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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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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1963-1970 Triumph Spitfire

After some initial setbacks, the Spitfire debuted for the 1963 model year, and the 1963-1970 Triumph Spitfire evolved into a popular and successful little sports car.

The 1965 Spitfire had moved on to its Mark 2 version, with revised camshaft and upgraded interior.
The 1965 Spitfire had moved on to its Mark 2 version,
with revised camshaft and upgraded interior.

Michelotti's prototype was shipped to Coventry in the autumn of 1960, which suggests the Spitfire could have entered production by the end of 1961. Instead, the car was briefly tested, then stored under a dust sheet until Stanley Markland stumbled across it the following summer.

The delay, as Webster told the boss, stemmed from another of Standard-Triumph's several brushes with bankruptcy, which eventually led to a takeover by Leyland Motors, of British truckbuilding fame. Once fresh funds were in place, and with Maryland's swift, hearty endorsement, Standard-Triumph launched its Bomb.

The Spitfire name didn't come up until 1962, reputedly a brainwave from sales director Donald Stokes (later the chairman of Standard-Triumph and the successor British Leyland combined). Although Triumph always insisted that there was no connection with the renowned Spitfire fighter aircraft of World War II Royal Air Force fame, some later advertisements featured the car and plane together, and at least one U.S. ad depicted the car bearing RAF roundels.

The Spitfire and Herald were produced side-by-side at Canley until the latter was killed off in 1971, but they did not always get new features or improved components at the same time. Though body panels and major chassis stampings were unique to each model, the Spitfire used a good many Herald parts in its early years, including a chassis-mounted rear axle/differential, rack-and-pinion steering, and Girling front-disc/rear-drum brakes.

Spring/damper rates naturally differed, but powertrains were essentially shared too, although Spitfire engines were tuned for more power than in the Herald -- initially 63 bhp versus 51.

Also, starting in late 1963, only the sports car offered center-lock wire wheels and optional overdrive that worked on both third and top gears of the shared four-speed manual gearbox, which lacked first-gear synchromesh.

At that same time, the Spitfire acquired better seats and an extra-cost removable hardtop. Early 1965 introduced a Mark 2 version with a hotter camshaft that added four horsepower, plus floor carpeting instead of rubber mats, and a vinyl covering for the previously painted metal dashboard.

Though you might think otherwise, the Herald's demise didn't threaten the Spitfire. This was partly due to the 1966 introduction of the GT6, essentially a Spitfire fastback coupe powered by Triumph's 2.0-liter inline six. The close similarity enabled tooling costs to be spread over higher volume, thus making each model more financially viable than either would have been alone. Again, these two didn't always evolve in tandem, but each usually benefited from improvements developed for the other.

The 95-bhp GT6 fastback coupe was introduced in 1966.
The 95-bhp GT6 fastback coupe was
introduced in 1966.

­The further revised Spitfire Mark 3 arrived in 1967, wearing a raised front bumper that gave a "bone in mouth" appearance, a change made mostly in deference to anticipated U.S. safety standards; GT6s got this for 1968.

More welcome were a permanently attached soft top, replacing a plug-in frame with separate canvas; a new 1296-cc engine with non-siamesed ports and 75 bhp; wood-veneer dash trim; larger front disc brakes; and beefier clutch. The Mark 3 was the fastest Spitfire yet, capable of some 95 mph.

Follow the Spitfire story through the 1970s and into its final year on the next page.

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1971-1980 Triumph Spitfire

As the 1971-1980 Triumph Spitfire continued its successful run, big changes were afoot. The first round of changes occurred with the 1971-model Spitfire Mark IV -- yes, Triumph mysteriously switched from Arabic to Roman numerals. It was easily spotted via a larger grille opening and front bumper, seamless front-fender tops, and, most of all, a cut-off tail like that of big-brother TR6, all courtesy of Michelotti.

The 1971 Spitfire was a Mark IV with a more angular tail, longer bumpers, and seamless front fenders.
The 1971 Spitfire was a Mark IV with a more angular
tail, longer bumpers, and seamless front fenders.

Shared with the concurrent Mark 3 GT6 were a more orderly dashboard layout (actually continued from late Mark 3 Spitfires) with instruments ahead of the driver instead of centered; fully synchronized gearbox (a belated improvement); and so-called "swing spring" rear suspension. The last looked just like the original pure swing-axle arrangement, but the fixed transverse leaf spring was now free to pivot atop the differential.

It was the same principle that made accessory "camber compensators" so effective on Volkswagen Beetles. In combination with newly double-joined halfshafts, the revised geometry tamed the wanton, large-camber, rear-wheel "jacking" that often had earlier Spitfires making scary tail skids in hard cornering.

The
The "Spitfire 1500" decal on the nose of this 1977
Spitfire indicates the presence of a 1493-cc engine.

Unfortunately for Yanks, increasingly stringent exhaust-emissions standards began sapping their Spitfires' performance. Triumph responded for 1973 with another displacement increase, this time to 1493cc, for the otherwise little-changed Mark IV 1500.

But the larger engine made scant difference, as SAE net horsepower eased from 58 for 1971 to 57 on the 1973s, though that was better than the paltry 48 of "federal" 1972s. Other markets got the 1500 engine in 1975, but with less restrictive tuning and 71 net bhp. The resulting model, simply called Spitfire 1500, was arguably the best of all and certainly the quickest.

Post-1974 U.S. versions were also badged Spitfire 1500, but wore even larger government-required bumpers that added unwanted weight.

From this point on, the Spitfire would see no further change. Indeed, its days were numbered. The reason was not so much its elderly "classic" design as the financial turmoil that had left British Leyland struggling to survive.

The 1978 Spitfire was the most popular ever in the United States, selling 10,231 units.
The 1978 Spitfire was the most popular ever in the
United States, selling 10,231 units.

Then too, the GT6 had expired (after 1973), rendering Spitfire a production orphan sharing no parts with any other British Leyland model. Come 1980, with British Leyland's cash reserves critically low, the Spitfire was retired.

It has not been forgotten, of course. Aside from still having many fans the world over, the Spitfire was a major inspiration for Mazda's MX-5 Miata a decade later. Mazda even used a Spitfire body for stealth development testing of the Miata chassis -- a literal fitting tribute to the TR's endearing little sister.

To learn more about the GT6, an intriguing offshoot of the Spitfire story, continue on to the next page.

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The GT6: Spitfire With a Roof Over Its Head

It's easy to think now that the GT6 was an inevitable marriage of Spitfire and Herald Sports Six. But in 1963, when the project began, there was no thought that the fastback would have a six-cylinder engine.

The 1969 GT6 was a Mark 2 with new vents and higher-mounted front bumper.
The 1969 GT6 was a Mark 2 with new vents and
higher-mounted front bumper.

The GT6 originated in the so-called Spitfire GT, a one-off prototype shaped by Giovanni Michelotti in Turin. John Lloyd, deputy to technical director Harry Webster, once said that it was not the first attempt: "What really happened was that, having done the Spitfire, Harry decided, with [production head] George Turnbull, to do a fastback mini-Jaguar E-type, and Leslie Moore, our stylist, did one at the factory. That car looked bloody awful...The roof was deep and bulbous. That's when Harry called in Michelotti again, and we shipped out a Spitfire for him to make a four-cylinder GT."

Painted red and completely road-worthy, the prototype arrived in Coventry in the autumn of 1963. Michelotti had neatly melded a sweeping fastback roofline with the Spitfire body, and even incorporated a useful lift-up hatch. But the prototype was slower and potentially much more expensive than the open Spitfire, leading Triumph to conclude that it wouldn't sell very well.

This 1970 GT6 Plus (as the Mark 2 was known in the U.S.) bears large side-marker lights.
This 1970 GT6 Plus (as the Mark 2 was known in
the U.S.) bears large side-marker lights required
by the U.S. government.

Accordingly, by 1964, the prototype was running a Sports Six 1600 six-cylinder modified to make 77 bhp. But that still wasn't enough, so Triumph soon substituted the 2.0-liter Vitesse/Sports Six engine, plus an all-synchromesh gearbox.

Thus developed, the smart new Spitfire-based coupe went on sale at the end of 1966, and for the next seven years, the GT6 closely imitated its "parents": the Spitfire in chassis and basic body styling, the Herlad-based Vitesse/Sports Six in running gear. Early cars had 95 bhp and swing-axle rear suspension.

In 1969 came the Mark 2 -- GT6 Plus in the United States -- with far more effective lower-wishbone rear suspension, plus a nicer cabin and the 104-bhp engine of the Mark 2 Vitesse. Top speed was up to around 110 mph versus 105.

The final iteration of the GT6 was the Mark 3, which ran from model years 1971-1973.
The final iteration of the GT6 was the Mark 3, which
ran from model years 1971-1973.

Arguably the best of the bunch was the Mark 3 of 1970, identified by a tail reshaped in the fashion of Spitfire Mark IV, plus reprofiled rear side windows and more cockpit fiddles. In early 1973, the GT6 switched to the Spitfire's less sophisticated "swing-spring" rear suspension, purely a cost-cutting move, though handling and roadholding weren't noticeably different.

But because performance was disappointing in the prime United States market -- sales were always lower than expected -- the GT6's demise was hastened. The last ones rolled out at the end of 1973 after total production of only 41,253.

Continue to the next page to find models, prices, and production numbers for the 1963-1980 Triumph Spitfire.

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1963-1980 Triumph Spitfire Models, Prices, Production

Steeled by the success of its TR sports cars and wary of a rival's plans, Triumph dressed a little sportster in Italian style, then set out to win over American buyers with its snazzy Spitfire. Here are the specifications for the 1963-1980 Triumph Spitfire:

For the 1979 Triumph Spitfire, even meatier bumpers added 8.5 inches to the car's length.
For the 1979 Triumph Spitfire, even meatier bumpers
added 8.5 inches to the car's length.

Triumph Spitfire Series Production

Mark 1 (1962-1964)
45,754
Mark 2 (1964-1970) 37,408
Mark 3/Mark III (1970-1974)
140,043
Mark IV/1500 (1975-1980)
91,137*
Total
314,342

Triumph Spitfire Calendar-Year Sales

19636,224
19648,761
19659,097
19666,782
19675,643
19685,711
19696,240
19706,305
19718,266
19729,687
19737,796
19747,373
19758,857
19766,846
19779,463
197810,231
19798,344
19804,037
19813,924
Total139,587

Triumph Spitfire Specifications

General

Layout
front-engine, rear-wheel drive
Wheelbase, inches
83
Weight, pounds
1,568 (Mark 1-Mark 3)
1,717/1,652 (Mark IV)
1,750 (Mark IV 1500)
1,828/1,875 (1500)
Overall length, inches
145 (Mark 1-Mark 3)
149 (Mark IV/1500)
157.5 (1979-1980 1500)
Top speed, mph
92 (Mark 1, Mark 2)
95 (Mark 3)
86 (Mark IV)
94 (Mark IV 1500, 1500)

Engine

Cylinders/displacement, cc
4/1147 (Mark 1, Mark 2)
4/1296 (Mark 3, Mark IV)
4/1493 (Mark IV 1500, 1500)
Horsepower @ rpm
63 @ 5,750 (Mark 1)
67 @ 6,000 (Mark 2)
75 @ 6,000 (1967-1968 Mark 3)
68 @ 5,500 (1969-1970 Mark 3)
58 @ 5,200 (1971 Mark IV)
48 @ 5,550 (1972 Mark IV)
57 @ 5,000 (Mark IV 1500, 1500)
Carburetor
twin SU (Mark 1-Mark 3)
single Zenith (Mark IV)
single Z-S (Mark IV 1500, 1500)

List price, U.S. dollars
$2,199 (Mark 1-Mark 3)
2,649 (Mark IV)
2,995 (Mark IV 1500)
3,745 (1500)

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