Austin-Healey Sprite Mk1 Buying Guide

The 'Frogeye' or 'Bugeye' Sprite is basic but incredibly good fun, more agile than almost any other sports car made. Here's how to buy one

How much to pay

• Project £5000-9000 • Good £14,000-20,000 • Concours £21,000+ •

Overview

Practicality ★★
Running costs ★★★★
Spares ★★★★
DIY Friendly ★★★★★
Investment ★★★
Desirability ★★★★

Affordable sports cars had existed before the arrival of the Austin-Healey Sprite, which first went on sale in 1958. But those cars were invariably low-volume models of variable quality, from small manufacturers with little in the way of dealer support.

Then the ‘Frogeye’ or 'Bugeye' Sprite arrived, Britain’s first monocoque sports car. Designed to be sports car motoring at its most basic, the Sprite featured a 948cc engine borrowed from the Austin A35 and Morris Minor, mated to a four-speed manual gearbox.

To cut costs there were no door handles, no heater and not even a boot lid, but this was a car that was cheap and cheerful rather than cheap and nasty – you’d never think that something so basic could be so much fun.

The Sprite’s simplicity is why it’s such a riot to drive. It may not be powerful but it’s ultra-light and surprisingly perky, and if you invest in a few upgrades to improve power output and raise the gearing, it’s capable of keeping up with modern traffic.

The tragedy is that while the Sprite was created for those on a tight budget, values have climbed sharply in recent years. That doesn’t make the diminutive sportster any less enjoyable of course, but it does mean that owners are more likely to be collectors and as a result many of these cars now get very little use.

Your AutoClassics Austin-Healey Sprite Inspection Checklist

Engine

The A35 donated its 948cc engine, but there were stronger bearings, exhaust valves and valve springs for the Sprite version – plus twin SU carburettors instead of a single Zenith. An original Sprite Mk1 engine’s serial number starts 9C-U-H; most cars have had a replacement powerplant and in many cases it’s a bigger-displacement A-series unit, either 1098cc or 1275cc from a later Sprite or MG Midget.

The A-Series engine doesn’t need to be mollycoddled too much, but you can expect oil leaks as plugging them altogether is impossible. A rebuild is due if there’s much less than 40psi of oil pressure at 1000rpm once the engine is warm. The big end shells on a 948cc engine might give just 40,000 miles while a 1275cc engine’s piston rings and bores wear after about twice this mileage. Run the engine with the oil filler cap removed and if there are obvious fumes, a rebuild is on the cards.

Noisy tappets and a rattling timing chain are to be expected, but if there’s a loud rattle as the engine is started, it may be that the carburettor heat shield has been fractured by over-enthusiastic tightening, which breaks the rear lug on the manifold.

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Gearbox

The Sprite came with a four-speed manual gearbox with synchromesh on all gears except first. If the original gearbox is fitted you’ll be able to see a smooth gearbox casing down the back of the engine. However, a lot of Sprite Mk1s have had their original transmission swapped for a later unit (from a 1098cc or 1275cc Spridget), with a ribbed casing. These are stronger and also feature synchromesh on first.

Whichever gearbox is fitted it’s likely that there will be some whining in first gear, which is nothing to worry about. However, if it’s really noisy or accompanied by rattling, the layshaft bearings are on their way out. By this point the gearbox may also jump out of gear, but rebuilt gearboxes aren’t hard to track down.

Halfshafts can break, especially if a bigger engine has been fitted. Stronger parts are available; these are given away by BTA 806 being stamped on the outer end.

Suspension and brakes

The lower fulcrum pins and kingpins in the front suspension must be greased every few months if they’re not to seize up or wear, leading to stiff steering. Jack up the car by the front crossmember and grip each wheel top and bottom. As someone applies the footbrake try rocking the wheel; detectable movement means the kingpin or fulcrum pins (lower links) need to be replaced.

The front lever arm shock absorbers don’t last long but the rears are much more durable. Do a bounce test at each corner and see if the car quickly settles. If not, fresh dampers are needed.

The dual master cylinder controls the brake and clutch hydraulics. Check for leaks because if there are any you’ll have to replace the cylinder and bleed both clutch and brakes.

Bodywork

Predictably, rot is the Sprite’s biggest enemy. The biggest and most likely problem is rotten rear spring mounting boxes. If there’s much less than three inches between each wheelarch and the top of the tyre, the boxes have probably collapsed and major surgery will be required. However, it could simply be that a spring has settled or broken.

Next home in on the A-posts and sills and check how even the door gaps are. If they tighten up at the top the car is sagging in the middle and fixing this is a huge task. The front wings and valance also rust; they’re built into the rear-hinged bonnet. The seams often harbour corrosion along with the battery tray, boot floor, footwells and the floorpan behind the seats.

The lower wings, inner and outer wheelarches and the leading edge of the scuttle can all rot. If the latter is because the bonnet chafes, the front of the car could be distorted due to an impact. If a luggage rack is fitted see if the rear shrouds are distorted; these racks are sometimes overloaded, pushing everything out of shape.

The beading that separates each wing from the shrouds can mask rust. Replacing the beading is a big job which can lead to the panels being distorted, which is why getting a decent specialist to do the work is recommended.

Interior

The simple cabin originally featured rubber mats rather than carpets, but many Frogeyes now feature carpeting instead. Originally there was an over-sized two-spoke steering wheel fitted but most were swapped long ago for something smaller, usually with a wood rim; tracking down original wheels isn’t easy.

It’s not unusual for incorrect instrumentation to be fitted. The proper revcounter is driven mechanically from the dynamo and as with the rest of the instruments, rebuilt or decent used replacements are expensive, although it all tends to be reliable.

The electrics are normally dependable as they’re so simple. A heater was optional and unless one is fitted there are only ignition and lighting circuits. However, bodges aren’t unusual and the control box can fail, but new ones are available and they’re not expensive.

History

  • 1958: The Austin-Healey Sprite Mk1 debuts; within five months the screen and hood fittings are redesigned to improve weatherproofing.
  • 1960: From March redesigned sidescreens are fitted, with a sliding window instead of just a flap; sidescreens were previously optional, but standard with a factory hard top.

AutoClassics says…

With production lasting for just three years, the Austin-Healey Sprite Mk1 is rarer than you might think, with just 48,584 cars made. There’s no shortage of superbly restored examples available, although prices are no longer bargain basement.

Sprite buyers who want to use their cars are happy with non-original cars that are faster, more reliable and have stronger brakes; the crucial thing is that the car must look standard. So reversible mods such as a 1275cc engine and disc brakes are popular. Be wary of cars with a telescopic damper conversion; quite a few owners have switched back to lever arm suspension because the telescopic shock absorbers have limited travel.

Some cars have a glassfibre bonnet. Sprites with a steel bonnet are worth more, but the plastic alternative is lighter, doesn’t rust and provides better engine bay access (because it hinges from the front instead of from the bulkhead), so don’t shun a car with a glassfibre nose too readily. In the UK, genuine right-hand drive cars fetch a premium; buying in the US is fraught with problems as there are so many badly modified cars there.

Clearly you need to buy the best Sprite that you can find and afford, but a good compromise if you’re on a budget is one of the 130 glassfibre-bodied cars built by the Frogeye Car Company between 1985 and 1999. Some feature original Sprite running gear while others have a modern engine and gearbox – and they’re just as much fun as the originals, if less of a blue-chip investment.

Specifications

Austin-Healey Sprite Mk1
  Power 43bhp
  Top speed 83mph
  0-60mph 20.9sec
  Economy 35mpg

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