Smiling Back At You: 1961 Austin Healey Sprite

Every once in a while, a car comes along that ends up being more than the sum of its parts. Take this 1961 Austin Healey Sprite being sold here on craigslist in Dayton, Tennessee for $16,500. Its engine and many of its suspension components were lifted from the parts bins of British Motor Company economy cars. The stampings for the body were simple and made up the first use of unit construction in a sports car, saving the expense and weight of a full frame. The whole thing was cheap and easy to produce, and it made sports car ownership possible for over 49,000 enthusiasts around the world. Critics called them primitive, but owners fell in love anyway.

This relentless drive to make the car cheaper, and thus simpler, made the car even better than designed. Take for example the iconic front end of the Sprite. A lot of people are unaware that one of the most beautiful faces in the history of sports cars has some penny pinching accountants to thank for its cheeky good looks. When Donald Healey designed the Austin Healey Sprite, his aim was to provide a cheap car to the masses. The headlights on the prototype were designed to rotate up, much like those later seen on the Porsche 928. However, accountants balked at the price of this luxury, so the front end was designed so the headlights were in a fixed, upright position. This ended up being the little car’s most enduring feature, with fans in Europe calling them “frogeyes,” and their stateside fans calling it the “bugeye.”

Under the hood, or, as the English say, bonnet, lies a 948 cc four cylinder engine derived from the one in the Morris Minor. Producing just 43 horsepower, the engine was certainly not going to help the owner do any NASCAR burnouts. However, going back to the cheaper and simpler theme, the car was amazingly light. If you have only 1,477 pounds to push around, especially for a car that was designed for windy and narrow British roads, 43 horsepower isn’t too terrible a handicap. If it is, the aftermarket for this car provided then and now all manner of accessories to boost horsepower.

The interior was also a study in simplicity. The seats were light, and they tilted forward or could be lifted out to access the cargo area over the rear axle. Once again, because of simplicity and stinginess, the car had no opening trunk. The dash held only as many gauges as needed and the only door handles were on the inside. To get in, you had to reach in through the side curtains. Of course, these cars relied on side curtains to keep the weather out because they were cheaper and lighter than roll up glass windows.

The Sprite featured here has benefitted from many of the improvements that have been added by enthusiasts and the aftermarket over the years. It boasts Minilite wheels, a larger 1275 cc engine from a later Sprite, a front disc brake conversion, a roll bar, three point seat belts, and many other additions that transform the car from a good sports car to a great one.  One of the most important additions is that of a five speed Datsun/Rivergate transmission conversion to make better use of the small engine’s power band and to make cruising at interstate speeds a whole lot more comfortable and quieter by cutting down the number of engine revolutions when you drop it into fifth gear.

All and all, this is a very well sorted little Bugeye that has been updated to make it much more at home on American roads. These little cars handle great, and they are surprisingly comfortable for drivers and passengers of nearly all sizes.  It would be a great car for cruising up the Blue Ridge Parkway, or for touring New England during the fall. What kind of adventures would you take this little beauty on?

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Comments

  1. Ben Kline

    Tempting as my Midget could use a sibling.

    • Pfk1106

      Funny,
      My first car was a white bugeye, my 2nd, a mark 1 midget like yours. I loved the spartan elements of the cars.

  2. Dolphin Member

    Having had a ’58 Sprite as my first sportscar, a few observations…

    – The Sprite had a unibody, but I don’t think it was the first street sportscar to have a unibody. That would probably be the 1948 356 Porsche.

    – This car has a single Weber carb in place of two of the smallest SUs. It also looks to be in pretty good condition.

    – I like the roll bar for this car, especially since the guy I sold my Sprite to rolled it. He survived, but I have been gunshy of roadsters without a roll bar ever since…..except for the Tri-Carb Healey that I later rolled, which didn’t have a roll bar either. But I promise I got real gunshy of roadsters without a rollbar after that.

    – This car also looks like it has a lot of good mods that mostly seem to improve the car, but not change its appearance very much. The engine / transmission changes look especially good to me…..along with that roll bar.

    – The original 1958 Sprite had a list price of $1800 & change. A lot of people thought that was very inexpensive for a new sportscar, but it still seemed like a lot to me at the time.

    – My father got me a ’58 Sprite a couple of years later from his friend at a wrecking yard for $550. It just needed a new layshaft and first/reverse gear, which we—well, him mostly—replaced in our home garage. I think I have told this story before. He slung a strong rope under the oil pan and after unbolting the engine & transmission from everything, put a long 2X4 under the rope and we just stood up with the 2X4 over our shoulder and lifted the engine + transmission out. Went back in the same way. First & reverse gear weren’t synchro, so were fairly simple to deal with….which he did while I watched.

    • Pfk1106

      I think the laygear issue was common. My midget had a chip in it, clanged like a bell in 1st and reverse.

  3. Howard A Member

    How could a jerk drive this? Big smile, happy drivers. Can’t you see the angry exec. coming home in his “angry bumble bee” looking new car, hops in his Bugeye,,,ahhh, what crisis? Problem with Spriget’s, is they are horribly inept for US travel today. The owner here clearly has taken care of that. Probably way over 100 hp, in a 1000 lb car, that’s impressive. At least they kept the British motor ( many drop Toyota power in these, BLASPHEMY!!) But it’s still small. People just can’t see you. Nicest Bugeye I’ve seen, no question. Newer Midget shown, but as you can see, the car isn’t even in the mirror’s view on the trucks. http://www.mgexp.com/phile/3/182346/Midget_between_2_trucks.jpg

  4. jdjonesdr

    Needs an orange flag on a whip antenna in the back.

  5. Bob Hess

    The 1275 in one of our Bugeye race cars puts out about 115 HP. We are regulated on how much we can do to the engines but you can pull 165 out of the full production race engines. A good street 1275 puts out around 85 HP and it’s all torque. Only problem with a big engine street car is running it without beefing up the suspension. Bigger front springs, bigger front sway bar, panhard rod and tighter shocks in the rear (heavier oil) and you have something safer to drive. Flipped our brand new ’62 Midget due to the soft suspension. Car was back on the road in 4 weeks but I never drove another one without suspensions mods.

  6. Jay E.

    Had a Bugeye back in my youth. Really fun car, even with the (ahem) crashing problems. This is one of the nicest ones I have seen and probably is worth the asking price if you really gotta have one. I’d love to take it for a test drive! But, once again, 16K buys you A LOT of used car these days. I had a very unnerving episode with a semi ( apparently he couldn’t see the small scar so low next to his trailer before he changed lanes and literally went over the top of me) and there are so many more semi’s on the road I think I would be constantly trying not to be next to one. Third brake light on the roll bar is a great idea. I’d drive it up West Coast on the 101.

  7. Martin Horrocks

    @ Bob Hess

    Can´t see 165 from A series for more than a micro second. 130bhp maybe on a very expensive race engine, which is a triumph of modern development

    Bugeye was my first car, always raises fond memory and still some respect! Minimal does little harm.

  8. Greg Member

    What would I do with one? Living in Northern California, I’d take highway 1 as far as I could go!

  9. Bruce Best

    One of the best smiles per miles cars ever made. Crude, simple and cheap but ahhhhh the memories you will make. I agree with the previous comment that it is hard to be unhappy in one of these for any length of time.

    As a note if a sudden rain storm overtakes you on the interstate. Have your side curtains in place and DO NOT STOP. With the exception of the back of your head and ears you will stay dry. Until you hit that ramp with the stop sign at the bottom. Then you get drenched.

    I suggest a toneau cover in place over the passengers seat, the side curtains in and the top down for a early fall drive as the trees change colors. That is just one of the memories I have had with one of these.

  10. Bob Hess

    Martin… F-Production SCCA 1275 Spridgets routinely run in the 150 to 160 range on horsepower. Billet cranks, totally modified heads, .040 overbores, Carrillo rods, cams that make NASCAR’s look like go karts, etc. Our flywheels weigh 6 pounds, the aluminum clutch weighs 5, no harmonic balancer, carbs look like like garbage cans.. Just so you get the picture, our two 948 race engines make 100 hp on the dyno at 9,800 rpm. They have been run regularly since they were built for the 1998 SCCA Runoffs in Atlanta. With the exception of the bearings and rings, and pistons on one engine, they are still running.

  11. Dave

    Loved my friend’s back in the 60’s,have a ’90 Miata now.

  12. Jerry Brentnell

    i remember a guy that used to turn up a the local cruise nights with one of these he put a 394 olds engine with a 4 speed with a narrowed olds rear end to say it was fast is a understatement

  13. Ric Parrish

    Had a bugeye on Guam, totally cool cruising the Island. Also had a TR 3, but just after painting it off white,(best paint job of my career, well not including our 62 Roman Red Vette), it was stollen and hidden in the jungle.

  14. Mark-A

    How about a Turbo Mazda MX-5 or Miata engine & associated upgrades? http://www.britishv8.org/Other/BobChartier.htm

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