“More sports cars are produced in the U.K. than any other country in the world, and the Austin-Healey Sprite 111 is probably unrivalled in its class for the combination of a truly sorting performance, fine road-holding with precise control and an obvious ruggedness both of the moving parts and the basic structure.” Autocar, 24th April 1964.
By the mid-1950s the major players in the British Car industry had turned relatively small volume car manufacture into something of an art form; have a Supermarket Sweep style dash through the parts stores grabbing a selection of components intended to serve in more mundane vehicles (zero development and tooling costs there then) and hang these off a bespoke chassis and body designed to appeal to the sporty enthusiast. Having done just this with the 100/4 and 100/6, Healey, encouraged by BMC’s boss Leonard Lord, turned their hand to a ‘little’ Healey, and the Sprite was born; an open two-seater with a fairly rudimentary folding roof and just enough space for a week’s worth of luggage, assuming you were on good terms with your traveling companion. In this case the chassis and body became one, a rigid unitary construction platform composed of mostly flat panels manufactured by John Thompson Motor Pressings in Wolverhampton. Onto this Pressed Steel in Swindon mounted a virtually unstressed outer skin, the rear section being permanently attached while the front hinged upwards to reveal the engine and front suspension. The off the shelf parts were for the most part Austin A35 (suspension, front brakes, back axle, ubiquitous A Series engine and gearbox) while Morris contributed the steering rack from their Minor. All this served to keep costs to a minimum and the Sprite’s launch price of £455 plus not inconsiderable tax made it cheaper even than a Lotus 7 which not only had very few components but the buyer was expected to screw them together too.
Launched in 1958, by 1960 sales of the Sprite were tailing off and it was thought that a face lift (an apt term given the Healey’s styling) was required though with the benefit of hindsight, the downturn might have had more to do with the market in general than anything inherently wrong with the car. Having said that, some adverse comments regarding the lack of an opening boot and the ‘afterthought’ headlights perched on the bonnet may have had some influence too.
Coincidentally at that time MG were looking for a ‘starter’ model to sit below the MGA and having been up the Mini derived blind alley coded EX220/ADO34, the glaringly obvious solution was to offer an MG version of the Sprite, giving BMC two bites at the small sports car cherry. It was a strategy that was doubly sensible given the Sprite was already a cuckoo in MG’s Abingdon factory nest. A few luxury touches such as a vertical grill, external trim strips, a plusher interior and more detailed Jaeger instruments (ironically still made by Smiths who provided dials for the Sprite variant) justified a £30 higher retail price and served to differentiate the Midget from its Sprite twin, keeping both sets of brand-loyal customers happy.
Famously Sydney Enever’s MG design team were set to work on the rear of the ‘Spridget’ while the Healey boys tackled the front. As Geoffrey Healey himself so eloquently put it in his definitive work, “More Healeys: Frog-eyes, Sprites and Midgets”, “His design might not have agreed with ours.” Indeed... Sensibly Healey and Enever ducked the corporate red tape and the designs joined up, literally. To be fair to BMC, in the MK 1 Sprite the quarter elliptic rear springs fed all their forces into the bulkhead and the boot floor was only there to keep your luggage off the road. Semi elliptic springs were always planned for the MG so a redesigned rear end was necessary and it made sense for MG to come up with it. Up front a more easily opened bonnet with conventional headlights and wings was the brief, even if the original car’s legendary engine and front suspension accessibility was then compromised.
Though the most obvious development was from MK 1 to MK 11 Sprite with its new external body panels as Autocar found, the MK 111 was a similarly significant step forward both mechanically (larger main bearings in the more powerful engine for example) and practically (wind up windows and external door handles, whatever next?). As they put it, “The new Sprite is faster, holds the road better, rides more comfortably and is more habitable.”
For those of you losing sleep, we know, the MK 111 Sprite was supposedly replaced by the MK 1V in late 1966 so how come this car was registered in 1967? Part of the answer can be found in the Sprite’s chassis number which ends 64732; the documented last MK 111 is just two cars later at 64734 which was apparently built in September 1966. One can only assume some luckless dealer was tasked with shifting a late MK 111 when MK 1Vs were readily available and it took them until 9th May 1967 to do so.
The history file reveals that the Sprite changed hands a number of times in the 1990s, selling in the £4,000 to £5,500 range having apparently been restored in 1992. Just when its specification was taken in the direction of competition work is unclear though an invoice for balancing the crank in 2003 might be an indicator. Prior to that a fairly complete run of twelve MOT certificates track its mileage from around 40,000 in 1988 to 71,000 in 2004.
The trail heats up considerably in 2011 when the Healey arrived at Croft Engineering, Croft Race Circuit in North Yorkshire for what appears to be some reasonably serious competition preparation. By then it was running a 1275cc A+ engine and the team at Croft Engineering installed a roll hoop, 40 DCOE Weber carburettor and long centre branch exhaust manifold. In 2013 a Brantz Rally Tripmeter was added which may suggest some navigation-based rallying was the plan.
In 2015 the most recent private owner, an aircraft engineer, acquired the Sprite and commissioned the comprehensive rebuild of a period-correct ‘10CC’ code 1098cc engine. This was undertaken by a local expert utilising parts supplied by Peter May including heavy duty main and big end bearings (both just +10), ARP big end bolts, Omega forged flat top pistons (+20), ‘285’ profile billet camshaft with Duplex vernier drive, new inlet and exhaust valves, bronze guides, valve springs and stem seals. The result of this impressive specification was an output of 81.5 engine BHP on Peter Burgess’ rolling road.
Work was not limited to the engine and at around the same time a full suspension rebuild was carried out and a new passenger floor pan was installed.
Since then the Austin-Healey has covered some 5,000 miles and been used for hill-climbing (as shown in the photo gallery) plus presumably some enjoyable road trips given you would be unlikely to have covered that sort of distance just going up and down Shelsley Walsh!
With its offset stripe, competition number backgrounds, cool-grey painted chunky ‘Minilite’ alloy wheels, vented bonnet and deleted bumpers, the Sprite looks ready for action with a wonderfully purposeful stance.
The bodywork shows no sign of any rust and everything fits together well, particularly for a competition-oriented machine. The bonnet is a lift off lightweight fibreglass item while further kilos have been shed by substituting glass side windows for Perspex.
The Healey is presentable as far as paintwork goes and there may even be room for further improvement with some enthusiastic polishing. As shown in the photo gallery, there is a bleb near a jacking point (though this appears to be the paint lifting slightly rather than a rust bubble) plus some cracking to the rear vallance.
Sans-bumpers there isn’t much chrome-work to worry about, just lights and door handles really and that is all in good order. Alloy items such as the ‘screen surround are similarly fine and the hood is pretty much perfect in condition and fit.
The wheels are 5.5J 13 inch Performance ‘Minilites’ in nice condition. They are wrapped in lightly worn 165/70 Dunlops.
In the cockpit there are no carpets to worry about and the exposed metal is well painted and protected by textured alloy sheet in key places. A wood-rim steering wheel and aluminium gear knob are nice touches as are period-looking bucket seats and a Sabelt harness. The dashboard is pretty much Factory-simple with just the upgrade of a Smiths Classic tachometer (red-lined at 6,750) and an additional temperature gauge in place of the redundant version for fuel level. The aforementioned Brantz tripmeter and a safety cut off switch are the other competition tell-tales. The boot and sealed bulkhead are finished in matt black and they seem structurally very solid. A lightweight aluminium fuel tank has been installed with a neatly run fuel line leading from it to the fuel pump.
The engine bay is neat and tidy, containing some nice competition-oriented items such as an Odyssey battery, 40 DCOE Weber carburettor on an Oselli Engineering manifold, ultra-long centre branch manifold and aluminium catch tank.
Underneath the Sprite is very solid and pretty clean with just a light misting of oil that has spread back from the engine – all good protection! Newer suspension components are evident as is the ribbed case gearbox and neat towing eye.
The engine starts easily using the standard-for-a-Weber few pumps of the accelerator and despite the ‘fast road’ specification camshaft, after a minute or so it held an 800 RPM idle unaided at which point around 65 PSI oil pressure was showing. A delightfully raspy note from the stubby exhaust pipe added to the ‘begging to be driven’ impression. Sporting nothing too extreme as far as brakes, tyres and suspension go, the Healey is far from challenging on the road and we would suggest the build has been pitched perfectly for a sporty road car able to take in some not too taxing competition work.
The Sprite’s excellent history file contains a large number of bills dating back to the 1980s though the vast majority of these are more relevant covering the last eleven years. Some twenty-three MOT certificates going back to 1988 are present along with a selection of road tax discs and a couple of photos taken in around 2011.
Very road-usable with the option of some relaxed motor sport in the form of sprint and hill climbs, this Austin-Healey Sprite appeals on a number of levels and the only reason for it coming onto the market is the sad loss of the last private owner’s competition licence.