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Austin Healey Sprite – Part 1

INSPIRED DECISION?

Our current project car is a 1958 Austin Healey Sprite, usually known as a 'Frogeye' in UK and 'Bugeye' for the USA. Bought from Rawles Motorsport outside Alton in Hampshire in March 2010, the little white terror came with a smartly retrimmed green interior and has already demanded a replacement engine!

A blow-by-blow story has appeared in UK monthly magazine Classic Cars For Sale, and our first account is seen here.

Our pretty pictures show the Sprite during the sunny running-in period, whilst the details include the interior as supplied (yes, the gear lever knob has now been replaced!) and the original (red) exchange engine, which was fitted with oversize carburettors and tubular exhaust manifold worth at least 5 more horsepower. Since Sprout started with just 43 showroom horses, we need all the extra we can get, although the light weight (less than a later model Lotus Elise!) did deliver over 85 mph and 37-38 mpg before the rebuild.

Rear three-quarter view of white Austin Healey Sprite Mk. 1 with tonneau cover fitted.

Full frontal shot of whte Austin Healey Sprite Mk. 1

Not sure what led to this out of character purchase, aside from dangerous over-sentimentality. I drove this Sprite after seeing it presented on the web at £8450 for months. It had been stored for a couple of years at Healey specialists, Rawles Motorsport, Alton, Hants, following the death of its owner, who also had an Austin Healey 100/6.

I was fed up with watching the BMW swallow money and offer such a low resale value. Did not want to get rid of the 635CSi — it has been, and continues to be a great drive of real value to my business — but I wanted something older. Especially as some organisers of Classic car events tended to sniff at the BMW’s wide wheels and 1985 manufacture.

Against its obvious body and engine defects, Rawles could fairly cite a long history (one owner since 1979). They also offered a superbly re-trimmed interior, new hood and tonneau, plus reconditioned differential, halfshafts and a thick history file. The bucket seats are amongst the best I’ve driven in more than 40 years for their balance between street comfort and location, although the tipping back rests wobble occasionally.

Driver's seat in Austin Healey Sprite Mk. 1

 

I’ve never driven it with the hood up, but I have had a practice run at raising and lowering this new item. Huge rations of agile fun at low speeds is the Sprout recipe that puts a smile on so many faces, including mine.

Started to take the Sprite around for quotes for the bonnet and odd items I’d spotted pre-sale, like the misty white windscreen.

The 20-50 oil allowed 30 psi, but there was no mistaking that a constant 4000-4700 rpm and 50-70 mph on the spasmodic instrumentation was stressful.

It did not overheat, unless left on idle for more than 5 minutes, but the water temperature climbed and the oil pressure sagged on ascents or quicker going.

I measured the fuel consumption at 36 mpg, absorbed that those oversize carburettors spluttered beneath an alloy air box, and that the engine was not operating efficiently.

I decided to visit Mike Rolls MG in Dorset and get his opinions. The oil leak was now pronounced, but did not amount to a syringe-full and quickly stopped.

I drove away confident I had bought sound but mechanically scruffy. Now I could buy a few items—such as an original sixties woodrim steering wheel—at Nadder Valley Classics, but the car never completed that second leg to my Saturday morning sunshine run.

Sadly, a corner of that replacement O-ring gave way and the Sprite dumped all its oil, before gauge zeroed. I drifted to an engine-off stop in the safety of a farm forecourt.

Austin Healey Sprite Mk. 1 at side of road with bonnet raised.

 

After protracted negotiations I agreed to buy the Sprite at £7,500. An OK-to-average deal, worthwhile against a backdrop of excellent Frogeyes fetching £10,000 to £14,000. Or the £11,000 Rawles wanted for this Frog with the obvious problems rectified. Never mind the £3,400 to £4,200 asked for imported LHD Californian project cars for restoration…

I have since seen at least two excellent privately offered Frogs at £8000 to £9000, and I would have pursued these, knowing what I know now…

Rawles presented the car well for pick-up, but I was surprised that nobody knew if it need unleaded additives (the demo was on neat petrol). There were no bills to cover what was an obvious engine rebuild in demonic red. the oil pressure remained in the 20-25 psi band, far lower than the 50 to 60 psi talked about in period pieces or advice columns today.

The baby Austin Healey was driven just 22 miles to a one-man band who had looked after my BMW and my partner’s earlier Range Rover with excellent results over a long period. I asked for thicker oil. A classic 20-50 refill ensured, along with a filter and O-ring for the filter canister.

Other work at this stage included sorting a persistent braking problem (the driver’s side front wheel cylinder was virtually inoperative), replacing an hydraulic filler cap for the brake/clutch system that had been left off on delivery and a fan belt to replace the perished and cracked survivor.

Our family garage man did a great job, but sadly guessed on the O-ring replacement. Sprite started to leak oil on arrival after the 70 mile trip back to my Wiltshire home. Didn’t seem to be serious, and I carelessly thought all British classic motor bikes and cars came like this (Yes, I did have a Triumph Bonneville in the sixties..)

We did another 100+ miles of huge fun, with a queue of neighbours and friends eager to experience the little white wonder.

The AA were their usual efficient selves — the blokes under future pension pressure these days with financial wolves as owners — but the news from Rolls MG was even gloomier.

Not only the shell bearings but mains had been damaged — and there was plenty more. An anticipated £2,000 bill would rebuild an already mongrel motor.

Austin Healey Sprite Mk. 1 in workshop with 'clamshell' bonnet raised

Nadder Valley’s Richard Rawlingson came to the rescue with an original Sprite 948 motor. One that was stripped out of the second of two Sprites Richard had owned some six years previously. I bought cheaply with rapid delivery included in the unexpected deal.

At this writing the damaged exchange motor — which had a surprisingly good crankshaft, an MG1100 head and was served by 1.25 inch SU carburettors and a tubular manifold — is mating with the best bits of the original motor, including the factory block.

I may have another 7 horsepower for my £2,000…

 

CLICK HERE FOR PART 2