Octagon Newsletter … November 1996
By Alan Fraser
By 1955 Abingdon had built its last "midget" sports car, the TF, and had turned its attention to the larger, more powerful Series MGA, leaving a vacancy in the sport car line-up that was filled unsatisfactorily by the less than perfect Berkeley 3 and 4 wheelers.
During 1956, Leonard Lord, of British Motor Corporation, mentioned to Donald Healey that there was a need for a small, low-cost sports car to fill the gap left by the disappearance of the Austin Seven Nippy and Ulster models of pre-war fame. Healey set about designing a prototype which was to become the inimitable "Frogeye Sprite" under the Austin-Healey badge.
The proposed new midget car was to use the Austin A-35 engine and mechanical components, Morris Minor steering and hydraulic brakes and an unusual quarter-elliptic rear spring assembly supported by torque reaction arms all mounted in a pressed steel unitary body of revolutionary design. Following D-Jaguar practice, the floorpan, designed by Geoffrey Healey, consisted of a "punt" stiffened by sill, gearbox tunnel and front and rear bulkheads from the front of which chassis legs protruded giving mountings for the engine, front suspension and steering rack. The rear bodywork lacked a bootlid because the rear panel, spot welded to the wings and boot floor beneath the number plate, was a stressed panel and added strength to the rear end.
The first two prototypes, designated Q1 and Q2, were similar to the production model but one had headlights that retracted to lie flat on the bonnet, in a similar manner to a Porsche 928. This innovative idea was quickly discarded due to production costs as the lights in an opening bonnet would have required a very complex linkage.
Since Longbridge was gearing up for production of the revolutionary Austin 850 and Mini Minor and production lines were designed for inserting the engine units from below, Abingdon found itself with yet another non-MG to produce but, as Donald Healey wrote, “at least from their point of view, it was a sports car and a fine one at that”.
The Frogeye (or Bugeye as it became known in the present and past colonies), became an immediate hit and, in the following two years, was produced with almost no change from the original. In 1960, Donald Healey was requested by BMC to redesign the front half of the car for the planned Mark II model. Syd Enever of MG was told to redesign the rear half and, amazingly, the two were specifically told not to communicate with one another! Fortunately, the men met for lunch regularly and an unauthorized collaboration produced a very nice updated model with the front showing a Healey influence and the rear bearing a close resemblance to the still-unannounced MGB.
The A-H Sprite Mk. II entered production in May, 1961, and a month later a MG variant, the Midget Mk I, appeared with cosmetic differences. Throughout their parallel production runs, the Midget was to be designated one model behind the Sprite until the demise of the latter. Throughout their career, "Spridgets" were to receive various bits from Leyland production lines in pursuit of standardization. In parallel with the MGB, the Midget was also to grow massive bumpers and convoluted anti-pollution gear before ceasing production in November, 1979.
Bodies are identified by serial number. For example, a body number of HAN5 L 1234 denotes H: Austin Healey or G: MG; A: Engine Type (A-Series); N: 2 seater; 5: series … fifth in the Austin Healey series, from the factory’s point of view; L: left hand drive and 1234: serial number.
I have attempted to arrange the model years by changes which were basically the same for both Sprite and MG after 1961.
March 1958 (HAN5) 501 - first production Bugeye Sprite.
948 c.c. :- 43 b.h.p.
946 :- gearbox synchro assembly improved
1073 :- thermostat type changed
1397 :- modified inlet and exhaust valves fitted
1551 :- carb fuel chamber lids modified
1606 :- sidescreen mounting brackets, fixing screws and door top finishers modified
3444 :- tachometer cable improved
3689 :- speedometer cable improved
4333 :- rear axle case and shock absorber assembly modified
4695 :- under bonnet air intake shape modified
4800 :- reduced number of steering arm fixing bolts
4996 :- clutch pedal modified
5321 :- ferrule-blanking tool holder in rear cross member fitted (whatever that means??!)
5477 :- screen-top to hood fastening changed from studs to slot
10344 :- interior door handles and mechanisms changed, chromed knobs, rear wheel-arch chassis rails strengthened and windscreen side stanchions modified
34558 :- sliding sidescreens standard
Early 1961 (HAN5) 50116 - last production Bugeye Sprite.
May 1961 (HAN6) 101 - Mk II Sprite production starts.
Ä 948 cc engine, 46 b.h.p.
Ä square rear wheel arches
Ä HS2 carbs
Ä higher gear ratios
Ä split top frame with storage bag
June 1961 (GAN1) 101 - MG Midget Mk I production starts.
Ä chrome side trim and chrome strip on bonnet
Ä MG badging on hubcaps, dashboard, etc.
Ä vertical grille slats
October 1962 - 1963 Model Year (HAN7) 24732 (GAN2) 16184.
Ä 1098 cc engine, 56 b.h.p.
Ä stronger synchromesh (ribbed gearbox casing)
Ä disc front brakes
Ä wire wheel option
March 1964 (HAN8) 38829 Sprite Mk III / (GAN3) - 25788 Midget Mk II
Ä stronger engine bearings
Ä SU electric fuel pump
Ä half-elliptic rear springs
Ä wind up windows
Ä external door handles and vent windows, new windscreen
Ä revised dashboard, key start switch
October 1966 - 1967 Model Year (HAN9) 64756 Sprite Mk IV / (GAN4) 52412 Midget Mk III.
Ä 1275 cc engine, 65 b.h.p.
Ä integral folding top
Ä body changes to rear bulkhead and rear cockpit
All Spridgets were built at Abingdon, except early 1967, when 489 Sprites and 476 Midgets were built at Cowley (identified by an "M" suffix on the serial number). One of these Midgets was reportedly in Victoria a few years ago!
Early 1968:- reversing lights standard
Ä negative earth generator
Ä "eared" wire wheel nuts discontinued
October 1969 - 1970 Model Year (HAN10) 85287 Sprite Mk V / (GAN5) 74886 Midget Mk IV
Ä Rostyle wheels
Ä recessed black grille
Ä black anodized windscreen surround (deleted after a few months)
Ä split rear bumper
Ä front side lamps lowered to equalize distance from headlights to new thinner bumpers
Ä rear lights commonized with MGB
Ä reclining seats standard
Ä instruments, steering wheel changed
Ä last export Sprite c.86766
January 1971 - (AAN10) 86803 - Austin Sprite Mk IV (England only)
Ä a run of 1022 Austin Sprites were built after the original Austin-Healey agreement expired.
July 1971 - 87824 - Last Sprite
January 1972 (GAN5) 105501 to mid - 1974, 153920
Ä round wheel arches
Ä rocker switches on dashboard
Ä larger fuel tank
Ä steering rack changed to Herald/Spitfire type
October 1974 - 1975 Model Year (GAN6) 154101 to 229526
Ä Trium.p.h. 1500 cc engine and Marina all-synchro gearbox fitted
Ä black energy absorbing bumpers
Ä square rear wheel arch
Ä anti-roll bar standard
January 1977 - headrests standard
September 1977 - 1978 Model Year
Ä door mirror for driver
Ä rear axle ratio from 3.9 to 3.72
Ä new fascia panel, instruments commonized with Spitfire
April 1977 - inertial seatbelts standard
April 1978 - two-speed wipers, handbrake failure, light, interior changes
October 1978 - 1979 Model Year
Ä dual line braking system fitted
November 1979 (GAN6) 229526 - Last MG Midget built
(1) Any Midgets exported from stock in 1980 were sent only to Canada.
(2) Production #s 229001 to 229500 were all home models finished in black.
(3) Production #s 229501 to 229525 were right hand drive and apparently sent to Japan.
(4) Production #229526 was finished in black and resides in the BL Heritage Museum.
Production figures vary amongst references, but Eric Dymock quotes 129,632 Sprites and 226,526 Midgets for a total Spridget volume of 356,158 vehicles. This makes the Midget numbers second only to the MGB (513,626), and exceeded the MG 1100/1300 volume of 143,067 and the MGA (including Twin Cam) total of 101,081 vehicles.
In the years since 1980, the Midget has continued to appeal to the sports car enthusiast of modest means, who wishes to enjoy spirited driving without mortgaging the farm to afford it. Along with the MGB, the Spridget is well supplied with spare parts, both mechanical and structural and there are a plethora of restoration books and information for the enthusiastic owner.
Although there are certainly gaps in my research for this article, there are many reputable reference sources at your disposal. If you are looking for a small, simple sportscar that is fun and forgiving to drive as well as being amazingly competitive, don’t dismiss the Spridget lightly, it is a giant of a sports car disguised as a Midget!References:
MG Midget and Austin-Healey Sprite by Lindsay Porter
More Healeys by Geoffrey Healey
The Sprites And Midgets by Eric Dymock
The Classic MG by Richard Dymock
The Mind of Chris Grant (Victoria MG Club resident Spridget authority)
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