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1963-1980 Triumph Spitfire


Design of the 1963 Triumph Spitfire

According to Harry Webster, the design of the 1963 Triumph Spitfire evolved in 1959-1960 as he and Michelotti got to know each other better. Michelotti was then inching his way toward the new TR4, which would be announced in 1961, and was also finishing up the TR3-based Italia sports coupe that the Vignale works would assemble in small numbers.

The 1963 Mark 1 Spitfire was situated on an 83-inch wheelbase and was 145 inches long, nose to tail.
The 1963 Mark 1 Spitfire was situated on an 83-inch
wheelbase and was 145 inches long, nose to tail.

These efforts left him little time for the Bomb, but in 1959 came Fiat's 1200 Cabriolet, a smart little 58-horsepower four-cylinder job that made an immediate impression in the United States. This car was not only built in Turin, but had been styled in that city at Pininfarina, not far from Michelotti's studio. The designer got the hint and made time for the Bomb. Before long, he and Webster agreed on what it should look like.

Initial thinking in 1957-1958 was to build the new two-seater on simply a shortened Herald platform with a tuned version of the Triumph 10's 948-cc engine. But by the time actual engineering work got under way, it had been decided to use a unique new chassis with a more prominent "backbone," plus a twin-carburetor version of the 1147-cc four destined for the Herald.

Even so, Herald components would be used liberally to facilitate manufacturing and reduce costs, yet the entire Bomb concept was considerably upgraded from the original "Zobo Sports" idea. This gave Triumph's baby a big advantage over the Sprite, and there would be many more innovations to ensure it remained the better car.

Indeed, throughout its life, the Spitfire was invariably faster than the Sprite and MG's later, near-identical Midget. It usually outsold its BMC rivals too. In the mid 1970s, the Spitfire even donated its engine to the last iteration of the Midget.

By 1960, Webster and his team had settled on a wheelbase of 83 inches, 8.5 inches trimmer than the parent Herald's, as well as lightly modified Herald suspension and steering. Also decreed were standard front disc brakes, which Heralds wouldn't have for several years.

The shared suspension was important, because having the same track dimensions would allow the Bomb to roll down the same production line as the Herald. The wheelbase measurement was important too, as it bested that of the original Sprite by three inches. This reflected Webster's desire for a roomier, more sophisticated product than BMC's effort, though the pundits were surprised by how good the end result was.

With wheelbase and track decided, Michelotti began shaping the exterior, slightly constrained by having to work around the Herald's inner wheel-arch structure and much of its rear floorpan. He also had to allow for a Heraldlike, one-piece, front-hinged hood/fenders assembly, which Triumph wanted for the sports car.

Right from the start, though, the Bomb was a very pretty little thing. On the other hand, Michelotti, like most Italian designers, never produced really stunning interiors, and his original proposal here could best be described as serviceable rather than attractive. Ultimately, interior design was handed to Arthur Ballard and his team at Triumph, who were much more accomplished.

One exterior element took some sorting out: the height of the doors and waistline. Webster knew how fond enthusiasts were of the TR's cutaway doors, but those wouldn't do for the Spitfire because they wouldn't leave room enough for wind-up windows; TRs to this point used traditional clip-in side curtains.

Nevertheless, Webster wanted the door tops to be as low as possible even with the glass wound down. "I remember sitting in the wooden model in [Michelotti's] little workshop in Italy and telling him it wasn't any good, because when I put my arm over the door, my fingers couldn't touch the floor! That's how the scoop in the door came about. It was straight to start with."

The chassis was designed during 1959-1960, before that wooden mock-up was finished. Compared with the Herald frame, it was almost pure "backbone" in design, the reason being that Triumph wanted a one-piece steel bodyshell with sturdy box-section sills under the doors that could double as side members. Interestingly, some thought was given early on to using fiberglass exterior panels, but lower-cost steel got the nod once the car's high sales potential became clear.

A prototype was duly cobbled up in the fashion then typical of British and Italian engineers: Parts were taken from a 948-cc Herald coupe that had been driven down to Turin. A running chassis, delivered separately, incorporated elements being planned for the Herald's first update, most notably a stiffening box-section bridge piece between the rear dampers. A second chassis was built for testing under a much-modified Herald convertible, a one-off development hack painted battleship gray and wearing shortened doors and sliding side curtains.

To follow the evolution of the Spitfire from its beginnings through 1970, continue on to the next page.

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