You know what they say about a man with big toes? Yep, dude won’t need a car.
I’m not sure when modes of transport began to be seen as an indication of a man’s size, but I’ve got a feeling it has something to do with the concept of manhood being measured by one’s ability to bring home the bacon. Even in the coaching days, owning a carriage means you’ve got the money. These things were expensive, so only the very rich can afford to have the top of the line stuff. As Roy Porter said,
Chaises could be hired, but the Englishman’s dream was to own his own.
But once you have a carriage, you’ll start seeing how it compares to others, and presumably the dick-measuring begins. Industrialization doesn’t seem to have had an effect on this perceived social measuring stick of a man’s worth. From the beginning, the British car industry was known for manufacturing premium sports cars: Bentley, Rolls Royce, Aston Martin… these were all toys for the rich boys. Too bad money couldn’t buy them big toes.
Except, except… it did. Money buys food, and food provides nutrition. It took two World Wars to erase the telltale physical marks of poverty in Britain, and now you don’t need millions to be tall, have decent clothing or get a tan abroad. It seems fitting that a veteran of both World Wars would also be the one to make the sports car available for the newly upwardly mobile population.
Born in Cornwall, Healey served on the anti-Zeppelin patrols during the First World War. He studied automobile engineering after he was shot down by British anti-aircraft fire and then he opened a garage in 1919. A few years later, he was competing in the Monte Carlo Rally and soon he was the General Manager at Triumph Motor Company where he created the Southern Cross and Dolomite 8 models.
I do hope Mrs. Healey also liked cars, or she would have been terribly bored. Her husband was always thinking about cars and mechanical stuff. During the Second World War, when other men were telling everyone about their wives or what they’d like to eat as soon as the war is over, Donald Healey was discussing sports car design when he wasn’t busy being in charge of developing an aircraft carburettor (don’t ask) or working on some armoured vehicles for Humber.
After the war, he created Donald Healey Motor Company and produced a car claimed to be the fastest production closed car in the world (timed at 104.7 mph over a mile), the Elliot Saloon. By 1952, he’s in a joint venture with the British Motor Corporation and together they came up with the car that middle class teenage boys have been wanting for centuries:
It was a bargain–offered at £669 inclusive of purchase tax. No, it won’t break speed records (top speed is 84 mph) but for handling and reliability it was second to none. The Sprite’s chassis design was the world’s first volume-production sports car to use unitary construction (don’t ask), and it was an instant success. The chairman of BMC, a Brummie called Leonard Lord, was not only astute enough to recognize the potential of this emerging market, he was also smart enough to utilize Healey’s skills and reputation. The car’s iconic headlamps gave it the nickname “Frog-eye” in the UK and “Bug-eye” in the US, but it also embodies what the little Sprite is all about: cost cutting.
Healey’s original idea was to have the headlights pop out when on and the rest of the time to retract on the bonnet (hood), but budget constraints necessitated a compromise. All other parts used to make the Sprite were already available on other BMC cars (eg. the engine was the same one used for the Morris Minor 1000). When it also won several major international races and rallies, its “cool factor” was secured and it’s still one of the most popular classic sports car today. It’s still a joy to ride, but now it costs more to hire the Austin Healey Sprite for a day than it did to buy the whole thing when it first came out. After all the posturing and countless men feeling like they come up short, this nifty sports car proves that all you need to do is know how to use what you already have, no matter what size it is.
Porter, Roy. The Penguin Social History of Britain: English Society in the Eighteenth Century. Penguin Group, 1982.