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Bugeye Sprite PDF Print E-mail

Austin-Healey Sprite
1958 - 1960
Series AN5

 

This is of course the original Sprite. It is perhaps better known in North America as the Bugeye, and elsewhere as the Frogeye. This nickname is owing to the unique headlight mounting, sitting as they do on the bonnet in two pods. This peculiar arrangement was actually the result of a cost-cutting design compromise. The headlights had originally been intended to be retractable and as originally conceived the pods would have rotated, when the headlights were turned off, to provide a flush fit with the bonnet top. However, the extra mechanism involved for that was deemed too expensive for a car that was to be offered at the most affordable price possible. Additionally, the headlights had to be situated at a certain minimum height to meet legal requirements, thus, the pods remained and the result was two bulbous headlights sitting on the bonnet as if stuck in the "up" position, and more by accident than by design, an icon was born.

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The Bugeye was built 1958-60 (although a very few CKD - "Completely Knocked Down" (i.e., completely disassembled) examples were produced in early 1961 and shipped to Australia where taxes were averted by importing disassembled cars). There were no significant changes throughout the production run. 48,987 examples were produced, making it the most numerous, by far, among all cars ever to bear the name Healey. Power was supplied by the Austin 948 cc A-Series engine producing 43 hp, and while performance was hardly neck snapping, no one complained because the car was just so much fun to drive.

In addition to the unusual headlight treatment, another design idiosyncrasy of the Bugeye is the lack of a boot lid, or exterior trunk opening. Instead, access to the boot ("trunk" to us Yanks) was only through an opening behind the seats. There were also no outside door handles. After all, all Bugeyes were roadsters fitted with side curtains (no roll-up windows on these cars), and so opening the door simply meant reaching inside, over the top of the door, to access the inside door handle.

Options were also few on this inexpensive model. In fact, the front bumper was actually an optional extra! Other commonly found options were a heater and a tonneau cover, but perhaps the most desirable option was the handsome factory-produced hardtop. Note also that Bugeyes had no carpet, at least not originally. Instead, the floors were covered by molded, color-coordinated ribbed rubber mats that are now extremely rare and can usually be found only on a very, very few exceptionally well-preserved examples. By now very, very nearly all such rubber mats have been replaced by conventional carpeting.

Many Bugeyes have been used - hard - in club racing over the years, and consequently have been extensively modified and often significantly damaged and repaired, sometimes repeatedly. Beware a car with a racing history.

Engine swaps with later Sprites (to 1098 cc and 1275 cc engines) are also common, as are transmission swaps from those later models. However, these drivetrain swaps significantly upgrade the performance of the car without changing its heritage or character - after all, the later engines are merely further developments of the same Austin A-Series engine - and so few would object.

Note also that engine swaps are often accompanied by swaps to the front disc brakes that became available on later models. The original drum brakes were barely up to the task of stopping a 43-hp Bugeye, and those cars with drivetrain swaps and therefore more horsepower really benefit from the later, more efficient disc brakes.

Because of all this, despite the high number of Bugeyes produced, strictly original examples are now somewhat difficult to find.

Upside: The most desirable model of Sprite. Unmistakable, expressive design. Great fun-to-expense ratio. Everyone loves them. Still a large and vital spare parts and aftermarket support base in place. Widely recognized as THE symbol of all that is good about British sports cars: fun to drive, easy to maintain, distinctively styled.

Downside: No creature comforts to speak of, and weather protection is not the best. Boot (trunk) access inconvenient. Perhaps too cramped for taller drivers and passengers. Beware the original drum brakes, especially on cars with drivetrain upgrades.

Bottom line: Would you like to own a fun, endearing, eminently affordable icon of the heyday of British sports cars? Your search is over.

Last Updated ( Sunday, 26 July 2009 )
 
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