Tim Suddard
Tim Suddard Publisher
4/21/08 12:08 p.m.

When we think of classic sports cars, our minds often picture Triumph TRs, MGBs, Big Healeys or maybe even Corvettes and Jaguars. But truth be told, many of us forget the more common, smaller sports cars from MG, Austin-Healey, Triumph and Fiat--beginner sports cars, some people call them.

These little and supposedly underpowered sports cars--windup sports cars, so to say--not only offer great value, but they can be a lot of sports car fun both on the street and at the track. Among mainstream windup sports cars, three stand out: the Triumph Spitfire, the semi-rare Fiat 850 and the MG Midget (as well as its sibling, the Austin-Healey Sprite).

In this story, we’ll look at all three cars, plus, for you race fans, we’ll throw in track-ready examples of each marque and add a super-rare Honda S800 to the on-track face-off.

The Venue

Virginia International Raceway--commonly known as VIR--was the site for our track testing. Tucked away in the rolling farm country just east of the Appalachian Mountains, VIR is one of the prettiest, best run and most entertaining race tracks we have ever driven.

We sampled our four race cars on both the track and our makeshift autocross course--a great place to push a car to the limits while not having to worry about an off-course excursion. In addition to some touring laps around the track, the street cars also got to visit the autocross course, although they really came into their element on the miles and miles of twisty roads surrounding VIR.

The surrounding countryside is perfect sports car country, featuring lots of back roads, pretty vistas and neat little places to grab lunch.

The Group

Even though these cars are small, by no means would we call them shoddy or cheap. Rather than noting their tiny dimensions, we’re more intrigued by the styling and quality built into these cars.

Sure, each car has its issues, but the overall feel and look of these machines is one of quality, style and performance, not cheapness.

Triumph Spitfire

Introduced in late 1962 as a 1963 model, the Triumph Spitfire is a unique little car. In an effort to save money and increase versatility and model range, Triumph was still building the Spitfire on a separate backbone-type frame when competitors from MG and Fiat used the more modern unibody style. The upside of this chassis design is easy restoration. The downside is that structural rigidity is not a Spitfire hallmark.

That said, the Spitfire is a very cool little car. With a turning radius that’s nearly unbeatable and a tilt-up front end that makes the car simpler to service than almost any other, it’s easy to see why Spitfires have so many fans.

Up front, the Spitfire has disc brakes and a suspension that features upper and lower A-arms with true coil-over shock absorber and spring assemblies. Steering is by rack and pinion and is precise and easy, even at parking lot speeds.

At the rear, brakes are drum, and the infamous independent suspension is a swing-axle design. Later cars have a modified spring/swing design that solved the tendency of early Spitfires to induce positive camber at the rear under hard braking. Honestly, the Spitfire’s much-discussed suspension woes are not noticeable at anything but indecent speeds, and as many an SCCA racer has proved, are easily fixed with a bit of tuning.

Inside, the Spitfire is the biggest of the bunch, with ample legroom for a six-footer plus an area behind the rear seats almost big enough to carry a kid or two. The trunk is downright cavernous for a small car, and everything is fitted out nicely considering this is a low-priced machine.

Under the large, lift-up front end sits a rather crude but effective 1147cc overhead-valve, four-cylinder powerplant mated to a slick-shifting four-speed transmission. Output was originally rated at 63 horsepower.

For 1965, a Mk II model appeared with minor changes and a slight bump in horsepower to 67. Introduced in 1967, the Mk III had a larger 1296cc engine that was rated at 75 horsepower. U.S. regulations also required the bumpers to be raised, which makes it easy to recognize this Mk III model. For 1971, the body was dramatically modernized and changed.

On the plus side, the model line had received the revised suspension by this time. On the other hand, increasing emissions controls began to take their toll on power output.

To counteract the emissions equipment, Triumph introduced the Spitfire 1500 for the 1973 model year. This model featured a 1493cc engine rated at 71 DIN horsepower, but 57 SAE net in the U.S. Interiors were now plusher with a wood veneer dash, a neat-looking padded steering wheel and other niceties. The Spitfire 1500 soldiered on until 1980 with few changes other than increasingly larger and heavier bumpers.

Fiat 850

While more rare than the Triumph and the MG, the lovely little Fiat 850 should also be part of this comparison test. After all, even though it is very different--featuring the engine behind the passengers, not in front of them--the 850 did compete with the Spitfire and the Midget. It was Fiat’s entry-level sports car.

In 1964, Nuccio Bertone proposed to Fiat management that the company build a convertible on its new 850 chassis. Fiat managing director Gaudenzio Bono was concerned about the coachbuilder’s ability to produce quality bodies within a reasonable time, but Bertone convinced him he could do it. The 850 Spider made its debut at the Geneva Motor Show in 1965. Fiat now had a convertible to add to its 850 range, which included a two-door Sedan, the fastback Coupe, and a microvan called the Family.

The 850 shared several design characteristics with the 600 series it replaced. One was an inline, pushrod, water-cooled, four-cylinder engine mounted behind the rear axle. Another was a four-wheel independent suspension that featured a transverse leaf spring and A-arms up front along with trailing arms and coil springs in the rear. Fiat improved on the 600 by using a fully synchronized four-speed transmission and redesigned suspension geometry. The original 850 Spider engine displaced 843cc (hence the 850 name) and, as fitted in the Spider, produced 52 horsepower (though it was sometimes listed at only 49).

The Spider was a hit critically and commercially. However, the car’s real sales potential wasn’t realized until, at the suggestion of Bertone, Fiat began to export the Spider to the United States.

Fiat began sending 850s to the U.S. in 1967. You can recognize these early cars by their glass-covered headlights, which appeared only on ’67 and early ’68 cars. Many people prefer the cleaner lines of these early models. Combined with their relative rarity, this makes them the most desirable Spiders to own.

There were many changes to the 850 Spider from 1967 until production stopped in 1973, although many of the differences concern interior and exterior bits and are of interest primarily to aficionados.

Some of the changes could be called major--or at least semi-major; the first one occurred during 1968, when the covered headlights were eliminated to meet federal regulations. All cars after early 1968 have larger, exposed lights. Later that year, Fiat reduced engine displacement from 843cc to 817cc, also in response to federal regulations, particularly as they concerned emissions: Cars under 50 cubic inches were exempt from the new California smog laws, so Fiat reduced the cylinder bore by 1mm to drop displacement to 49 cubic inches. Then, in 1970, engine displacement was increased from 817cc to 903cc.

In all, about 140,000 Spiders were produced from 1965 through 1973, with most of these exported to the U.S. between 1967 and 1973. The car was praised by most motoring publications of the time for its sprightly performance. After all, it was a nimble handler and could out-accelerate many of its similarly priced rivals, such as the VW Karmann Ghia.

MG Midget

The MG Midget was first introduced in 1958 as the Austin-Healey Sprite. The new car quickly underwent a major redo. For 1961, after numerous complaints about the original model’s odd--and now much-loved--“bug eyed” look and lack of creature comforts, a square-body car was introduced.

Shortly after the revised Sprite made its debut, MG released the same car with a few detail changes as the MG Midget. Together, these two are commonly called Spridgets. Both cars featured essentially the same 948cc engine from the Bugeye Sprite, as well as a four-speed gearbox, live rear axle with rather odd quarter-elliptic rear springs and an equally unusual, but rather effective, front suspension that used the arm of the lever-arm shock absorber as the upper control arm.

In the square-bodied Sprite Mk II and Midget Mk I, the 948cc engine was upped from 43 to 46 horsepower through a bump in compression. Equipment on both cars now included a locking trunk and less rudimentary side curtains. The mechanism for the convertible top and the interior trim were also improved.

With the appearance in 1964 of the Sprite Mk III and Midget Mk II, more changes were in store: Windup windows were finally introduced, and locking doors also became available. The engine now displaced 1098cc, and output went up to 59 horsepower. Other niceties such as self-canceling turn signals and an updated instrument panel were also added. Full semi-elliptic springs replaced the quarter-elliptic rear springs, thus improving ride and handling.

Spridgets were again updated in 1966. Displacement rose to 1275cc, and horsepower was now 65. Plus, the top no longer resembled an Erector set that one raised and lowered. At the end of 1971, in an effort to consolidate the model line, British Leyland retired the Sprite quietly and the Midget soldiered on alone.

In 1974, in an effort to further standardize production, British Leyland gave the Midget the 1493cc Spitfire engine, although with one carburetor instead of the traditional dual-carb setup for the 1975 model year.

While the bigger engine was torquey, all the added comfort and safety gear, including some fairly big bumpers introduced partway through the model year, meant that Midget performance was getting worse, not better. By 1979, the last year of production, the Midget was down to 50 horsepower despite having an engine that had gained roughly 500cc of displacement since it started production in 1961.

The Midget/Sprite is a cool little car. Intimate if not cramped, these cars look good from any angle and are a blast to drive. What on paper appears antiquated and underpowered comes off in the flesh as a great classic sports car with plenty of power and nearly flawless handling.

Not a believer? Check the results for the SCCA Runoffs in the small-bore Production classes: Any time a Spitfire didn’t win, there was a Midget right there. This was true in the ’60s, and it is still true today. Midgets are well-built, good-looking, good-driving sports cars. They are an early Miata in more ways than one.

Driving the Cars

Now that our little history lesson is done, it’s time to get behind the wheel and see how all of the engineering turned out. While the cars competed against one another on the showroom floor, the driving experiences differ.

We started with the Midget and Spitfire, and we were blown away at how these two cars could look and feel so different when they were conceived as direct competitors. The Midget feels like a very small car, while the Spitfire feels huge. Ironically, their corner weights are not that different from one another.

Driving the Midget reminded us of how a jockey rides on a horse: You are very involved, and not necessarily in a bad way. You sit up, again almost like a jockey. You are close to the steering wheel, and everything is quick, direct and right in your face. Words like skateboard, roller skate and go-kart come to mind.

In a Spitfire, the feeling is decidedly different, as though you are in a big low-rider. You sit back, you sit low, and you look over what appears to be a Cadillac-sized hood--or bonnet, if you want to use the English vernacular.

Unlike the Midget we tested, our Spitfire was hobbled by a disintegrated gearbox cover that let in lots of summer heat. It also suffered from a driveline vibration that could most likely be traced to drive shaft U-joint problems. Having driven and owned many versions of both cars, we were able to see through the distractions and focus on what the two English companies meant to send to the American public.

The Spitfire will definitely accommodate larger drivers, and it has a bigger trunk and a lot of room behind its comfortable seats. The steering, handling and gearbox are great. While power is adequate--actually surprisingly adequate--neither car will snap your neck when you hit the gas. Fortunately, they are geared properly and accelerate well up to the legal speed limits.

When you factor the Fiat into the mix, things get murky. The Fiat drives differently--very differently. With an Italian driving position and rear-engine design, the Fiat 850 is no closer in feel to the Spitfire and the Midget than a Porsche 911.

The Fiat is totally cool in its uniqueness and in the style department, but the driving left us a little cold. The steering wheel sits at a disconcertingly cocked angle, the car needs a dead pedal, and the shifting was notchier than we expected. In the Fiat’s defense, the race version we drove was better prepped, which eliminated some, but not all, of our complaints. And of course, the Fiat, with its 903cc engine, is decidedly slower in street trim than either the 1098cc Midget or the 1296cc Spitfire.

Picking a Winner for the Street

So, after a full day of driving and bench racing, which car is the winner? It’s hard to choose, as each seems to have its pluses and minuses. Our panel of owners and staff members unanimously agreed that the Spitfire is the prettiest of the bunch. You would be hard-pressed to argue, or even get a panel of design experts to argue, that the Michelotti-designed Triumph Spitfire, especially in Mk IV or 1500 form, is not one of the prettiest automotive shapes ever penned.

Also, as we’ve noted, the Spitfire is clearly the biggest and most comfortable car of the group. From the large, one-piece hood to the useful rear trunk and safely positioned fuel tank (it’s above the rear axle), the Spitfire is a master of design and packaging.

The Spitfire is let down by its antiquated body-on-frame construction and crude engine, however. The engine is legendary for its robust nature and ability to be tuned, but it’s not the most sophisticated powerplant ever conceived. The Spitfire loses points for these attributes.

The Fiat was judged best of the bunch when it came to braking, but the Midget and Spitfire also have great front disc brakes. Steering feel on all three cars is wonderful, with the Fiat’s being the lightest. While we respect the near perfection of the Spitfire’s shape, we really like the cool funkiness and comparative rarity of the 850. The Midget’s styling is clean, purposeful and functional, but it’s more than a little bland.

The Fiat lost major points on the power train. While the rear-mounted 903cc runs nicely enough, there is no replacement for displacement, and it’s tough to get the job done with an engine two-thirds the size of the others in our test. Among our cars, the Fiat was clearly the slowest.

While our three cars were all in good shape, the Midget’s exceptional condition really did shine through. If we were picking a winner based on these three examples, the Midget would take home the gold.

Condition aside, basing the trophy solely on the attributes of the three models, the Spitfire would win. It offers the most comfort, a beautiful shape, good interior and luggage room, and ample engine access. If there is any consolation for MG fans, the Spitfire’s win would be a narrow one over the Midget.

And what about the Fiat 850? What it offers in charisma and style, it lacks in power and shifting ease. There is a reason the Midget and Spitfire outsold the Fiat handily every year. Still, no matter which one impresses you, all three cars can have entry fees of less than $5000. For a fraction of what a new gas-sipping runabout costs, you get a fun, practical and cheap introduction to the old-car hobby.

Windup Sports Cars for the Track

These smaller cars work fine on the street, but what if you want to take them out on the track? To see how well these machines work in race trim, we rounded up a second set of cars--a competition-prepared example of each model featured in our main test. We added a Honda S800 to the mix and tackled the pavement at Virginia International Raceway.

Which One Wins?

Before we get into how they drive, let’s talk about where these cars are classed and how they perform. In SVRA competition, all of them run together, or at least sort of together, as they’re all placed in Group 1. The individual cars are classed by engine size, body style and other relevant data.

Looking back through SVRA’s 2004 race results, it’s hard to pick a winner between the Spridget and the Spitfire. At some events the Spitfires are faster; at others, the Spridgets win out. Either car can run at the front in Group 1, and they regularly beat more formidable and more powerful cars.

The Hondas and Fiats, with their smaller engines, are a bit farther back in the pack, but they still make entertaining race cars. With two-thirds the engine capacity but only a little less weight, they can’t match the top speeds of the bigger, more powerful Spitfire and MG.

Fiat 850

Lynne Alexander’s 1967 850 Spider is an excellent example of the keep-it-simple approach. It’s successfully raced in vintage competition despite the lack of upgrades that many 850 racers consider essential. For example, it has no oil cooler, retains the stock centrifugal oil filter and sump and has only a slightly modified stock carburetor.

Peter Krause found the car rotting in a field in Durham, N.C., in 1991. He completely stripped the Fiat, had it acid dipped, and built an SCCA-legal roll cage. The floor pan was beyond repair, so he replaced it. The stock fuel tank, located just in front of the engine, was replaced with a fuel cell located in the front luggage compartment. Every rotating assembly on the car was replaced.

The front suspension is lowered using a combination of a reversed transverse leaf spring eye and a lowered leaf spring mounting rail. A stiffer front anti-roll bar is also used. At the rear are lowered factory coils. Carrera shock absorbers are used all around.

Automotive Collision Specialists in Fuquay-Varina, N.C., did the paint and bodywork. The fenders were gently, almost imperceptibly, flared to allow for clearance of 185/60R13 Hoosier tires and 13x5.5-inch Panasports. The paint is Dubonnet Red, a color once used by Aston Martin and Rolls-Royce. The interior and engine compartment, which are done in Porsche Gray, nicely offset the dark red of the exterior. Finishing touches include Sparco racing seats, a Sabelt racing harness, Momo steering wheel, and VDO and Stack gauges.

Driving this car was tough because it was set up for a much smaller driver. Still, the Fiat race car has a feel that is quite infectious. With the engine mounted out back, the steering is light and precise. The car is well-built and feels like a quality piece. The gearbox is super slick, which is important because the small engine will have you shifting gears frequently.

Honda S800

Doug Meis of Winston Salem, N.C., has himself one unique little race car. This 1967 Honda S800, of which only about 12,000 were produced, was originally exported to Scotland. As these cars were never officially sold in this country, Team Escargot, Doug’s race team, imported this one in 1985 and had it ready to race for the 1986 season.

The total cost of purchasing the car, shipping it from England where it was found, and prepping it to race was only $2500. Times have certainly changed since 1985, as this Honda is now worth at least five times that figure.

Originally a coupe, this car was converted to a roadster and further developed over the years to the high state of tune it now enjoys. It is now prepared to 1972 SCCA General Competition Rules, where it has run in G Production.

Modifications to the 115-horsepower, 845cc, overhead valve engine include lightened pistons and valves, a Yoshimura camshaft and a ported cylinder head. Two twin-throat Keihin carbs supply the fuel, while the exhaust is a custom 4-into-1, side-exit system.

The first couple hundred S800 cars were chain driven, but this later model has a fairly standard-looking (but smaller) live axle, as does 98 percent of these cars. Suspension up front consists of A-arms with longitudinal torsion bars. Shock absorbers are a combo of Koni and Spax. Tires and wheels are Minilite 13x6-inch mounted with Hoosier Vintage TD tires.

Driving this little monster with its 10,000 rpm redline is like nothing else. The car has amazing poise and balance, and the four-speed gearbox is superslick. The S800 doesn’t have quite the grunt of a Spitfire or Spridget. (Ever heard those names and the word “grunt” used in a sentence before?) It does, however, have amazing agility and is a blast at the limit on the superchallenging VIR course.

Triumph Spitfire

In vintage racing, Kent Bain and his 1963 Spitfire--a car that hails from the Vintage Racing Services shop--are known as legendary giant killers. One ride in this car made us realize why: Spitfires, when set up properly, are just amazing. They don’t feel like old cars--just pure, fast race cars. When the Spitfire was originally released, it really was designed to do some racing, and one lap around the track quickly reaffirms that fact.

While Kent’s car is legendary, Susan Kahler’s cool 1967 Spitfire showed us that the model’s success is no fluke. The engine in Susan’s car has been overbored to 1341cc, and Venolia pistons, Pauter Machine connecting rods and an Isky Racing Cams camshaft are also used. Good for 104 horsepower at the rear wheels, Susan’s car is a smart performer.

The front suspension has been modified with Triumph GT6 spindles and brakes, as well as Koni coil-overs. Out back, the stock transverse leaf spring has been de-arched to lower the car, and GT6 drum brakes are used, as well as Koni shocks. Minitor 13x5.5-inch wheels hold up Yokohama 185/60R13 tires.

Purchased in 1998 as an old SCCA racer, Susan’s car was originally intended for autocrossing. She soon caught the vintage bug and started prepping the car for full track use again. Part of this transformation included the removal of the fiberglass fenders allowed in SCCA competition, so the car is all steel once again.

MG Midget

Chris Silvestri owns Scuderia Silvestri, one of Florida’s fastest-growing vintage prep shops. He bought this car to build into a Spec Sprite, which is a limited-prep class for Spridget owners who want to vintage race without having to perform a lot of modifications. Chris eventually realized that a car that’s halfway prepared for racing is slow and not much fun--and makes for a lousy street car.

So he decided to throw away the Spec Sprite rulebook and go full bore into “regular” vintage racing. With new Powermax flattop pistons, a Kent Performance Cams full-race camshaft, Crane ignition and a single Weber DCOE carburetor, the little Midget now pushes about 125 horsepower.

Underneath, the Armstrong shock absorbers have been modified, and competition springs have been substituted. Competition front and rear anti-roll bars have been installed, and the car rides on Superlite 13x5-inch wheels with Yokohama A032R tires.

Chris and his mechanic, Danilo Gardi, build a wonderful car. When you get into a Scuderia Silvestri-prepped racer, everything is sanitary and well-done. This car was modified in a nice, period-correct way and was a joy to drive, with no quirks and no problems.

Driving a race-prepared Midget is a very visceral experience. You don’t sit in this car; you strap it on. Once again, the roller skate metaphor is appropriate. Everything happens quickly (except perhaps for the acceleration). The car turns in quickly, stops well and is a real rush to run at track speeds. Compared to a race-prepped Spitfire, the Midget feels small and almost darty. While the handling of this car was phenomenal, it seemed that you could get into trouble more quickly. Perhaps it was the lighter weight, the live axle or the shorter wheelbase, but the Midget was twitchier--not bad, just a bit more intense than the Spitfire.

Picking a Winner

The corner weights tell us a lot about these cars, and they reveal some insight into which ones work best.

First, they are all lightweights, with a range of 1437 to 1711 pounds. Except for the rear-weight bias found in the Fiats, all of our examples are quite well-balanced.

The corner weights also tell us that the weights don’t differ much between the race and the street cars. These cars are all so light and spartan, there is not a lot you can pull out of them when it comes time to race. Only the Fiat was significantly lighter in race trim.

We garnered something else from the weights: While the Fiat and the Honda engines are only a little bigger than half the size of the Midget’s and the Spitfire’s, the cars themselves are not significantly lighter. And that’s the rub—while we’re not power snobs, 850cc isn’t much poop to push a car around a race track. Neither is 1300cc, but this whole thing is relative.

So while we liked the Fiat 850 and absolutely loved the Honda S800, we would choose between the Midget and the Spitfire. Most experts will tell you that the Midget is more robust, especially in the engine and gearbox departments. That may be true, but the Spitfire’s body-on-frame construction and engine-revealing tilt-up front are a racer’s dream come true.

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