‘Better than new’ was the aim of this father-and-son team’s Austin-Healey Sprite rebuild, with impressive results
There are two schools of thought when it comes to sports cars.
Some believe that the only way forward is brute force combined with phenomenal grip and cutting-edge technology – think McLaren P1 and suchlike.
Others espouse the ethos of stripping away all that is superfluous and taking advantage of the fleet-footed nimbleness afforded by light weight – such as any Chapman-era Lotus.
And if ever a mass-produced model belonged to the second camp, the Austin-Healey Sprite must surely be it.
Launched in 1958, the ‘Frogeye’ was certainly a flyweight. The least-expensive roadster in the BMC line-up, adding pounds to the spec sheet would have added shillings and pence to the price, so both were kept to a minimum.
It was huge fun – far more so than its meagre 42bhp would have you believe – but hardly the quickest. Six decades on, however, the immaculately presented machine you see here addresses that.
With a tuned yet tractable A-series, plus a host of other upgrades, it will leap off the line like a startled cat. Moreover, thanks to its minimal mass, it is as agile as a flea, and encourages you to hoon around with a grin from ear to ear.
It is the work of father and son Yves and Henry Cozon, and a creation of which they are justifiably proud.
The project began 12 years ago. “My first love has always been cars and I come from an engineering family,” says French-born Cozon Snr, who has lived in the UK since childhood.
“I’d helped my best friend Peter Taylor – another former Browns Lane apprentice – to restore and modify a couple of hairy Morris Minors over the years. Eventually, Henry and I decided that we’d like to do our own project, and a Frogeye was affordable.
“Peter and I had travelled to Le Mans in 2006 with a group of other petrolheads, and on the Saturday evening I casually asked the owner of a gorgeous Austin-Healey 3000 if he knew of any Sprites for sale. He replied that he had one in bits, but had run out of time, space and money to finish it.”
Cozon decided that it was exactly what he was searching for: “The intention was a total restoration, together with some serious upgrades to make a faster and more reliable car. Although the replacement sills were held in place with self-tappers, and the new rear end had yet to be fitted, the shell was basically rot-free. Everyone’s reaction was to ask whether the car had spent its life in California.”
Sound though it was, the body was dispatched to Birmingham-based Brian Archer to be stitched back together, as well as to receive some subtle modifications.
“Unfortunately, Brian fell ill and passed away a few months after having taken on the job, leaving his business partner Andrew Forster to take up the cudgels.”
As a result, the work on the Frogeye was delayed by two years, but the result is an intriguing blend of factory specification and subtle upgrades.
The rear wings have been de-seamed and gently teased out over the rear wheels – a necessary alteration because the wires are an inch wider than standard. To the casual observer the changes are barely noticeable, but they give the car a much more aggressive stance that Cozon likens to “a mini AC Cobra”.
Other modifications include a custom roll hoop and a reworked rear panel: “We asked Archers to insert new metal that followed the natural curve of the tail, in place of the usual flat steel beneath the numberplate, while the plinth for the light has been replaced by MGB units mounted on the overriders.”
A quick-release aluminium fuel cap gives the Sprite’s rear end the look of a baby sports-racer.
“We also insisted on a forward-hinged glassfibre bonnet in place of the steel original,” adds Cozon, “the aim being reduced weight and better access.”
Front bumpers were always optional on Frogeyes, so it’s no surprise to find that this car is bereft of one, but the reasons are down to aesthetics as much as weight: “It had to go – to my eyes it was an ugly carbuncle!”
Louvred wings help control underbonnet temperatures: “Even with 948cc, this car had a history of overheating. We were planning on tripling the horsepower of the factory engine, so thought we should do something to let out some of the heat. They were designed by me, cribbed largely from the vents fitted to the works Healey 3000s, and made by A Head 4 Healeys.”
With the shell away for repairs, the Cozons turned their attention to the mechanicals and began researching the various tuning possibilities.
“We did an awful lot of reading beforehand, but we’d already decided that we wouldn’t use the original 948cc engine and ’box, so they were put in a corner of the garage where they remain to this day. Instead, we bought a used 1275cc Midget engine, which was bored and stroked to 1430cc, and rebuilt using parts supplied by MED in Leicestershire.”
Among the upgrades were a lightened and balanced tuftrided crankshaft; Duplex Vernier timing gear; balanced, weighed and matched conrods; and a highoutput oil pump.
The head was gas-flowed and fitted with larger exhaust valves, double valve springs and roller rocker gear to complement the fast-road camshaft. The original twin SUs, meanwhile, were replaced with a single side-draught Weber 45DCOE carburettor.
The result echoes the type of modifications that would have been possible in period, but one area where the Healey deviates from late-’50s technology is the ignition, which today features a solid-state programmable wasted spark system and an ECU.
“Distributors are a pet hate,” says Cozon. “I’ve always found them to be unreliable and incapable of holding their tune for more than 1500 miles.” Setting up this high-tech installation did require some effort, however.
“After two sessions on a rolling road, the Sprite was said to be producing 110bhp, although we were not entirely convinced. After replacing the first reprofiled camshaft – which had slowly been eating itself – with a proper billet item from Kent Cams, we took the Sprite to Northampton Motorsport, whose equipment eventually suggested 101bhp but with a noticeable misfire. We have since upgraded the management software, and 125-130bhp should be possible.”
The hot engine is mated to a Frontline five-speed Ford T9 gearbox conversion and a 4.2:1 diff, which ensures impressive acceleration.
“We bought a 3.7 diff of unknown parentage, but the car developed some pretty harsh vibrations so we are currently back with the original. Even with this ‘sprint’ diff we have seen a GPS-measured 110mph, albeit with the engine revving its nuts off. Maybe we should just delight in the acceleration – 90mph is achievable on a relatively short stretch, and it is a road car, after all!”
The Frogeye’s original front brakes were upgraded to discs, and the rears were rebuilt to 1275 spec; the standard rear springs and radius rods were scrapped, substituted by softer quarter-elliptics plus rose-jointed radius rods and a Panhard rod from Peter May Engineering.
“The car is so far from standard that often parts required considerable fitting skills, which in many ways was a bit like re-learning what I’d been taught during my apprenticeship at Jaguar,” says Cozon.
“With the rear springs, we were advised that the original units were too stiff and that a softer, lower set-up would improve the handling and make the car nicer to drive.
“That might have been good advice for a racer, but with a passenger, a full tank of petrol and luggage for a trip to Le Mans, the Sprite was bottoming and knocking the hell out of the expensive exhaust system, so it was back to the drawing board. In the end, we sourced springs that were somewhere between the two extremes, and eventually got the right compromise.”
The front end also gave the pair a headache: “We couldn’t achieve the appropriate toe-in. The springs are shorter and stiffer, with negative-camber trunnions, different wishbones and a few other mods.
“Throw in the lighter weight of the glassfibre bonnet and the changes meant that we simply could not adjust the track-rod ends sufficiently; the track rods had to be machined back to obtain the necessary adjustment.”
A similar complication came to light with the restored bodywork when the car was nearing completion.
“We discovered that the bonnet wouldn’t close because the throttle mechanism was fouling. We refitted it underneath the carburettor, but still had a problem. After much scratching of heads, it was found that the rebuilt radiator was 14mm too tall.”
Considering the extent to which the Sprite has been re-imagined, it is hardly surprising that the project threw up such headaches, but when you encounter the finished car it’s difficult not to be impressed.
‘Finished’ is, however, a relative term: “There are always points that will need improving and fettling. For example, although the cooling system seemed to work well, in traffic jams the temperature would rise alarmingly. That was down to the lack of a radiator cowling, allowing the fan to recirculate hot air, rather than drawing in cooler air from outside. We fashioned one in cardboard then cut it out of aluminium before having it welded up by a local fabricator – bingo!
“We’ve also added a cold-air intake for the carb; testing on the dyno didn’t show any improvement in performance, but out on the road the Sprite seems noticeably quicker.”
It certainly is a quick little car, with vivid acceleration and a rasping cackle from the exhaust. On a greasy road, the Sprite will break traction in not just first, but also second and even third gears.
The most recent set of statistics gives an output of 105bhp at 6250rpm, although as Cozon points out: “You might get a different result on a different rolling road or on a different day.” Whatever the case, this tiny machine can generate massive amounts of entertainment. It’s a little hooligan, and gets driven in the way it deserves – hard and fast.
The finish and attention to detail are just as impressive inside, and the Healey does an intriguing job of feeling big on the inside while taking up so little space on the road.
“The passenger seat is original and was retrimmed by Archers,” says Cozon, “while the driver’s racing bucket is an Archers product that was trimmed to match.”
The rev counter, meanwhile, is a nice touch: at first glance it appears identical to the standard unit, but the electronic dial has been cleverly rebuilt by Speedy Cables to echo the increased performance – redlined at 7500rpm rather than the original 5500.
“Just refurbishing to original spec would have been a lot quicker and easier,” concludes Cozon, “but nowhere as satisfying. Above all, as well as a car to be proud of, the project created an immense bond between my son and me, and that experience will last forever.” As family projects go, you can’t knock that.
Images: Tony Baker
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