The immortal ‘Frogeye’ Sprite was a quintessentially British design, but could its roots have lain further West?
Editor’s note: This article was originally published in July 2018.
The compact two-seat sportscar wasn’t necessarily a British invention, but for a period during the twentieth century, the UK was perhaps 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, even if it was primarily 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 series. 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 Kenosha, Wisconsin-based 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 optimistic even then. Or was it?
Realising the car couldn’t be produced economically in the US, a deal was reached with Leonard Lord at the British Motor Corporation (Fiat had also been approached) to develop and build the Metropolitan using a monocoque body of 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 semi-unitary 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 is possible that 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.
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 and comely. 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.
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.
13 thoughts on “Kenosha Kid”
Love these little roadsters based on proven mechanicals that provide a driving experience far above their pedigree and price. One can have fun without breaking the bank or indeed your physical self since the sensations provided exceed actual speeds achieved.
With continuing numbers of vehicles on the roads something like the Sprite makes more sense than high powered sports cars.
Prices have risen dramatically over the past few years prompting me to look for an alternative designed within the Sprite’s ethos.
That car is the Smart Roadster which provides a similar driving experience but with modern features and safety. Like the Sprite they were powered by a small displacement unit commandeered from a lessor standard production car “the Smart for two” and were only available for about three years before production ceased.
Having “missed the boat” on the original basic sports car I have squirreled away a mint low mileage Roadster example while they are reasonably priced and finding it a hoot to drive on sunny summer days plus they are showing signs of appreciating.
Good choice. I’ve always had a soft spot for the little roadster. The only thing that would be put me off is the gearbox, based on reviews (I haven’t had a chance to road-test). How do you find it?
Somewhat ironically the Smart Roadster and the MG Midget name nearly ended up quite connected. With the collapse of MG Rover a group of investors called the Kimber group tried to get the rights to manufacture the Smart Roadster as a new MG Midget. Despite some reports at the time that the deal was going ahead, it didn’t. MGs now being small hatchback/crossovers .https://www.gminsidenews.com/threads/inside-line-smart-roadster-to-be-mg-midget.27384/
Never had the Roadster, but owned a 1st gen ForTwo and quite appreciated the gearbox.
Never found it tooo slow like many complained. If you’re mechanically “sympathetic” to it (a little throttle lift before an up-change is all it takes), rowing up and down the box is quite fun !
You can even downshift 2-3 gears at a time.
Since I’ve had three for twos and two roadsters believe I can speak with some authority on them.
When driven as an automatic the for two can be a bit slow on the upshift and at times confused in the ebb and flow of traffic, however the paddle shifts when fitted are a delight and provide instant ratio changes. The shorter and taller car tends to amplify this short coming with a two and fro rocking motion when auto shifts are slow or the car is confused. Having a very low first ratio also adds to the sensation as engine revs build and need to drop before second a much higher gear is automatically brought on line. As pointed out by pjrebordao if driven with common sense or sympathetically the for two can be really smooth.
Roadsters seem to have different programing and may even have different ratios as they do not suffer these idiosyncrasies. The six speed sequential is a joy to behold with the paddle shifters, I shift with my “pinkie” most of the time.
Forgot to add that mine was a manual only, so I never experienced that slowness.
Having driven both Sprites and Smarts, I’d take the Sprite every time. I cannot see the connection between a rear-engined drone with a manky transmission and a proper front-engined sportscar of 50 years earlier even in my wildest imagination.
Describing a Frogeye as having a monocoque chassis is a bit much though. No roof. Merely unitary. And the quivery rear held on to the front by all of two sills, a transmission tunnel and the parking brake cable. Two quarter elliptic cart springs at the rear caused us much merriment to behold. Of course, the floor pan helped a bit holding front to back until it rusted. All very basic and a bit disposable.
With all of 42 horsepower, and the asthmatic-sounding A series engine, it was slow. But the spriteliness shone through and we demented young ones drove it flat out annoying no one while giggling like fools. A nice gearchange helped and the wheezing air intakes up front were countered by the burbly exhaust and the wind. Gear whine completed the picture. The none-too-well attached rear allowed a modest helping of steer by throttle due to chassis bending, I presume. It was so low you had a hard time making the superwide 5.20 by 13 tires squeak even at maximum g.
All I wanted to do in my mind’s eye was to rip out the A series and put in a 105E engine with the Shorrock supercharger advertised in Motoring News. That would have made the Frogeye sit up and beg!
Ah 1963. Things seemed so much less complicated then. And more fun.
Bill as the Roadster is illegal in both the States and Canada I presume your drive was in the standard Smart not a Roadster which is a completely different experience as previously mentioned.
The comparison between the Sprite and Smart is they both used a drive train from another source to power a small affordable sports car. Smart Roadster design team have mentioned being influenced by previous generations of small affordable sports cars based on this theme and most magazine testers also mentioned this.
Gordon Murray of F1 fame has chosen a Roadster as his every day drive for the past 13 years and states in the Telegraph “I cant find anything else which is that small and as much fun to drive” a pretty good endorsement for the Roadster.
Nice description of the joy of a Sprite. The only thing you missed out was the passion killing effect of that transmission tunnel!
You mention your Smart is a manual only which puzzles me as from day one they were all auto plus manual.
You can drive fully automatic by pressing the button on the side of the shifter or rock the shifter fore and aft for manual changes. Even in manual mode if you forget to downshift when slowing or stopping it will do it for you.
Six speeds were the norm with some years later a five speed introduced.
While the Sprite and Metropolitan both made use of the Austin/BMC parts bin, would suspect the likes of the Crosley Hotshot as well as the Austin A40 Sports had more influence on the Sprite than the Metropolitan.
From what am unable to decipher about the Metropolitan, its width is basically the same size as the 1954 Cambridge yet also featured A30 sourced componentry such as apparently the front suspension (albeit slightly re-arranged) and the rear axle.
Somewhat OT yet Sprite related, it is curious to note how both the increased width and wheelbase of the Innocenti C Coupe makes it a close enough match with the Morris Minor and Mk2 A40 Farina’s dimensions (in spite of the latter being slightly longer at the wheelbase unlike the former).
Donald Healey claims to have made the connection with Austin which led to the production of the Metropolitan. It started with a chance meeting with Nash Kelvinator President George Mason on an Atlantic sea crossing. Healey was on the way to Detroit to talk to speak to Cadillac about using their new V8 engine, Mason said it was known to be well behind schedule, gave him some personal contact names at GM, and invited him to Kenosha. The visit which followed led to the Nash-Healey project.
George Mason had mentioned the NX1 project, and Healey suggested his “good friends at the Austin Motor Company” would be suitable partners for the venture. Beyond that introduction, Healey doesn’t seem to have had any input to the design or production of the Metropolitan.
I can’t imagine that a two-seat convertible non-sports car would have had any appeal to Donald Healey, but he did give it modest praise; “not a particularly handsome car, but quite an effective one”.
Now here’s a Sprite-related mystery.
In The Robson A-series book, the description of the first discussion between Len Lord and DMH of the Q1 idea includes a statement from Lord “What I would really like to see is a bug”. Lord referred to the pre-war Austin Seven Nippy and Ulster as exemplars.
It’s that “bug” word. The Sprite’s bug-eyes came later, and through expediency, and the VW Beetle
was informally called the ‘Bug’ in the USA, but it sounds as if Lord is using a popular, but possibly outdated name for a small, cheap basic car, perhaps recalling a horse-buggy.
Is anyone in the DTW commentariat familiar with the term?