If there were an all-time award for car cuteness throughout the entire history of automobiles, the Bugeye Sprite would sweep the honors. With an almost-giggling grille smile and astonished, star-struck eyes, no other car model projects a happier disposition than the original Austin-Healey Sprite.
It’s easy to imagine this little speedster as your best friend, sharing road trips with plenty of laughs along the way. This is a car you’d want to spoil with special treatment to keep it smiling, since the car’s happiness rubs off on you when you drive it and on others who see it on the street. Smiling is contagious, after all.
Aside from its countenance, the car gives you plenty to grin about—it’s peppy to drive and also easy to work on. All body and mechanical parts are readily available, and there is a vast number of ways to upgrade performance. Plus, the car’s racing pedigree adds to its aura.
Now 50 years since it was introduced, the beloved Bugeye Sprite enjoys a near-cult following and a steadily increasing collector value. At about $1500 when new, it undercut the competition by about a thousand dollars. Today, mint examples can cost upward of $20,000.
Sprite Launches in 1958
Austin-Healey, a company combining the production capability of Austin Motor Company and the design prestige of racer Donald Healey, earned success with their first effort, the 1953 Austin-Healey 100. Still, they saw the need for a small, basic sports car to complement the 100. So the Sprite was born.
Based on the Austin A35 sedan, the Sprite was the first British car to use unibody construction. It had an 80-inch wheelbase and a low stance that provided flat cornering. The car was powered by the four-cylinder Austin-Morris A-series 948cc engine, a proven motor that went on to power the Mini. For the Bugeye, the A-series received stronger valve springs and twin SU carburetors to provide 43 horsepower and a top speed of nearly 85 mph. Part of the performance came courtesy of the Bugeye’s low mass, just 1460 flyweight pounds.
The handling of the Sprite was typically British; stiff, with an independent front suspension featuring coil springs, single arm lever shocks and a lower wishbone on each side. The rear suspension featured quarter-elliptical leaf springs, a rigid axle and lever arm shocks. The tight rack-and-pinion steering suited the speedster. It was fitted with drum brakes and drilled steel disk wheels stamped with a simple AH.
Of course, it was the round headlamps inset on the hood that gave the car its lasting impression along with its nicknames—Bugeye in the States and Frogeye in Europe. However, these lamps were a last-minute design compromise. The original design featured retractable headlights like the later Lotus Elan, but plans were changed due to cost considerations.
These cars were downright Spartan in fit and finish. Completely missing were exterior door handles, a trunk lid and bumpers; windows were sliding side curtains. The cockpit was minimalist, trimmed in leather. But love is often blind, and owners forgave any inherent weaknesses.
Four Years of Production
The Bugeye Sprite was produced for only four years, totaling some 48,987 cars. The model was reintroduced with more conventional styling in 1961 as the Austin-Healey Sprite Mark II and near-identical MG Midget—a lot of the body and engine parts, plus running gear, are interchangeable on these cars. The cheerful look was gone, however.
Thanks to the price, handling, light weight and easy engine modifications, Bugeyes became popular for racing and inspired all kinds of aftermarket performance parts and conversion kits. The tuners went nuts. Back in the day, for example, Speedwell offered a streamlined front end and an engine tuned to 60 horsepower.
In European competition, Bugeyes took class wins on the tough Alpine Rally in the Dolomites and Leige-Rome-Leige Marathon. The car won the 1959 British Rally Championship and took second overall at the British RAC International Rally. In the U.S., Sprites took a class win at Sebring, won SCCA H Production championships for many years and were competitive in D Prepared autocrosses. They were regular entrants in TSD rallies, and today they’re prevalent in vintage racing.
Seeking Your Bugeye
If you’re looking to acquire a Bugeye, the first priority is to ensure that the body shell is as complete and rust-free as possible, advises Kelvin Dodd, Moss Motors technical specialist. The sheet metal is thin, but thankfully Moss Motors stocks every repair part, making it possible to restore even rusted-out examples. All mechanical parts are available, too.
One must-do engine upgrade is Moss Motors’ new rear crankshaft oil conversion kit, says Dodd. The original crankshaft has a scroll to catch wayward oil at the back, but it tends to leak, he explains. The new kit puts a rubber oil seal on the back of the spinning crankshaft to stop oil leaks and extend crankshaft life.
Dodd also recommends yanking the original 948cc engine and substituting a 1275cc engine from a late-model MG Midget. “It will give you 78 horsepower at the rear wheels,” he adds. For the ultimate machine, Dodd recommends adding the supercharger kit and the new five-speed Ford T9 transmission conversion kit. Most owners prefer the twin SU carburetors, but they can be tricky to balance, so Dodd says to keep an eye out for the single SU kit coming out soon.
Moss Motors offers more tricks for the suspension, too. Their new Frontline kit replaces the original lever-arm shocks with forged aluminum arms and tube shocks. The result, Dodd says, is smoother handling.
The increased power and handling calls for better braking. Dodd recommends replacing the front drum brakes with disk brakes from the Midget, an easy bolt-on procedure. For even more performance, go for slotted rotors, high performance brake pads and braided brake lines, he says.
To improve exhaust flow to the back of the car, install a tubular header and performance muffler offered by Moss Motors, says Dodd. For reliability, change the original generator to a Lucas alternator, and upgrade to a Pertronix electronic ignition. The original wheels are skinny and tend to break, he says. Aluminum Minilite replicas make excellent replacements.
No matter how much performance you tune into your Bugeye, ensuring that it’s running and reliable will mean you can take it out on a sunny day, put the top down and share some smiles. BM
Popular Replacement Parts
190-960 – Clutch Kit (Borg & Beck), includes pressure plate, disc and release bearing
180-670 – Brake Master Cylinder, 7/8-inch bore
181-885 – Brake Drum, front
434-540 – Water Pump
459-730 – Radiator
264-078 – Major Suspension Kit, Front
471-190 – Fuel Tank
455-495 – Rocker Panel
454-010 – Front Bumper Overrider
242-181 – Convertible Top by Robbins, black sun-fast
242-530 – Black Carpet Kit (starting prices)
• The hinged front end means the hood, nose and front side panels of the car flip back as a unit, providing excellent access to the engine and front suspension. Moss Motors’ Kelvin Dodd observes that when you work on the engine, it looks like the car is about to eat you.
• This car only features small vertical bumperettes in stock form. Upon its release, a slim front bumper was optional at $15. (Note: Moss carries these, but sadly the $15 price is just a memory.)
• The back end of the car is more luggage locker than trunk since there is no trunk lid. A small opening behind the seats allows access to the spare tire and storage space.
• A fold-down windshield was part of the initial design, but this was scrapped as it was considered too costly.
• To tune your Bugeye engine for better performance, get a copy of the cult bible: “Tuning BL’s A-series Engine” by David Vizard.
• The special-bodied Sebring Sprites are rare and valuable.
• According to the “Cars That Matter” price guide, a decent driver goes for about $7000. Excellent examples go for about $20,000.
• Check out the Austin-Healey Club of America at serve.com/AHCA; you can find the Austin-Healey Club USA at healey.org.
By Kathleen M. Mangan
Photos by Stephen Tamiesie