Austin Healey Sprite
In Britain it was the ‘Frog-Eyed Sprite’, in the US ‘The Bug-Eye’ – both were affectionate nicknames for a car widely loved in the late fifties, and still making old chaps in tweed caps grin today.
The Mark 1 version of the Sprite with its distinctive headlamps was designed by Donald Healey, a ‘Tally-Ho’-style British WWI flying ace turned rally driver. Healey’s simple tiny open-top car was built from parts already used on other Austin cars, keeping the price down to just £669.
Design oddities included the absence of exterior door handles – you reached inside to open the door – and lack of boot lid – you tilted the seats forward to reach under the boot lid. Bumpers were available… but as an optional extra. By the way, those bug lights were originally designed to pop up and fold flat again like a porsche 928 - but cost cutting left them stranded upright on the bonnet.
The car was built at the MG plant in leafy Abingdon in Oxfordshire and the Sprite’s version of the Morris Minor’s Austin A Series engine was upgraded with twin carburettors - but it could hardly outrun a policeman on a bicycle. Nevertheless, you sit low with legs out straight and the direct steering gave a sort of sports car feel even if the drivetrain didn't.
With common parts available from other bigger British cars of the day, it was simple to adapt though and Sprites were often tuned or fitted with bigger engines to gain more speed, eventually becoming a successful race and rally car. The Sprite series continued until 1971 and sister-brand MG launched a version called the Midget, which outlasted the Sprite and stayed on sale till 1980.
Design: front engine, rear-wheel drive, two-door convertible
Acceleration: 0-60mph in 20.5 secs
Top speed: 83mph/133kph
Price when new: £669