The immortal ‘Frogeye’ Sprite appeared to be a typical example of British design ingenuity, but its roots may have lain further West: Kenosha, Wisconsin to be exact.
The compact two-seat sportscar wasn’t necessarily a British invention, but for a period of the twentieth century, the UK was arguably, its prime exponent. Hardly surprising, given Britain’s traditionally serpentine network of narrow undulating roads and a taxation regime which dictated lower capacity, longer-stroke engines of limited outright power.
But the British are an inventive people and soon found ways to
exploit (in the former case), and circumvent (in the latter) these strictures, and as the motor car became further democratised, the industrious, the emboldened and the aspirant discovered new means of going quickly, by avoiding the necessity to go slowly.
Best known were Morris Garages’ pretty and lithe pre-war Midget series, a purposeful amalgam of inexpensive proprietary componentry allied to a body of the most rudimentary construction. Safety Fast may have been MG’s abiding catchphrase, but these were little better than four-wheeled motor cycles when push came to shove.
With a post-war American market exerting a powerful gravitational pull, British sportscar makers led a cheap thrills charge to salve the desires of increasing numbers of young, affluent and risk-averse, largely ex-servicemen who increasingly made up the racing-mad culture of the SCCA. However, by the early 1950s, the Midget was being usurped by more up to date machinery.
Donald Healey was a former RAF pilot, turned motor engineer, who following a stint as technical director at Triumph, set up his own motor car business in 1945. Healey’s cars were well-regarded, gaining notable competition successes, but were low-volume, expensive vehicles. Keen to expand, Healey forged links with the American Nash-Kelvinator Motor company, which led to the successful Nash-Healey, a competition-focused two-seater based on the Healey Silverstone chassis.
At this time, Nash were also evaluating a small two-seater vehicle, aimed not at the sporting driver, but the affluent suburban US housewife. The Nash NXI (Nash Experimental International) was first shown in 1950 at a series of what we would now describe as ‘customer clinics’, to gauge public reaction.
A highly unusual car, the NXI, designed by William Fajole in the contemporary (Pininfarina-influenced) Nash style, was compact, lightweight and minimalist in the extreme. Most notable was the near-interchangeable front and rear wing design (hello Peugette!), huge one piece front end and the lack of any external boot opening.
Nash’s publicity blurb at the time was understandably upbeat, describing the NXI as “beautifully styled”, but the suggestion that its appearance “may very well set the pattern of cars to come” was a little far-fetched even then. Or was it?
Realising the car couldn’t be produced economically in the US, a deal was forged with BMC in the UK (Fiat had also been approached) to develop and build the Metropolitan using a monocoque body to Nash’s design, mated to a BMC B-Series 1200 cc engine, transmission and parts-bin suspension. Introduced in 1953, and built at Longbridge in four distinct series’ until 1961, the car was sold as a Nash, a Hudson, and an Austin with close to 100,000 made in all.
All roads seemingly lead to Longbridge; Donald Healey also finding his way there, having inked a deal with BMC’s Leonard Lord to produce the Healey 100 sportscar following its rapturous reception in 1952. Discussions between Lord and Healey continued through 1956 and both men agreed upon a scheme to produce a new compact sports model to supplant the soon to be discontinued MG Midget series.
The intention was for a cheap and cheerful two seater which “a chap could keep in his bike shed”. Aimed at the footloose motorist who could afford a Morris Minor, but wanted a sportscar, the car’s design was overseen by Geoffrey Healey and would employ a stressed monocoque bodyshell, mated to off the shelf BMC componentry – mostly from Austin (A35 engine and front suspension) and Morris (Minor rack & pinion steering).
With cost and weight being the primary focus of the car’s development, the car’s specification was pared to the minimum. Clearly both Healey and BMC engineers were familiar with Nash’s NXI (the latter in particular), so it’s likely that considerable inspiration was drawn from the US design – particularly in the simple lines, one-piece front end and the lack of any external bootlid. Even external door handles were deemed excessive.
However, while the Nash design was somewhat eccentric, the Healey was pert, purposeful and pretty. The was one problem however. The original design called for retractable headlamps, which would face upwards (hello Porsche 928!) when not in use. But in order to reduce costs, these were dropped for fixed units atop the bonnet, lending the car its visual identity and the immortal ‘Frogeye’ soubriquet.
With a healthy power to weight ratio, fine handling and sharp steering, the Austin-Healey Sprite proved a sensation when it was introduced in 1958, bringing up to date two-seater thrills to a UK generation newly free of austerity. The Frogeye quickly acquitted itself in competition, with class wins in both rallying and on the track. Exported to the US market from 1959, it quickly developed a firm following.
Cute without being coy, and with road behaviour to match its promise, the Frogeye avoided the pejoratives normally associated with small, the pert, and the pretty. Built by MG at Abingdon, the Sprite was produced in this form until 1961 (the same year Metropolitan production ceased, incidentally), being supplanted by the more contemporarily styled Sprite Mark 2.
At the same time, a badge-engineered MG Midget version was revived, one which would outlive its Austin-Healey sibling by almost a decade. In 1971, as a cost-cutting measure, BLMC’s Donald Stokes severed the Healey connection entirely (along with that of Cooper), the final Sprites being simply badged as Austins.
We’ve come a long way from the innocent days of the 1950s. Nobody in the US-centric West would dare contemplate such flagrant non-aggression now. No one but Japan of course, where a thriving Kei-car scene allows the fun, frivolous and fanciful compact two-seater to live on in hearts, minds and fevered imaginations.
We may never quite know for sure whether the little Nash Metropolitan served as inspiration for an all-time British sports car classic, but to these amphibian eyes there will forever be a little piece of Kenosha fairydust sprinkled amidst the Sprite’s Oxfordshire lilypond.