The Sprite, or ‘Frogeye’ as it was known in the UK (because, er, look at it), was built by Austin Healey in 1958 to be a simple and affordable two-seater. But the Mark 1 (also known as ‘Gaps’ due to questionable fit and finish...) would also prove to be a lot of fun to drive.
Designed by the Donald Healey Motor Company and assembled at the MG factory at Abingdon, it was built using a tuned version of the Austin A-Series engine, along with a lot of other parts from existing cars such as the Austin A35 and Morris Minor. It did a grand job in keeping costs down. In fact, it could be had for less than a grand at £669 (Dh3,500).
The 948cc pushrod, overhead valve, four-cylinder with twin SU carburetors made 42bhp, which isn’t much, but since it weighed only 630kg, it could reach a top speed of 130kph. The leaf springs and drum brakes came from the A35 and it was a very agile performer. However, with the headlights mounted on the bonnet and a smiling grille, the Sprite was one of those sorts of cars that you’d either love or hate. Judging by the Mark 2’s brand-new front end design, it’s clear what BMC thought. But buyers flocked to showrooms and indeed the model was a resounding success — mostly due to those bulging eyes. Whether it would have made as big an impact as it did had it gone with the original plan of giving it pop-up headlights (BMC ditched that idea to save money), we’ll never know.
It wasn’t the most practical, though; for instance, it didn’t have a boot lid and although that made accessing the spare tyre difficult, it did add to the strength of the Sprite’s body, which didn’t even have door handles! To get in, you had to reach inside the car to open the door. ‘Quirky’ was one of its other names.
Just under 50,000 were built and there are quite a few still bumbling around if you want one. However, you’ll be hard pressed to find one for the same price in ’58; they command a far larger premium now, at least three times what they did back then. If you’re after a classic with captivating looks that won’t cost an arm and a leg to maintain, and is fun to drive, here’s the answer.
A word of warning, though; you won’t fit behind the wheel if you’re on the larger size and even if you do squeeze in, get used to being overtaken by cyclists...