The Austin-Healey Sprite was famously designed as a car that “a chap could keep in his bike shed”. Given such a charmingly British mission statement, it will come as no surprise to you to hear that it is both small and mechanically straightforward; that it is also great fun to drive and very easy to maintain and own helps explain its extraordinary longevity as one of the quintessential classic British sportscars.
Not that it could ever be said to rely on brute force; its 948cc engine, taken directly from the Morris Minor, displaces almost exactly two pints, enough to generate just 43bhp and a top speed of around 80mph – but by golly it feels so much faster thanks to its diminutive size and the induction roar from the twin SU carburettors. Later cars gained more power thanks to 1098cc and, finally, 1275cc engines.
With a target price of just £600, the Sprite relied heavily on the BMC parts bin, eventually sporting the Morris Minor’s steering rack as well as its engine, and the A35’s front suspension. A generic four-speed manual gearbox took the drive to the rear end, which is suspended via elliptic leaf springs. You know, like we’d been using on horse carts for the past couple of hundred years.
The bodywork is simple because simple is both cheap and light, the twin constraints that run through the Sprite’s DNA.
Even carpets, wing mirrors, bumpers and a heater were all optional extras, and the side-screens are draughty and the hood fits where it touches.
And yet, it is tremendous fun because of its simplicity and almost complete absence of weight (on a windy day the conscientious owner would do well to tie it down like a miniature zeppelin…). Its handling is wonderfully nimble, and it racked up considerable success as a racer, most notably in the Alpine Rally, a notoriously tough event it won in its first year. In 1959 it went to Sebring - and took all three podium places in its class.
The mighty Sprite proves that a car can be so much more than the sum of its parts, and never before has so much fun been had for so little, a mantra that holds true, even today.