The Sprite Mk1
The relationship built up between the British Motor Corporation and motorsport celebrity Donald Healey in the 1950’s resulted in the creation of the Austin Healey 100 sportscar, a vehicle which enjoyed considerable sales success, particularly in the important North American continent. A potential market for a smaller “budget” alternative was soon identified, and this led to an ‘informal decision’ between BMC’s chairman, Leonard Lord, and Healey to develop a small sportscar based on Austin parts, mostly centered around the Austin A35 saloon car.
The engine, transmission, rear axle and front suspension were all to be used, but steering would come from the Morris Minor and better, hydraulically operated, brakes were needed. MG derived manifolds and twin 1 1/8” carburetors would boost power. The engine was developed by Morris engines, and they later supplied the units since Austin’s engine department was at the time overrun with work.
The new car, eventually named the Austin Healey Sprite, was to do away with a separate chassis and body shell. Instead, it was designed around a monocoque frame consisting of front and rear bulkheads, joined by ‘top hat’ sill sections and body stiffners, all mounted onto a floorpan. Extra rigidity came from the central gearbox tunnel. In many places, the body utilized flat panels and simple formed sections to keep construction costs down to a minimum. The bonnet and front wings hinged upwards as one assemble from the bulkhead, and the upwards curve of the front top edge of this sill panels accentuated this feature. This characteristic sill line was to last until the end of production of the last descendant of the Sprite family tree, the MG Midget 1500, twenty-one years later. The first prototype Sprite incorporated external hinges to reduce costs, but expensive pop up headlamps. By prototype number two, the headlamps had become fixed providing the ‘frogeye’ appearance so well known and loved today.
The little Sprite, built in the MG factory in Abingdon, was launched in 1958. It was a hoot to drive, if somewhat cramped inside (another which would see out production twenty-one years later). It quickly established itself in the motoring world, aided by a low price of £455 (less tax) and a successful motorsport career in the hands of BMC works team drivers, most particularly John Sprinzel.
The Sprite Mk11 and Midget Mk1
(H-AN6 and G-AN1 models)
For 1961 it was decreed that something of a revamp was necessary, and to this end the Austin Healey Sprite Mk11 was launched, together with a new, slightly more lavishly finished stable mate, the MG Midget. These two models offered a radically altered, more square body profile wrapped around essentially the same underframe. The rear of the body now had a boot lid for the first time, while at the front out went the charismatic (or ugly, if you prefer) frogeye look, to be replaced with the conventional set up of separate wings housing the headlamps. Between the wings a narrower, and certainly lighter, bonnet panel gave rather poorer access to the engine bay. The little 948cc engine became more willing, thanks to the fitment of 1 ¼” carburetors and improved cam timing. Steering, suspension and brakes remained largely unaltered.
The Sprite Mk11 1100 and Midget Mk1 1100
(H-AN7 and G-AN2 models)
The next milestone was the introduction of a 1098cc variant of the trusty BMC ‘A’ Series engine in 1963. Along with the improved performance, the brakes were duly uprated with front disc brakes’ appearing for the first time in production on the cars – prior to this, a disc brake conversion kit had been independently marketed by the Healey Motor Company of Warwick. Otherwise virtually unchanged, the new models were known simply as the Sprit Mk11 1100 and Midget 1100; they are now often colloquially referred to as the ‘Mk 2 ½’ and ‘Mk 1 ½’ respectively.
The Sprite Mk111 and Midget Mk11
(H-AN8 and G-AN3 models)
Many aspects of the design were changed at the next revamp, which occurred in 1964. The body of the Sprite Mk111 and Midget Mk11, largely unchanged in silhouette, received an all new dash layout, fitted carpets in all models, a new windscreen with easier to fit hood attachments, plus wind up windows to replace the sidescreens. These were all improvements inspired by the marketplace (America in particular), which was beginning to lean towards less spartanly equipped, more comfortable cars.
For the same reasons, the beautifully handling but harsh riding rear suspension lost its quarter elliptic springs, gaining instead a more conventional semi-elliptical spring layout which lost a little of the accuracy and sharpness but improved the ride enormously. A benefit not seen at the time, but in the cars’ old age now greatly appreciated, is the fact that the new suspension did not impose so much stress on the monocoque body. With the result that split seams, cracks and corrosion around the rear floor and bulkhead were (and are) on the whole much less common on post 1964 cars.
In answer to misgivings about the bottom end durability of the engine, larger main bearings were fitted. A larger clutch and strengthened (‘Ribbed Case’ as opposed to the previous ‘Smooth Case’) gearbox were also introduced, keeping the model range in line with the other BMC products using that basic type of gearbox, the Morris Minor, Austin A40 and A35 van.
The Sprite Mk1V and Midget Mk111
(H-AN9 and G-AN4 models)
By 1966, Sprite and Midget performance figures were beginning to look a little feeble when compared with contemporary saloon cars-not an idea situation for a sportscar to be in. Indeed, the immensely popular Mini Cooper ‘S’, which was also a product of BMC, was taking the limelight and eating into potential sales. In an effort to counter this, a slightly detuned version (apparently for reliability’s sake) of the 1275cc Cooper ‘S’ engine was fitted to the 1967 Sprite Mk1V and Midget Mk111.
Along with the improved performance, the new models also benefited from a new, convenient, fold down hood design. It was at this time that cars destined for North America began to seriously deviate in their specification from those built for markets in the rest of the world, due to increasingly stringent safety and emissions regulations there. Also during this period, Midgets bound for Australia were built there from completely knocked down (CKD) kits supplied from England.
The Sprite Mk1V and Midget Mk111
(H-AN10/A-AN10 and G-AN5 models)
‘Leylandised” versions of the cars arrived for the 1970 model year, in fact some eighteen months after MG, Austin and their parent companies had become part of the massive British Leyland Motor Corporation. The nomenclature-Sprite Mk1V and Midget Mk111 – remained the same as before, as did the mechanical and sheet metal specifications. However, the car now had a much more upbeat contemporary appearance, due to a myriad of trim changes both outside and in.
Gone was the 1960’s style brightwork. A new radiator grille (effectively a blacked out and jazzed up version of the previous Sprite grille) was complemented by slim-line bumpers, fashionably quartered at the rear. Completing the slim-line effect, the sills were also painted satin black, giving the car a sleeker side profile. New spoke steel wheels (‘Rostyles’) aesthetically matched the car as well as the optional, more traditional, wire wheels, demand for which began to fade. Inside the car, heat welded vinyl abounded, instead of stitched pleat upholstery; this style of interior trim was to remain with the vehicle up to the end of production.
Towards the end of 1971, the Sprite disappeared quietly form the new car showrooms. Sales had slowly slipped away and had latterly been confined to the home market. The last 1022 Sprites were simply labeled as ‘Austin’, since the agreement between Leyland and Healey had lapsed.
The Midget Mk111, however, remained comfortable in production, seeing in 1972 with new rear wings with the square top wheel arches replaced by round ones (not seen on Sprites and Midgets since the ‘Frogeye’). As a result it became easier to fit fatter tires and alloy wheels, which were popular aftermarket accessories at the time. If the urge to fit them was resisted, the car would definitely be sitting on radial ply tires: they became standard fitment alongside a much needed alternator (which replaced the by then archaic dynamo). As a sop to forthcoming home market safety regulations rocker switches found their way onto the dashboard, replacing the more satisfying but apparently less safe toggle switches. By 1974, Midget sales in mainland Europe had ceased, basically leaving Britain, the USA, Canada and Japan taking the car.
The Midget 1500
As an attempt to rationalize on the build specification, many of the safety and emissions changes necessary for the 1975 North American specification models were also implemented on home market vehicles. These included the well know ‘rubber’ bumpers (actually plastic), a ride height increase of one inch to meet bumper height regulations, a return to square rear wheel arches and a whole new power train.
As USA emission control equipment had progressively strangled the 1275 engine, the performance maintaining solution was to replace it with the engine out of its closet rival – the Triumph Spitfire. The Spitfire engine had already had its capacity enlarged from 1296 to 1491cc for the same emissions related reasons, while the old BMC ‘A’ Series unit could not reliable be taken any larger than its current 1275cc. As a result, the entire Triumph engine and gearbox assembly, with only a couple of detail changes, was fitted into the Midge engine bay.
This car became known as the Midget 1500, although actually it was still a Midge Mk111 officially (and in most respects under the skin was very similar to the outgoing 1275 engine Mk111). While it certainly lacked the keener, sportier edge of the earlier cars, it was undeniably a better cruising vehicle (though sadly it never benefited from the overdrive, which was optional on the same gearbox when fitted in a Spitfire).
Sprite and Midge production finally finished in 1979, when the last Midget 1500’s rolled off the line. Ironically, amongst the last cars built were five hundred special black models, celebrating fifty years of MG Midget production. In total, 355,888 Sprites and Midges were built between 1958 and 1979.
|YEAR||RHD HOME||RHD EXPORT||LHD EXPORT||LHD NORTH AMERICA||RHD CKD||LHD CKD||TOTAL|
|SPRITE MK II (HAN6)|
|SPRITE MK II (HAN7)|
|MIDGET MKI (GAN1)|
|MIDGET MKI (GAN2)|
|SPRITE MKIII (HAN8)|
|MIDGET MKII (GAN3)|
|SPRITE MKIV (HAN9)|
|SPRITE MKIV (HAN10)|
|AUSTIN SPRITE (AAN10)|
|MIDGET MKIII (GAN4)|
|MIDGET MKIII (GAN5, SQUARE-ARCH)|
|MIDGET MKIII (GAN5, ROUND-ARCH)|