The Mazda MX-5 is a heavy slob of a car. Wind-up windows? Manual-folding roof? Upholstered seats? These are the types of unnecessary extras ruining cars these days, turning them into fat, slow vessels for posing. James Cribb’s Austin-Healey ‘Frogeye’ Sprite bucks this trend, turning driving into the bare-bones thrill it should be.
I am joking about the MX-5, of course, but what James’s Sprite does is turn driving into a full-on sensory attack. I can only imagine it’s akin to being trapped in a washing machine on spin-dry, in the middle of a fireworks display, whilst trying to solve a Rubik’s Cube. I had to ask James why he puts himself through all of this, and he simply replied: “Because it’s f**king cool!” Touché.
This was the same logic James used when he bought the Austin in the first place. He doesn’t pretend that he built it, but proudly admits the Sprite was created by Pipey McGraw. Pipey’s a man well known for his antics with old metal, and his E-Type Jag even graced Speedhunters’ pages a few years back.
James saw the Sprite up for sale and simply had to have it. “I can’t do normal cars,” he says. “I’ve always had performance cars and they always sort of look how they look, I guess. I wanted a complete package this time.”
The Sprite was imported from New Mexico in 2018, hence the authentic sun-scorched bodywork. If it were a UK car, it would be four wheels surrounded by a pile of rust by now. On the ultra-rare fastback roof, only the damaged areas have been filled, smoothed and highlighted with colour to match the body.
Externally, other notable features are paint cracks, paint fade, old paint layers and a set of awesome 13-inch SSR MKII split rims. I’ve always said that JDM wheels look best on non-JDM cars, and I think it’s no different in this niche case.
The metallic silver wheel lips and gunmetal faces contrast massively against the time-wearied shell, yet they somehow work tremendously well. Historic race-spec Pirelli tyres wrap around the SSRs, adding to the retro-racer aesthetic the side exhaust, leather straps, height drop and front camber provide.
On the inside, the feature list is extensive. The Sprite is equipped with seats, a steering wheel, pedals, gauges and dials. There may even be a knob or two. The seats are Kirkey items, lavishly treated to a pair of tweed arse-pads. I believe the 2022 Rolls-Royce Phantom employs a similar setup.
It’s not all luxury inside though. The steering wheel features a horn button, for safety of course, with matching door handle decoration. Honestly, the button and the doorknobs are things of beauty. Resin-suspended flowers were made specially by “a lady in Japan”, and they really are works of art.
The dashboard is full of vintage gauges, and a pair of stopwatches in the ‘centre console’ allow for lap timing on the fly. They again were made just for the Sprite, this time by a company called Classicnau. The dash itself is finished in crackle red, which is a fantastic choice because it’s the same finish as the engine’s cam cover.
Eagle-eyed readers may have noticed that whilst it says ‘Austin’ on the cover, the lump is most certainly not the 948cc BMC A-Series unit that the car left the factory with over half a century ago.
It is in fact a ‘Blacktop’ 20V 4A-GE engine from an AE111 Toyota Levin/Trueno. Whilst it may be totally standard with regards to power tuning, the Blacktop engine was the last and arguably best of the 4A-GEs. The only ‘upgrades’ are a set of custom intake trumpets, made by “a bloke in New Zealand” and the tubular exhaust manifold.
Compared to earlier 4A-GE variants, this engine had lighter rods, a higher-lift intake cam, larger inlet and exhaust ports and higher compression. On paper, all of this meant 160hp and 162Nm of torque. In a car the size of a shoe, weighing in at 640kg wet with a full tank, it’s plenty.
James describes the Sprite as “raw” to drive, as it “was manual everything with a live real axle, a limited-slip diff and a Mk2 Escort Type 9 gearbox.” Unfortunately for James, that Escort gearbox failed shortly after purchase, but good guy Pipey offered to replace it for him for the trouble. Someone on a Facebook group just so happened to be selling a Tranex straight-cut racing gearbox that would work in the Sprite. As a result, the Austin now has a gearbox that not only howls at you as you’re driving, but is also setup with super-short gearing for race and rally use. Just for reference, 4th gear is a 1:1 ratio, yet James still cruises at speed in 5th gear because he is insane.
There is a flip side to all of this lunacy though: Zero weight and a complete lack of accessories to run mean the Austin is ridiculously efficient. On a recent drive to Tucked At The Park, James worked out an average of 42mpg at a steady 70mph. That being said, it might be worth him installing a fuel gauge. James uses a wooden plank as a fuel level dipstick at the moment. He even ran out of fuel just after collecting the thing.
Cars like this Sprite are incredible. There is no reason for it to exist other than pure fun, and it’s great. Well, I say ‘fun’ – ear-defenders and terror aren’t usually on my checklist for new car purchases, but I would make an exception for the Austin. I desperately want to drive the little lunatic, sensory attack or not.