The little deep burgundy sports car swoops down through the bend, the driver a picture of concentration, the slightest body roll hinting at the tightness of the bend. The dog-walker stops for a moment to watch the car come through for a second lap. “I’m usually pretty good with knowing cars”, he says, “but what the hell is it?” “An Innocenti” (pronounced Inno-chenti), I reply. “An Inno-what-what?”, asks he.
The car comes around again, Greg now beaming with delight (damn, I missed that shot), as I flag him down. “One more lap”, he yells as he sails past.
Greg Corbin clearly loves his little roadster, but it’s not surprising that Mr Dog-walker has never heard of it. It is the only one of its kind on the road in Australia (Greg knows of another set of body parts in pieces) and one of only about 50 known to be left in the world.
Greg’s a past president of the Austin-Healey Sprite Drivers Club of Victoria, which gives a hint as to what this car is. In fact, under the Italian skin and the well-appointed interior is the mechanical heart and chassis of a MkII Sprite.
The car has an intriguing history, which begins in Milan, Italy, with a former machine and steel tube maker named Ferdinando Innocenti. He formed a company in 1931 named Societa Generale per l’Industria Metallurgica e Meccanica – General Metallurgical and Mechanical Industries, for us non-Italian speakers.
The initial product was a very successful patented steel scaffolding system, but by 1939 the business employed 6,000 people producing heavy machinery for industry.
The factory was decimated during WWII, but Innocenti gathered together many of his former workers and built a new, modern factory from where they produced machinery that was sold across Europe to help with the post-war reconstruction.
With cars at the time being extremely expensive, Innocenti looked at ways to get people moving affordably. The result was the Lambretta scooter, named after the Lambrate district of Milan where the factory was located.
The immediate success of the scooters caused Innocenti to look at producing parts for cars, and was soon supplying FIAT, Alfa Romeo, Lancia, VW and Ford.
The next logical step was into the world of car production. The European Common Market was formed in 1959, but the UK was not a signatory and British cars were slugged with a punitive import tax.
BMC wanted to get its cars into this lucrative market and Innocenti wanted to start making cars, so a deal was struck in 1960 where Innocenti would assemble and market various BMC models, but with the autonomy to permit changes to the designs as they felt necessary.
The original plan was to produce three vehicles: a sedan, wagon and sports car. The first two were easily catered for through the Farina-designed A40, but the sports car wasn’t such an easy choice.
The original Austin-Healey “Bugeye” Sprite had been released in 1958, but as Doug Blain wrote in Sports Car World in December 1961; “no Italian would look at the current Sprite without screwing up his face and turning away.”
“His attitude was understandable”, Blain explained, “since he was surrounded on all sides by the admirable creations of Farina, Vignale, Bertone, Touring and Zagato.”
It was therefore envisaged that the workings and underpinnings of the Sprite, with a stylish Italian body, would be the way forward.
If you would like to read the rest of this story, grab a copy of the magazine from your local newsagent, subscribe on our website (www.bmcexperience.com.au) or get the digital issue from http://pocketmags.com/viewmagazine.aspx?titleid=2423&title=BMC+Experience
The BMC Experience Issue 12. Jan-Mar 2015 Magazine
All back issues of The BMC Experience are now available in digital format from www.pocketmags.com.