Sprites and Midgets: Cheap and Cheerful
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 â€śsquare-bodied Spriteâ€ť 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 â€śSpridgets.â€ť 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.
Which Sprite or Midget should you consider? It depends on what you want to use it for, says Kelvin Dodd, Moss technical expert. â€śIf 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.â€ť
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. â€śThe top works well, there are wind-up windows, and it’s non-smogged so still has power.â€ť 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. â€śIt’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.â€ť 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 â€śsmooth caseâ€ť transmission; the â€śribcaseâ€ť gearbox found in the last 1275s still didn’t have synchro on first gear; and none had overdrive. â€śThe gearbox is the weak point on the car,â€ť 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. â€śThe car corners like it’s on rails,â€ť he says. â€śIt has a stiff suspension, light weight, powerful engine, and a tremendous racing heritage.â€ť
Easy to Customize
Because all parts and pieces are retrofittable, you can build a Spridget the way you want itâ€”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.
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 â€śAustin Sprite.â€ť 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.
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. â€śDo this and then go out and run the wheels off it,â€ť he says.
Sprite/Midget Production Changes
Sprite Mk II/Midget Mk I:
Sprite produced: February 1961â€“March 1964
Midget produced: March 1961â€“March 1964
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 1964â€“November 1967
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 1966â€“July 1971
Midget produced: October 1966â€“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 1974â€“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: â€śOriginal Sprite and Midgetâ€ť by Terry Horler.
By Kathleen M. Mangan