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The Austin-Healey Sprite: History, Generations, Models and More

All things Austin-Healey Sprite on Automobile.

Austin Healey Sprite Essential History

Sprite Mark I

Austin-Healey got its start in 1952 by means of a partnership between two automakers: Austin, which was by then part of the British Motor Corporation conglomerate, and Donald Healey Motor Company. By the mid-1950s, Austin-Healey had plenty of success from sales of its 100-4 and 100-6, both front-engine, rear-drive, body-on-frame, two-door roadsters which were popular as road cars and as entry-level competition cars. Problem was, not everyone could afford the so-called "Big Healeys." Austin boss Leonard Lord and Austin-Healey chief Donald Healey got together on an idea for a small, inexpensive sports car that would sell strongly in both European and American markets. The result was the first Austin-Healey Sprite.

Built with help from BMC's ample parts bins, the Austin-Healey Sprite was launched in 1958 with diminutive bodywork wrapped around a front-mounted 948cc Austin A-series inline four-cylinder engine. Twin SU carburetors gave the car around 43 hp and 52 lb-ft of torque powering the rear wheels through a four-speed manual transmission. The car was of semi-monocoque construction, one of the earliest mass-produced monocoque-style automobiles, with stressed body panels and no externally accessible trunk, in the name of structural rigidity. Suspension was A-arms and coil springs up front, leaf springs out back. The engine hood was a clamshell-style unit with fixed headlights (retractable lights were nixed from the original design for cost reasons) which led to the car being called the "Bugeye" in U.S. markets, with "Frogeye" the nickname in the U.K. region. A simple folding convertible top and plastic side windows kept out the elements; otherwise the Sprite was ultra-minimalistic, with no external door handles, radio, carpeting or other creature comforts. The 0-60-mph sprint took around 20 seconds, and the Sprite's top speed was barely more than 80 mph, despite its minuscule 1,500-lb curb weight.

Sprite Mark II

The little Sprite was a big seller, and as such was granted a significant refresh at the end of 1961, with new bodywork that featured a more upright nose with better integrated headlights, full-width bumpers, and a real trunk lid, which mandated more structural bracing, increasing weight slightly. While engine displacement remained the same, the SU carburetors were upsized for nearly 47 hp. Also in 1961, an MG-branded version of the Sprite was introduced as the MG Midget. The name recalled MG's previous small, inexpensive pre- and post-war sports cars. In 1962, a larger 1.1-liter (1,098cc) engine arrived, producing 56 hp and was fitted to all Sprites and Midgets. To cope with the extra grunt, front disc brakes replaced previous drums, the gearbox was converted to stronger Porsche-style synchronizers and wire wheels became optional (pressed steel wheels were still standard).

Sprite Mark III

In 1964, the Sprite and Midget gained far more creature comforts, finally receiving locking exterior door handles, wind-up glass side windows and a revised rear suspension for greater ride comfort. Minor engine tuning resulted in another power increase, this time to 59 hp and 65 lb-ft, while the block casting and main bearings were made stronger to cope with the greater output.

Sprite Mark IV

The final iteration of Austin-Healey Sprite arrived in 1966. Engine capacity went up again with a switch to the 1.3-liter engine (1275cc) from the Mini Cooper S, albeit with slightly less power than in the Mini, at 65 hp and 72 lb-ft. The convertible top was now fixed to the Sprite's frame instead of being a removable assembly, and a range of minor changes were made, including the addition of reverse lights and a new hydraulic system for the brakes. By 1970, BMC had been absorbed into British Leyland and changes were made to update the Sprite's design once again, with more parts shared between the Sprite and the MG Midget to simplify production. The following year, 1971, the Austin/Donald Healey partnership dissolved, and the last 1,000 or so Sprites were simply badged as Austins. From 1972 to 1980, the car would continue to be sold and updated as the MG Midget, eventually receiving stringent emissions controls for the U.S. market, increased ride height, and large rubber safety bumpers, among other changes.

Austin-Healey Sprite Highlights

Despite the Austin-Healey Sprite's modest performance, the car was-and still is-an extremely popular car in motorsports. A trio of Sprites, factory-prepped by Donald Healey's son, Geoffrey, were entered in the 1959 12 Hours of Sebring for publicity and ended up finishing 1-2-3 in their class. Later, Donald Healey would develop the Austin-Healey Sebring Sprite with an aerodynamic coupe body style made from aluminum and fiberglass. The Sebring Sprite was homologated as a unique race car, independent of the standard Sprite, in 1960.

Austin-Healey Sprite Buying Tips

Because Sprites were designed to be cheap, cheerful sports cars, many were simply driven into the ground over the years. As is true of all cars from this period, rust is a major issue along with poor budget repairs that can go so far as to make a project Sprite unsafe to drive without major work. Many Sprites were raced in period and still are today, if your goal is racing it's cheapest to buy a car that's already built for the purpose. The earliest "Bugeye" Sprite models built between 1958 and 1961 are the iconic variants and more expensive because of it. If you're looking for a budget Sprite, try a Mark II or later car. Because BMC sold so many Sprites (and Midgets), parts supply is generally pretty strong, especially for mechanical bits. Parts are often simple and inexpensive, and support from enthusiast clubs remains very strong, making the Sprite a top choice if you're after an affordable, easy-to-service classic sports car.

Austin-Healey Sprite Articles on Automobile

A driver-focused, undiluted roadster with endearing charm.

Want a teensy fully electric car? The Bugeye Guy is your man.

Killing with Cuteness: It may look friendly, but this Sprite was built to race. And win.

Austin-Healey Sprite Recent Auctions

Austin-Healey Sprite Quick Facts

  • First year of production: 1958
  • Last year of production: 1971
  • Total sold: 128,325 (approx. )
  • Original price (base): $1,795
  • Characteristic feature: The Austin-Healey Sprite introduced sports car fun on a budget to an entire generation, and still continues to inspire enthusiasts the world over.

Austin-Healey Sprite FAQ

How much is an Austin-Healey worth?

There are many different models of Austin-Healey and the "Big Healeys," that is, 100-4, 100-6 and 3000 cars typically command anywhere from $35,000 to over $100,000 depending on various factors. The Austin-Healey Sprite typically costs from $12,000 or so for a good running and driving example to over $20,000 for a show-quality car.

Do they still make Austin-Healey?

No. The Austin-Healey partnership dissolved in 1971.

What is a bugeye car?

This refers to the Austin-Healey "Bugeye" Sprite. The Bugeye nickname was unofficial, but very popular, and makes reference to the unconventional upright headlights mounted on the car's front hood, which resemble a pair of eyes—bug eyes if you're in the U.S., or frog eyes if you're in the U.K.

Who makes the Midget car?

The Midget is a brand-engineered Austin-Healey Sprite that was sold and marketed by MG.