Elemental Spirit Part 1: A Power Partnership

From Sprite to Midget – profiling BMC’s diminutive sportsters.

Image: The Austin Motor Company

Who would have imagined that the joyful, cartoonish little sports car introduced to the motoring media at Monaco on 20 May 1958, two days after the Grand Prix, was born out of the anguish and self-doubt of the most powerful man in the British automobile industry?

Leonard Percy Lord (1896-1967) was a brilliant production engineer whose breadth of ability led him to rapid promotion at Morris Motors, and then, after crossing sides, a fast-track path to Chairmanship of Austin in the early post-WW2 years. He had a consistent ability to see profitable gaps in the market, or target rival makers’ cars which could easily be bettered by his companies’ better specified new products.

However, Lord had two weak spots; North America and sports cars, and in the first few years of the 1950s learned hard lessons with unsuccessful Austin products, his anguish compounded by the success of Jaguar and Nuffield-owned MG.

The 1947-52 Austin A40 had sold well in the USA and Canada in the late 1940s, but only on its low price and a post-war market where demand for new cars far exceeded supply. The 1949-53 A40 Sports, a neatly styled four seat drophead coupe, developed and largely built by Jensen Motors, was neither sporty nor cheap. It proved to be a hard sell, and just over 4,000 were produced.

A far more egregious failure was the 1949-52 A90 Atlantic. Based on a chassis and drivetrain derived from the unremarkable A70 Hampshire Saloon, this gross two door coupe and convertible duo was aimed at the United States market, with styling by in-house Austin designer Riccardo Burzi based on sketches by Lord of what sort of car he believed would appeal to American tastes. In its short production life, only around 350 of the 8,000 Atlantics produced were exported to the USA.

Fortuitously, the highly regarded and well-connected sports car manufacturer Donald Healey had recognised the usefulness of the Atlantic’s 2,660cc overhead valve four-cylinder engine and associated drivetrain components to underpin his ambitious Healey Hundred sports car, which was displayed as a prototype at the 1952 London Motor Show. For Leonard Lord, the Hundred must have appeared as a gift from a beneficent deity. A deal was reached within days by which Jensen would build the bodies, assembly would take place at Longbridge, and the car would be sold as the Austin-Healey 100.

Len and Donald at the 1952 London Motor Show. Image: Car Scene International

A new marque had been created, but more importantly, it was the beginning of a power partnership between the most powerful man in the British Motor Industry, and a sports car entrepreneur with a unique understanding of the global automobile market, as well as a solid engineering and competition track record.

Leonard Lord’s reputation as an ogre is overstated, but he was certainly socially awkward and often lacking in tact. Donald Healey was at ease in any company, and with his irrepressible enthusiasm, made friends as easily as Leonard Lord made enemies. Many of his acquaintances were highly valuable, particularly those in the American automobile import business and the world of motor racing.

Healey provided the focused design skills, Lord provided the production infrastructure, and the Austin Healey 100 lived up to its promise, with around 5000 cars being produced per year, over 90% of them exported to the USA.

Moving on to early 1956, at one of their occasional meetings Lord made a comment to Donald Healey along the lines of ‘sports cars are getting bigger[a], perhaps there’s a market for a small one’. In fact, Lord had contemplated the idea some years before[b], but now had Healey as an expert sounding board for his thoughts.

1953 A30 Sports prototype Image: Haynes

Healey pondered the notion on his drive back to Warwick, ideas were exchanged, and the Donald Healey Motor Company was contracted to produce detailed design proposals for a small sports car, with the internal DHMC code Q1. The fee for Healey’s input was considered to be very favourable compared with using BMC’s own internal design offices, which were operating at full stretch to replace almost all of the company’s mainstream products by the turn of the decade, and also to turn Alec Issigonis’ advanced XC cars into production reality.

There was also the matter of geo-political tension in the final quarter of 1956, but long before the Suez Crisis, Sir Leonard Lord had devolved oversight of the small sports car project to his assistant, a fellow by the name of George Harriman, who signed off the Healey design for production in January 1957. From then on, Q1 became ADO13.

Healey and his designers had been given a free choice from BMC’s parts shelves, within inevitable cost limits. They chose and adapted the A35’s 948cc A series engine, along with its gearbox and rear axle. The front suspension was A35 based, but with the Morris Minor’s rack and pinion steering. The Sprite’s rear brakes also came from the Morris, fully hydraulic, unlike the baby Austin’s hydro-mechanical arrangement.

Image: Autocar

The Sprite’s body and chassis were the work of Healey stylist Gerry Coker and engineer Barry Bilbie, who were design leaders for the Healey 100 series. The smaller car is often described as the first mass-produced British monocoque sports car, which is an over-simplification, as the structure is more of a combination of platform and tub construction, as shown in this illustration.

Image: The Austin Motor Company

Coker and Bilbie’s design featured a non-structural one-piece front end, combining the bonnet, front valance, and outer wings.  This arrangement was a feature of many sports-racing cars at the time. The complex front bulkhead envelops the mid-front mounted engine and picks up front suspension loads, with chassis legs extending forwards to support the radiator and bonnet locking points.

Image: Unique Cars

At the rear, a substantial bulkhead behind the seats incorporates fixing points for the quarter elliptic leaf springs and radius arms above. Nothing behind the bulkhead serves any structural function – the rear bodywork only had to support itself and could be built as lightly as its designers dared.

If further evidence of transitory thinking is required, it is to be found in BMC’s plan for construction of the bodyshell. The platform was fully constructed by John Thompson (Motor Pressings) in Wolverhampton, then sent to Pressed Steel in Cowley, where the superstructure panels were produced and assembled atop the base unit. This all reads like separate chassis thinking in the unibody era. The completed bodyshells were then delivered to a BMC factory – of which more later – and fitted with the drivetrain, suspension and trim.

Quarter-elliptic leaf spring rear suspension. Image: The Austin Motor Company

The quarter-elliptic rear leaf spring suspension was a bold departure from the semi-elliptic longitudinal leaf orthodoxy of the time and is possibly the most surprising element of a low-cost parts-bin car. The 15-leaf springs, rigidly clamped at their leading end and combined with fully trailing arms were intended to provide far better lateral location than conventional semi-elliptic springs, without recourse to additional location links such as a Panhard Rod, or Watts Linkage.

The Sprite name was Donald Healey’s apposite choice[c], previously used for a series of well-regarded pre-WW2 sporting Rileys. In a cruel irony, that revered performance car marque had been recued from bankruptcy by the Nuffield Organisation in 1938, but was heading towards badge-engineered irrelevance under Leonard Lord’s Nuffield-phobic BMC just as Austin-Healey’s star grew ever brighter.

The ‘Frogeye’ headlights defined the first-generation Sprite in the public eye as a toy-like fun car, but Healey and Coker had envisaged a purposeful, aerodynamic, diminutive sports-racer, minimal to the point of rawness, with an air of the Speedster about it, a product to appeal to young Americans whose wage packets – or more likely parental allowances – would not stretch to a Porsche 356.

The Q1 prototype as presented for BMC’s approval had pop-up headlights which lay flat in the bonnet surface, in a style similar to the Porsche 928, until they were raised by the driver through a system of rods and levers operated from the dashboard.

So it may have been, but for the intervention of Len Lord. With tooling already in production, BMC’s chief declared that the cost and complexity of the pop-up lights were not acceptable. Gerry Coker had parted from Healey in 1957 to bring his talents to Chrysler in the USA, and his successors Les Ireland and Doug Thorpe’s only option was to do a hasty re-work, with the headlight pods permanently set atop the bonnet, inboard of the front wings. To their credit, their solution, with scalloped recesses in the bonnet surface in front of the headlamp pods, looked convincingly intentional. Thus, the Sprite was landed with its cute anthropomorphic ‘face’ through a combination of the over-ambition of Healeys designers and  Leonard Lord’s characteristic suspicion of untested innovation.

Long after the event, Donald Healey was embittered about Len Lord’s imposition, claiming that the mechanical actuator mechanism devised to raise and lower the lights was “perfectly satisfactory” and “would probably have added no more than £1 to the cost of each car”.

As previously noted, BMC management oversight of the ADO13 project was largely devolved to George Harriman, Leonard Lord’s assistant. Harriman was an easier individual to work with than Lord but lacked his boss’s incisive mind and instinctive talent for cost-effective production engineering. Had Len Lord been more hands-on, the one-piece front end and quarter-elliptic leaf spring suspension may also never have reached production.

BMC’s management had decided that the Sprite would be built at the Austin works at Longbridge, but that was to change when the ADO15 Mini project was approved for production. In a logical move, the MG factory in Abingdon was given responsibility for assembly of the new sports car alongside the MGA, and from late 1957, the Austin-Healey 100.

Despite Austin-Healey being a pet project of Len Lord, and on the wrong side of the Austin / Nuffield divide, the MG engineers were reported to have worked with their Healey counterparts in a positive spirit. However, MG were not prepared to adopt the Sprite without ensuring it met their technical standards. They considered the Healey organisation’s proving regime to be far less rigorous than their own and had reservations about the Sprite’s insubstantial tail assembly.

Image: AHS Classic Car Garage

Six pre-production cars were fitted with boot racks carrying a 50lb. simulated luggage load and driven over a cobbled test track. Confirming MG’s concerns, the rear wings distorted very early in the test period. Additional reinforcement was hastily designed and fitted to completed bodyshells and the small number of finished cars, and a potential warranty and reputational disaster was averted.

MG’s involvement came at a late stage, and the Sprite was a true Healey design. At the time, the Healeys, Donald and his son Geoffrey, Barry Bilbie, Gerry Coker and his styling office successors were masters of the art of the British sports car. Just look at the interior view. It’s an ergonomic and passive safety nightmare, but it shouts out, ‘Drive me! Have fun!’

Image: Hagerty UK

The Donald Healey Motor Company took responsibility for uprating the A series engine. Engineer Roger Menadue, a Cornishman like Healey, ran the experimental department at Warwick. His ministrations, which comprised a pair of 1⅛” SU SU H1 carburettors[d], a re-profiled camshaft, stronger valve springs, and stellited exhaust valves raised the 948cc engine’s power output to 42.5bhp at 5000rpm, while giving decent low-end torque with a figure of 52lb. ft. at 3300rpm. For comparison, the same engine in A35 tune only managed 34bhp[e]. The Sprite weighed just 1328lb (602kg), 240lb less than the two door A35, despite having the same basic drivetrain and a similar footprint.

In its home market, the Sprite’s launch price was £679 after tax, £109 more than a two door A35 saloon. No mass-produced car at the price could compete with the new Austin-Healey’s performance; 80mph top speed and 0-60 mph in just over 20 seconds. However, in low–wage, highly taxed, finance-restricted late-fifties Britain, the price of any new car would have been well beyond the reach of most of the young enthusiasts the Sprite courted. In the USA, there was no such inhibition, and Donald Healey boasted of taking 1500 American orders per week.

Image: Haynes

Healey conceded that the Sprite’s unintended cuteness contributed to its immediate success following its launch in May 1958. In 1959, its first full year, around 21,500 examples were sold, falling slightly to 18,665 in 1960. Not that anyone worried unduly. Donald Healey’s instinct had been proved correct, helped by his vigorous promotion of the car which carried his name.

Motorsport also played its part in establishing the Sprite’s reputation. Barry Bilbie’s idiosyncratic chassis design had the virtue of being an ideal blank canvas for racing car developers, most notably John Sprinzel, who had won the 1958 British Saloon Car Championship in an Austin A35 developed by his Speedwell Company. In the following year he won the British Rally Championship in a Sprite, and in 1960 achieved a class win in the 12 hours of Sebring race in Florida and took second place overall in the British RAC Rally and third overall in the Liège-Rome-Liège rally in Healey-developed Sebring Sprites.

John Sprinzel (1930-2021) Image: The Times
Image: pmo200.com

Sprinzel had a complex but fruitful relationship with the Healeys, and contributed to the design of the Sebring Sprite, which had a lightweight alloy hardtop coupe body on a modified version of Bilbie’s chassis, with upgraded suspension and braking, including front and rear disc brakes.

That inner structure was not just useful for racing. It also facilitated future design variations and restyling. Well before the turn of the decade, the next chapter of the Sprite story was already being drafted.

To be continued.

[a]  Was Len thinking of the recently introduced MGA, which cast a considerably larger shadow than its TF Midget predecessor?

[b]  Around the time of the 1952 merger which created the British Motor Corporation, Leonard Lord instigated studies for an inexpensive open-topped sports car using the recently introduced Austin A30’s powertrain and suspension components. In-house Austin stylist Riccardo Burzi produced sketches and scale models which impressed Lord sufficiently to approve work on engineering and production drawings. The A30 Sports project – unofficially known as the Red Devil – advanced far enough to deliver a well-finished road-going prototype, but Lord vetoed further development, citing misgivings about the proposed construction, which comprised a tubular space frame supporting a glass-fibre reinforced plastic body.

[c] ‘Imp’, also a former Riley name, was the first choice, but Rootes Group had already registered it. BMC also had to make an agreement with The Daimler Company to use the ‘Sprite’ name, which had been applied to a mid-sized Lanchester saloon, fated never to go into production. The Lanchester Sprite (c.1953-55) had the possibly unique distinction of being produced in Mark 1 and Mark 2 versions without a single car being sold to the public. According to the JHT website, three Mark 1s and ten Mark 2s were built.  Although the Mark 2 appeared in Daimler / Lanchester price lists, none were sold, and the running prototypes were used for many years as factory hacks.  The unitary-bodied Mark 1, which looked like a mash-up of a Morris Oxford Series 2 and a Singer SM1500, had one feature in common with its Austin-Healey namesake – the entire bonnet and front wings were a single structure hinged from the front bulkhead.

[d]  The smallest instruments SU produced, but for BMC, Standard-Triumph, and Rootes, twin carburettors were absolute holy writ for a proper sports car.

[e]  Before the Healey-developed twin carburettor engine, BMC A series production was concentrated in Longbridge. The new variant was built alongside the C series six at the Morris Engines factory at Courthouse Green, a northern suburb of Coventry, establishing the plant’s new purpose as the site for the specialised A series engines required in the Mini Cooper era.

Reference sources: Men and Motors of “The Austin”. Barney Sharratt. Haynes Publishing 2005/ The A-series Engine Its First Sixty Years. Graham Robson. Haynes Publishing 2011/ Donald Healey My World of Cars. Peter Garnier with Brian Healey. Patrick Stephens Limited 1989/ MG The Untold Story. David Knowles. Windrow and Greene 1997/ Triumph Cars-The Complete Story. Graham Robson and Richard Langworth. Motor Racing Publications 2004/ Brick by Brick – The Biography of Leonard Lord.  Martyn Nutland.  AuthorHouse 2012/ Classic and Sports Car September 1983

24 thoughts on “Elemental Spirit Part 1: A Power Partnership”

  1. Good morning, Robertas. A small car, but the big story behind it was unknown to me. Looking forward to part two.

  2. A fascinating article about a fascinating little car, which combines parts-bin and innovative solutions in a very smart way (multiple meanings of the word ;-). Thanks Robertas. I couldn’t help but wondering about the relationship between Sprite’s rear suspension layout and that of Jaguar’s Mark II, would anyone know? They look quite similar, but are they really, and who inspired who?

    1. The Jaguar used a ( surprisingly short ) lateral link to stabilise the rear axle. Not sure if it counts as a panhard rod. I presume the Jaguar suspension pre-dates the Sprite. Also the Jaguar used semi-elliptic springs, with half the spring concealed in the chassis.

    2. My first impression upon looking at the Sprite’s rear suspension layout was to note a passing similarity in layout to that of the Jaguar C-Type competition car, although instead of leaf springs, the Jag used torsion bars. The rear suspension design for the compact Jaguar saloons was based upon similar thinking to that of the C-Type (although it too used leaf springs) and in addition to the short lateral links mentioned by Mervyn (again inspired by the C-Type), also employed a Panhard rod. The latter was to prove something of a weak point in hard use, even after the mountings were re-enforced.

    3. There is a similarity between the readily visible parts of the Sprite rear suspension and the Jaguar Mk.1/2, but the bigger car’s is far more complex, and is actually based on a pair of semi-elliptic leaf springs. The conventional arrangement for longitudinal leaf springs would be a fixed mounting at the leading end, a hinged shackle at the trailing end to take up the varying length of the leaf, and the axle mountings at the mid point of the leaf

      William Heynes’ design used inverted semi-elliptic leaf springs with the front and mid points fixed to the car’s body, and the axle fixed to the extreme end of the leaf in a cantilevered arrangement. Flexible rubber mountings were used at the fixing points to insulate the body from noise and vibration, and also to allow the full length of the spring enough freedom of movement to function effectively as a springing medium. The advantage of this over a true quarter elliptic spring is that the loads going into the bodyshell were better distributed, with four widely spaced mountings taking the weight of the rear of car, mainly as point loads.

      The other claimed advantage of Heynes’ design was that the most space-consuming parts of the suspension were moved forward – relative to conventional practice – to a part of the car where space was less critical, allowing a larger boot and more rear passenger room. The location of the trailing arms is similar to the Sprite’s, but the Jaguar also had a transverse Panhard Rod attached to the axle to control lateral moment – to be expected given all that rubber.

      Perhaps Healey’s designers tried to do the same thing ‘on the cheap’, although these 15-leaf springs look like they would be costly items. The other alarming thought is the loads which went into each of the fixing points for the clamped spring mountings. They were taking a quarter of the weight of the car within a very small area, with bending and rotational forces being applied as well as the point loads. Questionable practice, even in a very light car.

      It doesn’t surprise me at all that MG’s engineers didn’t like the design from the start, and eventually replaced it with conventionally configured semi-elliptics.

    4. Many thanks for the excellent explainer on differences and similarities between the two arrangements, Robertas. Indeed, not much more than a passing similarity, as Eóin dubbed it, it seems. Also quite clear now why MG did not adopt this arrangement, as it seems relatively costly and probe to wear, given te load points. Much appreciated!

  3. I am impressed! A very well written piece, well researched. The problem with being a car guy is having to read the same stories over and over because most articles are mostly rehash of what have been told before. Imagine my surprise when I learned not one but at least a dozen new things I hadn’t known before on this subject! Good work.

    I remember something about the positioning of the headlights, the original idea was to have them mounted on protruding front edge of the wings, in place of the turn signals, on the same level as the grille? But they had to change that because of minimum height restrictions in the US? I’ve always imagined that “face” would’ve looked fundamentally wrong being positioned so low to the ground.

    1. The headlight arrangement on the Q1 prototype presented for BMC approval really is very 928-like, but with the headlights well inboard of the front wings. I imagine it would have been a mechanical engineering and tolerancing nightmare when combined with that one-piece rear hinged front end. I’ve seen a photo of the pop-up light prototype, but it seems to have become elusive – perhaps struck down from the internet.

      The front end of the John Sprinzel Sprite in the photograph at the end of the article gives a fair idea of what Healey might have done if they had a free hand with the tooling; neat but without the distinctive character of the production car.

    2. There was a retrofit conversion consisting of fixed headlights mounted with the lens pointing upwards and pop up lids containing mirrors reflecting the beam to the road.

      Sounds complicated – how successful were these?

  4. Well said Ingvar – Robertas is no re-hasher and I look forward to the next instalment. The post-WW2 British motor industry is much maligned, and often rightly so, but it could also produce vehicles which were just so “right” and totally fit for purpose. The frog-eye was an excellent example.

  5. Lovely article, lots of interesting facts and really nice story telling. Terrific – we are truly spoiled by the quality of work which appears on DTW.

  6. The article mentions the complex front bulkhead of the car – a similarity with the ‘Pig’ Healey that would have nearly impossible to repair in case of a heavy accident which thankfully never happened during their rally years. The picture of the naked chassis shows some striking conceptual similarity around the bulkhead with the larger car.

    1. The “Pig Healey”? I’ve never heard it so described before.

      Did the Germans think it was a bit of a swine to drive?

    2. Pat Moss gave the AH 3000 this name after her first race with this car – and she didn’t use it as a lovely term of endearment, but rather as if she didn’t like the vehicle.

  7. I can see why the Sprite is considered “Cute” but to me it will always be the definitive “Cheeky car”. I would instinctively distrust anyone who dislikes the Mkl, it’s as suspect as disliking dogs, Bill Forsyth’s “Local Hero” or steam engines.

    It must have been considered severely compromised car even in the 1950’s. You get to the boot by wiggling your luggage past the seats. Those secondary instruments look like they’d be hidden by your fists if driving at the 10 to 2 position beloved of driving instructors.

    Regarding the safety nightmare aspect, I’m sure our district had a fatality a few years ago when a Sprite driver got killed in a collision with a modern car, leading to a conviction for the surviving driver. The Craven Herald internet site brings up too many reports of road fatalities to sift them properly though, the grim reality of living in an underpopulated vast county with countless country roads.

    Donald Healey was from Perranporth, which is on the Bristol Channel coast, it seems to me that virtually any Healey (Including the Jenson Healey) would be the most acceptable car for driving down the Atlantic Coast Highway from Watchet and Dunster to the tip of Cornwall. The roads inspired the cars, maybe?

    1. Even by the standards of its time, the Spridget was definitely a car for ‘he who does not fear death’.

      Two people of my – not very close – acquaintance had major collisions in them, and neither had to worry about their no-claims bonus.

  8. I have to say that I have always disliked those frog-eyes … I think they make the cars look too cute and not to be taken seriously. With the pop-up headlights I can see now how the car would have been half-way to a Lotus Elan, a bridge between the 1950s and the 1960s.

    1. It’s not the eyes, it’s the smiling mouth.

      I’ve driven many cars in my life (and there were some that might be the envy of many), but unfortunately I’ve never been behind the wheel of a Sprite. Something I regret very much.

  9. The involvement of MG at an earlier stage could have been advantageous for the Sprite.

    Without cost being a factor would the Sprite have benefited from further drawing upon the Minor and other models from within BMC’s parts shelf with regards to its suspension and other aspects? How could the Sprite and later the Midget have been adequately updated to extend its production run than was the case?

    The Sprite / Midget is an interesting subject given that it made use of A30 / A35 parts as have seen some suggest the latter was an unnecessary duplication, which would have not existed had the merger of Austin and Morris occurred in the immediate post-war era after the Minor was launched (of which engine and gearbox, etc aside the A30 / A35 were said to be in many ways inferior to the Nuffield produced rival).

    While could easily envision the A-Series still appearing in some form even with the absence of the A30 in the above scenario. What am unable to understand is why if the Minor was said to have better handling and a more modern driving experience than the A30 to A40 Farina (from which the Sprite / Midget largely derive upon), were attempts at developing a Spridget-type sports car out of the Minor platform considered to be both unattractive and unaffordable as concluded by MG’s John Thornley?

    The Frogeye does make it recognisable, however am partial towards the de-bugged fronts of the Super Sprite, revised prototype and what Swiss importer Emil Frey offered.

  10. I played truant yesterday, so am now catching up and this is (and will be) a cracking story, thank you Robertas. The legacy of Sprite’s one-piece front end remained evident on the MG Midget right to the end of that car’s life: I’m referring to the upswept ends to the sills behind the front wheels, made no sense on the Midget with its fixed front wings:

    1. Very much in the BMC tradition of not re-tooling any more than was absolutely necessary, even for products made in far larger numbers than the Spridget.

      The Midget 1500 in that photo looks rather smart – the camera height disguises the raised ride height.

      The bumpers aren’t too shocking either, but that may be down to 48 years of inurement. The designers of the 5mph impact protectors managed not to overpower the car completely – a fair feat on such a tiny car – car 2½ inches narrower than a Mini.

    2. Hi Robertas. I always thought the rubber bumpers on the Midget looked somehow less ungainly than on the MGB, but its an impression that’s hard to rationalise. Perhaps it’s because I owned a rubber-bumper Midget.

  11. On the subject of the Lanchester Sprite prototypes, had they resolved its issues and equipped it with a more down-to-earth automatic and manual (on top of Lady Nora being a non-entity), is it known how many they were intending to produce annually or what expectations they had with regards to keeping the company profitable?

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