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Sprites and Midgets: Cheap and Cheerful

The most amount of enjoyment for the least amount of money

Cute, fun, and affordable are the key benefits that most MG Midget and post-Bugeye Sprite owners point to proudly. Pin-sharp handling and throttle response makes drivers smile. Vintage racers and autocrossers love the power-to-weight ratio and potential for hot tuning. In production for 18 years, Sprites and Midgets have always had a large enthusiast base.

The “square-bodied Sprite” was born when the Austin-Healey Bugeye Sprite, which launched in 1959, came in for major restyling to counter criticism on its quirky design and lack of an opening trunk. Interestingly, the front end restyling was given to the Healeys, but the rear end restyling was given to Syd Enever’s team at MG so it bore similarity to the MGB. Thankfully the teams collaborated to integrate the separate designs.

The Austin-Healey Sprite Mark II debuted in 1961 with more conventional squared-off styling over the same running gear and 948cc A-series engine producing 47 horsepower.

The new model corrected the Bugeye criticisms. The body was unitary construction, front suspension was double wishbones and coil springs, steering was rack and pinion, the square styling theme was used on rear wheel arches, headlights were moved to the front corners, a trunk lid made storage easier, and a full-width grille announced its arrival.

The MG Midget Mark I launched a month later. The two similar cars became known as “Spridgets.” Over the four official Marks of the car, there were four different engines, and many mechanical and cosmetic changes. Horsepower rose to 66 in the 1500cc engine, with top speed over 100 mph. Styling went from classic chrome bumpers to black rubber-bumpered versions.

The MG Midget received a big update during 1974. MG added black rubber bumpers to each end of the car—technically they’re made from plastic—while the original A-series engine was replaced with a 1500cc unit sourced from the Triumph Spitfire.

Which Sprite or Midget should you consider? It depends on what you want to use it for, says Kelvin Dodd, Moss technical expert. “If you want to drive the car on weekends and nice days only, get an early side curtain car. It’s a classic roadster that’s as much fun as a Bugeye with the convenience of elbow room, easy opening hood, and a closing, locking trunk.”

Dodd adds that the early cars with steel dash boards and grille will be more collectable. And the pre-1968 cars weren’t compromised by smog and safety regulations. But remember, there’s no synchro on first gear.

If you want a fun car to drive on a regular basis in any weather, go for a 1275cc car between 1968 and 1974, says Dodd. “The top works well, there are wind-up windows, and it’s non-smogged so still has power.” He adds that you can squeeze a lot of power out of an A-series engine.

The 1500 Has Merit

Dodd thinks the Midget 1500 is worthy of consideration, too. “It’s good for running around town since it has bumper protection, and it’s easy to get in and out of with the raised ride height.” If you don’t like the black bumpers and loose handling, you can lower the suspension and change the bumpers to the chrome ones found on earlier cars.

You can pick up a 1500 Midget for next to nothing, although at that price they tend to have a broken engine or worn transmission, says Dodd. The engine has weak points, but they can be fixed. The biggest problem is failing thrust washers, which allows the crankshaft to move forward and back in the block, which destroys the crankshaft, connecting rods, and the block. The fix requires machining the block for extra thrust washers. Plus the 1500 transmission is weak, but the bolt-on T9 5-speed conversion is an easy fix for this problem.

In fact, Dodd recommends pulling the transmission on all Spridget models and putting in the T9 5-speed conversion kit. There are no parts available for the early “smooth case” transmission; the “ribcase” gearbox found in the last 1275s still didn’t have synchro on first gear; and none had overdrive. “The gearbox is the weak point on the car,” he says.

If you want a car to go vintage racing, you’ll probably want a ’67 or earlier. For all forms of racing, the lighter the car the better, so that means the earlier side curtain cars, explains Dodd. “The car corners like it’s on rails,” he says. “It has a stiff suspension, light weight, powerful engine, and a tremendous racing heritage.”

Easy to Customize

Moss Motors co-owner, Robert Goldman, says his MG Midget is the car he should have had when he was 18. Named The Flaming Cockroach, he says the car is a mongrel, with a ’73 tub, early grille and lights, and a variety of parts from the bin. It boasts a Moss supercharger, Mini Cooper S cam, aluminum flywheel, aluminum cylinder head with port work by Sean Brown at Flow Speed, a long center branch header, and billet four-pot brake calipers by Kent Auto Developments.

Because all parts and pieces are retrofittable, you can build a Spridget the way you want it—an early car with later upgraded components like disc brakes, or a later car backdated with early period trim. Originality isn’t an issue on these cars, so it’s all about customization.

The ultimate upgrade is the Moss supercharger on the 1275cc engine, adding big performance gains, says Dodd. Then you can put on an aluminum head with hardened valve seats, which runs cooler and allows higher compression ratios. And for better clamping with the supercharger, he recommends the ARP head studs, which are less likely to snap or stretch.

There are many intake manifolds for different design carburetors to choose from.

On suspension, Dodd recommends the upgraded 3/4-inch anti-roll bar for all Marks. You could also do tube shock conversions if you want to modify the handling characteristics. The rear spring lowering kit is helpful for the 1500. He also recommends upgrading the axle shafts on all Marks, but especially if you have an early car with 1275cc engine upgrade.

The exhaust is pretty primitive: a straight pipe with muffler on the end, says Dodd. So you could consider a header for all engines to provide freer flowing exhaust and a bit more power, plus a sport muffler. There’s a radical exhaust system for the 1500 with two sets of twin tips out the back end.

Insider’s Info:

The name Midget was first used by MG in 1929 for the M Type, considered a baby sports car based on the Morris Minor. It was applied to cars up through the TF, but the name now refers to cars made from 1961-’79.

A total of 224,416 Midgets and 80,360 Mk II-IV Sprites were sold for a total production of 304,776 cars. (Source: Horler)

Spridgets are notorious rust mongers; look for rust around the entire lower perimeter of the car.

Innocenti in Milan produced a more luxurious version of the Sprite/Midget, using the standard underbody with a body designed by American Tom Tjaarda who was working at Carrozzeria Ghia. Innocenti 950 Spiders, 1100 Spiders, and C Coupes were produced from 1961 to 1970.

When British Leyland didn’t renew the contract with Donald Healey, the name on the model built in 1971 was switched to “Austin Sprite.” There were just 1,022 built before the model was discontinued in July.

Sprites were imported into Australia in completely knocked down (CKD) kit form, and were assembled there with some local parts to satisfy import legislation.

The Lenham Motor Company in Kent, England, was well known for Spridget coupe conversions, called the Lenham-Healey GT Coupe.

Looking for a Spridget? Andy Reid, Classic Motorsports’ auction editor, says to budget about $4500 for a good driver. A nice 1500cc car should fetch about a grand less.

Sprites were no longer exported to the U.S. after 1969, and production ended in 1971. Michael Edwards, head of British Leyland, signed the death knell for MG in 1979, shutting the Abingdon factory.

The last MG Midget to roll off the production line at Abingdon on December 7, 1979 was appropriately colored black and went straight into the British Motor Heritage Collection.

Popular Upgrades

This 1967 Austin-Healey Sprite owned by David Wyckoff of Castaic, California is a force to be reckoned with in the VARA (Vintage Auto Racing Association) series in Southern California. This 1275cc Spridget was customized for racing at Tom Colby’s Speedwell Engineering in San Fernando, California, and was campaigned nationally for 19 years with many class wins before Wyckoff purchased it two years ago. Wyckoff is currently second in points in the EPM class.

Other cool Spridget upgrades to consider: an electric cooling fan, electronic ignition, Cobalt plug wires, high performance coils, a gear reduction starter, slotted brake rotors, and stainless brake hoses.

For wheels, choose between 5-inch-wide Minilite-style sport wheels or a wire wheel conversion kit. Tourist Trophy steering wheels and luggage racks are also popular. And of course Moss has every bit of sheet metal you’d need for rust repair or body work, plus high quality interiors and tops.

Dodd’s dream car would be a Sprite Mk II or Midget Mk I with a 1275cc engine, supercharger, T9 5-speed transmission, and front Costello tube shock conversion. “Do this and then go out and run the wheels off it,” he says.

Sprite/Midget Production Changes

Sprite Mk II/Midget Mk I:

Sprite produced: February 1961–March 1964

Midget produced: March 1961–March 1964

Engine: 948cc

Features: Conventional opening hood and trunk; plastic sliding side curtains; 11/4-inch twin SU HS2 carburetors; close-ratio gearbox; rear bumper bar

Major production changes:

September 1962: Displacement increased to 1098cc; standard front disc brakes

Sprite Mk III/Midget Mk II:

Produced: January 1964–November 1967

Engine: 1098cc

Features: Wind-up windows; semi-elliptic rear springs; curved windshield; black crinkle-finish dash; exterior door handles; door locks; optional wire wheels

Sprite Mk IV/Midget Mk III:

Sprite produced: October 1966–July 1971

Midget produced: October 1966–October 1974

Engine: 1275cc producing 65 hp

Features: Folding soft top and frame assembly; separate brake and clutch master cylinders

Major production changes:

September 1967: Reverse lamps added

November 1967: Dual circuit brakes; padded dash

December 1967: Emission controls; cross-flow radiator

December 1968: Top with hook and loop strips

September 1969: Face lift with new grille and black trim

October 1969: Rostyle sculpted steel wheels

October 1971: Rounded rear wheel arches for Midgets with specific Rostyle wheels

February 1972: Triumph steering rack

December 1973: Black rubber over rider blocks fitted to chrome bumpers

MG Midget 1500 (unofficially the Mk IV):

Produced: November 1974–December 1979

Engine: 1493cc (also powered the Triumph Spitfire)

Features: Black rubber bumpers integrated with front grille; raised ride height; square rear wheel arches; all-synchromesh gearbox; single Zenith carburetor

Major production changes:

March 1975: California version with catalytic converter

October 1975: Auto-choke carburetor and catalytic converter on North American cars; revised cooling system

July 1977: Revised dash, instruments, steering wheel

1979: Production ceased

* Dates are based on when the factory started production. Source: “Original Sprite and Midget” by Terry Horler.

By Kathleen M. Mangan

Comments (4)

  • michael

    Robert Goldmans Midget: where did the body wheel flares come from?
    Thanks

    Reply
  • Rick

    What is the tire/wheel/suspension set up on Goldmans Midget? Looks to be near perfect.

    Reply
    • Robert Goldman

      Thanks, but under the skin it’s not that special. The wheels are Panasport, rear springs are stock, and the fronts appear to be slightly lowered mystery meat. They were on the car when I got it, many long years ago. Since this photo was taken, the car has acquired a Frontline tube shock conversion. That kit drastically changed the car’s handling, and it needs more sway bar. The car has been parked the last couple summers. I run hot and cold with each car. At the moment, all the love is going into my TR4 and the Al Moss TC. (Kinda hard not to want to spend all my time in the TC.)

      Reply

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