Elemental Spirit Part 5: Building the Perfect Beast

Drivin’ with your eyes closed. 

Image: spriteparts.com.au

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[1]. 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[2].

Image: jacobsmidget.com

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.

Image: jacobsmidget.com

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.

Image: spriteparts.com.au

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.

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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.

The young Frightists at work. Image: spriteparts.com.au

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.

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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.

spriteparts.com.au

To be continued…

[1] 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

[2] 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.

Reference sources: http://www.jacobsmidget.com// https://www.spriteparts.com.au// http://www.midgetandspriteclub.com//http://www.sebringsprite.com/

15 thoughts on “Elemental Spirit Part 5: Building the Perfect Beast”

  1. There’s a small piece on the Fright in the March 1998 edition of ‘Classic & Sportscar’. The accompanying picture shows the car was then dark green.

    1. As The Fright was a veritable chameleon of a car, its colour changed several times. It was Old English White when new, but by the time the first XK engine was fitted it was light metallic blue:

      The c.197o-71 Hot Car article showed it in a purer shade of white. The change to green possibly preceded its move to Australia, where it went back to white again.

  2. Heaven knows how they mated Chapman strut rear suspension with the Sprite floor-pan. On a similar note, Mathewsons’ Auctions currently have a 1980 1500 Midget that has been converted to GRP Sprite Mk1 bodywork. Not sure how they maintain the structural strength at the back without the steel rear-end.

    1. I’d say a lot more easily than the original Frogeye, given that the post-March 1964 cars had chassis members extending right to the back of the car. Also the Midget 1500 had further body reinforcement to cope with ‘those bumpers’ and comply with the 1974 NHTSA Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard No. 215, better known as the 5mph bumper rule.

      Of which more later…

    2. On the question of the Elite suspension transplant, this cutaway drawing of the Type 14 shows what the Frighters were up against:

      I’m guessing that a substantial subframe would have to be built on the back of the original ‘tub’ extending up almost to the waistline to pick up the strut tops. The task was all the harder as The Fright had no bootlid; the entire back-end bodywork would probably have had to be picked apart and re-assembled once the suspension had been installed and set up.

      Incidentally, that bootless tail was a major problem in the assembly process of the Mark 1 Sprite, the confined space creating health and safety issues for line workers and time-consuming processes. What looked like a cost saving turned out to be anything but.

    3. This is the exact issue that Niels Van Roij ran into when he was designing his Tesla shooting brake variant.

      “…the model S has enormous rear shock absorber mounts. The entire team perfectly understood the necessity to leave the cars original hard points (crash structure, suspension mounts, chassis) well alone.”

      https://driventowrite.com/2021/02/25/niels-van-roij-tesla-shooting-brake/

      I’m not certain what benefits derive from such tall rear struts, but at least we know which evil genius to credit.

  3. How unfortunate they were unable to acquire the MGA Twin Cam engine.

    Hypothetically in light of the fact the O-Series managed to shave about 20kg off of a B-Series and the fact the revised C-Series Six was only able to shed 20kg at most (out of a projected 79kg), would the potential weight reduction of a similarly revised B-Series have made it a more feasible proposition for the Midget?

    Heard stories about the XK engined Midget yet was previously under the impression it was linked to the Healeys hunt for a suitable engine for their version of the stillborn Healey badged MGB.

    Whilst aware the increases to the A-Series engine’s displacement were made with extreme caution up to 1275cc, from reading David Vizard’s book and what others have achieved with further enlargements to 1293cc up to 1380cc and 1479cc up to the present day. It makes one think what could have been had BMC been focused on improving and modernising the A-Series (and B-Series) earlier on instead of flailing about in vain trying to develop a replacement.

    1. How unfortunate that MG didn’t have the opportunity to sort out the MGA Twin Cam engine…

      It had its problems, but Jaguar had been building something very similar for years and the XK was the envy of the world. That man Lord again, trying to excise everything from the Gerald Palmer era and neutralise anything he saw as Nuffield power bases.

      Actually Austin developed their own twin-cam B-series at the same time as the ‘Nuffield’ version, quite how far it progressed I can’t remember.

      BMC could indeed have made something like the O-series at least 15 years before the event, and the MGB and ADO17 made such expansion particularly urgent. In its 18 years of production the 1798cc B-series engine’s power and torque outputs never exceeded the 95bhp at 5400rpm, and 110lb. ft. at 3000rpm of the 1962 three main bearing original. Compare that with what Ford, Fiat, Alfa Romeo, Peugeot, and Nissan were achieving.

      A two litre B-series was achievable, but for worn-out tooling and the obduracy of BMC’s production department who seem to have held greater sway with the conglomerate’s top management than the hapless design engineers. But then, the poor old B-series’ evolution followed a different path from the thorough but enterprising approach applied to the A-series, which also benefited from ideas developed for competition – would the offset conrods which made the 1275cc engine possible have reached large-scale production if they hadn’t demonstrated their integrity in racing and rallying?

      Similar artifice was used for the O/M/T series, mainly because its main bearing locations had been fixed by tooling bought for the B-series lines in anticipation of increased demand resulting from the Marina’s introduction:

      As for expanding the A series, 1275cc was the sensible limit for mass production, giving about 6mm of metal between bores, and a crankshaft with short enough throws not to require expensive materials and processes for durability in the real world. Refer to Triumph’s problems with the 1493cc SC engine, with its horrifically floppy three main bearing crankshaft. BMC could have achieved 1313cc with the 1275’s 70.61mm bore and the 1098’s 83.72mm stroke, but didn’t, with good reason.

      For the fanatical, specialists produce 91mm stroke A series crankshafts. Combine that with 74mm pistons and you get 1565cc. Other less expensive and almost as fulfilling hobbies are available.

    2. Agree regarding sorting out the MGA Twin-Cam engine and using that as a means of introducing a more mass production revised B-Series in the form of an early-60s B-OHC (aka O-Series).

      On the subject of the worn-out B-Series tooling, it was said to have been apparent sometime after BL was formed in the late-60s to early-70s prior to B-OHC becoming the O-Series. However was the tooling really that badly worn out when Stan Johnson developed the 2-litre B-Series OHV in 1964-1965 or could it have conceivably grown to 2-litres around the same time the B-Series grew to 1.8-litres in 1962?

      As with the B-Series was of the understanding that old tooling and transfer machinery was the limiting factor that precluded the A-Series going beyond 1275cc, let alone benefiting from the various upgrades, competition born ideas and other experimentation it received during its production life (not to mention the evolution the B-Series experienced up to the T-Series).

      Had it been possible the minimum ideal for a less compromised mass production A-Series would have probably been a displacement closer to 1370-1380 via a 71.5mm to 72.19mm bore (latter as on 1330 Mini Remastered), yet more along the lines of the Renault-derived 1341cc Ford CHT (71.5mm x 83.5 mm) albeit with the stroke closer to the A-Series engine’s reputed 86-86.5mm limit. Only the Honda 145 featured an even more undersquare engine of that size at 1433cc via a 72mm bore and 88mm stroke.

      Because BMC really needed a suitable engine to adequately cover the 1400-1500 segment in the early/mid-1960s without having to either place a significant size and weight penalty a 1.5 B-Series would likely impose on the likes of the Midget, ADO16, ADO17 (had it been smaller), etc as it did with the Marina in 1.8-litre form or create an all-new engine line.

      Maybe an early-60s O-Series analogue of similar size could have sufficed in 4/6-cylinder form, if not some novel small-block engine design developed from new A-Series tooling (paralleling the real-life O-Series using B-Series aspects). One capable of growing above the 1275 threshold with a 71-75mm bore range, yet still being able to easily slot into the engine bay of a Mini (think Honda D, Suzuki G, Nissan A, etc).

    3. All good and well, but what BMC needed was a light and adaptable engine to fit between the A and B-series. Instead they got the E-series, seriously compromised by Issigonis’s arcane requirements. We should pity Bareham and Appleby, since it certainly wasn’t the engine they wanted to make.

      If the spirits of Len Lord and Vic Oak had prevailed within early ’60s BMC, the answer would have been to make a slightly better Ford Anglia / Kent clone, and do it in double-quick time.

    4. Won’t disagree that BMC needed a light and adaptable engine between the A-Series and B-Series, hence the idea of a new enlarged linear 1000-1600 engine possibly derived from A-Series tooling (a la Cleon-Fonte to K-Type or Nissan A to Nissan GA / QG, etc).

      However appealing an over-square slightly better Ford Anglia / Kent clone sounds not sure if that is the best path to go given later emissions considerations (that’s not to say lower capacity versions couldn’t be short-stroke akin to say the Nissan E10 unit), something more linear like the Nissan A OHV and E OHC or maybe an Opel OHV inspired design (that had untapped potential as a Kent / Lotus Twin-Cam challenger – being essentially a small block 153 Chevy / Turbo-Thrift or to another way basically derived from the successor to the Stovebolt motor that Austin under Lord drew inspiration from to create their OHV designs) capable of meeting emissions challenges without significant power losses would be more optimal.

      https://pdmclark.co.za/category/the-opel-kadett/

      There was apparently a 1.3 engine designated the F-Series whose features appear similar to the experimental engine that Issigonis mutated to became the E-Series, with the lessons learned being subsequently applied to the H/K-Series for ADO74 (that prior to cancellation grew back to a F-Series like 1.3 capacity).

  4. Ahhh the Fright! It was shockingly quick. 0 -60 mph in 3 secs. It was balanced and handled but needed respect. Amazing thing.

    There are some big engined Sprites in the USA. One example has a modified Hemi (supercharged) and the other an XK engine just like the Fright. The XK engined car has a live rear axle instead of the Lotus suspension. I’ve not driven this one but it was built by a technician specialising in BMC sportscars and not adverse to circuit racing.

    The modern equivalent of the Fright project would be transplanting an LS engine into a Mazda Miata (MX5). It’s impressive what people can achieve when left alone to get on with things. Alas, there is less of that these days. Leaving people alone and not interfering seems to be getting rare, even anachronistic. Still, I did come across a project to stuff an AMG Mercedes V-12 engine into a Mazda RX7 Batmobile. That ought to be good.

  5. Late to school today, but worth the wait as the ‘Fright’ is all new to me. Quite apart from the scary performance, the revised front end suits the original tail very well and would have been a nice ‘alternate reality’ update to the production model, to differentiate it from the more square-cut Midget.

  6. Good Evening Daniel

    Yep. Scary is right, hence the name. But it does get better with familiarity. It’s a good conversion which really works.

    I prefer it in green. White isn’t frightening enough. After all, the most dangerous critters, such as super-venomous Aussie bush snakes and also the legendry giant fire breathing dragons, are green!

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