& the origins of the Sebring Sprite
To fully understand the background to the evolution of the Sebring Sprite one needs to go back to 1952 when the Donald Healey Motor Company displayed their new sportscar, the Healey 100, at the London Motor Show. The car was soon spotted by Leonard Lord, the chairman of the Austin Motor Co who was keen that his firm should produce a sportscar of its own. It was as a result of that meeting that the Austin-Healey alliance came about, and the Austin-Healey 100 went into production, later the 100-6 and eventually the 3000. The two companies worked alongside one another with Healeys acting as a design shop and competition department to their much larger counterpart. Four years later Donald Healey attended a meeting at BMC (British Motor Corporation), of which Austin was now a part, and learned of Lord's plan to build a small, cheap, base-level sportscar along the lines of the pre-war Austin 7 and MG Midget. Donald was given the job of designing and building some prototypes for evaluation, despite learning later that Austin had been going through the same design exercise themselves. The Healey design was accepted and, in May 1958, the Sprite was born. It was not very long before BMC decided that, in order to promote their new baby in the USA, a team of cars should be sent over to take part in one or two prestigious race meetings. So it was that, early in 1959, DHMC was asked to prepare a team of 3 Sprites (plus a reserve) to race at the Sebring airfield circuit in Florida. Painted in Speedwell blue and fitted with the newly developed disc front brakes, and wire wheels, they were entered in the 12 Hour Grand Prix d'Endurance which took place in March that year. The seven drivers were all American, and the result was an enormous success for the team with the 3 Sprites coming home 1st, 2nd and 3rd in their class. So it was that following the event the name 'Sebring Sprite' was born.
In John Sprinzel and Tom Coulthards' book "Spritely Years" (published 1994), Tom points out that the description has always been a topic for much debate but states :-
"The mechanical specification included many modifications and special parts, principal among which were disc brakes at a time when the standard car still made do with drums. A 'Frogeye with discs' is a useful basic definition of what a Sebring Sprite was - and it may be as well to establish a simple definition, for confusion set in during the early 'sixties and is now virtually pandemic, with almost every Sprite book or article published seeming to add a little. The complications are undeniable, though: there were Sebring Sprites with standard-shape bodywork and Healey works cars with disc brakes; and there were other alloy-bodied Sprites. Put simply, not every Sebring Sprite was an alloy coupé nor every alloy coupé Sprite a Sebring. Clear?"
Back in 1957 John Sprinzel had been having considerable success in British club racing and rallying in his Austin A35 and, after George Hulbert worked wonders on its cylinder head, he and George teamed up with Len Adams and Reg Venner to create a tuning business under the name Speedwell Tuning Conversions Ltd. It was a natural progression to move from the baby Austin to Sprites after the latter car's launch in June 1958 and, as the company grew, they were joined by Graham Hill who would go on to become a top Formula 1 driver. It was to Graham that John sold his Speedwell shares in 1959 when he was enticed away to head up a new Speed Equipment Division of Donald Healey's London operation. He took with him the registration number PMO 200, its last appearence on one of Speedwell's cars being at the 1960 Racing Car Show. Shortly before John left Speedwell, the firm had employed Mike Costin's brother Frank to design for them an aerodynamic front for the Sprite (the Monza bonnet) and a coupé top which was sold as the Speedwell GT. These were built in aluminium by the specialists Williams & Pritchard (Charlie Williams and Len Pritchard). An incentive which Donald Healey had offered Sprinzel was that he would take part in the World Sports Car Championship endurance races at Sebring and Le Mans. Paul Hawkins joined John as his mechanic. DHMC then used the name Sebring Sprite when applying to the RAC for homologation of the various modifications made to the standard Sprite. Sprites were soon being fitted with disc brakes, larger carburettors, bored-out engines and lightweight panels to enable them to qualify as Sebring Sprites in the standard production GT class of racing.
In the spring of 1960 John was entered for the 12 Hour endurance race at Sebring in an extensively modified Sprite fitted with a lightweight Falcon body (the Falcon Sprite). It was later entered for the Le Mans 24 Hours. That summer Donald Healey realised that the London part of his business was costing too much to run and he offered the Speed Equipment division to Sprinzel who then established John Sprinzel Limited. The new company supplied a number of parts to the BMC Competition Department as they prepared two Sebring Sprites for the Tour of Corsica (one for Pat Moss) and the RAC Rally. One of these cars was WJB 707 which was subsequently re-bodied as Ian Walker's Sprinzel Coupé. Sprinzel soon decided to produce his own lightweight Sprinzel Sebring Sprite Coupé whereupon Frank Costin was again prevailed upon to design an (in my personal view) even prettier forward-hinging bonnet and top which the Williams and Pritchard duo fashioned out of aluminium. The bonnet, which W & P later produced in fibreglass, is generally known as the Sebring bonnet and some of the Coupés were also fitted with aluminium rear bodywork, and doors. The prototype aluminium Sebring bonnet was used by Sprinzel on PMO 200 in the RAC Rally of 1960, but the first event for his Coupés was, appropriately enough, at Sebring, Florida. As a piece of good publicity, Stirling Moss and his sister Pat were invited to race PMO and the borrowed Cyril Simpson car S221 in the 4 Hour Race. Pat initially shared PMO with Paul Hawkins but after Stirling's car developed clutch slip in practice, she offered to swap cars with her brother. One of the cars was then to be raced by John Sprinzel, Cyril Simpson and Paul Hawkins in the 12 Hour Race the following day. The two silver-grey Coupés were joined in that race by the BMC 'works' Sprites of Bruce McLaren, Briggs Cunningham and Walt Hansgen.
Other competitors in both racing and rallies soon wanted Sprinzel's Coupé resulting in the building of a short run of 5 or 6 to that specification. I will leave the story there, save to say that some very similar Sebring Coupés were also built by Peel Coachworks (generally reckoned to be cheaper than W & P) and other firms, ~ which will become evident as you peruse my website.