1963-1980 Triumph Spitfire

Were it not for Stanley Markland's curiosity, development of the 1963 Triumph Spitfire might not have been considered or completed. In mid-1961, Markland, recently arrived as Triumph's CEO, was walking through the factory one day with technical director Harry Webster.

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The petite two-seater dubbed the Spitfire emerged in time for the 1963 model year.
The petite two-seater dubbed the Spitfire emerged in time for
 the 1963 model year. See more pictures of classic cars.

"At one point," Webster recalls, "we came to a halt in front of [a] hump under a dust sheet. 'What's that?' Stanley wanted to know, and when I whipped off the sheet to show him, he instantly said, 'That's nice. What's it all about, and how far has it got?'

"I told him, and that it had been shelved for lack of funds.

"I shall never forget what happened next. He looked at it, he sat in it, he walked 'round it, then he turned to me and said, 'That's good. We'll make that.'"

They did indeed. Launched in October 1962, the Spitfire was a worldwide success, especially in North America, continuing in production for 18 years and more than 300,000 units.

Besides Markland, the key figures to that success were arch-enthusiast Webster, Italian designer Giovanni Michelotti, and Triumph production chief George Turnbull. Many others were also involved, but it was these three who got the Spitfire off the ground.

The story begins in early 1957, when Standard-Triumph initiated project Zobo. Intended to replace the small Standard 10 sedan, a few of which were sold in the United States as the Triumph 10, Zobo was planned around a new backbone-style chassis and a whole family of body styles.

The effort struggled until late summer, when newly appointed styling consultant Michelotti, urged on by the tireless Webster, worked 24 hours straight at his Turin studio to produce sketches of a square, sharp-lined two-door sedan and coupe.

The project culminated in 1959 with introduction of the four-cylinder Triumph Herald, which quickly spawned convertible and station wagon models, plus, by the mid 1960s, six-cylinder versions called Vitesse in England and Sports Six in the States.

It was America that got Webster thinking about a small sports car to join the popular TR3 in Triumph showrooms. As he later recalled, "We [quickly began] looking for ways of using the Herald's chassis engineering, and a sports car was obviously on the cards after the success of the TR range."

Surviving company records show that Triumph managers first considered this idea in August 1957, when Zobo/Herald styling had not even been settled. Notes from a board meeting record that the Herald was to be engineered with an eye to "minimum modifications necessary for production as a small sports car for the USA market."

That America, not Britain, was deemed more critical for success showed remarkable foresight, for at the time there was no low-cost, small-engine British sports car in series production. "Cottage industry" wares like the tiny Berkeley Sports didn't count.

But Standard-Triumph knew that arch-rival British Motor Corporation was planning its own such car; indeed, Donald and Geoffrey Healey were already designing it in Warwick, just a few miles from Coventry. (Then, as later, it wasn't easy keeping secrets in Britain's car-mad Midlands.) The "bugeye" Austin-Healey Sprite wouldn't appear until mid 1958, but once it did, Triumph's United States dealers demanded a similar car of their own, even though they were already selling as many TR3s as the factory could supply. Triumph would now have to respond.

John Carpenter, who became Standard-Triumph's sales director in the 1960s, remembers that although Webster sparked Triumph's new small sports car, "we all developed the feeling [by the late 1950s] that the TR now needed a smaller vehicle alongside it. It seemed to some of us that there was a niche for a smaller, inexpensive little car at a price above the Sprite but below the level of MGA and TR. And, of course, it was the American market that we were going to rely on [for sales]. America was the platform on which all sports car volume was based."

Development of the TR's little sister proceeded under the code name "Bomb," which means something rather different in Britain than it does in the United States. The new car was expected to go like a bomb, meaning to explode onto the marketplace. From Standard-Triumph's point of view, it certainly couldn't be a sales dud.

Continue to the next page to explore the design of the 1963 Triumph Spitfire.

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