Spridget: The Bike Shed Ferrari

Spridgets: Sprites, Midgets, Bugeyes, Frogeyes. There must be a million of them and it looks as if no one owns just one. Actually, there were something under half a million (355,888) of them produced and their owners are among the most loyal afficionados around. Some of these folks have had one Spridget after another and some own a few (two to eight) at a time.

The most popular range of cars since the T scries MG is now rapidly coming into its own. The ever present Bugeye, seen by the hundreds at racetracks around the country is now, in restored condition, bringing three times its original price. Hopeless examples are the subject of extensive, successful restoration projects and many equally hopeless-looking examples are giving unswerving daily service, their indestructible mechanical parts buzzing away under faded paint and rusty panels.

All of this renewed attention and appreciation is not surprising to those who, for years, have enjoyed these eager little cars. From a critical standpoint it is easy to find fault with a Spridget, but you had best not badmouth a Spridget unless you have one yourself.

Let’s listen in…
“The car’s cramped.”
“Its a bit narrow, and your left arm hasn’t anywhere to go but there is more leg room than most sports cars.”
“Its not very fast, is it?”
“That 1275’s fast enough to scare your MGB.” The development of the 1275 was allegedly stopped for just this reason. If you’ve got a rubber bumper B, don’t put up next week’s pay against a 1275. Even a 1098 will do ninety, albeit downhill.
“It’s noisy and the top flaps”
“What are you doing with the top up anyway? Tops are for Fiats.” The later versions of the Spridget top are one of the most functional and best looking tops ever put on a British car.
“It’s outdated.”
We’ve heard that. At twenty two years the Spridget is one of the longest running production car designs ever built. The floorpan did not change through the entire production except minor details when the rear spring system was changed. The Bugeye was the first unit body sports car.

“The gearbox is so noisy.”

There’s not a transmission built that will shift from third to fourth faster than the ribcase. Admittedly, the early smoothcase is noisy and replacing the synchros is a nightmare. The whole transmission is directly replaceable by the later units.

“The steering is oversensitive.”

Pump some more air into the rear tires and go learn to drive. Many do learn to drive in the Spridget. There is no more forgiving car. Its friendly, tolerant nature lets you be a stupid person over and over until you get it right When you finally do, only fear of the law or consideration for your fellow man will cause you to lift off.

Though there are legitimate complaints, the Spridget has had no serious competition except that three-legged thoroughbred, the Triumph Spitfire. The Honda S600, a promising performer, was taken seriously until the test drive when its outrageous handling scared everyone silly. The Berkeley, a car similar in spirit and considerably smaller than the Sprite, could be repaired on your kitchen table. It was likely to become a permanent kitchen fixture like your dishwasher, what with its Excelsior engine and no reverse gear. Cute but no maduro, m’dear.

The Bugeye was introduced in 1958 to fill the gap in the marketplace left when the larger, more expensive MGA replaced the MG T series. Len Lord, then the Managing Director at Austin saw a need for “a smaller low cost sports car much in the mold of the pre-war Austin Seven and Nippy.” (Which themselves have lately become serious collector cars). Gerry Coker, the Healey body designer at the time, remembers that, “… Mr. Healey wanted a cheap two seater that a chap could keep in his bike shed…”. I like to think of it as a poor kid’s Ferrari. The result wasn’t all that close to the Marenello number but a lot more than poor lads took to them.

The “bike shed Ferrari” carried reworked sedan components from the Austin A-35. A pair of 1 1/8 SUs and some stronger valve gear allowed the little 948cc engine43 bhp. The bilious green paint used on the Sprite engine identified it as coming from the Morris works rather than the Austin plant. No matter, an “A series” is an “A series” never mind the color of its jacket. I’m also thinking of getting one of those custom sheds for sale to house the car when I’m not working on it.

It’s the Spridgets that are responsible for all the “stage three” “stage four” talk that still goes around. The cars weren’t on the street for very long before the speed demons were grinding away at the ports and plunging boring bars down the block. Some accounts place a Bugeye on a racetrack three days after its US introduction. The Healey concern encouraged this. There was always something going on in the back of the shop. The Sprites were quickly included in their competition plans and the resulting work produced some startlingly fast Sprites.

Some of the charm of the Bugeye disappeared in 1961 when the body style changed. No longer the “smiling sportscar”, the car gained a trunk lid, more cockpit space, and a stablemate, the Midget MkI.
The new bodyshape was the only major change throughout the entire production, discounting the structural modifications needed to adapt the rubber bumpers.

Later improvements gave the basic car some civilized comforts as well as a modicum of luxury but roll-up windows and more padding thinned the character of the original, as well as reducing the cockpit room.

The engine, subjected to continual development passed through two improved 1098 stages before the ultimate 1275 was introduced in 1967. The 1275 didn’t have much time before it was saddled with emission control equipment for the US market, though it was still powerful enough to offset the weight gain of the improvements.

1969 was the last year of the US version of the Sprite, which in England became the Austin Sprite. The Austin Sprite was unceremoniously killed off in June of 1971, leaving the Midget to carry on by itself.

In many eyes, the Midget died in the fall of 1974. The car had heretofore suffered and survived the changes dictated by the Leyland merger as well as the best efforts of the company to ignore it to death.

There being two sides to every issue, there are many enthusiasts who appreciate the rubber bumper Midget In some eyes, the last Midget was the best of the line. The Spitfire/Marina gearbox added a full-synchro feature but most Austin/ Morris enthusiasts had a difficult time accept ing the 1500cc Triumph engine. Sales continued at a fair pace for a few months but the price of the Midget rose far above its real value-and fhe first ol the low price, high performance Japanese sports coupes began arriving in the United States, taking much jot the Midget’s market

December of 1979 saw the last Midget built. Much more was to befall Abingdon in the coming months.

By R.B. Hart

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