Saturday, April 18, 2009

Frog-Eyed Sprite

I graduated in summer 1965 & started work in October.
In those days, finding a job was easy – I applied to 7 car companies, got interviews at all of them & job offers from all except the one I wanted.
That was average.
I am sorry for people looking for jobs today.

By spring 1966 I felt I could afford to upgrade my car from the 1952 Jowett Javelin 6-seater saloon to something a bit newer & more appropriate for, & appealing to, a young, single, freshly-wage-earning engineer.
Logic & emotion met happily at a 1960 Austin-Healey Sprite Mk1, universally known as the "Frog-Eyed Sprite".
Except in America where it is the "Bug-Eyed Sprite".
That's my one above, trying to be a removals van.

If you had to sum up the Sprite in one word, it would almost certainly be "cute", or maybe "friendly" or just "nice" &/or "little".
Apart from being really small, it has the big eyes & hesitant smile of a Walt Disney baby animal, so the automatic reaction, even from old ladies, is "Ahhh!" – as was the case later with the 1992 Renault Twingo.

What a pity people think cars have to be "aggressive" to succeed now.
That is a tendency that needs reversing.
This illustration is from:

The Sprite was introduced in 1958 as BMC's entry-level sports car, because the MGs had grown too big, and it used a lot of Austin A35 parts including the 948cc engine (but with twin SU carburettors), gearbox, front suspension & rear axle.
Fortunately, it used the rack & pinion steering from the Morris Minor instead of the nasty steering box from the A35.
Rear suspension was unique, by trailing quarter-elliptic springs & trailing arms.

It was probably one of the earliest open cars with unitary body/chassis & the structure was simple & quite rigid.
The complete front end lifted for access to the engine, whereas there was no external access at all to the luggage, which was kept, unsecured, in the big space behind the seats, along with the spare wheel, jack, tools, hood, hood frame & side windows.
They were sliding plastic side windows in metal frames you could screw to the tops of the doors, or keep in plastic bags in the boot.
The doors had no locks or external handles – you simply reached inside & used the internal handles.
After the Morgan 3 wheeler, all that did not shock me as much as it would today.
It even had (non-retracting) 3-point seat belts, the first I had used, though I think they were an optional extra then.

Performance would usually be described as "nippy" which meant it went slightly quicker than the equivalent-engined saloon cars of the period.
Handling was very different from those cars though, due to the lower build, firmer suspension & very quick steering.
In fact I found the steering far too sensitive and with a tendency to over-steer, which made cornering an effortless finger-twitch affair, but needed watching.
My first, and very successful, action was to build an arm rest into the driver's door to stabilize the steering hand on bumps.
I tamed the twitchiness down progressively with slightly bigger rear tyres, much wider rear wheels & a front anti-roll bar.

There was a big market in performance-improvement equipment for most cars in those days, and particularly for the BMC engines used by the Sprite, A35, Minor, Mini etc.
One method was supercharging & Shorrocks produced a kit with a belt-driven vane-type compressor which could be very simply bolted on, increasing power by about 50% & halving 0-60mph time.
I found a kit, second-hand, in "Exchange & Mart" which was the '60s equivalent of eBay.
It was really as simple to fit as they said & I was soon enjoying hugely better performance, better flexibility, and reduced noise, but with, of course, heavier fuel consumption.
Predictably, I then had a big accident which could have been serious, but luckily wasn't.
I hope & believe I learned enough to avoid having any more…

After that, I ran the red Sprite, now with a second-hand white bonnet, for a couple of years, in which time it was thoroughly enjoyable, though increasingly rusty, as was the tradition with British cars of the '50s & '60s.
While I was fitting the white bonnet, I revised the fixings.
Instead of hinging at the back & opening at the front, which was a heavy lift & gave awkward access, I hinged it at the front & clipped it at the back with Triumph Herald latches.
This was much easier to manipulate & gave better access.
Don't understand why they did not do it like that originally.

Some links with pictures & information for the curious:

Although less than 50,000 were built, between 1958 & 1961, there seem to be lots still running, with enthusiasts' clubs all over the world.
Not surprising, for such a likeable, cheap, simple toy.

Parting thot: "Adults are just children who earn money." - Kenneth Branaugh


  1. A great shot of the Frogeye. If you can remember the registration number, I may be able to let you know if it still exists.