The Second Face, and a short-lived dupoly.
The final years of the 1950s were a time of advancement and renewal for the automobile industry. Fashions changed rapidly as American influence waned, and the European carmakers forged their own visual identities. Model replacement cycles were short, and consumers gravitated to whatever was new and progressive. The Austin-Healey Sprite’s designers never expected the expedient Frogeye design to have a long life, and not long after its launch, the designers at Donald Healey Motor Company in Warwick were working on a facelift, scheduled for production in 1961.
Even before this date, BMC’s Italian licensees had shocked their British supplier and delighted the world with their own version of the little Austin-Healey, presented at the 1960 Turin Motor Show in November 1960.
The Innocenti 950 Spider was built on Sprite platforms and mechanical components delivered from Britain, but the Innocenti family, who considered the Frogeye to be ugly and crude, commissioned Carrozzeria Ghia to design new coachwork on Barry Bilbie’s tub. Ghia’s designer for the car was a recent recruit, a young American by the name of Tom Tjaarda, who demonstrated his talent with a well-proportioned and finely detailed design which looked far more sophisticated and upmarket than the raw and basic British sports car which provided the mechanical underpinnings.
The first Spiders emerged from the recently established Officine Stampaggi Industriali (OSI) in Turin in early 1961. Production numbers were relatively small – around 7000 between 1961 and 1965 – and were intended to be, as the Spider was envisaged as an exclusive and expensive halo car, sprinkling a little glamour by association to the Lambrate-built A40s, Minis and 1100s whose popularity would before long make Innocenti Italy’s second largest car manufacturer.
The Innocenti Spider was a rare delight, even in its home market, but is unlikely to have had much influence in Warwick or Abingdon, where the next chapter in the Sprite story was being drafted.
Perhaps the Frogeye should be considered a sort of car-larva; fully functional but not yet mature. For its next stage of development. BMC’s management chose to maintain the divide between Donald Healey Motor Company at Warwick and MG’s experimental department at Abingdon, itself nominally independent from the Amalgamated Drawing Office within Longbridge.
There is no consensus on when it was decided that an MG version of the Sprite would be produced. Perhaps it was just considered an inevitability, in the golden age of BMC badge-engineering. The adopted child would certainly have been easier to accept into the family than the execrable 1959 Cowley-built Farina Magnette. The Sprite Mark 2 and new Midget were given separate Austin Drawing Office codes, ADO41 and ADO47 respectively.
From first acquaintance, the MG people seem to have viewed the little sports car kindly, and treated it as an amusing, slightly troubled protégé rather than an Austin-imposed cuckoo in the nest. There was sound commercial reasoning for bring it up in their own image. Part of the Frogeye’s success came from its appeal to customers who might have chosen a T-Type Midget but considered the MGA to be beyond their means. And then there was the matter of the British dealership networks, still divided along Austin and Nuffield lines. The Sprite was sold through the Austin network and was denied to the Nuffield franchises.
Unhelpfully, BMC’s management chose to divide and conquer, giving DHMC the task of re-working the front end of ADO41, while Abingdon developed the back end under the ADO47 project code. At Longbridge, the idiosyncratic Healey quarter-elliptic rear suspension was seen as potential source of intransigence[a] between Healey and MG, as Abingdon favoured more conventional half elliptic springs which would have entailed a complete structural redesign of the platform aft of the rear toe board.
Brand positioning and differentiation was also part of the plan; the Austin would keep the Frogeye’s tapering tail end, whereas the MG would have squared off hind quarters with the luxury of a boot lid. Both cars would have the same front structure, differentiated only by grille designs and applied trim. In the event, there was closer co-operation between the designers at Warwick and Abingdon than BMC’s management would have wished, and the ghastly chimera which could have resulted never happened.
The front-end styling of the two-brand car was the work of the Donald Healey Motor Company, with a wide rectangular letterbox grille, a conventional bonnet lid flanked by fixed front wings as straight as torpedo tubes with circular headlights mounted high and far forward in their leading edges. Disappointingly conventional perhaps, but it fitted neatly into the Farina-led BMC styling vocabulary of the time. The MG back end had vestigial fins, slightly downturned and terminating in vertical light clusters, and of course that boot lid. The resemblance to the MGB, still 15 months away when the new Midget was launched, was claimed to be entirely coincidental by the Midget’s designers Jim O’Neill and Denis Williams, who were only aware of the larger car’s near-final design through a quarter scale model. Be that as it may, the similarity was close enough to allow the same rear light clusters to be used for the Midget, Sprite and MGB.
What of the plan for different tail ends for the Sprite and Midget? It was dropped in the cause of rationalisation, and also because the Sprite’s confined luggage void was a nightmare in constructional terms, negating any benefits in weight and parts count. It is said that Donald Healey didn’t just approve the commonality of designs – he insisted on it.
And what about these quarter-elliptical springs? The matter was conveniently overlooked; stuck in the metaphorical pending tray until the next generation.
As a matter of record, until 1969 the MG was differentiated by a built-up chrome-framed vertical slatted grille, whereas the Austin-Healey had a simple one-piece punched pressing. The Midget had chrome-plated metal strakes along its sides and down the bonnet centreline, whereas the Sprite was unadorned in these areas, and was sold for a few pounds less. For a while, there were standard and de-luxe Sprites, the latter closely matching Midget trim and equipment, but lacking the MG’s external adornment[b].
The Square Sprite replaced the cute Frogeye at the end of May 1961. In its 36-month production life, the inaugural Sprite had achieved 48,987 sales, with Donald Healey proudly claiming that 1500 orders a week were coming from America at the peak of its popularity.
The new models were well received, soon to be helped in the UK by booming consumer spending on the back of purchase tax reductions and relaxing of finance restrictions. Continuous improvement followed, not always identified by up-Marking. For the 1961 models, the 948cc A series engine had gained another 4bhp through the upgrade to 1¼” SU carburettors, helping to overcome a 100lb weight increase.
In October 1962, without up-Marking, the 1098cc A series engine[c] replaced the 948cc unit, and front disc brakes were provided to cope with its healthy 56bhp output. It may have looked as if the badge-engineered duo were really getting into their stride, but in the same month as the engine upgrade was announced, their market dominance was challenged by a Bomb from Coventry.
Bomb was the Standard-Triumph codename for their Herald derived sports car, shaped by Giovanni Michelotti in the spring of 1960, then shelved as the company teetered on the edge of bankruptcy before being rescued by a voraciously acquisitive lorry-maker from the north-west of England. The new master, Leyland Motors invested heavily, yet cautiously, in Standard-Triumph. The success of the Sprite gave the new regime confidence to make the small sports car which was to become the Triumph Spitfire their first priority, with a rapid commitment to tooling, and a launch date two years from the Leyland takeover.
The Spitfire 4 came as a rude shock to BMC. It was more generously proportioned, and marginally faster, but its greatest attractions were Giovanni Michelotti’s nonchalantly elegant styling and Harry Webster’s progressive engineering. Practical virtues were not overlooked either. The Spitfire had wind-down windows, lockable doors, and weather protection easily managed by just about everybody. There was worse news for BMC in the Spitfire’s aggressive[d] pricing; £663 was a little more than the Abingdon cars, but well within the reach of open-minded prospective purchasers of open-topped cars.
45,000 of the 1147cc Mark 1 Spitfires were sold over its 27-month model life. In the same period, the BMC duo surpassed that number by about 10,000, but only because Standard-Triumph’s sales department had seriously underestimated demand, and the production operation and external suppliers struggled to deliver the volumes required.
BMC’s response to Triumph’s newcomer was tardy. The Midget Mark.2 / Sprite Mark.3 launched March 1964 still had the 1098cc engine, with its engine block was strengthened and larger main bearings fitted, allowing a power increase to 59bhp at 5750 rpm and torque to 65 lb ft. at 3500 rpm. The momentous changes were above the waistline and behind the seats. Gone were the side screens with their Perspex sliding glazing – the 1961-63 cars had retained the Frogeye’s centre section with only minor changes.
Wind-up windows had arrived at last, along with opening quarter-lights and lockable doors. The windscreen was now curved, and weather protection was improved, though still well behind the state of the art in convertible top design[e].
For the technically minded, the big change was the replacement of the rear quarter elliptic rear springs and trailing arms with an utterly conventional arrangement of longitudinal semi-elliptic leaves. The new arrangement required the extension of the chassis legs rearward to pick up the rear shackles, a significant revision of the original Healey-designed structure. The benefit it delivered was that it was easier to assemble, repair, and modify, with negligible effect on cost or weight.
In October 1966 the Sprite Mk.IV / Midget Mk.III arrived. The big news was that it was one of the earliest adopters[f] of the volume production 1275cc A series engine, but the improvements also included more effective and easily operated weather protection; a one-piece folding hood (top) in place of the previous tent-like structure.
The twin carburettor engine was a rather tentative performance variant of the enlarged A series being readied for the Austin 1300; its 65bhp output was about 10% up on the single carburettor saloon engine, but well short of the 76bhp delivered by the Mini Cooper S unit. The engine specification affirmed the Spridget’s position as a value-engineered gateway to the sports car world. BMC had been in an invidious position. Increasing power of the 1275cc engine to Cooper S[g] level would have been costly and raised prices upmarket of the Spitfire; it was better to maintain a status quo where a new Sprite or Midget cost less than an entry-level small saloon, but still met all basic sports car expectations. If more power was desired, the customer might be directed to dealer’s Special Tuning counter.
Looked at in hindsight, the 1966, 1275cc cars represented peak Spridget, the car it deserved to be. The bigger engine gave an enjoyable boost in power, without over-stressing the rest of the car, much of which was of humble and ancient origin. Equipment levels were at last adequate, and the styling was wearing well, managing to reflect the traditions of both marques in subtle and cost-efficient manner.
The Spridget’s settled state as 1966 drew to a close was in marked contrast to that of its manufacturer, about to participate in a process of headlong rapid consolidation which led to the formation of British Leyland. The new conglomerate’s smallest sports car was not high on its list of priorities, but the Spridget was not going to ride the impending turmoil unchanged.
[a] The unease may have related to Healey’s royalty-based design payment agreement. Had the Healey design been diluted, BMC may have tried reducing the payments.
[b] Despite this conscientious effort, the motoring media, trade, and general public soon coined the portmanteau name Spridget, which is far too convenient for me to disregard.
[c] The 1100c A series’ prime purpose was to power the ADO16 Austin / Morris / MG 1100. There was no certainty until a late stage in ADO16 development that the increase to the required capacity could be reliably achieved. The development engineers for the work, Eric Bareham and Bill Appleby were also the A series’ parents, and approached the task with extraordinary thoroughness, as well as some trepidation. Bore centres remained as established for the original 803cc engine, and both the bore and stroke were increased, resulting in very undersquare proportions, and a 1065cc capacity. The 3.20 inch stroke chosen was already used for the 997cc Mini Cooper. In a last-minute daredevil moment, Appleby and Bareham increased the stroke by another tenth of an inch, giving the 1098cc capacity, which would be widely used across BMC’s product range.
[d] The rivalry between BMC and Triumph was not confined to the showrooms and forecourts. In 1963 the Triumph Competitions Department’s budget was increased massively to support Spitfire campaigns in events where Healey’s Sprites were competing, mainly the Le Mans 24 Hour race and the major European rallies. Both companies’ cars were heavily modified, particularly pre-1966 where the Appendix J homologation rules were liberal on bodywork changes and engine upgrades. The Sprites and Spitfires both had spectacular successes, but Standard-Triumph were rather better at putting the lessons of competition to use in production cars.
[e] Closing the Sprite Mk1-3’s roof to the elements was a required component of the Expedition section of The Duke of Edinburgh’s award programme.
[f] It was a long-established practice in the British motor industry to sell new, or heavily revised, engines in sports cars, in the expectation that the owners would drive them hard but be more forgiving in the event of failures. The Cooper S’s 1275cc capacity was achieved with offset con-rods which allowed wider bore centres. The mass production 1275cc engine’s designers learned from competition experience, and created a remarkably durable and reliable engine, albeit dependent on expensive materials and treatments.
[g] The 1275cc Mini Cooper S was not only considerably faster than the Spridget, it was also around 25% more expensive. Notwithstanding this, by the mid-‘60s the Mini Cooper family were effectively home market rivals to the Spridget, and early harbingers of the next decade where performance saloons would relegate traditional sports cars to the margins in Britain and mainland Europe.
Reference sources: See Part one.