Home » The Unmatched Fun Factor Of The Beloved “Bugeye” Austin-Healey Sprite Could Have Lived On In A Honda-Built 1984 Remake

The Unmatched Fun Factor Of The Beloved “Bugeye” Austin-Healey Sprite Could Have Lived On In A Honda-Built 1984 Remake

Honda Healey Ts
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“Why do you bother doing sketches of alternate reality cars when AI can do it for you?” That’s really a question I should ask myself more often. Indeed, pretty much any of the “what-ifs” that I draw up could ostensibly be done by Midjourney or some similar program. Still, there are many issues. Namely, I’d need to type in a few dozen paragraphs of prompts and do hours of trial and error to even attempt to get details like the side marker lights and hazard flasher switch exactly where I want them. Tedious as that sounds, I’m assuming it could eventually work, but what about emotion? Autopians know that cars are about far more than what they look and how they function: how do they make you feel?

I haven’t tried putting the term “fun car” into any one of these generators, yet I can see it struggling. There’s no universally agreed-upon formula for what a “fun” car should be even amongst the most “normal” car enthusiasts, and the precise shape of fun grows all the more soft and fuzzy when the tastes of Autopians are brought into consideration. An old Jeep? A VW Bug? A Yugo? These unlikely things give endless joy to their owners, though I’m sure AI would sooner generate a sub-5-second-to-sixty SUV as a “fun” car instead. Believe me- I purchased a well-worn example of one of those and it just plain isn’t “fun”.

Vidframe Min Top
Vidframe Min Bottom

It’s been said that driving a slow car fast is far more entertaining than driving a fast car slowly. In the Malaise era, we learned this rather quickly because we just didn’t have access to truly fast cars in the first place. What if it’s 1984, and we want to make the “highest fun factor” car we can possibly imagine? The results of the Bishop-O-Tron generator would likely defy the results of any computer algorithm, but I think you’ll agree that this concoction of Eastern and Western expertise would have been an absolute hoot.

Is It A “Frogeye” Or A “Bugeye”?

It’s a Sunday morning, and you’re driving down a suburban four-lane at what feels like breakneck speed. The wind from the open top is whipping over your head, the motor throbbing along in top gear. As you switch lanes the steering is nearly telepathic-quick as you sit inches from the ground. Suddenly a car drifts past you on the left, moving ahead of you as they speed around in the outside lane. Who dares pass when we’re already going what feels like Mach I?

It’s a landau-roofed Mercury Grand Marquis; the elderly passengers are likely late for church, and they’re still only going a few miles an hour over the speed limit.

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Sprite Mk 1 6 20
Source: Bring A Trailer

I experienced the above in a friend’s 1960 Austin Healey “Bugeye” Sprite (known as a “Frogeye” in most UK circles). This painfully low-powered sports car was nonetheless likely one of the most fun automobiles that I’ve ever driven, and it’s a car that’s fun before you even get behind the wheel. Only the 1950’s British automobile industry would design a car with pop-up headlights, realize it was too expensive to build, and then just leave the raised headlights in place despite the frog-faced appearance of the finished car. A trunk lid? Outside door handles? Side windows? Interior door panels? Not even available as options. It’s hard to believe that people bought this thing, but buy they did, even though it was the era of practically-free gasoline and big V8s in family cars.

The “Bugeye” was a rather odd car to come from Donald Healey, a former race driver and previous technical director at Triumph cars. His own automobile firm that he started later was primarily known for building larger, more powerful and far more costly sports machines (if you’re a GenXer, the Tears For Fears video that played every ten minutes on MTV is practically a love letter to a rather lovely BRG straight six Big Healey). Well before the time of the Sprite’s 1958 introduction, demand for Healeys was beyond Donald’s production capabilities, requiring him to use British Motor Corporation (predecessor of the dreaded British Leyland) for production of these “Austin-Healey” cars. Unlike the near-Jag-priced “big” Austin-Healeys, the inexpensive Sprite made the sports car experience accessible to virtually everyone.

Sprite Mark 1 2 6 20

The second-generation Sprite was basically a twin of the MG Midget. Standard were far more creature comforts (wind-up windows!) but far less personality than the “bugeye” predecessor. The first generation car far better captured the minimal ethos so loved by enthusiasts.

Healey’s contract with BMC ended in 1967, but that wasn’t the end of his ventures. In 1970, American car dealer Kjell Qvale became majority shareholder of the Jensen Motor Company, maker then of the Chrysler V8-powered Interceptors. Kjell lamented the loss of the large Austin-Healey and hired Donald as chairman with the main purpose of creating a latter-day successor to that car.

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The resulting car, the Jensen-Healey, was absolutely one of those things that sound great on paper: a Lotus motor, Healey-developed chassis, and styling tweaked by William Towns. In reality, everything turned out to be far less than promised. Lotus indeed provided the motor, but it was the “torqueless wonder” 907 DOHC 4 cylinder that proved troublesome. Styling was pleasant enough, but not nearly exciting enough to make one see it as a “next generation” Big Healey, even before big black rubber US bumpers had to be added. There’s only so much one could have done with the Vauxhall mechanical components used, and definitely not enough to make a pure sports car. What really cursed any hope of lasting success that the Jensen-Healey project hoped to have in a market were quality issues that were bad even by labor-strike-plagued standards of the day. Buyers had historically accepted the quirks of these cars since there was nothing quite like them, but by the 1970s, alternative choices like that pesky 240Z changed people’s tolerance levels and put paid to sales of British cars in general.

Jensen Healey 6 20
Source: Classic Cars

Healey cut ties with Jensen in 1973, possibly to distance himself from the less-than-stellar reboot of his name. Issues with the Jensen-Healey and poor sales of the 9MPG Interceptors after the energy crisis forced that firm into liquidation by 1976.

Reportedly, companies such as Ford and even Saab had courted Donald Healey to add some sports car magic to their lineups, but it was not to be. That’s quite a shame, and I can see an alternative reality where such a revival might have resulted in a quality car that was more fun than any malaise car had a right to be.

We Could At Least Offer British Electrical Smoke Air Fresheners

It’s the early eighties, and we’d like to bring out the Healey name one more time; not as something to be put on a “large” touring car but instead for an affordable pure sports car in the vein of the Sprite. What company can we choose to partner with to make a reliable, well-built machine with a high-revving little engine and responsive mechanicals? Well, there are a few we can think of that … oh, come on, who are we kidding? You said “Honda” right away, didn’t you? What other choice would there be?

People often point to the VW Golf as the epitome of cheap thrills in the early eighties, which ignores the merits of the Civic. The magnum opus of the Honda’s subcompact likely was the sporting CRX version, sold only as a two-seater in the US and a machine that jammed in more pure driving fun-per-horsepower than anyone thought possible. These guys earned a car with the Healey badge, dammit.

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Honda Crx 6 22
Source: Honda

Don’t forget, British Leyland built a version of the Honda Civic themselves at the Triumph Acclaim in the early eighties, so it’s not as odd of a mashup as one might think. There’s only one possible challenge: we want this Healey to be a traditional front engine-rear drive car, something that at this point Honda hadn’t made for some time. In fact, the last example of a model that they made with this layout was a decade before with the tiny S800 roadster.

Honda S800 6 20
Source: Bring A Trailer

Yet why couldn’t Honda make such a car? A few years later they’d make the mid-engined little Beat roadster, and before that there was the vaunted NSX; a proto-supercar favored by a dude that drove Honda-powered Formula 1 race cars.

Honda Rear 6 20
Sources: Cars & Bids and wikipedia/ Paul Lannuier

Some products require a tremendous amount of hand-wringing to bring to life, while others tend to design themselves. This “ultimate fun” car seems to be the latter. What if we start by imagining how Honda might make a test mule for such a thing?

First, they’d take a CRX and stretch the nose a bit; that’s about the perfect size for this car since it’s a tad smaller than a Miata, much smaller than an S2000, and just enough larger than a Kei car for Uncle Sam to allow it into the country (let’s face it, even today such tiny cars are less welcome by most American states than sex offenders). The Honda engineers would turn the E-Series Honda motor longitudinally; that engine bay would be just waiting for the later twin-cam D-Series motors in subsequent years, but again this exercise is far more than about pure power. Supposedly Mazda engineers worked tirelessly to make the Miata exhaust sound like a British sports car, but we won’t do that here; the sound of a Honda four at full song is honest and just as inspiring.

The next thing would be figuring out how to get the five-speed of a formerly front-driven car to work now (or does the transaxle go in back?). Ideally, Lotus could have helped design a new independent rear suspension to connect our driveshaft to, but Honda was more than capable to doing this themselves. Besides, after selling Jensen thousands of bad engines without any form of warranty (Colin Chapman was a great salesman) I doubt that Donald Healey would darken their door again. Keep the CRX front suspension essentially the same, add disc brakes to each wheel and that’s the basic car: no more and no less than what we need.

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Healey Cutaway 6 22

Styling is essentially the same thing in terms of developing quite easily. Like the original Sprite, it’s very elemental and clean. We’d eschew pop-up lights here for cost and weight savings reasons which also gives us a Frog-like front end similar to our inspiration car. As with the first Sprite, the look comes from the need for simplicity and not an overly self-conscious attempt at being “cute”. The “smiling” Healey grille fits nicely into the US-spec bumpers.

Healey Revised Minlite
Source: Bring A Trailer and RM Sotheby’s

Simulated Minlite wheels would be a slick option, though chrome-capped steelies would be standard.

Healey Revised Steel 2

I can’t resist getting a little cute in back with a very unlikely-for-the-time abundance of gently sloping sheet metal to match the OG Sprite. The faired-in taillamps are inspired by the ones on Austin-Healeys both big and small.

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Healey Rear 6 22

The interior of the original Sprite was exactly what you would expect for such an elemental machine. A tach and speedometer sit in front of the driver, with secondary gauges and the few controls scattered across the vinyl-wrapped steel pan. I like the odd ignition switch surrounded by the headlamps knob in the center of the dash. I am guessing “W” means “wipers” and “H” is heat because there just flat out ain’t much else on the car to be able to switch off and on.  The toggle switch in the dash center for the turn signals is a nice, painfully non-ergonomic touch (likely because the steering column is so short from the tiny cabin).

Healey Interior 6 20
Source: Bring A Trailer

Our reboot will be similar in design, albeit not in steel and with the controls for the radio and HVAC located below. The “oh shit” handle from the original Bugeye will be present, though faired into the dash.  A dash-top rearview mirror will be appreciated by Jason who seems to like these things (and allow for wider sun visors).

Sprite Dash 6 22

A horizontal band at the top of the dash holds the vents and line-of-sight warning lights for the driver. I’m reluctant to offer air conditioning and power windows as options but I don’t see such extravagances as ruining the car.

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If This Ain’t Fun, Then Maybe You’re The Problem

Let’s dig into your memory banks. Do you remember hopping into a go-cart as a twelve-year-old, smelling that lawn mower engine exhaust, and racing around the track at barely double-digit speeds? The way the little steering wheel in that little cart responded to your every move? That’s pure driving fun. Most of us Autopians have been chasing that feeling ever since and being disappointed when virtually every car failed to deliver on the promise to give us that experience.

Austin-Healey was able to nearly match that feeling in an affordable, real car with 43 horsepower. Some mistakenly think that a 1000 horsepower car will be the answer; often it’s the same people that say “My Altima can beat an old Ferrari to sixty.” Such an attitude typically results in diminishing returns in the fun factor, even if most won’t admit it when the truth becomes clear.

Donald Healey died in 1988, shortly before the launch of the Mazda Miata. It’s too bad that he wasn’t able to have one more shot at finally having a car with his name attached to it that was as reliable as it was nimble; it’s a shame for all of us.

Relatedbar

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pizzaman09
pizzaman09
9 days ago

The MKII Sprite, which corresponded with the badge engineered MG Midget MKI, were a lot closer to the Bug Eye Sprite than not. They gained a trunk lid, but retained the side curtain windows, no exterior door handles, no interior door cards, and a roof you have to disassemble piece by piece and store in the trunk. They also shared the Bug Eye’s weird quarter elliptical leaf spring rear suspension.

From a speed standpoint, a MKII or Buy Eye should be able to achieve high 80s mph if not their gear limited 93 mph in top gear at red line. They aren’t fast but by no means actually scary slow. One just simply has to really rev it out to keep up with anxious modern traffic.

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