Former Trophy Winner: 1959 Austin-Healey Sprite

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At the risk of making a bold generalization, a motoring enthusiast will forgive a car for being ugly if it possesses breathtaking performance. Conversely, a car can still be a thing of beauty even if it lacks sufficient horsepower to pull the skin off a rice pudding. If you look at the Austin-Healey “Bugeye” Sprite, it possesses neither breathtaking performance nor stunningly beautiful styling, and yet the company still managed to sell 49,000 of these little British sports cars. This one is a nice example, and if you would like to become the proud owner of a car with a face that only a mother could love, then you will find the Sprite located in Fort Calhoun, Nebraska. It is listed for sale here on eBay, and while there have been no nibbles at the $12,500 opening bid price, there are 13 people who are currently watching the listing.

All kidding aside, I actually do have a soft spot for the Bugeye Sprite. It is a distinctive car, and its appearance would have been very different, but for a bit of good old company cost-cutting. The original intention was for those bulbous headlights to fold back into the car’s hood when switched off, very much like the Porsche 928. Last minute cost cutting saw this plan axed, but this decision fell too late to allow for a styling redesign. As a consequence, the car was built with the headlights fixed in the “on” position to save both time and money. It appears that the Sprite has been off the road since 1991, but wherever it was stored must have been a pretty reasonable place, because the car is quite well preserved. Prior to going into storage, the car was a multiple trophy winner and looking around the car, it would seem that a good buff and polish may restore much of its past beauty. One other positive is the fact that this little car doesn’t appear to have any issues with rust, which is always a positive thing when you are dealing with a classic British sports car. The only real defect in the car is this small mark that has some filler in it. Judging by the text in the listing, this has been like this for a number of years, so hopefully, all is solid underneath the filler.

The interior of the Sprite has also survived quite well. The carpet is looking a bit tired, and it might be a candidate for replacement. The rest of the interior is another one of those areas where I believe that a good dose of elbow grease will bring it up a treat. It won’t be perfect, but it would still be of very nice daily-driver quality.

What we have here is a 948cc engine which produces 43hp, and send that power to the rear wheels via a 4-speed manual transmission. Let’s be honest here. This is by no means a high-performance sports car, but it was never intended to be. Following the end of World War II, Britain had been left as a ruin by the relentless bombing, and the war effort had sapped the country’s resources. Cars were something of a luxury, while sports cars were beyond the reach of most people. The Sprite was Austin-Healey’s attempt to produce a 2-seater sports car that was affordable. They succeeded in their aim, which is why it sold so well. Many of the mechanical components were borrowed from other BMC models, and this is what allowed them to sell an affordable sports car. The humble roots can be seen in components like the engine and steering, which had previously found homes in the very pedestrian Morris Minor 1000. This Sprite is in overall good health, with the engine running nicely, and the car driving well. The owner says that the clutch feels soft, but even if you had to replace it, that isn’t a big job in a Sprite. Otherwise, it currently sits on Sears bias ply tires, and those are an item that I would probably replace before I decided to cover any serious miles.

The Austin-Healey “Bugeye” Sprite is a 2-seater sports car that was intended to be affordable for the working class buyer. This it was, and though it doesn’t possess neck-snapping performance, it is a car that many people look upon with affection. This one is a nice example and would be a great choice for a bit of sedate, weekend, top-down cruising.

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  1. bobhess bobhessMember

    If I wasn’t already up to my eyeballs in these cars I’d buy this one just to say I didn’t have to do any welding on it. Nice car!

    Like 4
    • Jerry Brentnell

      years ago I helped a man shoe horn a 394 olds engine and transmission with a narrowed olds rear axle in one of these needless to say it was a wild ride he drove it for several years that way with no problems

      Like 0
    • B

      Clutch replacement is an “engine out” service, just like so many Ferrari timing belt changes. But unlike the Ferrari, two sixteen year old kids, a chain bolted to the valve cover and a length of pipe or 2 x4 can have that motor out in just an hour or two. As it’s been fifty years since I last did a Sprite clutch, it might take me a bit longer today. But maybe it’s just a master/slave cylinder situation too.

      Like 0
  2. RayT

    I’d love to have this, though $12.5K seems a little ambitious to me. That might be because I bought the Frogeye I once owned for $75.00….

    Even with no rust, there would be plenty to do. I’m sure all the hydraulics would have to be gone through, and figure the engine would need new seals and gaskets at a minimum. Since this is a small car, those all qualify as small jobs!

    It must be said that speed is VERY relative when considering a car like a Sprite. Yes, just about every new car on the road can blow a Frogeye’s doors off with minimal effort, but that’s not the point: you feel as if you’ve really accomplished something when you’ve spent time hustling one down a winding road. Without any electronic driver’s aids, it’s all down to you!

    Like 5
  3. Meechelle

    Nice driver after work. Overpriced, though.

    Like 0
  4. TimM

    Love the bug eyes!!!

    Like 0
  5. Bernard Cristalli

    Not much horsepower but very agile and probably beating a 289ci V8 on a winding road.
    Like this for instance:

    Like 1
  6. Dave at OldSchool Restorations

    don’t sweat replacing the ‘carpet’ It was added later…
    the interior floor and tunnel of the 59’s was all formed rubber mat … no carpet

    Like 3
  7. grant

    A face only a mother could love? How can this not make you happy, the damn thing’s smiling at you!

    Like 0
  8. Mark-A

    How about a 16V BMW K1100/1200 bike head on a 1275cc A series to really lift the output a “little” above the 948cc 43hp?

    Like 0
  9. Francisco

    No trunk lid.

    Like 1
    • Bruce

      There never was a trunk lid. You got into the trunk from the inside of the cockpit. This is one of the most basic cars you can get but it is one of the tops in Smiles Per Miles. That being said do not drive next to an 18 wheeler as your eyes are about axel height and the effect is close to terrifying.

      Find a early fall morning about dawn, or neighborhood filled with trees, a warm summer night with the moon up, and drive to the local ice cream shop, beach, mountain over look found by a twisty road, listen to the radio over the wind noise preferably with your love besides you.

      Then performance will not matter. Then the small size, agility the time, the place and the person you share the ride and the time with will be worth every penny. Many cars can do this but this is one of the best at this process. No pretense of great wealth, speed, just simple fun in the most basic way possible. Then the funny looks become endearing and you will know why so many hate to sell one of these. And you will know why they regret the decision for most of their remaining life.

      Like 1
    • Brakeservo

      Oh, there’s a trunk lid, you just can’t open it! But, . . . if you’ve got a big enough can opener, . . .

      Like 1
    • B.J.

      There isn’t a trunk lid on a lot of Corvettes either so it’s no big deal !

      Like 0
  10. Bob S

    I prettied up the nose on mine by ditching the grill and welding short duct in its place. I also replaced the lights with smaller units built into the fenders. It looked great that way.
    It is a lie that it is easy to do any work on the clutch or transmission. My buddy and I got good at pulling the hood and the engine to replace the clutch and the throwout bushing (yes, bushing).
    I had mine punched out to 1300 cc, shaved flywheel, extensive head work, a cam, and headers. I had it dynoed, and I can’t remember for certain, but I was getting close to 100hp. It would really haul, but the crankshaft, transmission and rear end were also weak and there was lots of breakage. Everything broke once, and some things twice, but the saving grace was, parts were plentiful, dirt cheap, and I did everything but the machining. I even ported the heads myself.
    I had so much fun in my bug, that I still have fond memories of it.
    I used to make the guys in the big expensive sports cars grind their teeth. I didn’t have the top speed, but I owned them everywhere else.
    I also ran radials while most of the pack were still running biased ply tires, that also made a big difference.
    Fun, and inexpensive, car.

    Like 1
    • Brakeservo

      I would contradict your assertion about it being a lie about how easy s clutch job is – it was so easy this 16 year once pulled the clutch out at least half a dozen times in a single weekend! The original coil spring type pressure plate has three adjustable fingers and I knew no other way to get it right but try a little bit, put it back in the car, then do it again until it was right! Yes the shop book told one how to do it, but I think it required tools or common sense I didn’t have!

      Like 1
  11. bobhess bobhessMember

    Transmissions were the weak point on these cars. Our first race car had about 88hp out of the 948 and it was hard on the gearboxes. Our present 100 hp, 16,1 compression ratio engine in one of our cars has a Quaife geared Ford T-4 gearbox behind it rated for 350hp. No breakage on that one. For increased power you need a limited slip differential and the later model axles, even for the street. Ring and pinion will last forever with those modifications, and synthetic oil in everything.

    Like 1
  12. Capt Doug

    Anyone considering owning one of these should have :
    on speed dial.
    The most passionate and knowledgeable BugEye group I know and as helpful as could be.

    Like 0
  13. mikestuff

    In the late 50’s/early 60’s when I was 10-12 years old, there was a guy who was sort of neighbor here in Salt Lake City who had one of these in black. He brought it home after he had been a mormon missionary in the UK, and that’s about all I know. I was kind of taken by it and he gave me a short ride one day, which was an experience. I was taken with how SMALL it was. He moved after that, no idea where he or the car ended up and I don’t recall ever seeing one again.

    Like 0
  14. John

    I would like to buy every one of these that comes up for sale. I had one, and like some one above said, I’ve regretted the decision to sell it ever since. You are always glad that these things are not fast because that lets you enjoy them longer. We took our honeymoon in one and my wife and I buzzed up and down Big Thompson Canyon, went up Fall River Road, drove to the top of Pikes Peak, and crossed Kansas and Missouri in it. We were gone two weeks, we drove 3000 miles, and we spent $31.00 for gas. My Dad bought us a set of Pirelli P3 radials for it before we left. They lasted over 90K miles. Nothing ever broke (and its a good thing because we only had a couple of hundred bucks for the whole trip). Great cars. Bringing home our first Christmas Tree in it was one of the high points of or early years. Oh, and my wife reminds me that if you think Semi wheels look big when you are sitting in one, you should see what its like to have an Elk come up to your front bumper.

    Like 1
  15. Will Owen

    The first one I saw was being offloaded to a Bartlesville OK dealer. I was a 19-YO USAF one-striper making a big fat $85 per month out at the radar site west of town, so the asking price of $1800 might as well have been $18,000 … but it was baby blue, which for some reason I found heartbreakingly appealing. I keep remembering it as having whitewalls, though I’m sure that was wishful thinking; this WAS 1960, remember.

    I did stay small when I finally bought a car: a ’59 US-market Fiat 500, traded in a year or so later on a ’60 Morris Mini. I even had a badly wrinkled Mk II Sprite – the PO did a “wall job” on it when he knew it’d be repossessed – but I never did get my Bugeye.

    Like 0
  16. Andrew S MaceMember

    “The only real defect in the car is this small mark that has some filler in it.” What worries me is that, quite possibly, the car has a LOT of filler in it. It appears to have been “deseamed” at some point; my concern is that the work to do that might have involved a fair bit of filler, which also might involve some significant rust?

    Like 0
  17. Del

    At first I laughed.

    But he has a special little Bug Eye here.

    I think its worth it.

    But John Voight can walk faster than this in top gear

    Like 0
    • Tony C.

      Yeah Del but he wouldn’t enjoy it as much as driving this.

      Like 0

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