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Historical Stuff

Bill Wickman  | Published on Wednesday, February 1, 2017

 

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A popular pastime for some involves imagining what sort of animal one would be if not a human. The same sort of game is also played with cars as the object of comparison. For example, if Charlie Sheen was a Healey, I think he would be a Nasty Boy. Zsa Zsa Gabor would be a fully optioned BJ8…with air conditioning of course, dahling. So, what about a Sprite? To me, the answer is obvious… Rodney Dangerfield. All too often, like Dangerfield, our little Sprites simply “don’t get no respect.” Don’t believe me? Well then, I would remind you of the early years of our club when Sprite owners were banned from full membership status. Need I say more?

 

Of course, popular opinion does not always align with reality. In point of fact, despite its cartoon like looks, and whimsical Bugeye and Frogeye nicknames, the diminutive Sprite’s competition record is nothing to sniff at. Want proof? Just look at the impressive record established by Austin Healey Sprites at the storied 12 Hours of Sebring endurance race in Florida. At this venue, Sebring Sprites, as they became known, regularly put more impressive cars to shame.

 

Early Sebring Sprites wore bodies of standard factory appearance. The accompanying photo of a light blue Sprite is one of the surviving early Sebring Sprites. After the car was homologated in September of 1960, the FIA permitted the use of special bodies. The distinctive aluminum and fiberglass coupe bodies that followed were much more aerodynamic than the standard body, greatly enhancing the performance capabilities of the car.

 

All Sebring Sprites were fabricated in England. The little pocket rockets were produced by the Donald Healey Motor Company at its Cape Works in Warwick, the Healey's Speed Equipment Division on Grosvenor Street, London, and subsequently by John Sprinzel Ltd from their Speedwell Performance Conversions Ltd. shop at Lancaster Mews.

 

Perhaps the most famous of the Sebring Sprites were those produced by John Sprinzel. In partnership with future Formula 1 World Champion Graham Hill, Sprinzel facilitated the creation of a slippery alloy Sprite coupe body. Known as the Speedwell GT, the body was designed by Frank Costin and built by renowned racing and prototype coachbuilders Williams & Pritchard.

 

Alec Goldie and Fred Faulkner of Robert Peel Sheet Metal Works produced several more special bodies similar to the Williams & Pritchard cars. A number of other makers have also produced similar bodies. Today, many enthusiasts generically refer to all of these cars as “Sebring Sprites.” Many consider Sprinzel’s Speedwell Sprites to be the most beautiful of these special bodied cars. The accompanying photo of a grey special bodied Sprite is one of four surviving Williams & Pritchard cars.

 

In March of 1959, the BMC Competition Department entered three Austin-Healey Sprites in the 12 Hours of Sebring. Prepared by Donald's son Geoffrey Healey at the company's Cape Works, the cars were fitted with a prototype Dunlop disc brakes, tires, and wire wheels. Engine performance was enhanced with twin 11/4-inch SU carburetors. Transmitting that power to the wheels were twin-plate racing clutches and straight-cut close ratio transmissions. These Sprites were raced by Hugh Sutherland, Phil Stiles, Ed Leavens, Dr Harold Kunz, Fred Hayes, John Christy and John Colgate Jr. And despite their pipsqueak looks the trio of Sprites finished first, second and third in their class. 

 

The Sebring success gave the little Frogeyes serious credibility in the sports car world. It also fueled a market for modifications to production cars, thus making it possible for any Sprite customer to put a “Sebring” Sprite in his or her garage. These production Sebring Sprites were not exactly like the cars raced at Sebring, however. In place of four wheel Dunlop disc brakes, production Sebring Sprites were fitted with 8 1/2-inch Girling disc brakes at the front and 8- inch Girling drum brakes at the rear.

 

In 1960, concerns about the speed differentials between lower and higher horsepower cars led to the creation of a separate four-hour race for GT cars equipped with engines less than one liter in displacement. In this group, Sterling Moss drove a Sebring Sprite to a class win and a second overall. In the twelve-hour race, John Sprinzel drove a Donald Healey Motor Company prototype Sprite with a Falcon made fiberglass body to another impressive class win and a 41st place overall.

 

In December of 1960, Sprinzel left Healey’s employ to set up his own tuning and race preparation business at Lancaster Mews. As part of this venture, Sprinzel took his Williams & Pritchard-bodied coupe to the January 1961 Racing Car Show in London, where it was enthusiastically received. Riding the crest of this success, Sprinzel’s Sebring Sprites were soon being piloted by numerous well-known competition drivers, including BMC works rally driver David Seigle-Morris. Piloting his own car, Sprinzel raced a Sebring Sprite at Sebring and at other international rallies and races. 

 

Seven Sebring Sprites were entered in Sebring’s 1961 endurance race. Five of these cars were Healey prepared BMC works cars, raced by Ed Leavens, Briggs Cunningham, Dick Thompson, Bruce McLaren, and Walt Hansgen. Two of the Sprites were Sprinzel coupes, driven by Stirling Moss and his famous rally queen sister, Pat Moss. In the four hour race for under one liter cars, Sebring Sprites finished in six of the top eight places. In the 12- hour race, Sebring Sprites finished 2nd, 3rd and 4th in class and 15th and 25th and 37th overall.

 

In subsequent years, privateers piloted Sebring Sprites to numerous wins and podium finishes. Today, these cars are revered by collectors and vintage sports car racers alike. And, unlike many “vintage” sport cars, Sprites are still successfully raced in SCCA competition against much newer cars. One example is the Huffaker Spridget, a car that has enjoyed numerous SCCA podium finishes and class wins. Under the innocent looking skin of the black car in the accompanying photo lies a highly tuned racing machine created by the talented staff at Huffaker Engineering. So, if anyone tries to tell you that Sprites “don’t get no respect,” just remind them of the storied history of the Sebring Sprites of the 1960s and the contemporary successes of Sprites and Sprite derivatives in present day vintage and SCCA racing.