Collectible Classic: 1958-1961 Austin-Healey “Bugeye” Sprite
A driver-focused, undiluted roadster with endearing charm
There's a shibboleth among the patched-elbow, tweed jacket, sports-car crowd that Donald Healey only cared about his "big" cars, like the fast and fabulous Austin-Healey 100. But Healey and the boffins at Austin came to believe sports cars "were getting too big and too luxurious," according to Bruce Gearns, southeastern Michigan's delegate to the Austin-Healey Club of America.
Some things never change.
And so the Donald Healey Motor Company began work on what would become the Sprite. Like Healey's bigger cars, it would use off-the-shelf components from Austin and Austin's British Motor Corporation (BMC) parent company. Healey's Gerry Coker — and later, Les Ireland — would work with chassis engineer Barry Bilbie to develop the lightweight roadster. It featured a unitized construction from the A-pillar back, with two front chassis legs forward and its trunklid deleted to better aid rigidity.
Unveiled in Monte Carlo just prior to the 1958 Monaco Grand Prix, it set a standard for small, minimalist, affordable sports cars, with cutting-edge technologies for the time such as rack-and-pinion steering and a 12-volt Lucas "Prince of Darkness" electrical system. Its BMC A-Series 948-cc four-cylinder was rated at 36 horsepower in the Morris Minor 1000 and Austin A30/A35, but thanks to its twin SU side-draft carbs, the Sprite's engine pushed out 7 more horses. At 1,455 pounds with near-equal weight distribution, it's impossible to avoid comparisons with the modern Mazda MX-5 Miata — both pure, driver-focused machines undiluted by creature comforts.
An overarching goal was to make the Sprite the most affordable sports car on the market. To help get the car to a U.S. base price of just $1,795, BMC's bean counters rejected a pop-up headlamp design. Instead, they were fixed in position and perched above the irresistible smiley-face grille. As a result the car earned the nicknames "Bugeye" in the States and "Frogeye" in the U.K.
It's the same face I used to try and woo Donna Wasiczko when we both worked at the Milwaukee Sentinel in 1985. She said she always liked the Volkswagen Karmann-Ghia, but when I showed her a photo of a Bugeye, she was smitten — with the car (and eventually me).
That was the car's "cute" factor at work, the same bugaboo that dogs the Miata. If Corvettes and Porsches and their ilk are about attitude, this car is about character and personality. It's also about carving corners, not straight-line performance.
MG's Abingdon-on-Thames assembly plant built 48,987 Bugeyes in three years, with at least half of them shipped to the U.S. The Mark II version of the Sprite came online later in 1961, which became known as the "Square Sprite," with new sheetmetal, more conventional headlamp placement, and a slightly updated version of the twin-carb 0.9-liter engine. BMC would also subsequently badge-engineer a car that would become the 1961 MG Midget, with only minor differences to distinguish it from the Sprite. The Sprite soldiered on for two more generations before production ended in 1971; the Midget limped through until 1979.
Donna and I remained friends, and then we lost touch for about nine years — before reuniting and ultimately marrying 10 years ago. Last summer we found a Bugeye Sprite we could afford. Like most drivable Bugeyes on the market that I've watched for three decades, it was priced more like whatever the latest entry-level Honda is — lately, a Fit.
Our Iris Blue '60 with the original stamped steel wheels and "AH" dog-dish hubcaps came from bugeyeguy.com in Branford, Connecticut. Except for the black-painted steel wheels, ours is very original, with a 0.9-liter engine, four-speed gearbox with non-synchro first and reverse gears, and drum brakes.
I never thought we'd buy such a car sight unseen, but we had no time for the trip, so we asked Automobile's resident oddball Brit car impresario, Jamie Kitman, to check it out for us. After we bought it, we asked Bugeyeguy's CFO (Chief Frogeye Officer), David Silberkleit, to remove the front bumper installed on most U.S. imports because it makes the car look even friendlier.
The clutch pedal feels stiff for being connected to such a small engine, and it has a hair trigger. You must engage first gear deliberately, but otherwise the shifts are smooth and fairly short. The Bugeye has a published top speed of 85 mph, and reports put its 0-to-60-mph, er, sprint at about 20.5 seconds. Still, it's got a satisfyingly loud rasp for such a small car as you launch into modern traffic, shifting quickly to second. With a 1:1 fourth gear, it turns about 4,000 rpm at 60 mph, the fastest we've driven it.
Steering is quick and direct, even by today's standards. There's some compliance at turn-in despite a firm ride over expansion strips, and the rear wheels take a set as the chassis rolls neutrally into the turn. The Sprite is fun to drive at any speed.
We refer to our Bugeye as "Nancy Drew," after the young, fictional detective who drove a little blue roadster, according to Donna, a fan of the books in her youth. Twee, perhaps, but I don't care. Maybe SUV drivers feel the need to compensate. They often like to fill Nancy Drew's rearview mirror with a chrome grille bigger and heavier than the entire Bugeye. Most of our driving has been up and down Metro Detroit's famous Woodward Avenue, where dicing through such heavy traffic can be kind of thrilling at just 45 mph, but where we get as many smiles and smartphone snaps as any car costing five times the price.
|Engine||0.9L OHV I-4/43 hp, 52 ft-lb|
|Front Suspension||Control arms, coil springs|
|Rear Suspension||Trailing arms, leaf springs|
Bugeyes make ideal collectibles for enthusiasts seeking fun sports cars to drive, not trailer, though values are rising rapidly. Survivors of all stripes include SCCA racers, 1.3-liter Ford or Nissan engine upgrades, even Spridgets (what the similar, later generation Sprites and Midgets are often referred to) with fiberglass Bugeye hoods. Look for rear-wheel cylinder and rear axle-seal leaks and bad brake shoes, says Silberkleit, and change clutch fluid as often as you change the oil. There will be oil leaks, and the owner's manual recommends checking the level before every drive. Keep up on regular maintenance, and the Bugeye will put a smile on your face as wide as its grille.