In the mid-'50s, as the costs of Austin-Healeys, Triumphs, and MGs began to increase with each new model year, Donald Healey saw a niche opening up for a car that would be fun to drive, inexpensive to own, and "small enough to store in a chap's motorcycle shed." From that inspiration was born the Austin-Healey Sprite, introduced in 1958.
In its first "cheap and cheerful" form, it used simple body panels, had no outside trunk lid and was powered (if 35 horses can be called power) by the Austin 948-cc A35 engine. A grinning oval grille and two headlamps fastened to the bonnet gave it a bug-eyed look that has endeared it to classic car collectors out of all proportion to its actual utility.
In 1962 a new and improved model was released, with the fenders, hood and trunk lid of a real car. It even had bumpers. Nevertheless, the Sprite Mk II was built on the same chassis and used the same floor pan, bulkhead and doors as the Bugeye. More significant, British Motor Corporation decided to badge engineer an MG out of the Sprite at the same time. The car used the "Midget" name from MG's prewar era and was identical to the Sprite except for a different grille and slightly different trim details. Acknowledging the similarities, enthusiasts today simply group them all together under the term "Spridgets."
The engine capacity of the new Sprite and the Midget was increased to 1098 cc, producing a whopping 55 bhp. At the same time, the front drum brakes were replaced by discs.
Few other changes were made until 1966, when the Austin 1275-cc engine offering 65 bhp, similar to the engine being used in the Mini Cooper S, was installed. US market smog restrictions began to suck the life out of the car, though, with regulations effective January 1, 1968.
These little siblings of the MGB and Austin-Healey were among the cheapest sports cars on the road in their day and were noted for their razor-sharp handling. While they had (and in original form still have) difficulty maintaining modern highway speeds, on a curving, Sunday-drive back road they put a smile on the faces of drivers and passer-bys alike.
While many Spridgets were built, few survive. Condition is far more important than originality; in fact, having a 1275-cc engine in an earlier car might even increase its value. Since these cars are so inexpensive, the smart move is to pay a premium (say, $8,000) and get the best in the world, rather than get into a dogfight with a $2,500 car as you try to make it nice.
Spridgets can be an ideal entry-level collector's sports car, offering an immersion experience in the world of 40-year-old British cars for less than the cost of a used Miata.