Thursday, December 10, 2020

What are we up to now?

When the econoboxes of the late eighties and early nineties came on the scene the aim was to provide an inexpensive and economical alternative to the gas guzzlers of the day. This was not a new phenomenon in the auto industry! In the mid fifties British sports cars were expensive and didn't get very good gas mileage.

In 1956 Donald Healey, of Austin Healey fame, was tasked by Leonard Lord, chairman of the British Motor Corporation, to come up with a small low-cost sports car. This resulted in the development of the Austin Healey Sprite, a small lightweight two seat roadster that Healey described as "something a chap could keep in his cycle shed"!

1960 Austin Healey Sprite. Photo taken Aug '18 in Calgary.

Why am I bringing this up on the Econobox Cafe blog you may ask?

In early 2017 I had the opportunity to acquire a 1959 Sprite! It took a bit of a back seat to our Ford Festiva project and in fact, for the past twelve months it languished under a tarp in our back yard. It's back in the garage now and we are eager to get working on it. Now back to a bit of history.


Bringing the Sprite home on a 6ft by 8ft trailer, January '17.


Under the tarp in the back yard.

The Sprite was first introduced in Monaco in May of 1958. It met the criteria of being small and it was quite a bit cheaper than other sports cars available at the time. Weighing in at under 1500lbs and being powered by a 948cc four cylinder engine it also managed very good gas mileage for the time. Since ours is a 1959 model (it came out of the factory in December of that year) I've compiled a short list of sports cars from the same year for comparison.

  • 1959 Porsche 356 cabriolet: $4250 and 21mpg
  • 1959 Austin Healey 3000: $3000 and 20mpg 
  • 1959 Triumph TR3: $2700 and 23mpg
  • 1959 MGA: $2500 and 25 mpg

The price for the 1959 Sprite was $1800 in the US and just under £700 in the UK. With its small engine and relatively light weight it managed to squeeze 36 miles out of each gallon of petrol! Utilizing parts from existing cars enabled the price to be kept as low as it was had the added benefit of being fairly economical to repair when needed. Another factor was its simplicity; there are no exterior door handles, no locks and no trunk/boot lid! A heater was optional as was a windshield washer system.

(Note: prices are approximate for the US market and in US dollars, fuel consumption is in miles per US gallon)

The early prototype of the Sprite had retracting headlights much like those on later Porsche 928s. These were dropped in order to keep costs down and were replaced with fixed pods on the hood. This distinctive feature resulted in the nickname "Frogeye" in the UK and Europe and "Bugeye" in North America. Just over 49000 Bugeye Sprites were produced over its three year production run. Most of that number were destined for the North American market and ours is one of those.

Since returning the car to the garage in November of this year I've started toward rebuilding it into a fun driver  with the goal of having it on the road by the end of August 2021. I have been very pleasantly surprised to find that most parts for the Sprite are readily available at reasonable prices. This is due in part to the use of components, particularly the mechanical side of things, from other cars in the BMC stable at the time. For example, the engine, transmission and rear end were sourced from an Austin A35.

Moving day

Back in the garage

As I write this post the engine and transmission have been removed from the car, the engine bay has been pressure washed and the transmission has been inspected with very positive results. In the coming weeks I plan to focus on the mechanical side of things along with any necessary metal work. I don't have enough heat in the garage to door any body filler or painting so that will have to wait until things warm up again in the spring. I hope you'll follow along on this latest venture as I update on a monthly basis. Here's the link to my YouTube channel where I will posting updates a bit more often.

Engine and transmission are out.

An upcoming post will feature another vehicle that was introduced in 1959 by the same company as the Sprite. It definitely falls into the category of "econobox" so if you have any guesses let me know in the comments below.You'll still hear about any adventures with the Festiva as it is still around.

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