The Austin-Healy Sprite: A History of the Frogeye
While the MG Midget might be the more memorable cousin, the Austin-Healey Sprite was actually the forerunner, and remains one of the most popular classic British automobiles. Birthed in 1958, it had a pretty long run on the market, although the Mark I was definitely the most popular. After 1961 and the debut of the Mark II, that popularity waned.
Donald Healey had a passion for sports cars that resulted in the debut of the Nash-Healy in 1951 and the Austin-Healy Hundred a few years later. While both were agile, powerful and beautiful, they were too expensive for the average buyer. Healey wanted to do something different – he wanted to create a sports car that was small, relatively agile, with ample power, but priced so that the average person could purchase one. This was his inspiration for the Sprite, which was later nicknamed the Frogeye (or Bugeye in the USA).
One key element of the Sprite’s affordability was the fact that Healey was able to source many of the components from other BMC cars. For instance, the engine used came from the Morris Minor, as did the steering and suspension (the A-Series I4, a 43-hp engine). Other components came from the Austin A35.
The Sprite wasn’t particularly powerful, with a 0-60 mph time of somewhere around 20 seconds with the stock engine. However, the lightweight body and good handling made it a natural for modifications that led to a large number of cars heading to the racetrack.
Healey designed several unique elements of the Sprite, other than its super-small size. For instance, the chassis was one piece, with no bonnet or trunk. The clamshell style body opened at the front for access to the engine for service, and the spare tire was accessed by leaning the seatbacks forward to get to the rear storage area.
Saying that, the most iconic element of the Sprite was the slightly curved front grille and the top-mounted headlights. The headlights did not retract or fold – they were designed to be permanently upright, giving the car a frog-eyed look. The curved grille also made it look like the little car had a perpetual smile.
The Mark I Sprite had a good run, lasting for three full years. After 1961, it was replaced by the Mark II, which lost the iconic headlights and curved front grille. This version featured a larger engine (a 0.9-liter engine at first, and then a 1.1-liter engine), as well as greater power, but the heavier body and the changes to the car’s aesthetic meant that it never attained the popularity of the Mark I with buyers and racers.
Eventually, a Mark III debuted (1964), which was also marketed as the Mark II Midget, and the Mark IV debuted in 1966 and ran through 1971. None of the subsequent models featured the frogeye headlights, or the trademark front grille.
Today, the original Frogeye of 1958-1961 remains the most iconic and sought after version of this British icon.