateur motor racing was just coming into its post-WWII glory years, and some international racing exposure for the car was an obvious marketing approach, so BMC worked with Donald Healey to build cars to compete at the Sebring 12 Hours in the spring of 1959. Healey immediately saw a chance to create a smaller version of his 100M competition car with alloy bodywork and the like.
Huge power increase, a relative term
The money people at BMC wouldn’t go for it, though, so a team of four stock-body “Sebring Sprites” was prepared. The engines got bigger SU carburetors and general race mods to produce a whopping 57 hp (don’t laugh, that’s a 33% increase from stock), close-ratio transmissions, and a lightweight fiberglass hard top. The other big change, and what really defined these four, is that they received four-wheel Dunlop disc brakes and wire wheels. Wire wheels mostly allowed for quick tire changes, but the brakes were a huge advantage-the Sprites could virtually out-brake everybody in the race. All four cars went to Sebring but only three raced (the fourth was a spare) and they finished 1-2-3 in class. The Sprite, from then on, had serious racing credibility and the term “Sebring Sprite” came to mean “race car.”
Over the next few years, both the factory and independent speed merchants (particularly Speedwell of north London) developed a number of racing modifications. Williams and Pritchard (also in the area) worked with John Sprinzel to build a more aerodynamic fastback hard top, and though I don’t think it was on the published options list, the factory produced door skins and the rear body in aluminum. It was not exotic, mostly a matter of putting an alloy sheet instead of steel into the body stamping press, then pop riveting the result onto the subframe, but it saved significant weight. Building the one-piece bonnet from aluminum never caught on; fiberglass was the preferred way to improve aerodynamics and save weight up front.
FIA vs. SCCA specs make the difference
A critically important distinction needs to be mentioned here. All race car prep is done in accordance with specific rules, and since the 1950s there have been two very distinct sets; the European way (well, really the rest of the world) via FIA rules, and the American way via SCCA rules. For international races (like Sebring) the FIA rules apply. At the time, FIA rules for production racers allowed “alternative bodywork” to be used, mostly alloy and fiberglass panels. The SCCA’s approach was “if it came off the showroom floor with steel bodywork, that’s how you’re going to race it.” The result is that there can be a substantial difference between a car prepped to SCCA racing rules and one to FIA rules. The FIA cars are what we generically call “Sebring Sprites.” Most “Sebring Sprites” never raced in Florida, or anywhere in the U.S., and some only did rallies.
There isn’t a lot of difference between a well-prepared SCCA-spec Bugeye and a Sebring Sprite in today’s vintage racing world. There’s no difference in horsepower or gear ratios, and nobody uses wire wheels to race. The only four-wheel disc brake Sprites were the original 1959 Sebring cars; everything after that went to a Lockheed disc front and an eight-inch drum rear, which works just as well. The FIA cars are allowed to be a bit lighter (150 lb, as in fiberglass bonnet and alloy door skins) but most U.S. clubs aren’t inclined to notice that kind of thing, so both the experience and the lap times are effectively the same. The difference is collectibility. The whole Sebring Sprite idea is that it was originally built for international competition, and that gives it a cachet that somebody’s entry-level club racer just can’t have. In the marketplace, such a distinction counts for a lot.
Just how much might surprise you; $25,000 is all the money in the world for an excellent vintage racer Sprite, but depending on history and specific car details, a Sebring Sprite easily can be worth multiples of that. The 1959 Sebring winner is the most iconic, with a reputed value well over $100k, and the 1961 class winner sold a year ago for close to $70k with a disappointed seller. Our subject car doesn’t have much period history, but it is a legitimate FIA racer that came with “factory” aluminum body panels and has been superbly prepared as a vintage racer. Combine that with the fact that the proceeds went to a good charitable cause, and I’d say the car was fairly bought and sold.