Finelines - 1958-'71 Sprite - East Valley Tribune: Business

Finelines - 1958-'71 Sprite

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Posted: Thursday, January 15, 2009 1:33 pm | Updated: 2:03 am, Sat Oct 8, 2011.

    Of the many sports car makes you could buy 40 or 50 years ago, the Sprite was easily your least expensive ticket to ride.

   But, by virtue of ownership, you gained entry into the inner world of a close-knit society whose members would gather frequently, greet each other warmly and incessantly and passionately talk about their four-wheeled mistresses.

   In a simpler age, sports cars such as the Sprite were as important an export for Great Britain as the Beatles. Each provided hours of pleasure, made delightful sounds and commanded fierce loyalty among their faithful fans. But it’s been more than 30 years since either has produced any significantly new material — either of a musical or automotive nature.

   But for those of the baby boomer persuasion, both British sports cars and the music of the Fab Four will always be fondly remembered for how they looked and acted and how good they made us feel.

   Each represented an era of fun, freedom and rebellion against the establishment. And no amount of time will erase or dull the memories of either the band or the brands we came to know and love.

   Today, only a couple of cars — the Mazda Miata and Pontiac Solstice, for example — come anywhere near qualifying under the affordable-sports-car banner. Everything else — Porsches, BMWs, Audis and Honda’s sensational S2000 — are beyond the reach of most buyer’s already overstretched finances. Sure, you can still pick up an honest-to-goodness British roadster. That is, if you’ve got the available funds for a mega-buck Jaguar XK or Aston Martin.

   But in the 1950s and 1960s, we were treated to a dizzying array of relatively cheap and sporty wheels from the Old Country. On any given highway you would be treated to the sights and sounds of perpetually smiling MG, Triumph, Sunbeam and Austin Healey owners who would always wave like old fraternity buddies as they passed each other. A few very hardy souls would take great pride in the fact that they never drove with the soft top in place. For them, a tonneau cover for the passenger seat and a jaunty-looking driving cap was all the protection they needed.

   Although inexpensive to own and basic to the extreme, the Austin Healey Sprite was a tight-fitting, fun-to-drive twoseater in the great British tradition. The first of these Mk I cars rolled off the British Motor Corporation’s assembly line in 1958, minus the planned-for, but ultimately cost-prohibitive pop-up headlights. The fixed-in-place headlight pods, however, became the Sprite’s signature feature, earning it the nicknames “Frogeye” and “Bugeye.”

   The minimalist, stiff-riding Sprite also lacked a few other details, such as exterior door latches, roll-up windows or a rearopening trunk lid. To access the engine bay, you lifted the entire front end of the car — hood, fenders and grille — as one piece, allowing wide-open access to the running gear and assorted mechanical pieces.

   Power, if you can call it that, was supplied by a 948-cubic-centimeter — that’s 0.948 liters — overhead-valve four-cylinder engine borrowed from the equally tiny Austin A35 sedan. With 43 horsepower on tap, the Sprite took nearly 30 seconds to hit 60 mph. Top speed was rated at 80 mph, reasonable considering the size of the engine.

   Although blistering speeds were not the Sprite’s forte, the car was more than capable of mastering tight, twisty two-lane back roads. And, as an added bonus, the 1,500-pound Sprite delivered an average fuel economy of 35-45 mpg, a bonus in the home market where petrol has always been a pricey item.

   From 1958-’61, nearly 50,000 of the little dears were constructed, with nearly half of that total destined for export to North America.

   In 1961, the next-generation Mk II Sprite was introduced, along with the nearly-identical MG Midget. Although lacking in character compared to the Mk I (the Bugeye look was gone), the new model spoiled its owners with a real working trunk. The engine was also retuned to produce a whopping three more horsepower.

   But if you yearned for such luxuries as external door handles and wind-up side windows, you had to wait for the Mk III Sprite that followed in 1965. The Mk III’s engine displacement was also increased to 1.1 liters, which yielded 56 (later 59) horsepower and zero-to-60-mph sprints of around 15 seconds.

   The final Mk IV and Mk V Sprites were fitted with the same 65-horsepower 1275-c.c. engine that powered the front-wheeldrive Austin Mini Cooper S.

   After 13 years and 129,000 copies, the Sprite nameplate was retired for good in 1971. The MG Midget managed to soldier on for another nine years before succumbing to ever tougher North American safety and emission regulations.

   Like the music of the Beatles, it’s impossible to bring back what once was. But if nostalgia is good for the soul, the memories associated with the Austin Healey Sprite are the elixir of life.

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