A no-frills sports car. Already we’re thinking Austin-Healey Sprite and MG Midget, because nothing before or since has so perfectly encapsulated low-budget, wind-in-the-hair motoring. And now we’re celebrating the 50th birthday of the Sprite.
Yes, it was in May 1958 that the Sprite was launched to a world that was familiar with cheap sports cars but usually associated them with flawed specials, flexible chassis and wayward handling. Compared with its contemporaries, the Sprite was practically perfect in every way.
You wouldn’t think so from the specification, though. A 948cc BMC A-series engine. Front suspension from the Austin A35. Drum brakes. Quarter-elliptic rear leaf springs. An A35 gearbox and rear axle. A Morris Minor steering rack. A body so basic that it didn’t even include a boot lid. Tiny sliding side windows and the most primitive hood possible. Talk about the sum being greater than the parts!
How did this work? By being stitched together around a monocoque body/chassis so stiff that it took even its own designers by surprise. With little in the way of body roll and a wonderfully precise, high-ratio steering set-up, the Sprite would react to a driver’s every input.
Later Sprites and the similar MG Midgets that followed were granted larger engines, more fulsome interiors and much-improved weather gear. But for character, for unadulterated fun, it’s the early cars that win – and we have three of the best for you here.
The most important of all
This is the one. The most important Sprite in the world. It’s a beauty, perfectly restored and only recently arrived back in the UK after over 40 years in relatively quiet exile. We’re glad to have PBL 75 (chassis number AN5/507) back.
Leaf through original Sprite publicity material and you’ll find PBL popping up with remarkable regularity, but there’s much more to its history than it being a mere camera star. It was one of a small batch of Sprites built between November 1957 and early January 1958, the first true Sprites to be produced after testing of ‘Q2’, the second of the only two Sprite prototypes built.
No-one has been able to confirm how many cars were built in this first batch, but we do know that PBL 75 was registered in January 1958 (along with sister car PBL 74) and went on to be used as a test and development car in the French Alps and at MIRA, where it was subjected to 1000 miles of the dreaded pave.
It was this testing that led to the discovery of a weakness in the chassis, rectified in productiom by welding plates into the rear inner wheelarch and floor area. The plates in PBL 75 are bolted in though, one of several points that identify it as something special.
Meanwhile, PBL 75 was on its way to stardom, being photographed by BMC’s head of publications Ron Beech, with a pretty blonde in both left- and right-hand seats. Ron’s pictures were used across adverts, posters, postcards, books, press packs and magazines. Sadly, efforts to track down the blonde model have so far failed.
Roy Salvadori was also filmed in PBL 75, with ex-racer John Bolster commentating. ‘You’ll never tire of driving the Sprite’ was one of his suitably plummy proclamations, and the stills from the resultant publicity film again appear across all manner of PR material.
From there, PBL 75 was prepared for the press launch of the Sprite at Monte Carlo in 1958. It’s suspected that PBL 75 didn’t actually make it to Monte Carlo though, but instead stayed behind for magazine road tests – so many in fact that Geoffrey Healey later commented that ‘PBL 75 must be one of the most photographed cars of all time’.
Once the fuss of the launch had died down, PBL was relegated to Healey family runaround, before passing through numerous owners. But in 1965 it was bought by Phil Evett who, two years later, emigrated to Australia, taking PBL 75 with him. The car was restored between 1973 and ’84, and then again between 1998 and 2006. Early in 2007 it was sold to its current owner, and shipped back to England.
Of the other early Sprites, PBL 74 is known to exist but is hidden away in, apparently, a very poor state and unseen in public for years. Another early car, chassis AN5/505, is in Mississippi, USA. Prototype Q1 is lost, while it’s thought that Q2 was used to build the Super Sprite, featured overleaf. So you see, PBL 75 is still quite a star.
XQHS Super Sprite
With hindsight it seems an odd project. But ensconced in London’s infamous Steering Wheel Club in 1957, Donald Healey and Leonard Lee, chairman of engine manufacturer Coventry Climax, clearly thought differently. There they conceived the idea of a lower-cost successor to the successful Austin-Healey 100S sports racer. It would be based around the soon-to-be-launched Sprite but would be powered by a Coventry Climax FWA.
And so was born the XQHS Super Sprite, as its works designation went, chassis number ST469 (ST stood for Special Test). Almost inevitably, the project was delayed by the launch of the Sprite and the early production problems that went with it, but by late 1958 a unique lightweight alloy body had been fashioned by the Donald Healey Motor Company’s chief panel man Bill Buckingham, working from a design by Les Ireland.
As you can see, the design was strikingly different from the Frogeye’s, with a deep swage line, conventionally positioned headlights and front-hinged bonnet for improved engine access. It was a full four inches wider than the Frogeye, with every exterior panel – even the sills – completely different. There’s nothing in the way of weatherproofing and the windscreen is a cut-down Sprite item.
Under the skin, though, it was conventional Sprite. The chassis is almost certainly that of the prototype known as Q2, as confirmed by chief experimental engineer Roger Menadue and backed up by the many handmade sections still visible – the unused bonnet hinge boxes on the bulkhead are riveted in, rather than welded; the inner wings are clearly not machine-pressed.
Coventry Climax had provided one of its R&D engines for the project, which was then mated to the stock BMC gearbox. All the same, the front crossmember and the battery tray had to be altered to accommodate the longer engine, but the only other serious mechanical change over the Sprite was the four-wheel disc brakes, a first for the model and a big improvement over the tiny drums used all-round on the road car. The Super Sprite consequently served as a test bed for the disc-braked Sebring Sprite works race cars.
The Healeys had big plans for the Super Sprite project: big enough to require funding from BMC. Full costings to build an initial production batch were handed over to BMC, but (perhaps not surprisingly) to no avail. In his book More Healeys, Geoff Healey explained that ‘BMC would never agree to it being put into production and finally squashed the project, telling us not to work with engine manufacturers from outside the group’.
So instead, the Super Sprite became a mobile test bed and general fun car, run by the Healey family on trade plates until finally being road registered in September 1962 and sold on. It passed to club racer Barrie Hart for £625, who raced it until 1966. At some point before 1970 the Coventry Climax engine was replaced by a tweaked 1098cc A-series, never to return – the Super Sprite’s current owner would love to track down Coventry Climax serial number FWA/ET/515/6156.
By 1974 the Super Sprite had covered 24,000 miles and had gained the rear lights it currently wears rather than the individual Lucas units it started life with. It went through a variety of owners, gained a respray, and eventually ended up with its current keepers in 2006. They use it as a fun car (and it’s a lot of fun, being 150kg lighter than a stock Frogeye), just as the Healeys did, but it’s never been restored and even now the mileage is just 30,100. Expect that to rise rapidly in this, its 50th year.
The works Midget
Yes, this is a works-built MG Midget, even if it does look more like an MGB. No, it’s not one of the famous ‘Jacobs Midgets’. In fact, it’s the little-known third of just three coupés built by the factory in 1962, designed for racing and successful thanks to reduced weight and improved aerodynamics.
Former works MG driver and later private team entrant Dick Jacobs had been left without an MG model to campaign following the demise of the MGA. And then, the story goes, he was sat at his desk contemplating a side profile of the new MG Midget in the launch brochure, while also flicking through an issue of The Motor, which happened to include a similar side profile of the Aston Martin DB4GT. Jacobs superimposed one on top of the other, had his eureka moment and sped off to the BMC competitions department, where his enthusiasm clearly infected general manager John Thornley and chief engineer Syd Enever.
And so Jacobs got his two Midget coupés (the ‘Jacobs Midgets’ as they’re now known), while a third, near-identical coupé – this car – was driven by John Milne, an MG works driver based in Scotland and well-connected in the Scottish motor sport scene. Milne later bought the car, and it’s now campaigned by stepson James Willis and is a familiar sight at European circuits.
The three coupes were true giant-killers, with the Jacobs cars achieving great success in English club racing and Milne’s car doing the same north of the border – but also in the famed Nürburgring 500km, where it raced in 1963, ’64 and ’65, achieving strong class results (third, fourth and fifth respectively).
The secret of these cars’ many successes was their clever construction, using the steel chassis of the Sprite and Midget with a lightweight aluminium body attached by rivets and epoxy resin. This lowered weight to 1232lb, but it was the reduction in drag by adding the droop snoot and coupé roof that really made the difference – it was reckoned that at 100mph the coupé needed 13bhp less than the standard car.
Every additional horsepower counted, for the engine was a mere 995cc initially, derived from the maximum capacity overbore of the standard 948cc unit. In 1963, though, the Milne car ran with a supercharger, but this caused the engine to become so hot that it would overheat if it remained stationary for more than about 30 seconds. Torque was impressive, however, for it was Enever’s intention that the car would be able to lap Brands Hatch almost exclusively in top gear.
Then came a normally aspirated 1293cc A-series, followed by an 1138cc in 1965, but things were moving on and the coupé’s last gasp was in Modsports in the late 1960s, briefly sporting nasty wheelarch extensions. Then it sat around, making occasional appearances until a restoration and racing resurrection in the 1990s. James is planning a supercharger next, but this time with more efficient cooling. Now that will be impressive.
Rivalry, jealousy and revenge: the plot of a Shakespeare play? No, just the story of how that other Warwickshire-born national treasure, the Sprite, reached production 50 years ago.
The problem with the British Motor Corporation was that it never really existed: the ‘merger’ in 1952 between Austin and the Morris empire – actually an Austin takeover – left deep and lasting resentment on both sides. The former bitter rivals started co-operating only when they perceived the outside threat from Triumph and Leyland, by which time it was too late.
Within BMC, the MG Car Company managed to carve itself a niche as the group’s specialist sports car factory. But it didn’t help that BMC’s abrasive chairman Leonard Lord had crossed swords with MG people many years before, when he was working as Morris’s right-hand man.
A subsequent row between the two men had seen Lord leave to join Austin, vowing to take his revenge on Morris.
Since the formation of BMC, the MG factory had been making the Austin-Healey 100, designed by the small independent Healey firm and adopted by Austin. This led to a long delay in MG receiving approval for its own medium-sized sports car, the MGA. So when Leonard Lord met up with Donald Healey at the 1956 Motor Show and asked him to design a ‘little bug’, the kind of cheap runabout a chap could keep in his bike shed, he knew there would be jealousy at MG. But Healey is said to have costed the new model at £300, whereas MG had always maintained no sports car cheaper than its £900 MGA could be economically viable.
The Healey factory had the first prototype running by Christmas. It was designed by Gerry Coker, who had styled the 100, with Donald’s son Geoffrey overseeing the chassis. Codenamed Q1, it was presented to the Austin top brass at Longbridge, receiving the go-ahead for production on February 20, 1957. Further development followed, after which the tooling for the body panels was made. A second prototype, Q2, was built, seemingly from production panels, probably in late autumn 1957.
When production began at MG’s Abingdon factory is a moot point – records give the lowest chassis number as AN5 501, built on March 31, 1958. Actually, the first cars made are likely to have been 503 and 507 (PBL 75), which were registered in January 1958. The earliest build dates recorded in the production trace are for chassis number 556, built February 21-25 and marked ‘Vienna Show’, and chassis 526, built February 26-27, labelled ‘Geneva Show’. Neither car made it to these events, and it seems likely they were diverted to development and tested to destruction, as both were later rebuilt. Structural problems had surfaced.
MG man Don Hayter, designer of the MGB, took part in the testing: ‘The Sprite came to us having supposedly been fully tested, but I think it had only ever been driven on the road. I don’t think it had been on the pav� at MIRA and perhaps hadn’t been driven at all fully loaded. I took one of the very first cars off the MG production line and the first thing I did with it was to fill the tank, pack the boot and attach a luggage rack with a 35lb load, just like owners would. Problems soon showed up – the cars were folding apart along the rear bulkhead.’ The production line was put into reverse and trim removed from the 80 or so cars built, for strengthening plates and brackets to be added. March 31 is probably the date the production line restarted.
So, if the way the Sprite reached production was occasionally a comedy of errors, it certainly wasn’t a full-blown Shakespearean tragedy – that would come later with the Leyland years.