The partnership had already been formed between Leonard Lord of Austin and Donald Healey with exports booming in the form of the Austin Healey 100. Time now to serve the masses with the stripped back and eminently affordable sub £700.00 Austin Healey Frog Eye Sprite.
Leonard Lord’s main request of Donald Healey was to keep costs down; he did and fair play never let the fun element disappear. In designing the Frog Eye Sprite Donald had to dig deep into the Austin and for that matter Morris parts bins as well as explore new monocoque technology for the rear tub. Basing the latter on the race developed Jaguar D Type shortly before the E-Type made it into production. It could therefore be argued a first for a mass produced sports car.
The resulting bootless rear structure is important because it keeps the Frog Eye Sprite quarter elliptical springs and live back axle tightly located together. As the softly coiled front suspension of the Frog Eye Sprite allows the car to tip nicely into a corner the relatively stiff rear ensures there is hardly any role as weight naturally shifts backwards through and out of each turn. The Frog Eye Sprite defies its modest 43hp output and has the ability to shame much heavier and more powerful alternatives particularly as the road begins to buck and weave.
Even the scary drum brakes do not distract from the pleasure that can be had today from holding onto whatever pace you dare into bends especially when considering a decent 50-60mph is achievable on longer straight roads beforehand. The antithesis of a big V8 or large straight six the Frog Eye Sprite hunts it prey down as it clips every apex before making best use of rather modest capacity when the road opens up once again.
The result a glorious and as its name suggests spritely two seat sports car experience powered by the tiny 948cc Morris Minor sourced engine boosted slightly by twin SU carb’s to deliver that still modest output through the superb feeling Austin A35 4 speed gearbox complete with synchromesh on 2nd, 3rd and 4th. First gear requires the car to be completely stationary before being selected, whilst the rest of the forward gears are simply a satisfying short flick away within the tightly nested H-Gate.
Inside the cabin there is a minimum amount of dials and switches. What’s nice though is the presence of a big speedo and rev counter sat behind the wooden rimmed steering wheel that spells out sports car. After that things start to reflect the harsh decisions required to keep the price down; a fuel gauge plus one other combined for temperature and oil pressure. In the middle of the dashboard between driver and passenger is a place for the ignition key, surrounded also by the light switch, a left-right indicator (no self-cancelling stalk here) plus pull switches for the wipers, heater and starter. Those being everything offered and indeed everything you need in a Frog Eye Sprite.
Externally the door handles are missing altogether, as is the boot lid in a quest to keep the rear structure strong. Luggage therefore gets shoved behind the seats on top of the spare wheel and jack before being retrieved in a technique often referred to as ‘potholing’ where searches for the simplest of items results in finding long lost treasures. If the weather does turn the roof assembly ensures everyone gets equally wet in fathoming how to erect it with an elevating frame and screw-in Perspex side screens, still a small price to pay.
All of these measures kept the Frog Eye Sprite weight down to less than 700kg, incredible when you think the one piece non-structural steel bonnet and wing assembly must contribute a good 50-70Kg of that. The ubiquitous glass-fibre replacement front end has always offered an immediate performance gain before looking for any other modifications. After all as someone famous once said, just add lightness.
Not surprisingly the Frog Eye Sprite has enjoyed competition success throughout its life, from works backed Alpine Rally victories in the beginning to countless club awards since. It is not difficult to see why either. With massive tuning potential from the existing 948cc unit or borrowed 1275cc engine combined with weight loss from removal of the hefty steel one piece front end that in turn doesn’t impact on the rear tub’s stiffness, this was a car born to race which many did and still do today.
Testament indeed although I think equally important is how much an original road going example like the Classic Car Club London’s super little car tested here can be enjoyed on the highway today. In a complex world of Driver Stability Control (DSC) Traction Control and Anti-Locking Braking Systems (ABS) plus obsession with massive power outputs you cannot beat back to basics motoring to be reminded of what the automobile is really all about.
The Frog Eye Sprite is in effect a post war version of the Austin Seven with rounder cutesy good looks and a direct DNA connection to one of the Godfathers of the current classic car movement, the Big Healey 3000. Focus on the rear ¾ quarter view of the Frog Eye Sprite and you really appreciate the family connection with distinctive lines, tiny lights and pointy features.
Driving the Frog Eye Sprite is almost a cathartic experience and there is much pleasure to be had from maintaining an even speed over varying terrain. A poor by any standards 0-60 time of around 20 seconds sounds off-putting but the fact is it is meaningless because in the Frog Eye Sprite you settle naturally at 50mph and then take huge pleasure in holding close to that pace all day long regardless of what the road ahead throws at you.
That doesn’t make accelerating a mundane experience either, with an almost Weber like growl from the twin SUs every time the throttle pedal is pressed you are rewarded aurally from the front and rear courtesy of a raspy exhaust note. There isn’t even the pain in the wallet associated with other larger engine sports cars with 35-40mpg easily achievable. After a great day’s driving there is no further pleasure to be had from only being able to put in £30.00 of unleaded to brim the tank once again, absolutely priceless.
The Austin Healey Frog Eye Sprite makes you as confident through corners as it does make you determined down the next straight; it really is a proper little sports car with big ambitions and an equally big heart. This car really is Britain at its best; the underdog we all love to support so much doing battle with everything that comes its way.
How does this car make you feel?
In one word: Happy
As a favourite meal: No time unfortunately, but once home a rather scrummy sausage casserole. Simple and yet at the same time very satisfying, fitting don’t you think?
Anything Else: It’s like being cleansed of all that modern day electronic wizardry that’s supposed to improve the driving experience but doesn’t.
Key Ingredients: Those cutesy good looks, diminutive proportions, spritely performance, strong rear tub providing uncanny flat cornering capability and near 40mpg achievable where just £30.00 of unleaded is all that is needed to brim the tank once again.
With thanks to Classic Car Club – London
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