Sprite 1958-70 Midget -70
GBSPORTS CARS TO BUY SECOND HAND
FORMER PUBLISHER John Bond once wrote, "To be successfully manufactured and sold, for minimum price, a car has to be of utmost simplicity in order to keep manufacturing costs low. Sports cars will never sell in the same quantity as family-type cars, so the argument that a sports car can sell as cheaply as a VW is not entirety valid. John was discussing the introduction of the new Austin-Healey Sprite, announced in May 1958 and destined to be as successful in its own way as the medium-size Austin-Healey 100 and 3000.
In the flush of success with the Big Healeys, Donald Healey decided to produce a smaller, more economical sporting car in the least expensive price range. As with the Big Healey, he based the Sprite on an existing sedan, the Austin A35, from which he took the 948-cc overhead valve 4-cylinder engine. This unit was slightly tuned for the Sprite with twin SU carburetors, special valve springs, improved exhaust valves and modified crankshaft bearings. This small displacement engine put out 48 bhp at 5000 rpm and 52 lb-ft of torque at 3000 rpm.
A 6-in. single dry-plate clutch connected the engine to a 4-speed manual gearbox with synchromesh on 2nd, 3rd and 4th. Ratios were 3.63 for 1st, 2.37 for 2nd, 1.41 for 3rd and 1.00: 1 in 4th. The rear axle ratio was 4.22: 1.
The rack-and-pinion steering system went from lock to lock in just 2.3 turns, giving the car very quick steering that took some getting used to initially. In a first road test of a Sprite (August 1958) the tester said, "In fact, the steering is nearly perfect for the purpose, and light and accurate besides."
The front suspension was also taken from the Austin A35 and consisted of lower A-arms and coil springs with lever-type
hydraulic damper arms providing the upper suspension link."
The solid rear axle was located by quarter-elliptic springs and lever-type shock absorbers. The Sprite came with 7-in. diameter drum brakes and 13, x 3.5in. steel wheels shod with 5.20-13 bias-ply tires at all four corners. This all worked quite well and cornering characteristics were close to neutral with a small amount of understeer at moderate speeds. It was very difficult to get the rear end to break loose and when it did it could be controlled quite easily.
While all of the drivetrain components and underpinnings were very conventional, the Sprite body was uniquely odd in appearance - so much so, in fact, that after awhile it began to look rather attractive! This apparent contradiction struck most of us in those early Sprite days as most of the motoring journals of the time had unkind remarks for the shape and design of the car. Soon, the bulging headlights and smiling grille were characterized as giving the Sprite a frog-like appearance and it became known as the frog-eye or Bugeye Sprite. Originally, Donald Healey's design had called for retractable headlights but when BMC actually began producing the car, this design was deemed too expensive. and they were left perched in the
middle of the hood.
The body of the car was a pressed steel shell and the entire front end was hinged at the cowl to give easy access to the engine, steering and front suspension; The rest of the Sprite was fairly neat and clean with a simple, ,slightly sloping rear deck unmarred by a trunk lid. Entry to the trunk was from within the car and although the seatbacks were hinged to move forward, access to the luggage space was limited. John Bond described the appearance of the Sprite as a "hybrid of TR-3, Berkeley and Crosley Hotshot" and we are inclined to let it go at that.
The original Sprite was a classic roadster with removable soft top and side curtains. It was reasonably roomy inside with more pedal and leg room than the MG A but getting inside to make use of that room could be rather challenging, especially for a driver more than 5 ft 10 in. tall. The top came down far enough to restrict vision to the sides somewhat and rainy weather often pointed up a few places where the fit was not absolutely water tight, but then this was a sports car in the traditional sense of the word and comfort was of secondary or perhaps tertiary importance.
The Sprite carved a new niche for itself in the sports car world, offering superior and economical performance for a price comparable to the least expensive sedans of the day. Almost immediately, Sprites began to appear at sports car races all over the world and soon dominated H production racing in the U.S. Who could ever forget those days of the late Fifties and early Sixties when a gaggle of the little cars would take off sounding for all the world like a horde of angry bees chasing a hive-robbing bear! Not only did club racers turn to the Sprite; such big names as Stirling Moss, Walt Hangsen, Bruce McLaren, Briggs Cunningham and others competed in works cars or the Sebring Sprites of John Sprinzel
Sprite Mark II
THREE YEARS after the introduction of the original Sprite and some 49,000 cars later, the Mark 11 version was unveiled in May 1961. Gone were the frog eyes, replaced by conventionally located headlights in fixed fenders, along with a wider grille and, a hood that opened without lifting the entire front body just like most other cars. The rear was also restyled with a trunk lid 'that opened from outside and a 12 in. cut in the back of the cockpit for luggage or a small child.
There were also changes to the engine, including an increase in the compression ratio from 8.3 to 9.0:1, larger throats in the SU carburetors, larger intake valves and a change in the exhaust valve timing. The result was more power (50 vs 48 bhp) without loss of torque. The gearbox was also revised; the close-ratio gears used on the Sebring Sprites in competition and available as an option for a year or so were now standard in the new car. To the avid Bugeye, Sprite fanatic, the Mark II was an abomination. To the rest of the motoring enthusiast world, however, the new car was a definite improvement:- "Of course the new model may be accused of some minor loss of personality, but no one can deny that the Sprite II is better looking". The, Mark II was also a more convenient car to live with because of its outside opening trunk and better use of space. Writers concluded that the Mark II, like the original Sprite, "offers more fun per dollar than anything we have driven for a longtime."
Only a month after the announcement of the Sprite II, the same car was brought out under the M G banner as the Midget. The only differences were in the nameplates and a few minor trim details, and this practice was to continue until the eventual demise of the Sprite name in 1970, when the Midget continued on by itself.
Sprite 1100 ,
FOUR-AND-a half years after the introduction of the Sprite, a new 1100 model was shown at the London Motor Show in October 1962. The new Sprite (and Midget) had been upgraded with an increase in engine displacement from 948 to 1098 cc, which raised the horsepower rating from 50 to 55 at 5500 rpm. The clutch diameter was increased by I in., front brakes were now disc rather than drum, and reshaped and more thickly padded seats plus the addition of carpeting helped to make the Sprite more comfortable.
The additional engine displacement was the result of an increase in bore (2.54 vs 2.48 in.) and a new, longer-stroke crankshaft very similar to the one used in the MG 1100 sedans. The displacement increase made the Sprite more pleasant to drive because of the extra torque available (61 Ib-ft at 2500 rpm, compared with 52.5 at 2750 in the Mark II).
Although the new seats were certainly more comfortable and the noise level had been reduced by the carpeting, the Sprite was still characterized by many of its original features: no wind-up windows, separate key and starter (the latter a pull cable rather than button), no door locks or outside door handles and no glovebox. The only lockable portion of the entire car was the trunk.
In terms of performance, the Sprite 1100 was a much better car. Top speed improved by only a few mph but the change in the torque characteristics offered top gear hill climbing and easier passing than in previous Sprites. This new found performance could be used with increased confidence as a result of the change to front disc brakes. The former drum brakes were marginal when the car was being driven near the limit. Handling was unaffected by any of these changes and the Sprite (and Midget) was still one of the most responsive cars on the road.
Perhaps more amazing than anything else was the fact that the new Sprite buyer was still getting all of this for less than $20001 In the period from May 1958 to October 1962, the Sprite's list price had only gone from $1795 to $1985. And writers were still saying that this car offered more fun per dollar than any other, even after 4.5 years.
Sprite Mark III
MARCH 1964 brought the introduction of the Mark III Sprite (Mark II Midget which was one number behind) and this new model reflected the need to bring the Sprite up to date with the modem sports car. Major improvements included wind-up windows, swiveling vent wings, updated instrument panel and further improvements in interior trim.
The rear suspension came in for revision with a change from the quarter-elliptic springs to semi-elliptics to reduce the tricky roll oversteer inherent in the original design. There was also a minor improvement in engine performance (stepped up to 59 bhp) through improved manifolding and the use of the M G 1100 cylinder head.
Sprite Mark IV; Midget Mark III ,
ONCE AGAIN the London Motor Show was the arena for the display of the new Sprite/Midget this time in 1966. The car now became a thoroughly modern sports car with a proper convertible top that could be raised and lowered without dismantling. Another engine transplant had taken place and the Sprite/Midget now had a I275-cc powerplant similar to that used in the Mini Cooper's but detuned from 75 bhp to 65.
This detuning allowed lower production costs because a normal forged crankshaft could be used in place of the more expensive nitrided steel crank of the S for example, while still maintaining the Sprite's reputation for reliability and long life. The net increase of 6 bhp over the Mark III Sprite (Mark II Midget) was enough to make a surprising improvement in performance as the new Sprite/Midget would accelerate to 60 mph in 14.7 seconds versus 18.3 sec for the previous model.
The crisp handling which had always been a characteristic of Sprites remained and there was still some roll oversteer built into the rear suspension that made the car great fun to drive sideways. The ride was still a bit bouncy over uneven surfaces but it was truly sporting in nature and aficionados of the breed didn't mind it at all and in fact felt (and still feel!) that it was necessary or you might as well have been driving a large sedan.
The Sprite/Midget cars remained little changed from this setup until 1975. Of course, the Sprite version was discontinued in 1970. The Midget continued without any drastic changes except for the addition of more and more emission controls and safety items such as the over-large bumpers of today until the 1975 model which received the 1493-cc Triumph Spitfire engine with slightly different exhaust manifolding. Emission controls had become stringent enough that the increased displacement was capable of putting out 55.5 bhp at 5000 rpm.
For the purposes of our discussion here, we have elected to cut off our report with 1970 for two reasons: that was the last year for both the Sprite and the Midget; and the increasing emission and safety regulations have taken some of the fun out of driving the more modern Midgets. They still have reasonable handling, are relatively lightweight and thrifty of fuel, but in talking about a Used Car Classic we also have to give consideration to purchase price and post-1970 car prices are generally out of the bargain class.
Car selection tips
AS WITH most British sports cars of the time, the early Sprite/Midget is a remarkably sturdy and simple car. The engine and transmission having come from a sedan of some years standing, they were time-tested and of proven reliability. The the SU carburetors have a tendency to be touchy in adjustment so many times a car that does not seem to be working properly may just need a delicate hand applied to the carburetors. Also, the linkage runs right into the carburetor throat and there have been cases where the opening becomes worn allowing air to seep in and upset the mixture. The use of some rubber grommets can cure this malady. One of the few weak spots in the engine is the center main bearing on the crankshaft. If it's at all suspect, replace it. "
All of the Sprite/Midgets covered in our time period have a non-synchromesh 1st gear. While the gearbox is sturdy, a heavy-handed driver can wreak damage on" the unit, especially 1st, and it may be necessary to consider rebuilding it. On the other hand, we have been told by Sprite owners that they have put considerably more than 100,000 miles on their cars without the gearbox showing signs of wear.
Rust is one of the most important things to look for in buying any car and it's true of the Sprite too. The potential buyer may be fortunate and find a car that has a number of holes drilled in the rocker panels and the bottom edge of the hood (Bugeye models) -these are to permit water to drain out and prevent rusting.
Prices for used models vary from area to area of the country. The Bugeye is rapidly approaching classic status and the prices are beginning to reflect this. However, a running Bugeye that needs restoration can occasionally be found in the $600-800 range in southern California, but the usual price is $200-400 more than that. The fully restored Bugeye can bring as much as $2000 and more. Prices will generally be somewhat higher in other parts of ,the country where these particular models are less readily available. Prices on newer Sprites and the MG ' Midgets will run anywhere from $800 on up, peaking at about $1800. ' The Sprite/Midget series of cars is perhaps one of the most logical ones for inclusion in, our used Car Classic, series of reports. They are simple, relatively easy to maintain, and, just as when they were new, return more driving fun per dollar than just about any sports car we can think of. If you are the proper size to 'fit inside one, you couldn't do much better.
Once again we find ourselves indebted to Ken Schwartz of the
Long Beach (California) MG Club for leading us to a Used Car Classic owner who was willing to have us photograph and drive his car. Eddie Martinez runs a speedometer repair shop in Long Beach, owns two Bugeye Sprites and writes music and performs in musical productions. He is one of those rare persons who seems to enjoy life just a little more than the rest of us and his Sprites provide him with a lot of enjoyment and frustration, he adds.
Eddie has been a sprite owner for 12 years and both of his Bugeyes are of 1959 vintage, both are painted bright yellow and both have received his personal attention in interior improvements. These include re-doing the dash, adding a center console and installing a vinyl covered plywood bulkhead between the seats and the trunk. Eddie claims this last item has cut down on the noise level considerably and he is justifiably proud of his work. To the accompanying snide comments and laughter of Eddie and Dottie Clendenin who came along as the official photographer, I gingerly eased my portly 6 ft 2 in. bulk into Eddie's roadster. His second car had the hardtop on it and I wasn't even about to try getting into that one! Gad, but these are tiny little devils. I soon found that 1 was indeed in (no need for a seatbelt here as it would take more than a collision to pry me out) and that I could operate the pedals. I could not however put my left foot anyplace once I had activated the clutch and let it up, so I drove along holding it in the air just above the pedal. The controls fell readily to hand-there was no place else for them to fall-and with a turn of the key and a pull on the starter we were off.
Eddie mentioned to me as we were motoring along that I looked sort of funny,in ,the car-I suppose he meant that, I bore a strange resemblance to a trained circus bear driving a kiddy car but I was undaunted, dividing my time between bending down to look through the windshield and craning upward to look over it. The day was one of those magnificent California days after a rainstorm, with a freshness to the air we rarely enjoy. The wind was in my face and the exhaust was singing with a healthy note. "This is what it's all about," I told myself as my left leg began, to cramp up from being suspended in air for half a mile.
The ride was sheer sports car delight-bouncy and stiff, giving the driver and passenger intimate knowledge of each and every surface irregularity along the way. At the same time, however, there is a feeling of maneuverability and control so that the bumps fade away, replaced by a fiendish desire to cut and slice through arid around all those behemoths blocking, the way. The 948-cc inline 4-cylinder engine revs freely up to about 4000 rpm and then begins to hint at a bit of strain. Eddie said that the crankshaft in his car was beginning to make trouble, so we didn't run the engine up to the 6000 rpm limit. The handling is close to neutral and getting the tail to hang out takes a definite effort.
Once, you do, it's very easily controlled-in fact, you really have to work at it to get in over your head driving a Sprite, which is why they have always been so outstanding for the young sports car enthusiast learning the ropes.
The Bugeye has generally been considered an unappealing design but I've never agreed with that it's strange enough to have a beauty all its own. The smiling front end, which teenage girls tend to label "cute," is actually a grin with a touch of a leer in it. And that's precisely what driving the Sprite is like. It's not fast, not terribly comfortable, not very refined. So why are all those Sprite/Midget owners grinning?
Mike was getting married so I bought the Bugeye Sprite from him for $400. Then Bill Holley and I nursed the car from the wedding in Salt Lake City back to Madison, Wisconsin, sleeping under the stars and occasionally in the rain, eating cheap grease burgers and only making it home because buried behind a pile of recap carcasses at the Goodyear store in Cody, Wyoming was one dusty 5.20-13, which they sold to me for cost.
Privation-it was a fitting introduction to my Sprite. That car was an adventure from the first time Holley hit a pot hole in Utah and we realized the right front shock was broken. That car taught me to be a very good, diagnostic mechanic.
Yet, I've never again gotten as much pure automotive joy as I did from the Blue Bugeye. It was just me, my. swimming trunks and this car. with the top and side curtains I could remove and stow behind the seats in under 30 sec. The early morning runs in the cool, damp Wisconsin mornings with the wind knotting my, hair and fighting to get inside my nylon ski jacket are still very alive. It was a summer of cut-off Levis, cut-off sleeve sweat shirts, white tennis shoes (no socks) and driving this little British roller skate to Elkhart Lake, Meadowdale or the USAC races at Milwaukee. The little bugger even crapped out one night so I could forsake it for a blind date and meet the lady who is now my wife.
Every reaction of that roadster was crisp and immediate-a sudden sneeze could prompt a lane change. Best of all, the car was joyfully simple, which is why they ruined it when they added roll-up windows arid a fold-down top. Complication was the very antithesis of the Sprite. Why must we reject simplicity and call its complicated replacement "sophisticated?" The British, of all people, should know better. I still look at Bugeyes lovingly and occasionally think of buying another, this time in British Racing Green, with wire wheels and a Nardi steering wheel.