The Austin Healey Mk1 ‘Frogeye’ Sprite was built as an affordable route to sports car fun. And while it is the wonderfully cute looks that endures in the minds of enthusiasts, the Frogeye’s appeal is more than skin deep. It remains one of the most joyful driving experiences money can buy, even if it’s not as affordable as it used to be.
While its underpinnings were humble Morris Minor and Austin A35 fare, the Frogeye Sprite was an ambitious piece of kit in 1958. It was Britain’s first monocoque sports car, had a clam-shell bonnet and the designers even wanted to fit pop-up headlamps similar to those later fitted to the Porsche 928. This never happened thanks to the costs involved so the headlamps were fixed upright, lending the Sprite its signature ‘smiley face’. The beauty of a Sprite is its simplicity. Back in 1958, costs were kept to a minimum thanks to a brutally short list of standard trim. Everything from bumpers to the door handles and boot lid were deleted. In this sense, the Sprite paved the way for later lightweight sports cars like the Lotus Elan. This makes the Frogeye light. Very light. And it needs to be, because power comes from an A35 engine that looks lost even in the Sprite’s tiny engine bay. This has since led to a lot of modification, with many owners pinching the carburettors from the Mk2 Sprite or even replacing the engine completely. Very little changed during the Mk1’s three year production run, other than the addition of sliding side windows near the end of its life. In 1961 the Frogeye was replaced by the more conventional looking Mk2 and MG’s sister car, the Midget.
Rust is the biggest killer of Frogeye Sprites. The good thing is there isn’t any fiddly trim on them, as bumpers and wire wheels were not standard items. Inspect the whole body closely, paying particular attention to the sills, the floor, the area surrounding the suspension mounting points, the lower wings, inside and outside the wheel arches and the A-posts. Have a look at the car’s panel gaps. If the gaps are uneven it likely means there is structural damage somewhere. Another way to assess the structural health of a Sprite is to check the doors and bonnet open and close without any problems. Because the bonnet is a large clamshell the hinges can often show signs of strain and may need replacing. Also inspect the grille and windscreen surround for signs of corrosion. This goes for the bumpers too if they are specified. Another area of concern are the rear spring mounting boxes, which often rot. An easy way to work this out is to see if there’s less than three inches between each wheel arch and the top of the tyre. This indicates that the boxes have likely collapsed or a spring has broken.
The engine should put up far less of a fuss. The A35 engine is small, cheap and easy to work on. Inspect the condition of the oil and coolant, because this is still a classic car and oil leaks are a rite of passage, and make sure the oil is at a healthy pressure. If there’s less than 40psi at 1000rpm when the engine is warm then it’s time for a rebuild. If there’s an overbearing rattle when the engine starts then the carburettor heat shield may have been damaged by over-tightening, breaking the rear lug on the manifold. Bear in mind though that timing chain rattles and noisy tappets are to be expected.
The original transmission also came from the Austin A35, however many owners have since swapped them in for a later Sprite/Midget gearbox because they are tougher and have synchromesh on first gear. You can tell if the original unit is still fitted by checking if the gearbox casing down the back of the engine is smooth. You should expect some whining when in gear on both transmissions. However, if the noise is particularly pronounced or its rattling then the layshaft bearings are close to failure. Thankfully it isn’t hard to find a replacement unit. If a larger engine has been fitted then the half-shafts tend to fail more easily, but stronger replacements are readily available.
Continuing with the theme of borrowed parts, the running gear originates from a couple of sources. The front suspension is from the A35, while the rack and pinion steering rack is from the Morris Minor. If you can, jack up the car and rock the wheels one by one (while someone applies the brakes). If there is movement then the kingpin or fulcrum pins need replacing. They will also need greasing every few months to stop them seizing or wearing. The Sprite tends to eat through front lever arm shock absorbers, but the rear is tougher. You can quickly test the health of the absorbers by bouncing each corner of the car. If the car doesn’t settle quickly then you’ll need new dampers.
You shouldn’t have too much trouble with the Sprite’s electrics, especially considering how barren the standard spec is. Check the car’s lights and ignition system because even this can be bodged if someone’s done a budget repair.
Again, Sprite’s are pretty basic so there isn’t much trim to go missing. However this is an old car now and many cabins are showing their age. Sagging seats and natty mats or carpets are an obvious sign. The good news is that replacement parts are easy and cheap to come by, so its not a deal breaker if the interior needs some TLC. While the Sprite originally came with an oversized steering wheel, many owners have since replaced it with a smaller and more manageable item. It might be tricky to find an original these days.
This is where the Sprite really comes into its own. You can instantly tell you’re in something special when you get behind the wheel. The Sprite is tiny even by Fifties standards, and the low-slung body matched with narrow dimensions makes it faster than a modern Porsche on most tight back roads. Not that you’ll need to go too quickly. The Sprite demands neat and precise inputs, maxing out every last rev and savouring the steering feel. It’s no rocket but thanks to its lightweight design you don’t need to be breaking the speed limit to enjoy the Sprite. Bear in mind that if you’re over six foot the seating position is best described as snug, so it isn’t practical for long journeys unless you’re built like a jockey.
The Frogeye Sprite was designed to be a budget sports car, but modern values are climbing. You can pick up a natty project car for around £5,000, with prices rising rapidly for anything remotely road worthy. A rough and ready example is priced between £10,000 and £14,000, with good examples demanding anything between £15,000 and £20,000. If you’re after an immaculate garage queen then you’re looking at upwards of £21,000.
A healthy Sprite shouldn’t cost much to maintain, and the fuel economy is strong thanks to its lightweight and humble A35 motor. The only real costs relate to replacement engines and transmissions. A lot of owners choose to fit the larger engines from later Sprites and Midgets. This is absolutely fine, but it can put strain on the existing gearbox and running gear if it’s not adapted to match, leading to more replacement part costs. However these should be manageable as they are all standard Austin Healey fare.
Frogeye Sprites were also entered into a number of national and international race meetings. The Sprite notably won its class on the 1958 Alpine Rally with John Sprinzel and Willy Cave. It later won its class at the 1959 Sebring 12 Hours, and was regularly entered into a variety of races and rallies by enthusiastic privateers. These early successes spurred the creation of the Sebring Sprite, arguably the most iconic racing Sprite.
The Frogeye Sprite is everything that is brilliant about the post-war British sports car. It’s small, light, agile and has one of the most loveable faces in motoring. While prices are rising and it can no longer be called an everyman’s classic, the Sprite is worth every penny.
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