Which were the best of the 1962-1976 Triumph TR sports cars? The Triumph TR7s of the Seventies, the "side-screen" TRs of the Fifties, or the lineup of Michelotti TRs that poured out of the Coventry factory between 1961 and 1976? Would you, in other words, like a unit-body coupe, a traditionally styled car with a cramped cockpit, or a more spacious and more graceful Triumph from Great Britain's "Golden Period"?
While the earliest Triumph TR6s wore mag-style wheel covers,
this 1973 Triumph TR6 had wheel trim rings and open centers.
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But wait, hang on a minute. What happened to Triumph? In particular, whatever happened to the TR sports car? Young and successful in the Fifties, mature and fast-selling in the Sixties, the TR gradually faded away in the Seventies. There hasn't been a TR since 1981, and there hasn't been a separate-chassis TR since 1976 -- so who was to blame?
It's easy enough to blame U.S. lawmakers on Capitol Hill, but the real answer is easier to spot, if you look out the office window today. Count the sports cars and coupes streaming down the freeway, and you'll note that they're nearly all Japanese. In the Sixties, and even into the Seventies, most were British: Triumphs, MGs, and Austin-Healeys.
Despite the 1800/2000 Roadsters of 1946-1949, only a very few of which made it to the U.S., most Americans knew nothing about Triumph until 1953. That's when the first TR2 sports cars arrived, and sales of the TR soon built up strongly. Before long, the best way to start a fight at a sports car meet was to tell an MG fanatic that a TR3 was the better car, or to suggest to a TR3 owner that an MGA was prettier and had earned a true sports car tradition.
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The Michelotti Connection
The Michelotti connection would prove to be a true blessing for Triumph. When Walter Belgrove stormed out in 1955, Standard-Triumph lost its well-respected stylist, and for the next two years the company floundered. All attempts to produce attractive new shapes for the Triumph TR sports car, and for a new small bread-and-butter sedan to replace the Standard Ten, failed.
The 1964 Triumph TR interior sported leather seats
and no-nonsense instrumentation set into a
polished walnut dashboard.
Then, out of the blue, Triumph's technical chief. Harry Webster, was introduced to Giovanni Michelotti, an ambitious young Italian stylist who was already creating some stunning shapes for Vignale and others. Set to produce a new TR "dream car" as a test, the Italian delivered a finished prototype with startling style in a mere three months. To follow it up, he penned a deft facelift for the Standard Vanguard, then secured his place in history by shaping a family of new small cars, the Triumph Herald sedan, coupe, convertible, and wagon.
Triumph put the ebullient stylist on a permanent contract -- and the results were remarkable. After completing work on the Herald, Michelotti then developed a new generation of TRs, starting with what became the TR4, and finishing with the TR250.
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TR4: A New Generation
By the time the Triumph TR4 was made ready for sale, in the fall of 1961, the original "side-screen" model had been on the market for eight years. An all-new car would have been much preferred, but the TR4 was being developed at a time when Standard-Triumph's finances were in a terrible mess, so that simply wasn't possible. In fact, the company had to be rescued by Leyland Motors in the winter of 1960-1961.
The rear-end styling of the 1964 Triumph TR4
featured a squared-up decklid for luggage space.
Under the skin, therefore, a lot of TR3A engineering was carried over, except for some important updates. Among them was a slightly stiffer frame, front and rear track dimensions that were pushed out four inches front/three inches rear (but still on an 88-inch wheelbase), and rack-and-pinion steering, which replaced the ancient cam-and-lever type.
The engine was the same rugged old favorite, the "wet-liner" four-cylinder unit, this time expanded to 130.4-cid (2138-cc), with the old 121.5-cid (1991-cc) version a step-down, special-order option (mainly for 2.0-liter competition). Meanwhile, synchromesh had been added to first gear in the four-speed gearbox and there was a lock-out device for reverse. As before, Laycock overdrive was optional, and desirable for high-speed touring.
It was Michelotti's all-new, five-inch-longer body, however, that caused a stir, for there was much innovation beyond the new styling that Triumph never really promoted. To begin with, the cockpit was noticeably more spacious than before, and with the hardtop in place, the new TR was almost a two-seater sedan -- something nobody ever claimed for the TR3A.
Wind-up windows helped make the TR4 snug in practically all weather conditions, though they were known to sometimes develop rattles and minor leaks around the seals. Apart from the full-width hood panel, which gave perfect access to the engine bay, the TR4 provided fresh-air, face-level ventilation for the passengers; an early type of safety-collapsible steering column (via U-joints in the angled column); and an improved heater/defroster. Upmarket features included standard leather upholstery in three colors and a traditionally British polished walnut dashboard.
As an option, there was a cleverly detailed two-piece "Surrey" hardtop. A steel roof panel could be completely lifted out, to provide for open-air motoring, and because it didn't fit into the trunk, it could be replaced by a simple framed fabric panel. The fixed rear window to which the panels attached was surrounded by a solid aluminum casting.
The hardtop model, effectively, featured a Porsche Targa-style rollover hoop years before Porsche "invented" it, the face-level ventilation was a European first (Ford, with its Cortina, made a lot noise about that -- three years later), and no one else ever produced such a large "sunshine roof." With all its new features, the TR4 suddenly made MG's soon-to-be-phased-out MGA and the Austin-Healey 3000 look old fashioned.
Introduced for the 1962 model year (a year before the similarly sized rival MGB), the TR4 was an instant success in the U.S., where most production from the Coventry factory was sent. However, Triumph's U.S. dealers, fearing higher prices, insisted that the old TR3A should be continued, even though sales of this model had largely dried up.
Thus, they got the TR3B, which looked the same as the TR3A, but used TR4 engines and gearboxes. And it was priced lower: $2,675 versus $2,849 for the TR4. But this USA-only special flopped. Only 3,331 cars were ever produced, all in 1962, while more than 10,000 TR4s were sold in the States in the same year.
By comparison, the MGB was priced at $2,658 when it arrived for 1963. On the track, the TR4 proved to be top dog in its class in Sports Car Club of America competition. In fact, so successful was it in Class E-Production in 1962, that it was bumped up to Class D in 1963, which it then proceeded to dominate for three years.
Road & Track tested a TR4 in its February 1962 issue, complaining about the typically complicated British top (29 snap fasteners, a pair of hooks, and a long metal slide), twitchy steering at low speeds, the "harsh and rough-running" four when extended, and a rear suspension that had "an unfortunate tendency to dance and skitter to the outside whenever a bumpy corner was negotiated with any vigor."
Compliments were forthcoming for the roomier and more civilized interior (including the little bench at the rear that could carry a small child), the new transmission (including the revised low gear ratio), steering at highway speeds, "stable and forgiving handling," and performance. Road & Track accepted the manufacturer's claimed top speed of 110 mph, and in its own tests clocked 0-60 at 10.5 seconds, the quarter-mile at 17.8 seconds and 77.2 mph. The ultimate judgment was that "The TR4 offers excellent performance at a moderate initial cost and a sporting driver would search for a long time to beat the combination."
On the other hand, Road & Track also commented that "Our staff never reached unanimity of opinion regarding the TR4. Some thought it was very worthwhile despite its obvious shortcomings -- others were not convinced." And so it went -- in the U.S., as in the rest of the world, pundits and enthusiasts liked the TR4, but didn't love it. The top speed and acceleration were fine, as was the new steering, all-synchromesh gearbox, and more comfortable cabin. But why, they complained, couldn't they have more performance, better suspension, more options?
Triumph salesmen and factory people sat back, listened, and eventually reacted. As the Sixties unfolded, the TR changed gradually -- but completely. By the end of the decade, it would be virtually an entirely different car.
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TR4A: New Chassis, Same Style
The first major change to the Triumph TR4 came in 1965, when the Triumph TR4A took over. Although the styling and basic running gear were much as before, the Michelotti design now hid a completely different chassis.
Two years earlier, Triumph had launched a new upper-middle-class sedan, the 2000, which featured a new type of independent rear suspension, with coil springs and cast alloy semi-trailing arms. For the TR4A, the engineers squeezed a slightly different version of this new rear end under the existing bodyshell. To support this, and to locate the chassis-mounted final drive casing, a new chassis frame had to be developed, this being more rigid than the original type and visually quite different.
The 1965 Triumph TR4A could be identified by its
tubular horizontal-bar grille that replaced the
stamped aluminum unit seen on the TR4.
Save for the fact that it was no faster, this latest TR was a much improved car, riding better and no longer suffering from the excessive rear-axle hop that had afflicted all previous TR types. Unless, however, you happened to buy a TR4A fitted with the old-fashioned beam axle.
Once again, U.S. Triumph dealers -- looking over their shoulders at the MGB -- could be blamed. Unwilling to face up to higher prices, or an unproven suspension system, they lobbied for an alternative. Therefore, Triumph somehow married the old axle and leaf springs to the new frame, reducing the price a little in the process. Maybe one-third of all TR4As got the beam axle, most of them apparently being sold on the East Coast.
Visually, TR4As could be identified by a tubular horizontal-bar grille that looked more substantial than the cheaper stamped aluminum unit on the TR4. Running lights and amber flashers duplicating the directional signals were placed in fussy housings riding high on the front fenders, trailed by a chrome strip that faded away just above the door handles. The amber lights were blacked out on U.S. cars.
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TR250 and TR6: Six Cylinders Replace Four
The late 1960s saw the introduction of two new Triumph models: the Triumph TR250 and the Triumph TR6.
For 1968, the newfangled U.S. exhaust-emission regulations began to bite, so Triumph's managers had to think hard about the Triumph TR's future. They concluded that a new engine and fresh styling were needed. Indeed, the old wet-liner four-cylinder engine was overdue for replacement, so the company decided to replace it with a version of the overhead-valve six already found in its 2000, GT6, and Vitesse (Sports Six to Americans) models.
The 1968 Triumph TR250 was fitted with a
six-cylinder engine based on the overhead-valve
unit in Triumph's sedans.
With a longer-throw crankshaft, modified cylinder block, and a more efficient cylinder head, it became a smooth and silky 152.4-cid (2498-cc) unit. In fact, 121-cid sixes had been running round in prototype TR4s since 1962.
First thoughts were to equip the Stateside version with Lucas fuel injection, but when Triumph discovered that it could not meet the new emissions legislation, conventional Zenith-Stromberg carburetors were fitted instead.
Thus equipped, and with 111 horsepower (U.S. spec, only fractionally more than the old 130.4-cid TR4A), the re-engined TR4A was badged TR250 for its engine size, and sold only in North America. This time the dealers were told quite firmly that they could no longer have a rigid-rear-axle alternative, and henceforth all cars would have the semi-trailing link independent rear suspension.
The "Rest of the World" version of the TR250 was equipped with Lucas injection, boasted no less than 150 horses, and was logically badged TR5 PI ("Petrol Injection"). America's loss was the Europeans' gain, for this car (and the rest-of-the-world TR6 that followed) was a genuine 120-mph machine, very fast off the line, and full of "hairy-chested" character.
Although the TR250 looked like the TR4A and the obsolete TR4 -- sheetmetal was unchanged -- detail differences gave it away. Inside, the dash lost its polished walnut, while gauge bezels and switches and knobs took on a "safety" dull finish. Further, the generous dash-mounted fresh-air vents became small "eyeball" outlets and seat facings were now vinyl instead of leather.
Most noticeably, however, the TR250 got a transverse triple racing stripe across its nose (like an American muscle car). In addition, the convertible top wore reflective tape strips at sides and rear, and the wheels were covered with fake "Rostyle" hubcaps, which Road & Track said "are perfectly acceptable in appearance. ..." Wire wheels cost $118 extra, and real alloy wheels were also available. Road & Track also commented that the new six provided "a nice increase in torque ... which gives the engine an appreciably greater amount of smooth, low-speed pulling power. As it stands, the engine is in a very mild stage of tune and could hardly run more sweetly."
On the other hand, there was "a body structure well behind modern standards in terms of strength and resistance to rattles. An entirely new model would have been more exciting to us and to the customers, but the British car industry moves slowly these days. ..."
All of the superficial changes to the TR250 didn't matter too much, however, for a restyled TR was on the way. Well before the launch of the TR250, Triumph had again turned to Michelotti to produce a sorely needed major facelift. But the Italian pointed out that he was far too busy working on the revised Triumph 2000, a reskinned Spitfire/GT6, the Stag, and on new small sedans -- and he still had a very small studio in Turin. Triumph had no choice but to look elsewhere.
The 1972 Triumph TR6 wore a black-out grille
that separated widely spaced headlights.
At the same time, Karmann, the West German concern famed for building the Volkswagen Karmann-Ghia, was looking for additional work. The firm approached Triumph, and was rewarded not only with the tooling contract for a modified TR250, but the styling job as well. The result, unveiled in January 1969, was the TR6, a car that retained the TR250's chassis, center body structure, and many inner panels, but featured completely new front and rear ends, plus cleaner looks.
Instead of a nose with protruding headlamp eyebrows, there was a smoother outline; a sharply cut-off, Kamm-style rear end was adopted in lieu of a more conventional tail. A new type of optional hardtop was also specified, which meant that the famous old two-piece Surrey option was gone.
This, then, was the last of the body-on-frame TRs, which went on to become the most successful and longest-lived of them all. In production from the end of 1968 until the summer of 1976 (actually overlapping the totally different unibody TR7 by nearly two years), it was changed only to keep abreast of U.S. safety and emissions regulations.
Today, if you compare a 1969 TR6 with a 1976, you would notice different engine details and gear ratios, changes to the fuel tank, wheels, steering wheel, trim, and furnishings -- and no one could possibly miss the five-mph rubber overriders added front and rear. Some of the biggest changes came for '71, when the compression ratio dropped from 8.5:1 to 7.75:1, slightly blunting performance. And ride height had to be raised to meet headlight height requirements, which hurt handling. Nineteen seventy-one was also the last year for the classic-look wire wheels.
In seven years, though, TR6 performance had changed very little despite ever-tougher emissions standards, which is more than could be said for some of its rivals, which suffered badly (particularly the MGB). Even after the six-cylinder engine was introduced for 1968, Triumph fought to keep the power output at its pre-emissions level, and pretty much succeeded. The last of the TR4As produced 104 bhp -- and in 1976 the last of the TR6s produced 106 bhp. Admittedly, the engine had grown by 22 cubic inches, but this was almost inevitable, as Detroit's Big Three also found out.
Before the TR6 finally disappeared, there was time to reflect on the way the entire character of the TRs had changed since 1953. Naturally, the styling was more graceful, and the level of equipment was more complete, but the last of the body-on-chassis TRs was very different from the original. It was faster (but not by all that much), smoother, and softer in so many ways, but was it really any more of a sports car?
Strange to relate, when the TR4 took over from the TR3A, some writers thought Triumph had gone soft, but by the Seventies the same pundits were referring to the TR6 as the "last of the hairy-chested sports cars."
The very last TR6s were assembled in July 1976, and, given shipping times, a few of these may have been titled as 1977s. After this, TR enthusiasts were obliged to consider the wedge-shaped TR7 instead (many wouldn't), or an MGB, which became history in October 1980. But for the separate-chassis Triumph TRs, it was the end of an era, an amazing period covering 23 years of the Coventry company's often stormy history.
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1962-1976 Triumph TR Specifications
The Triumph TR sports cars arrived in the 1950s and met with success over the next two decades. Here are specifications for the 1965-1972 Triumph TR models.
This French Blue 1974 Triumph TR6 has the
steel factory hardtop.
|1962-1976 Triumph TR: Specifications (U.S. Market)
|Type||front-engine, rear-drive two-seat roadster|
|Overall length (in.)||156.0 (TR4: 159.0)
|Overall width (in.)||57.5|
|Overall height, soft top erect (in.)||50.5|
|Track, front/rear (in.)||49.0/48.0 (TR6 50.25/49.0)
|Ground clearance (in.)||6.0|
|Curb weight (lbs)
||TR4: 2,240; TR4A: 2,212; TR250: 2,268; TR6: 2,390, rising to 2,438
|Weight distribution (percent front/rear)
|Hip room, front (in.)||2 x 21.5
|Fuel tank (gal)
||separate X-broad steel frame, all-steel bodyshell
||independent, coil springs, unequal-length A-arms, telescopic shock absorbers (plus anti-roll bar for TR6)|
||TR4, some TR4A: solid rear axle, half-elliptic leaf springs, lever-arm shock absorbers; Some TR4A, TR250, TR6: independent, coil springs, semi-trailing arms, lever,lever-arm shock absorbers|
|Transmission||4-speed , synchromesh on all forward gears; overdrive opt|
|Brakes||hydraulic, font disc/rear drum|
|Swept area (sq in.)
|Turning circle (ft)
|Final drive ratio
||3.7:1; overdrive, 4.1:1|
|Tires||TR4: 5.90-15; TR4A: 6.95-15; TR250: 185SR-15 radials|
|1962-1976 Triumph TR: Engines (U.S. Market)
|Type||ohv 1-4||ohv 1-4||ohv 1-6||ohv 1-6|
|Displacement (cu in.)
|Bore x stroke (in.)
||3.39 x 3.62||3.39 x 3.62||2.94 x 2.99||2.94 x 2.99|
|(millimeters)||86 x 92||86 x 92||74.7 x 76||74.7 x 76|
|Carburetion||2SU or 2 Zenith Stromberg
||2 Z-S||2 Z-S||2 Z-6|
|Horsepower @ rpm (net)
||1.05 @ 4,700||1.05 @ 4,700||1.11 @ 4,500||1.06 @ 4,900**|
|Torque @ rpm (net)
||1.28 @ 3,350||1.32 @ 3,350||1.52 @ 3,000||1.42 @ 3,000**|
*An optional TR4 engine had 1,991 cc (121 cid) with a 3.39 x 3.62-inch bore and stroke; horsepower was 100 at 4,800 rpm, torque 117 lbs/ft at 3,000 rpm.
**Slight variation over the years
|1962-76 Triumph TR: Performance
|0-60 mph (sec)
|0-80 mph (sec)||20.9||23.1||20.0||20.0|
|0-100 mph (sec)||46.3||48.8||39.0||39.0|
|0-¼ mph (sec)||17.8||18.5||17.8||17.9|
|Top speed (mph)
|Compiled from various sources
|1962-1976 Triumph TR: Production
|How many cars were delivered to the USA? Accurate figures have never been released, but it is thought that at least 80 percent of all "export" TRs were sold in North America.
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