The British Motor Corporation (commonly known as BMC) brought together an extraordinary collection of vehicle brands, diverse ideas and lost opportunities.
One of its great successes though was Austin-Healey and in particular the Sprite sports car that made open-top motoring affordable to almost anyone.
Donald Healey’s son Geoffrey was given responsibility for the design which was required to be simple, cheap to build and visually appealing. Within 18 months the original Sprite was on the market; its rapid development largely due to BMC’s legendary parts inventory.
The Sprite engine, transmission, suspension and brake parts were shared with Austin’s A35 parts and other parts including rack and pinion steering from the Morris Minor. Ingenious quarter-elliptic rear springs allowed the Sprite to sit on a relatively long wheelbase while preserving compact dimensions.
‘Bug-eye’ headlamps made the car instantly recognisable and, depending on whose version you believe, existed because the cost of making them retractable was too high or because mounting the lights alongside the grille would make them too low to meet US market regulations.
The Sprite was also the first mass-produced British sports car to use monocoque conhree years anstruction, its all-steel shell giving BMC’s economy model greater structural integrity than the MGA, Healey 100 or TR3 Triumph.
Three years and 49,000 Bug-Eyes later the Sprite design changed dramatically and into something vastly more ‘corporate’ and conservative than the original.
Early Mark 2 Sprites used 948cc engines but that changed in 1962 when capacity was enlarged to 1098cc and power increased by 7kW. From the arrival of Mark 2A models the Sprite also included front disc brakes as standard.
In Australia the Sprite offered a cheap and interesting alternative to conventional passenger cars. At $1996 plus charges in 1963, the Mark 2A was only $60 more than a 1.2-litre Ford Cortina and $120 less than a basic EH Holden.
Fittings and comforts were adequate for a car of this age and price bracket – a speedo, tachometer, temperature and fuel gauges plus a rudimentary heater/demister that by 1966 was a requirement on Australian cars.
The seats were narrow and thinly padded and the boot cramped with half the space occupied by a spare wheel.
However if you ran with the roof up there was a decent-sized storage area behind the seats in later cars.
Mark 3A cars brought an improved hood design, 1275cc engine and wire-spoke wheels. however they sold in Australia only until early 1967 when replaced by the almost-identical MG Midget.
Sprites of all eras appear regularly in used-car listings and there are clubs throughout Australia which cater to these cars.Mark 1 models are expensive given their cramped cabin and ordinary performance but who can put a value on cuteness?
Better buying at $15-20,000 are Mark 3 and Mark 3A cars that offer improved features – such as external door handles – and 150km/h performance. Cars with the optional hardtop are better suited to frequent use but cost $1000-1500 more.
(Note: exceptional cars will demand more)
SMART BUYER’S TROUBLESHOOTING
Rust attacks from inside out. A Sprite that shows minor bubbling around the wheel arches, door skins and sills might resemble auntie’s lace tablecloth once inspected closely on a hoist. While underneath, examine the inner sills, rear spring attachment points, cabin floors and firewall. Beware the car with shiny new paint that may be concealing ‘quickie’ repairs. Look also at the battery shelf behind the engine and under the spare wheel. Check for cracking around the windscreen attachment points, drooping doors and loose bumpers. Repair sections, new panels and even complete replacement body shells are available but major structural repairs will easily overcapitalise these cars.
Sprite motors are tough little engines and will soldier on even while displaying myriad problems. Oil leaks are commonplace and some will puff smoke from the exhaust under acceleration. However, a constant haze of burned oil means an engine overhaul is imminent. Overheating needs to be checked, but don’t rely on the gauge. Allow the car to idle for a few minutes after being driven then switch off the engine and listen for hissing and bubbling from the radiator. Also check the dipstick for signs of water contaminating the oil. Synchromesh on second gear is frequently worn and commonly crunches when downshifting. The same reaction when selecting the higher gears signifies more serious problems.
Sprite suspension is tough, simple and reasonably cheap to maintain. The old-style lever-action shock absorbers can be reconditioned or even replaced with telescopics. Rear wheel cylinders leak and affect brake performance but repairs are simple and inexpensive. Worn splines inside the hubs of wire wheels will create clunking noises when accelerating and may also let the wheel rotate on the hub. New wire wheels cost less than $500 each, with hubs $150-180 plus fitting.
Not a lot to go wrong here, despite BMC’s reliance on Lucas ‘Prince of Darkness’ electrics. Check that the lights, horn wipers, heater and gauges all operate as they should. Indicator stalks are fragile but still available at around $100. Wet or mouldy carpets indicate dampness beneath and potential floor corrosion. Seat adjusters can be jammed if the seat hasn’t moved in a while and plan to replace seat belts if they are more than 10 years old and been exposed to sun. The soft-top should operate smoothly without catching or twisting. New tops in basic vinyl or weatherproof cloth cost $450-900.
NUMBER BUILT: 48,987 (Mark 1) 79,338 (Mark 2-3A)
BODY STYLE: all-steel, integrated body/chassis two-door roadster
ENGINE: 948cc, 1098cc, 1275cc in-line OHV four cylinder with twin side-draft carburettors
POWER & TORQUE: 44kW @ 5700rpm, 84Nm @ 3250rpm (1098cc Mark 3)
PERFORMANCE: 0-96km/h – 13.5 seconds 0-400 metres – 18.9 seconds (Mark 3)
TRANSMISSION: four-speed manual
SUSPENSION: independent with coil springs, wishbones, telescopic shock absorbers & anti-roll bar (f) live axle with semi-elliptic springs and lever-arm shock absorbers (r)
BRAKES: disc or drum (f) drum (r)
TYRES: 5.20x13 crossply