The roots of the Midget can be traced back to 1958 and the Austin-Healey Sprite which was announced to the press in Monte Carlo by the British Motor Corporation (BMC) on 20th May 1958, just before that year's Monaco Grand Prix. It was intended to be a low-cost model that 'a chap could keep in his bike shed', yet be the successor to the sporting versions of the pre-war Austin Seven. The Sprite was designed by the Donald Healey Motor Company, which received a royalty payment from the manufacturers BMC. It first went on sale at a price of £669.
The British Mark I Sprite was known as the Frogeye in the U.K. and the Bugeye in the U.S. because of its distinctive headlights mounted on top of the centre bonnet (hood). The mounted headlights were not actually part of the original car design; they were originally going to be mounted into the front of the car so they could "flip up" when they were in use, with the lenses facing skyward when not in use. However, mounting production costs lead to the flip-up headlight idea being abandoned and so the headlights were simply mounted in a permanent upright position giving rise to the car's most distinctive feature.
The front sheet-metal assembly – bonnet and wings – was a one-piece unit, hinged from the back, that swung up to allow access to the engine compartment. Both the 948cc engine (coded 9CC), steering and suspension were derived from the Austin A35 & Morris Minor 1000 models, also BMC products, but upgraded with twin 1 1/8" inch SU carburettors. The front suspension was a coil spring and wishbone arrangement, with the arm of the Armstrong lever shock absorber serving as the top suspension link. The rear axle was both located and sprung by quarter-elliptic leaf springs, again with lever-arm shock absorbers. There were no exterior door handles - you reached inside to open the door. There was also no boot (trunk) lid, and access to the spare wheel and rear storage was gained by tilting the seat-backs forward and reaching under the rear deck, a process likened to potholing by many owners.
The Sprite's chassis design is notable in that it was the world's first volume-production sports car to use integrated construction, where the sheet metal body panels (apart from the bonnet) take many of the structural stresses. The two front 'chassis legs' which project forward from the passenger compartment, however, stop the shell being a full monocoque.
The Mark II used the same 948 cc engine (engine code 9CG) but with larger twin 1 1/4 inch SU carburettors and a close-ratio gearbox. The bodywork was completely revamped, with the headlights migrating to a more conventional position in the wings, either side of a full-width grille. At the rear, styling borrowed from the soon-to-be-announced MGB gave a similarly more modern look, with the added advantages of an opening boot lid and conventional rear bumper bar. The result was a far less eccentric-looking, but more attractive car which carried little extra weight. In contrast to the 'frogeye', they are sometimes referred to as 'square-bodied' Sprites by enthusiasts.
An MG version of the car was introduced in May 1961 as 'the new Midget', reviving a model name which had been a great success for the MG Car Company in the 1930s.
As mentioned above, the first MG Midget was essentially a badge engineered version of the Austin-Healey Sprite MKII and retained the quarter-elliptic sprung rear axle from the original Sprite. The engine was a 948 cc A-Series with twin SU carburettors producing 46 hp (34 kW) at 5500 rpm and 53 lbf·ft (72 Nm) at 3000 rpm. Brakes were drum all round. In October 1962 the engine was increased to 1098 cc raising the output to 56 hp (42 kW) at 5500 rpm and 62 lbf·ft (84 Nm) at 3250 rpm and disc brakes replaced the drums at the front. Wire-spoked wheels became available. The doors had no external handles or locks and the windows were sliding Perspex side-screens. A heater was an optional extra. Production was 16,080 of the small engined version and 9601 of the 1098.
Externally the main changes were to the doors, which gained wind-up windows, swivelling quarter lights, external handles and separate locks. The windscreen also gained a (slight) curvature and was retained in a more substantial frame. The hood (US - top), though modified, continued to have a removable frame that had to be erected before the cover was put on. The rear springs were replaced by more conventional semi-elliptic types which gave a better ride. The engine block was strengthened and larger main bearings were fitted, allowing the power to increase to 59 hp (44 kW) at 5750 rpm and torque to 65 lbf·ft (88 Nm) at 3500 rpm. 26,601 were made.
The engine now grew to 1275 cc using the development seen on the Mini-Cooper 'S'. However, enthusiasts were disappointed that this was a de-tuned version of the Cooper 'S' engine, giving only 65 hp (48 kW) at 6000 rpm and 72 lbf·ft (98 Nm) at 3000 rpm. The Midget used the 12G940 cylinder head casting that was common to other BMC 1300 cars, whereas the Cooper 'S' had a special head with extra-large valves: however, these valves caused many 'S' heads to fail through cracking between the valve seats.
The hood was now permanently attached to the car, with an improved mechanism making it much easier to use. There were minor changes to the body in 1969 with the sills painted black and a revised black grille. Rubery Owen 'Rostyle' wheels were standardised but wire spoked ones remained an option. The square shaped rear wheel arches became rounded in January 1972. Also in this year, a Triumph steering rack was fitted, giving a gearing that was somewhat lower than earlier Midgets. A second exhaust silencer was also added in 1972.
22,415 were made between 1966 and the 1969 face lift and a further 77,831 up to 1974.
In order to meet US federal regulations, large black plastic bumpers (usually called rubber bumpers, despite not actually being rubber) were added to the front and rear and the ride height was increased. The A-Series engine was dropped to be replaced by the 1493 cc unit from the Triumph Spitfire and a modified Morris Marina gearbox with synchromesh on all four gears. The round rear wheel arches were now square again to increase the body strength. The last car was made on December 7, 1979, after 73,899 of the last version had been made. There was no Austin-Healey Sprite equivalent. However, there was a limited number of cars produced in 1980 of the MG Midget.
The car developed by Donald Healey that started as an Austin-Healey Sprite, and which spawned the late-model MG Midget, has more recently been given the generic name Spridget. It really was a Healey, not an MG, but the generic name does not reflect this.
From the late 1980s on, Spridgets became popular cars for inclusion in club racing in the UK, because they were readily available and the lack of development by the original manufacturer made them easy targets for performance tuning.
The UK still has a race series dedicated to the MG Midget which is run by the MG Car Club. The MG Midget Challenge is a national race series for MG Midgets and Austin Healey Sprites (built 1956-1979). The championship is run at all major UK circuits, with the occasional visit to Spa-Francorchamps in Belgium. It is a serious, professional but very friendly championship and has been running since 1977.
UK 50th anniversary celebration
On 24 May 2008, the Official UK Golden Anniversary of the introduction of the Austin Healey Sprite, "Spridget 50 - The Big Party" was held at the British Heritage Motor Centre at Gaydon, Warwickshire. Up to 1000 Sprites, Midgets and derivatives were in attendance - a record number. The event was jointly organised and promoted by the UK's Midget and Sprite Club, Healey Drivers Club, MG Owners Club, Austin Healey Club and MG Car Club - the first time an event of this size has been supported by all of the marque-representing clubs. More information and many photographs at http://spridget50.org/index.php.