By the mid-1950s, British sports cars were fairly common on American streets with MGs, Austin-Healeys, Triumphs and Jaguars selling in relatively large numbers. Each revision brought better performance, more creature comforts and, unfortunately, higher price tags. The back-to-basics, Austin Healey, debuting in 1958 represented a step backwards in terms of minimal, wind-in-your-face, purely fun transportation.
The Austin Healey Sprite was designed by Donald Healey and built by the British Motor Corporation. BMC had been building the Austin Healey 100 and its descendents since 1953. With the introduction of the tiny Sprite, the larger Austin Healeys became know as the "Big Healeys."
Donald Healey is also noted for developing the Nash-Healey for Nash-Kelvinator in the U.S. Built between 1951 and 1954, the Nash-Healey used Nash's excellent powertrain in Healey designed roadster and coupe bodies. After 1952, the bodies were built by Pininfarina in Italy. Just over 500 beautiful Nash-Healey coupes and roadster were built.
The A-H Sprites used mechanical components mostly from the BMC parts bins resulting in very low cost and very basic open top sports car. The Sprite quickly earned the nickname, "Bugeye" because of the placement of its headlights. The Brits called it the "Frogeye." The original design was to use pop-up headlamps, but that turned out to be too costly.
Under the hood and fenders that were hinged at the rear and opened as a single unit, was a four-cylinder 948 cc, Austin A-Series engine fitted with twin SU carburetors and tuned to produce 43 horsepower at 5200 rpm. This engine, and the suspension, were donated by the contemporary Austin A30/A35 and Morris Minor. A coil spring and wishbone setup with Armstrong lever shocks was used up front. A live rear axle, quarter-elliptical leaf springs and lever shocks were found in the rear. Cost cutting features included lack of a trunk opening, door handles and side windows. The Sprite was tiny - only 137" long with a 80-inch wheelbase. A total of 48,987 of what would later be called the Mark I model were produced in 1958-61.
In 1961, BMC ceded to complaints about the original Austin-Healey Sprite's funny looks and lack of a trunk opening. The Bugeye's replacement, the Austin-Healey Sprite Mark II traded the frogeye headlights for lights located integrally in fenders. The styling was more conventional, there was a real, locking trunk lid and the clamshell opening front was replaced by ordinary rear opening hood. The clamshell's lower opening line was retained to the very end, though it now served no useful purpose other than a breeding place for rust.
The new Sprite shared the Bugeye's mechanics, but little of its character. The Spriget was soon joined by an MG version called the Midget. MG was also part of BMC. The MG Midget was just a "badge engineered" Sprite with different trim and a slightly higher price tag. The most noticeable differences were the vertical-bar, MG-type grille and of course the octagon logos. The dual would be collectively called "Sprigets."
Many Bugeyes were sold in the U.S. and today are the most desired Sprigets by collectors. Sprites make relatively easy and inexpensive restoration projects.