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Name Dropper – Austin-Healey Sprite

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Photos by David LaChance.

The time had come for the other shoe to drop.

The Austin-Healey 3000, the “Big Healey,” had already been axed, time and the U.S. safety and emissions requirements finally having caught up with it. Now, it was time to bring an end to the Sprite, the marque’s remaining model.

The Sprite’s failing was not that it was out-of-date in the marketplace; though the competition had evolved in the 12 years since its 1958 introduction, continual updates had kept the Sprite and its MG twin, the Midget, relevant enough to earn their keep in British Leyland’s stable. The Sprite’s main problem, from BL’s point of view, was the money owed to its creator, Donald Healey.

Warm feelings had surrounded the genesis of the Austin-Healey marque, as Leonard Lord, then the head of the British Motor Corporation’s Austin division, spotted the Healey 100 prototype on display at the 1952 London Motor Show and made a deal with Healey on the spot to take over production. BMC and the Donald Healey Motor Company signed a 20-year agreement, and the Austin-Healey 100 and its successors went on to become some of the most beloved and successful sports cars of their day.

By 1968, when British Motor Holdings, BMC’s successor, had joined with Leyland to create the sprawling British Leyland, all of that goodwill had melted away. BL’s chairman, Donald Stokes, was trying to cut costs and rationalize the confusion of marques–many of them former competitors–now living under the same roof. One of his cost-cutting targets was his company’s agreement with Donald Healey. In his memoir My World of Cars, Healey tells the story of being summoned to Stokes’s office at the Standard works in Coventry:

“He told me he was going to discontinue MG, together with the payment of royalties to the names associated with what were BLMC cars. This included John Cooper and myself, together with [engine designer] Harry Weslake; and [MG managing director] John Thornley, too, was eventually to be retired. He explained that he didn’t need the help of all us people to produce a sports car, as his Leyland people were fully capable of doing so themselves. ‘I don’t think there’s any value in names,’ he said–to which I replied: ‘Right then, you don’t think there’s any value in Mr. Chevrolet, Mr. Ford, Mr. Buick and the rest–or Mr. Morris, even’–and I left it at that.”

According to his son Brian, Donald Healey never forgave Stokes for the treatment he and Cooper had received. Not one to sit on his hands, he joined up with Jensen Motors, becoming its chairman in 1970, and overseeing the creation of the Jensen Healey.

The Austin-Healey marque still had a pulse after the meeting between Stokes and Healey–the Sprite remained in production, and sold about as well as its MG twin, at between 6,000 and 7,000 units a year. But by the end of 1970, with the expiration of the 20-year agreement approaching, it was decided to end Healey’s meager royalty payments. Rather than simply taking the Sprite out of production, BL did a curious thing: It rebranded the car as an Austin.

Exactly 1,022 of these Austin Sprites rolled off the assembly line between January 27 and July 6 of 1971. Aside from the badging, they had only one small difference from their Austin-Healey predecessors: Their commission numbers began with AAN, rather than HAN. The Austin-Healey Sprite had been withdrawn from export markets in 1968-1969, and the Austin Sprite was to be sold only in the U.K., too.

Tricia Marshall had no idea of this last chapter in the Sprite’s history when she found AAN 10 87200 G for sale in 1985. “I was on holiday [in Ilfracombe, a small seaside town in southwest England], sitting in a café having a cup of coffee, and there was a classified advertisement magazine lying on the table that somebody had left behind,” she recalls. “I just started flicking through it, and [the Sprite] was just there, and I thought, ‘Oh, that looks interesting.’ It all stemmed from there. I decided to go and see the car, and get the story behind it. I wasn’t looking for a car at the time, but it seemed like too good a deal to pass up, so I decided to buy it.”

Back then, Tricia’s Sprite was just a used sports car, decades from its eventual collector status. She named it Gloria, for its registration, GLO 411J. Living in her native Wales at the time, she used it as her daily transportation, until rust caught up with it; she took it off the road in 1991 when it failed its MOT, the mandatory British safety inspection. “It needed a lot of welding work, including the floors and the rockers, and I didn’t have the money to do it, so I went and bought myself a Mini 1300 Special to get back and forth to work,” Tricia says.

It was only when she and her husband, Mike, began disassembling the car with an eye toward restoration that they realized just how rare it is (according to U.K. records, there are only about 300 in existence today). They eventually completed that restoration, as is evidenced by the photos on these pages, but not before moving twice–first, from Wales to Canada, and then from Canada to the U.S.–with the stripped body shell and boxes and boxes of parts. (Check back next month for the full story of how Tricia and Mike worked together for 2½ years to restore what she calls their “little gem.”)

The MkI, the disarmingly cheeky “Bugeye,” tends to get most of the attention in the Sprite family, which can make us forget what entertaining cars the boxier MkII and its successors are. The Austin Sprite is in all but name an Austin-Healey Sprite MkIV, launched in October 1966 with its MG doppelgänger, the Midget MkIII. These cars were powered by a redesigned version of the 1,275-cc A-series four introduced in the Mini Cooper in 1964, which, even in U.K. trim, provided 10 fewer horsepower than the Cooper’s 75, but greater reliability.

The folding top had been much improved, with space provided behind the seats to accommodate the folded assembly–no longer would the frame have to be disassembled and stowed in the trunk. A redesigned pedal box with separate master cylinders for the brakes and clutch was another plus, one that simplified fitting dual-circuit brakes to U.S.-bound cars.

The Sprite and Midget underwent a facelift in October 1969, in which the few remaining details between the two were erased. The Sprite gave up its eggcrate grille and bodyside bright trim, and gained alloy-look Rostyle steel wheels, slimmer bumpers and revised interior trim. Although combined Spridget production had fallen to just below 13,000 by this point, BL was still investing money to try to keep the car competitive.

Despite continuing improvements, the basic structure and fundamental design of the car changed little since the launch of the Bugeye, and Tricia and Mike’s car shows just how sound this foundation really was. They’ve kept to the factory specifications with a few sensible upgrades, including a five-speed transmission from a Datsun and some stouter engine components. “We didn’t want to modernize it per se, but we did want to drive it and keep up with level of traffic and speed on today’s roads,” Tricia explains.

“It’s just the way we like it,” she continues. “It’s eminently more driveable, and the fact that the seats have been reupholstered and refurbished makes them more comfortable to sit on. Having rebuilt the engine and added the five-speed transmission, it’s a lot smoother to drive than it used to be. So I think we’ve got it exactly how we want it now.” She notes that both she and Mike use the car regularly during the summer, finding it comfortable even on the long drive to Stowe, Vermont, for the British Invasion.

“Its roadholding is great, and I can go around all the little curves and bends without fear that it is going to lose traction,” Tricia adds. “I thought that might change when we put it back on the road, but it hasn’t–it’s still a nippy little car, it’s fun to drive, and it feels like you’re going a million miles an hour when you’re driving it at 30.”

His name might not be on the badge, but Donald Healey’s spirit certainly lives on in this delightful Sprite.

Thanks to Austin-Healey expert and Healey Marque correspondent Baird Foster for his help with this article.

Engine: BMC A-series OHV inline-four, cast-iron block and head
Displacement: 1,275 cc
Bore x stroke: 70.61 x 81.3 mm
Compression ratio: 8.8:1 (currently 9.7:1)
Horsepower @ RPM: 64 @ 5,800
Torque @ RPM: 72-lb.ft. @ 3,000
Fuel system: Two SU HS2 carburetors
Transmission: Four-speed (currently Datsun five-speed)
Suspension: Front: A-arms, coil springs, lever arm shock absorbers, 9/16-inch anti-roll bar; Rear: live axle, leaf springs, lever arm shock absorbers
Steering: Rack and pinion
Brakes: Hydraulic, unassisted; front disc, rear drum
Wheelbase: 80 inches
Overall length: 137.4 inches
Overall width: 54.9 inches
Overall height: 48.5 inches
Curb weight: 1,574 pounds
0-60 MPH: 13.0 seconds
Top speed: 96 MPH

This article originally appeared in the May, 2015 issue of Hemmings Sports & Exotic Car.