Drivin’ with your eyes closed.
From the moment the Austin-Healey Sprite met the world in Monte Carlo in May 1958, there was a widespread and urgent demand for much more power than the 42.5 bhp at 5000rpm delivered by its Healey-fettled 948cc A-series engine. Professional and amateur racing drivers, and road car owners who just wanted to cover ground a bit more quickly, were soon seeking the guidance and enriching the coffers of the tuning and preparation industry. Some were thinking beyond the A-series engine and investigating the suitability of larger and more mechanically sophisticated power units.
The A series was not a terrible engine. Far from it, in series production form it was exceptionally efficient and had a reputation for durability – an engine which was near-impossible to kill. By the late 1950s BMC’s specialists led by Eddie Maher at the Courthouse Green works were coaxing formidable power outputs from A-series units destined for competition cars.
However, achievement of such high performance demanded expensive materials and high-skill, labour-intensive finishing processes. An easier route to increasing performance was to increase the engine displacement, and although the volume production A-series’ capacity increased by 59% in its first fifteen years, the gradual steps to 948cc, 1098cc, and 1275cc were made with extreme caution, and were driven by market demand for BMC’s strong-selling saloons and LCVs.
Context is required here. In the post-war period, and long after, Britain was a nation of tweakers, tinkerers, fixers and improvers. All manner of manufactured objects received their attention, but motor cars and motorcycles were prime targets. The unkind might say that this was not a matter of choice, but an expedient response to the unreliability and inadequacy of the domestic industry’s products. I would contend that it was a practical manifestation of the democratic intellect of the nation’s people, most particularly young working men who would enthusiastically spend their overtime payments and bonuses on carburettors and camshafts, and all manner of other proprietary improvements, for their cherished little Austin, Morris, Ford, or Standard cars.
For the more enterprising modifier, the route to real performance was a complete engine transplant, but in the early ‘60s there were no compelling mass-produced options, even from rival British manufacturers. Within MG, the transplant idea was explored in 1960, with EX221, an experimental Sprite fitted with a 1580cc B series engine in MGA specification, along with the larger car’s gearbox. The description of the installation matches the pattern for the multitude of third-party engine swaps which would follow; Engine located as far back as physically possible, gearbox tunnel modified as required to accommodate a bulkier transmission, and upgraded cooling and brakes.
With an engine delivering around 80bhp, EX221 was capable of over 100mph, with overall performance figures far more impressive than its MGA engine donor, or its forthcoming MGB successor. That inconvenient performance anomaly was probably sufficient reason to shelve EX221. Strong demand for the A-series powered Sprite kept the production lines hard at work, and Abingdon’s engineers were fully occupied with the development of the MGB and the heavily re-worked Sprite Mark.2 / New Midget.
The latent demand for an off the shelf bigger-engined Sprite was soon to be met through the commercial enterprise of a giant of the motor racing world. The 1961 Sprite Mark.2 and new MG Midget – still 948cc – had not been on sale for long before Jack Brabham, already a two-times Formula 1 world champion, offered Coventry Climax re-engined Sprites and Midgets through his Jack Brabham (Motors) Limited tuning and sales business. Brabham had some previous experience here, having developed and sold a Climax conversion for the Triumph Herald in 1960.
The engine chosen was the 1216cc FWE, an all-aluminium oversquare SOHC engine familiar from the 1957 Lotus Type 14 Elite, 40lb lighter than the A-series, and in a level of tune which delivered 83bhp at 6500rpm. The 948cc engine in the contemporary Sprite managed 46.6bhp. The Brabham hybrid had a claimed 0-60mph acceleration figure of 9.2 seconds, less than half the time taken by the A-series powered standard car, and a 25mph faster top speed of 110mph. The thrills did not come cheap. A basic conversion cost £360, over half the new price of the car being converted. It is not clear whether that figure included the specially developed Lockheed disc brake installation which would unquestionably have been desirable.
Viewed as a distinct entity, the Brabham Sprite-Climax at around £1000 made a strong case for itself on a price/performance calculation, but it was not one of Jack’s more successful ventures. According to available information, only four Brabham Climax Sprites or Midgets existed, although this may not include conversions of older cars. The Brabham prototype 751 VPF survives and was being restored in 2014. The others were either scrapped, or converted back to A-series power. There is a strong possibility that the other three destroyed their drivetrains – the Climax engine appears to have been mated to the light-duty smoothcase gearbox and a rear axle which pre-dated the transmission upgrades to cope with the 56bhp of the 1098cc A-series engine fitted from October 1962. In any case, Coventry-Climax engines of the era soon became valuable commodities for racing or restorations.
One modified Sprite which burned itself into the interstices of my memory was featured in the “Readers Cars” section of an early ‘70s issue of Hot Car. It was in a different league from the customary fare, typically 1600GT powered Ford 100Es and extravagantly chromed and metalflaked beach buggies. Two numbers stuck out – 170mph and £10,000. The latter was the figure said to have been spent on a rather raw looking bumper-less white Frogeye with a front-hinged Speedwell front end and Minilite wheels. At the time that sum would have bought three new Jaguar E-Types with change left over for a few good meals. I no longer have that copy of Hot Car, so I cannot remember whether the legendary car was referred to by the name used in subsequent descriptions and published articles. ‘The Fright’
The road taken to achieve the supercar-beating terminal velocity was complex and convoluted.
The Sprite which was later to become The Fright, was first registered in October 1959, and was bought by Manchester resident Alan Brooks as a one lady owner car in January 1962. The relentless succession of improvements started almost immediately with the acquisition of a crash-damaged Lotus Eleven sports-racing car, which yielded its differential and De Dion rear axle, and all-round Dunlop-developed disc brakes.
The Sprite’s 948cc engine was replaced with a highly tuned 994cc A series which had been built for Formula Junior racing. This installation did not meet Brooks’ aspirations, and he added a supercharger to compensate for the high-revving engine’s low speed torque deficiency.
Still not satisfied, Brooks and co-Frightist Ian Phillips sourced an MGA Twin Cam engine in a scrapyard, but in this case did not move fast enough – it had already been sold when they arrived to collect it. They did not depart empty-handed, instead buying a small capacity XK engine removed from a Jaguar 2½ litre saloon, along with its accompanying manual gearbox and overdrive. Once fitted in the Sprite, the Jaguar engine was run for a year, but was no more than proof of concept, and thereafter an ex-saloon 3.8 litre XK was fitted.
While the smaller engine was in place, the Chapman Strut rear suspension and differential from a Type 14 Lotus Elite were fitted. The first 3.8 litre engine proved troublesome, and Brooks procured from gentleman racer Dick Protheroe a very rare aluminium XK block developed by Jaguar for a batch of Le Mans cars. A D-Type cylinder head and camshafts were fitted, alimented by three twin-choke side-draught Weber 45DCOE carburettors. To cope with the massively increased power and torque, the Lotus differential was replaced by a new E-Type final drive.
Alan Brooks sold The Fright complete in 1967, and it had four owners in the five years which followed, before being bought by Australian-born Harley Street doctor Geoffrey Davis. The eminent physician returned to his homeland in 1976, taking The Fright with him, along with an illustrious collection of vintage and classic cars.
The much-modified Austin-Healey was never registered for road use in Australia, and was languishing in the showroom of a motor trader in a small town in northern New South Wales before present owner Colin Dodds bought it at an auction in Sydney. Based in that city, Dodds is a prominent Spridget restorer and parts supplier, and has kept The Fright intact and running, but admits on his website: “I must be honest and say that the car is showing its age and suffering from lack of use. There is rust in the sills that needs attention, and the paint and trim are generally quite untidy. A quick or cosmetic restoration would not do the car justice, so it will have to wait until time and finances are sufficient for a full bare-metal restoration.”
To be continued…
 BMC’s B-series engine weighed around 100lb more than the A series and was considerably larger all-round. The early ‘60s saloon versions had 1489cc and 1622cc capacities and delivered between 48 and 68bhp. Its Ford, Vauxhall, and Rootes equivalents were similarly bulky and had the same general range of power outputs
 In 1966, another experimental B-series powered Midget codenamed EX238 was proposed, this time with the MGB’s 1.8 litre engine. Again, the idea was not pursued further.