Triumph Sports Cars

The Triumph TR2 was the first successful sports car developed by Triumph.

Triumph sports cars always seemed to have more performance and feel more modern than their MG contemporaries at just a little additional cost. This great British brand traces its start to the manufacture of bicycles in the 1890s and to motorcycles in the early 1900s. It branched out into the production of cars in the 1920s and by the 1930s was turning out upscale sports tourers, some with engines designed in-house by one Donald Healey, who would go on to sports car fame of his own.

What the Great Depression began, World War II bombing finished, and Triumph Motor Company was effectively out of business until its name and lingering few assets were revived in 1945 under the ownership of Britain’s Standard Motor Company. By the early 1950s, the concern was turning out sedans wearing the Standard badge and shapely little sports cars under the Triumph label.

The 1946 rollout of willing but uninspiring Triumph 1800 and 2000 Roadster was a false start, corrected in 1953 with the Triumph TR2. Learn how America discovered the true Triumph sports car through the TR2, which offered 100-mph performance for under $2,500.

Discover how Triumph’s four-cylinder cause advanced in the 1950s and 1960s with the Triumph TR3 through TR5 models. And check out the marque’s aesthetic and performance peak: the six-cylinder Triumph TR6, introduced in 1969.

Along the way, check out some were delightful Triumph side trips, including the lithe Triumph Spitfire models and the snug fastback coupe Triumph GT6 series. And learn why the four-cylinder Triumph TR7 of 1975 and its V-8 sibling, the Triumph TR8 of 1980, were wedge-shaped controversies.

So drop the top and upshift into the tantalizing world of Triumph sports cars. We'll get started on the next page with the Triumph 1800 and 2000 Roadster.

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Triumph 1800/2000 Roadster

This handsome example of the one-year-only Triumph 2000 Roadster shows few external changes from the earlier 1800 model.

Triumph of Coventry began with pedal cars and progressed to motorcycles before building its first proper cars in 1923. After severe financial problems during the Depression, it went into liquidation, was briefly taken over by a Sheffield concern, then sold in 1944 to Standard Motor Company, Ltd., under Sir John Black. Though Triumph would live on for another three decades, its postwar models, such as the Triumph 1800/2000 Roadster, had no links at all with prewar products (some of which were quite splendid sporting cars).

Predictably, the first postwar Triumphs were based on existing Standard components, including suspension, running gear, and a new chassis. Spring 1946 brought two very different models: a four-door sedan with Rolls-like razor-edge styling, and a fulsome roadster that Sir John hoped would outgun Coventry rival Jaguar (though he didn't know about the forthcoming XK120). Both used the same overhead-valve Standard four of 1776 cc and were thus logically designated "1800."

As in America, getting back to production was Standard's top postwar priority, so both models were simply engineered to avoid costly, complex tooling. This meant a straightforward ladder-type tubular chassis, to which was grafted the transverse-leaf independent front suspension of the Thirties-era Standard Flying Fourteen sedan. The Standard-built engine, also used by Jaguar for its late-Forties 11/2-Litre sedans, teamed with a 4-speed column-shift gearbox.

In concept and appearance, the Roadster was a throwback to the mid-Thirties. The styling, which could be termed "Early Streamlined," was actually the work of two Standard draftsmen: Frank Callaby, who did the front, and Arthur Ballard, who labored aft of the cowl. "Modern" touches like roll-up windows were balanced by the world's last production rumble seat, easily the car's most striking feature and one Sir John had insisted upon. It even had a flip-up secondary windshield. Access was a matter of clambering over the rear quarters and bumper, not the most dignified arrangement for milady. In the best British tradition, the body comprised a light-alloy "skin" over an ash frame, the panels being produced on wartime rubber "stretcher" tooling used for military aircraft parts.

The 1800 Roadster neither looked nor acted like a sports car. With just 65 horses to pull some 2,500 pounds, it was hard pressed to beat 70 mph, and its gearchange was ponderous and none too precise. But a war-weary, car-starved public would buy almost anything in those days, so the sporty tourer sold reasonably well (though the stablemate Town & Country sedan did better).

Standard's postwar design policy was evident by 1948, when old models like the Flying Fourteen were swept away in favor of a new "world car," the Standard Vanguard. This provided a new set of running gear for the Roadster (and the sedan a bit later), which became a 2000 via substitution of the Vanguard's 2088-cc four and 3-speed gearbox. The latter retained the vague steering-column control but was now fully synchronized. Equally welcome were the Vanguard's more modern coil-and-wishbone front suspension and new rear axle.

The Triumph 2000 was somewhat quicker, if still no sports car, thanks to a torquier 2.0-liter engine.

Despite a mere 5 extra horsepower, the 2000 Roadster was up to 7 mph faster than the 1800. It still wasn't a true sports car, but it now had plenty of competitors that were, including Jaguar's sensational new XK120 and MG's updated TC. Sales languished, and the model was discarded after a single year.

Standard considered a Roadster replacement, the futuristic TRX, but decided not to proceed. A good thing, too, because it hastened the development of a real Triumph sports car. The first of the memorable TRs was at hand.

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Triumph TR2

Triumph’s first true sports car, the TR2, looked more modern than the contemporary MG TF, cost far less than a Jaguar, yet could top 100 mph.

For an early '50s sports car, the Triumph TR2 was a revelation. Not only did it offer fine performance, good fuel economy, and modern styling, it cost little more than an MG and far less than a Jaguar -- not bad for Triumph's first true sports car.

Triumph of Coventry built motorcycles and cyclecars before turning to proper automobiles in 1923. By the mid-1930s, it was selling lush sports-tourers that did well in international rallying. Then the Depression forced the firm into liquidation, leaving Sir John Black's Standard Motor Car Company to acquire Triumph's automotive business in 1944.

Black envied MG's growing export success but had failed in a bid to buy Morgan, so he ordered up his own sports car for Triumph. A 1952 prototype, the 20TS ("TR1"), looked promising but needed more work, so engineers Harry Webster and Ken Richardson devised a sturdy new frame to replace the original '30s-era chassis, plus an improved "wet liner" version of the overhead-valve four from Standard's 1949 Vanguard sedan. Longtime Triumph designer Walter Belgrove added a longer rear end that worked beautifully with the prototype's smooth nose, integral fenders, and cutaway doors.

The TR2 used body-on-frame construction and a suspension that employed coil springs and wishbones in front and a live axle on leaf springs in back.

Logically named TR2, the new sporting Triumph was warmly received on its 1953 debut. Few contemporary cars offered 100-mph performance for so little money (just under $2,500) -- nor up to 26 miles per U.S. gallon when driven with restraint. Although the ride was harsh, handling a bit crude, and the cockpit typically two-seater tight, the TR2 was miles more modern than a T-Series MG. It even acquired a "competition proved" aura when a special streamliner ran 120 mph on Belgium's famed Jabaekke Highway.

Production was slow to get rolling -- just 250 cars in all of '53 -- but improvements came quickly. By 1954, Triumph was offering extra-cost wire wheels, electric overdrive, radial tires, and even a lift-off hardtop.

With all this, plus inestimable British charm, the TR2 heralded Triumph as a sports-car force to be reckoned with. Even the new 1953 Austin-Healey 100 couldn't dim its luster, for the Triumph was cheaper, if a bit less elegant. It was far from perfect, of course, but a legend had been born, and Triumph began nurturing it with the improved TR3 of 1955.

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Triumph TR3

A forward-mount eggcrate grille distinguished the TR3 from the TR2.

The well-received Triumph TR2 suffered a sales slowdown in 1954 as production ran ahead of demand and inventory piled up. Nevertheless, Standard-Triumph was sufficiently confident about its sports car's future to proceed with an updated successor. Predictably called TR3, it bowed in the fall of 1955 just in time to do battle at home and overseas with the smart new MGA 1500.

Changes abounded. Outside, an eggcrate grille filled the 2's open "mouth" with recessed mesh, badges bore the new model number, and you could now order an "occasional" - that is, token -- rear seat. Under the hood, larger-choke SU carburetors and modified ports upped output of the 2.0-liter four by five horsepower. Even so, performance suffered due to a slight increase in weight, and some road testers pointed out that fuel economy suffered, too. Whereas the TR2 could return 26 miles to a U.S. gallon, the TR3 was good for only about 22 mpg. But no one complained since gas was still dirt-cheap, and reliability was as good as ever.

Cylinder heads changed twice in the TR3's first year, though it's hard to tell from chassis numbers when these occurred. Regardless, the introductory "Le Mans" casting gave way after about 3,300 engines to a new "high-port" design that added another 5 horses, again to the detriment of fuel efficiency.

A more noteworthy running change occurred in the autumn of 1956, when the TR3 became the first series-built British car with standard front disc brakes. Supplied by Girling, they were accompanied by modified rear drums attached to a new and more robust axle. The car was already selling well, but it did even better once stopping power was equal to go-power. As proof, calendar 1956 export sales totaled 4,726 units, but the '57 tally was 10,151. The figure would go even higher in 1958, and again in '60.

The cockpit of the TR3 was much the same save availability of the “occasional” rear seat.

The TR3 also introduced an interesting new factory option, the so-called "GT Kit," inspired by Triumph's designs on two different rally classes: "Sports" and "GT." The kit simply comprised the optional lift-off hardtop and a set of exterior door handles, but satisfied class requirements.

Like its predecessor, the TR3 would last only two years. Triumph was now moving full steam toward all-out success among production sports cars. Next stop: the TR3A.

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Triumph TR3A

The TR3A features a wide-mouth grille, modified headlamps, a locking trunk, sturdier bumpers, and another 5 hp.

Before there could be a Triumph TR3A, there had to be a TR3. Well, for everyone except Triumph, which never officially applied any suffix letters to these cars -- or to the later TR3B. But distinctions are necessary for discussion, and they've long been part of TR lore.

We should also note that the Triumph TR3 went through two phases. The first involved the 1955-56 models, which were distinguished from the TR2 by a flush-set eggcrate grille. Modified ports and larger carbs (still twin SUs) added 5 hp to give the 2.0-liter four-cylinder 95. Five more came by an interim switch in cylinder heads after the first 3,300 engines, from the introductory "LeMans" casting to a "high port" design.

"Phase 2" began with the '57 models, which became the first series-built British cars with standard front disc brakes. Triumph also improved the rear drums and substituted a sturdier back axle, still leaf-sprung. Coil springs and double wishbones continued for the independent front suspension. Also new was a so-called GT Kit. Aimed at rallying's Sports and GT classes, this option merely delivered the factory liftoff hardtop and outside door handles.

Those handles became standard with the TR3A, which bowed for 1958 wearing a rather Detroit-inspired "wide mouth" grille plus a locking trunk handle and modified headlamps; sturdier bumpers were less obvious. Although sales were better than ever, Triumph was working on a more stylish sports car that would materialize in 1961 as the TR4. Perhaps as a preview, the new model's upsized 2.1-liter engine became available for TR3As starting in 1959, though apparently few were installed.

TR3A sales topped 58,000, so the U.S. distributor stalled importation of its TR4 successor. It instead conjured up a U.S.-market only TR3B; 3,331 of these were made and most had the TR4’s 100-hp 2.1-liter engine and all-synchro gearbox.

However, Triumph found itself with a surplus of TR3As by 1961, the result of misjudged market demand and overproduction. Happily, the firm's U.S. distributor wasn't that sure of the new TR4, and deciding to hedge its bets, offered to dispose of leftover TR3As. The result was an American-market conversion, the TR3B, with slightly nicer appointments and the TR4's new all-synchro gearbox. All but 500 also received the 2.1 engine.

As it happened, the United States took to the TR4 in a big way, so after seven years, the TR3 generation was honorably retired in October 1962. It had done a remarkable job. The TR4 would do an even better one.

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Triumph Spitfire Mark 1

Arguably the best of the scaled-down sports cars was the Triumph Spitfire.

The Triumph Spitfire was the Mazda Miata of the '60s: a simple, appealing, yet fairly practical sports car that was also cheap thanks to heavy use of high-volume family-car components. Of course, being a Japanese invention for the '90s, the Miata boasts workmanship and reliability this British car never knew, yet it's significant that Mazda kept a Spitfire around when developing the Miata.

Named for Britain's renowned World War II fighter plane, the Spitfire was Triumph's answer to other budget sports cars of the early '60s, especially the MG Midget and Austin-Healey Sprite. It was a bit larger and roomier than those rivals and more sophisticated with its all-independent suspension versus a solid back axle. Both the suspension and the 1.1-liter engine came from Triumph's small Herald line, but another 12 hp was persuaded from the all-iron four, and the suspension went onto a unique new backbone chassis with a shorter wheelbase than the Herald's.

Styling, by Triumph's Italian maestro Giovanni Michelotti, was pert, even pretty. As on the Herald and the early "bugeye" Sprite, a one-piece hood/fenders assembly tilted up from the front to give unrivaled engine access.

The Spitfire was reasonably quick for its modest price -- but quite a handful in hard corners. The reason was the simple swing-axle rear suspension, which was prone to easy wheel tuck-under that made for sudden, usually alarming, oversteer. Ralph Nader apparently never noticed, though, and it didn't deter buyers, especially in the United States. In fact, by British standards, the Spitfire was a big hit almost from the start. Sales were strong for the better part of 18 years despite reduced performance and numerous ill-advised changes after 1970, although the dreaded oversteer was long tamed by then. That lifespan encompassed the Mark 2, 3, IV, and "1500" evolutions, although most enthusiasts believe the Mark 3 was the last really good Spitfire in the original mold.

Though the all-independent suspension was flawed by ill-mannered swing rear axles, the Spitfire’s pert styling and 90-mph capability helped Triumph sell 45,753 Mark I editions.

A Spitfire can still charm like few other cars regardless of price. Like the Miata it helped inspire, this "junior TR" contrives somehow to be more than the sum of its parts, and that's a rare sort of magic indeed.

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Triumph TR4A

It may have been little more than a rebodied TR3, but it was that attractive new body, by Italian Giovanni Michelotti, that made the TR4 special.

Improved old wine in a nice new bottle aptly describes the Triumph TR4. The chassis, for example, came from the TR2/TR3, though handling was improved by three-inch wider tracks and a switch from antique cam-and-lever steering to more precise rack-and-pinion. Up front was a 2.1-liter four that owed much to the sturdy 2.0-liter engine of previous TRs. The same held for the four-speed manual gearbox, though a synchronized first gear struck a blow for modernity.

That left a new slab-sided body as the main attraction. Designed by Italian Giovanni Michelotti, it looked rather masculine despite a softly curved front with full-width grille and distinctive "eyelid" headlamps. Road & Track contended that on "strictly practical grounds, there is no disputing the worth of the new bodywork. [The] squared-off stern provides space for a relatively large luggage locker, and a couple of much-needed inches of width have been added to the interior. The coming of true civilization was most apparent in the provision of rollup side windows." The soft top, alas, remained a time-consuming complexity, but in-dash ventilation was a first for a British car, and the optional lift-off hardtop now had a replaceable canvas section that made for a "surrey" roof, a sort of early targa idea.

Inevitably, the TR4 was heavier and a bit slower than late TR3s, and stiff springing continued to give a rock-hard ride and some unwanted bump-steer. But Triumph had a fix for the latter: independent rear suspension, via coil springs and semitrailing links. It arrived in 1965 for a revised TR4A that also featured a permanently attached soft top that was much easier to operate. Although the new rear end tended to bottom easily, it improved handling and ride comfort, especially on rough surfaces. No wonder the independent suspension quickly went from optional to standard equipment.

Triumph built 40,253 TR4s before moving on for 1965 with the TR4A. This one got a better soft top and a bump to 109 hp, but more importantly, made available a coil-sprung independent rear suspension.

The TR4A only enhanced the Triumph that had impressed Road & Track as offering "excellent performance at moderate initial cost . . . [A] sporting driver would search for a long time to beat the combination." Still, time waits for no car, and rivals were beginning to beat the TR4 on several fronts by 1968. But Triumph had a fix for that, too: the TR6.

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Triumph Spitfire Mark 3

The Mark 3 bore “interim” Spitfire styling with a higher, more protective front bumper on an otherwise unaltered body.

Like the rival Sprite/Midget, the Triumph Spitfire took a few years to mature. Its basic concept was always right, and everyone loved the Mark 1 and Mark 2, but a fully developed, better balanced car took time. The Mark 3, introduced in early 1967, was just such a Spitfire: faster than the earlier models, a little more stylish, and better equipped.

Triumph had neither the money nor desire for many changes in its small sports car, but the few it did make were definitely for the better. The main one was substituting the larger, 1296-cc SC ("Small Car") four from the front-drive 1300 sedan of 1965 (soon to be used in the Herald, too). With a proper eight-port cylinder head (the previous engine had siamesed intake ports) and 75 horsepower, it made the Mark 3 a near-100-mph car and, as events would prove, the fastest Spitfire of all. A more substantial clutch was specified to cope with the extra power.

The front disc brakes were more substantial, too. Otherwise, the chassis was left alone, which meant that with the bigger engine's extra torque, snap oversteer was even easier to provoke. In general, though, the Spitfire remained an eager, very responsive little car -- and safe when you respected its limits.

Imminent U.S. regulations prompted the major appearance alteration: a raised front bumper suggesting a dog with a bone in its teeth. Some thought it cute, others ghastly. For Triumph, it was merely an easy answer to an irksome Yankee requirement. Revised parking/turn-signal lights sat below, while the rear quarter-bumpers were reshaped (and still quite dainty). The top now had a proper folding mechanism and was permanently attached, making it much easier to operate than the previous do-it-yourself affair of slot-in sticks with canvas cover, though it took up more space when lowered. The cockpit itself was again spruced up, this time with handsome walnut veneer on the dash.

The cockpit of the Mark 3 was again spruced up, and access to new 1300-cc four remained superb.

The Mark 3 would continue in production through December 1970 with few interim changes, none mechanical. A rearranged dashboard appeared on 1969 U.S. models only, with instruments grouped directly ahead of the wheel instead of in the center (universally adopted with the Mark IV). All the 1970s were treated to wider wheels (4.5 versus 3.5 inches) and gained sportier steering wheels, improved cockpit padding, and other cosmetic touch-ups.

By this point, complaints about the ill-handling swing-axle rear suspension were louder and more frequent than ever, but Triumph finally had an answer here, too. No quick fix, it would help make the next Spitfire even more mature.

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Triumph TR5 PI/TR250

Fuel-injected TR5 PI departed from TR4A appearance mainly in badges and standard mag-look wheel covers.

Triumph's rugged, easily tuned wet-liner four had done yeoman sports-car service since 1953 but was literally out of breath by the mid-Sixties, when it became clear that the larger new TR4/4A would need more power to stay competitive. Enter the Triumph TR5 PI/TR250.

Back in the Fifties, Standard had introduced a small inline four that was later developed for Triumph's compact Herald sedan and the "junior TR," the Spitfire. There was also a derivative six, first seen in Standard's four-door Vanguard Six and later used in the Triumph 2000 sedan. With modifications, this 2.5-liter engine was duly installed in the TR4 to create a more potent successor.

Despite its greater displacement, the six was no heavier than the old four, though it was significantly longer. Luck was on Triumph's side, though, as the six just fit the TR4 engine bay and proved relatively easy to clean up for the new U.S. emissions standards that were being enacted during its development.

Nevertheless, Triumph ended up producing two versions of its latest TR. America got the TR250 with a detoxed 104-horsepower six fed by twin Zenith-Stromberg carburetors. Europe and the rest the world enjoyed the 150-bhp TR5 PI, the suffix denoting petrol (fuel) injection by Lucas, the same basic system used by Maserati on its contemporary 3500GTI and Sebring. Needless to say, the performance of these cars was utterly different.

Visually, they differed little from the TR4A, with changes confined to the grille (now minus its vertical support bar), nameplates, and minor trim. The TR5 even retained the original hood bulge needed for carburetor clearance on the TR4. Both rolled on standard steel wheels, adorned (if that's the word) with "mag-look" covers, but many examples were treated to the traditional center-lock wires. TR250s wore rather silly transverse racing stripes on their noses, and their soft tops had reflective tape above the doors and rear window for nighttime safety.

Chassis specs remained much as before, but radial tires were standard and the rigid rear axle option for American models was scratched. Final-drive ratios were numerically lowered to suit the torquier six.

Returning to performance, the TR250 was no faster than the TR4A from standstill or flat out -- no surprise, since it had no more horsepower. But, of course, the six was a lot smoother than the old four, and its extra torque greatly improved drivability at low speeds in the intermediate gears. By contrast, the TR5 would wind to an easy 6,000 rpm and near 120 mph, while cutting no less than 20 seconds from the 4A's 0-100 mph time. Unfortunately, it idled like a race car and used a lot more gas than the 250 (perhaps as much as 16 mpg U.S.), and the fuel injection proved far more finicky than the 250's good old-fashioned carburetors.

Despite their six-cylinder smoothness and greater flexibility, the TR5 and TR250 were seen by many as new wine in old bottles. What was needed, some said, was fresh styling to match the new engine and its more "manly" character. Triumph, in fact, was already working on it, which explains why TR5/250 production lasted just a year and a half. The TR6 was on the way.

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Triumph TR6

One British writer called the TR6 “the last of the hairy-chested mass-produced sports cars.” That’s accurate, if one considers that the TR6 was compared, usually unfavorably, to the first of the new-era sports cars, the Datsun 240Z. See more pictures of Triumph sports cars.

It was no Austin-Healey 3000, but the Triumph TR6 was a good substitute for those seeking a traditional "big six" British roadster with a masculine image.

The TR6 was a follow-up to the 1967-68 TR5 PI, which was basically a TR4A with a torquey pushrod six instead of a four. PI meant "petrol injection," newly applied to extract 150 hp from the elderly 2.5-liter engine. But Triumph's fuel-injection system somehow ran afoul of U.S. emissions standards, so Americans got a similar TR250 model with a detoxed twin-carburetor engine making only 104 hp.

That setup was used for the TR6, which bowed in early '69. The TR4A-origin body got a new look thanks to Karmann of Germany, and it was a very effective facelift, with a trendy chopped-off Kamm tail, a longer hood, and a prominent wide-mouth grille. The accessory hardtop also was revamped, gaining a more angular look and orthodox one-piece construction.

Road & Track found in its $3,400 1971 TR6 test car a "distinctive combination of qualities at a reasonable price . . . with ride and handling far from outstanding and a somewhat cramped cockpit but . . . an excellent 6-cyl. engine, luxurious finish and trimmings, and a roadster top that's easy to put up and down." The editors also had "no question" about reliability and durability, but they were writing well before Japanese cars began redefining those terms.

Muscular styling, with squared shoulders and big wheel openings, fueled the TR6’s image. So did the hidebound but wonderfully torquey ohv inline-six.

The TR6 lasted some seven years with few interim changes. Among the more important were a reprofiled camshaft giving a smoother idle and better low-speed tractability, plus an updated version of the optional Laycock electric overdrive; both appeared in early '73. Far less welcome were the big and ugly black bumper guards that sprouted on 1973-74 U.S. models, a necessary response to new five-mph impact standards. Still, the big TR aged gracefully.

But it couldn't last forever, and the old soldier faded away in mid-1976. By that time, troubled British Leyland Corporation had introduced a TR7 that would generate nowhere near as much affection -- or sales -- as the TR6. It was one of many mistakes that would ultimately cost British Leyland its life.

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Triumph Spitfire Mark IV/1500

More prominent bumpers for the United States and a recontoured rear identified the Spitfire Mark IV.

After eight successful years, the jaunty little Triumph Spitfire was restyled and thoroughly overhauled for its next 10. Although this Mark IV (not the expected "Mark 4") was similar in many ways to the Marks 1 through 3, it had much better handling, more modern fixtures and fittings, and eventually, different running gear. Above all, it remained an honest little sports car in the hallowed British tradition and would swell Spitfire production to a grand 18-year total of 314,342 units.

The Mark IV originated in the late Sixties, when Triumph requested design consultant Giovanni Michelotti to produce a completely reskinned Spitfire on the existing backbone chassis, retaining the same proportions and as many body panels as possible. As with the TR6, the result was more a major facelift than a completely new design.

Michelotti had proposed flip-up headlamps, but the Mark IV front was like the Mark 3's aside from a larger grille opening and a recontoured bumper (still the bone in the dog's teeth) with black guards below it instead of overriders on it. Two-piece fenders were discarded for single units at the front but retained for the rear, which was nicely reshaped along TR6 lines, as was the accessory hardtop.

Other recognition points included GT6-style recessed door handles, reshuffled trim, and on U.S. models, distinct side marker lights as required by law. Inside was the more logically ordered instrument panel first seen on the American-market 1969-70 Mk 3.

But the most important change was down under, where the deadly old high-roll-center swing-axle rear suspension was junked in favor of a new "swing-spring" layout. This referred to a transverse leaf spring that was now free to pivot atop the differential, thus greatly reducing rear roll stiffness. The new arrangement looked virtually the same as the old but virtually eliminated rear-wheel tuckunder at high cornering loads for altogether safer and more predictable handling. Up front, the Mk 3's 1296-cc engine was retained in slightly detuned form and now mated with the new all-synchromesh 4-speed gearbox from the GT6.

U.S. Mark IVs followed the GT6 in another way, with performance that declined each year as emissions standards tightened. The '71 models had only a single carburetor and 58 horsepower -- even less than on the original '62 model. Output faded to a pitiful 48 bhp on the '72s, which could only reach about 80 mph, yet no fewer than 9687 were delivered that year.

Available horsepower rose to 57 for the Mark IV, while a two-inch-wider rear track, cleaned-up instrument panel, fire-retardant trim materials, and standard reclining seats were adopted.

There's no substitute for cubic inches -- er, centimeters -- even where the goal is cleaner air, not higher performance. Accordingly, 1973-74 U.S. Spitfires received the stroked, 1493-cc engine (still with single carb) that would go into the MG Midget beginning in late '74, a move that would simplify emissions certification for British Leyland, which was home to both these cars by now. Available horsepower rose to 57 -- better, if not quite adequate. At the same time, a two-inch-wider rear track, cleaned-up instrument panel, fire-retardant trim materials, and standard reclining seats were adopted.

The name was Spitfire 1500 on the '74 U.S. models, which gained a protruding lower "jaw" spoiler and big fat bumper guards (a hasty solution for that year's new 5-mph impact-protection standards). Another sign of the times: The optional wire wheels were no longer available. Non-American Spitfires received most of these changes -- including the new name -- for 1975, only their 1500 engine packed 71 DIN horsepower, making these the lustiest Spitfires of all. Top speed, for example, was back to around 100 mph.

Sadly, the Spitfire was an orphan by then. The parent body-on-frame Herald/Vitesse sedans had been dropped in 1971, and the last GT6 had been built in late '73. Production economics and BL's red-washed balance sheet meant the Spitfire would have to go soon. Somehow, though, sales remained strong enough (and even went up for a time) to keep it alive through August 1980. Then BL gave up on sports cars altogether in another of its many gropes toward profitability.

But the Spitfire had served long and well, and many were sad to see it go. The good news is that many of these cars are still around, and dirt cheap. It may never be a collector's item, but the Spitfire will always be hard to beat for low-cost sports-car fun.

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Triumph GT6 Mark 3

Take a Spitfire, add a fastback roof, and install a six-cylinder, and the result is the Triumph GT6.

If the Spitfire was fun with a four, reasoned enthusiasts, it should be dynamite with a six. Oddly, Triumph resisted the idea, straining as it was to meet Spitfire demand. But the little roadster had evolved from the Herald sedan, which had a six-cylinder version called Vitesse. So Triumph finally answered its public's pleas with a "big-inch" Spitfire, the GT6.

It arrived in 1966 as essentially a six-cylinder Spitfire with a fixed fastback roof that made some people think "junior Jaguar E-type." The tin-top transformation was handled by consultant Giovanni Michelotti but was patterned after the factory Spitfire GT fastbacks that raced in 1963 and '64. Triumph's 2.0-liter straight-six fit easily beneath the Spitfire bonnet and mated to a new all-synchro gearbox. Suspension was firmed up to handle 95 hp, and the cockpit was spruced up from that of the concurrent Spitfire Mark 2.

Though the GT6 shared the Spit's quirky swing-axle rear end, it was far less prone to oversteer, perhaps because it had some extra weight at the back. And starting at just over $3,000, it was a good value. Road & Track judged it a fine effort overall, "smooth, [with] good torque, low noise level, and agility as well as stability in its handling . . . [The GT6] has no parallel and it's worth the money."

For 1968, came a GT6 Mark 2 -- GT6+ in America -- with a raised "bone-in-mouth" front bumper, revamped dash, flow-through ventilation, and a rear suspension cleverly reworked to provide double-wishbone geometry for no-sweat cornering behavior. Power was unchanged for the United States but rose to 104 elsewhere via a new cylinder head and freer-breathing exhaust. A Mark 3 arrived for all markets in 1971, bearing crisp new Michelotti tail styling a la the contemporary Spitfire Mark IV, plus various detail updates. Unfortunately, strangling emissions standards reduced U.S. horsepower to 90, which then slumped to just 79.

The GT6 engine was Triumph’s own 2.0-liter and fit as well in the Spitfire chassis as it did in the company’s Herald sedan, which formed the basis for the Spitfire.

But sales were falling, too, and with the first energy crisis providing an excuse for euthanasia, the GT6 was killed after 1973. Yet it remained eminently likeable right to the end. As R&T noted in 1969: "Where else can you get a . . . 100+ mph coupe with a proper chassis, good finish and jazzy looks for $3000?" Happily, that's still the going rate for even the nicest GT6s. Sports-car bargain-hunters, take note.

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Triumph TR7

Except for details, the rather odd “flying doorstop” shape of the TR7 coupe was unchanged through the model’s troubled production run. Here, a 1981 British example with aftermarket sunroof.

The Leyland company gradually became Britain's native motor industry during the Sixties, successively absorbing Standard-Triumph, AEC, Rover/Alvis and, in 1968, British Motor Holdings (BMC with Jaguar). Thus it was that two old foes, MG and Triumph, found themselves under the vast new roof of British Leyland. One of its first undertakings was the Triumph TR7.

BL management was initially top-heavy with former Triumph executives, so Triumph was given design responsibility for the new firm's future sports cars, which would wear the Triumph badge, leaving MG out in the cold. An early result of this decision was a new program initiated in 1970-71 to create a single replacement for BL's two aging "big" sports cars, the MGB and Triumph TR6 -- a modern design with worldwide buyer appeal and engineered for high-volume production. It emerged some four years later as the Triumph TR7.

Though it carried the famous TR initials, this new Triumph was completely different from the TR6 it would eventually oust from the lineup. Instead of a six-cylinder roadster with Italian styling, all-independent suspension, and body-on-frame construction, it was a British-designed unitized coupe with a four-cylinder engine and beam rear axle.

As originally envisioned, the basic TR7 platform would have spawned a whole sports-car family with engines ranging from a 2.0-liter four through a 16-valve version and on up to a 3.5-liter V-8, the light-alloy GM unit recently acquired by Rover. All would have fixed-roof coupe bodywork and were planned to be on the market within three years of the introductory four-cylinder model.

TR7 styling originated at BL in Longbridge, not at Triumph itself, with an off-hand sketch by designer Harris Mann -- "off-hand" in that it wasn't a serious proposal. But his "bubbletop wedge" shape appealed to management, and they stuck with it all the way through to production despite, some say, sage counsel to the contrary. What emerged was by no means as graceful as Giugiaro's Lotus Esprit or any of the Italian supercars it tried to emulate, being stubby and wide, almost as cartoonish as Mann's original drawing. The interior was nicely done but rather cramped, thanks to a very bulky dashboard, and though the trunk was useful enough, there was little in-cabin stowage space.

Production economics and corporate politics dictated chassis components and driveline be taken from the BL bins. The engine, for example, was an enlarged version of the Triumph-designed 1.7-liter sohc four supplied to Saab for its period 99 sedans (since re-engineered by the Swedes, who still build it for their current 900 and 9000 models). It also showed up in Triumph's small Dolomite sedan, a rear-drive derivative of the earlier front-drive 1300/1500, for which a twincam 16-valve version was developed (but would never appear in a TR7 as planned). The standard gearbox was a 4-speed manual, but there were two options: an overdrive 5-speed (borrowed from Rover's big SD1 hatchback-sedan series) and British-built Borg-Warner 3-speed automatic.

Chassis specs were conventional. The all-coil suspension employed front MacPherson struts and a live rear axle located by radius arms. Steering was the expected rack-and-pinion, brakes servo-assisted front discs and rear drums.

Still struggling to come to terms with more automated manufacturing, BL set up TR7 production at its brand-new Speke plant near Liverpool. It was a big mistake. The workforce not only had no experience building sports cars but, egged on by ever-stubborn union leaders, tended go on strike even more often than other British factory workers. Not surprisingly, workmanship was highly variable and production erratic, neither of which did anything for sales.

Properly put together, though, the 7 was a much sweeter-handling TR than the 6, about as fast, and more practical if less romantic. But the oddball styling, indifferent quality control, and the tarnished reputation of British cars in general took a big sales toll, especially in the United States where demand would never meet expectations.

After yet another management shuffle, BL closed Speke in 1978 and shifted TR7 tooling to Triumph's Canley plant near Coventry, a process that left a six-month gap in production. Things were uprooted again just two years later, when the TR7 was sent to Rover's Solihull facility in the face of BL's large, continuing cash shortfalls and its ever-more desperate need to economize.

Hoping to turn the TR7 around, BL issued a smart new convertible version in 1979. Bereft of the coupe's foreshortened roof and dippy side window line, it looked miles better, and BL attended to details inside and out. But none of this did anything for sales. Neither did the planned V-8 derivative, which arrived the following year as the TR8.

Because by then, it was all over. With BL's waning American sales, continuing huge losses, and soaring development costs for new mass-market family models like the Metro and Maestro, Whitehall stepped in and nationalized the firm, which remains on the dole at this writing. This brought another new management team and yet another recovery plan that included doing away with sports cars. The TR7 thus went to its grave in October 1981, shortly after the MGB and Triumph Spitfire had been killed off; the TR8 went with it, of course.

It was a sad end for the once-great TR, and Triumph itself was gone by the mid-Eighties. Alas, neither is likely to make a comeback.

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Triumph TR8

The TR7 and TR8 were British Leyland’s version of a modern Triumph sports car.

Be careful what you draw, it might become a car. That's what happened with the Triumph TR7 and its V-8 sibling, the TR8.

In the early 1970s, British Leyland was eyeing a new sports car to replace those of its member marques, the Triumph TR6 and the MGB. Just for fun, stylist Harris Mann doodled a sort of bubbletop wedge with a big upswept curve on the bodysides. Somehow, management saw this design and deemed it perfect for the new two-seater. Others didn't. After walking around the TR7 on its 1975 debut, Italian master stylist Giorgetto Giugiaro eyed the bodyside sculpting and lamented: "Oh, no! They've done it on this side too!"

Unlike the TR6, the TR7 was first sold only as a coupe, used a beam axle rather than independent rear suspension, and had a 2.0-liter overhead-cam four instead of a pushrod six. A four-speed gearbox was standard, but a new five-speed was optional in lieu of electric overdrive. A three-speed automatic also was available.

Being relatively wide, the TR7 had a roomy cockpit and a broad stance that contributed to stable handling. It also had room for the 3.5-liter V-8 from corporate cousin Rover and that's what went into the TR8 that bowed as a 1980 model. The TR8 also got firmer damping, standard power steering, and nicer trim.

The TR8 used a 3.5-liter Rover V-8 and was satisfyingly faster than the TR7. Handling was good and the wide cockpit comfortable, but with a solid-axle rear, subpar quality, and debatable styling, neither did justice to the Triumph legacy.

Unfortunately, both these Triumphs suffered mediocre workmanship and erratic production that only accelerated BL's fast-falling fortunes. Convertibles were added in 1979 with hopes of improving sales. Arguably prettier than the coupes, the ragtops were also far more flexible -- enough that parking on shallow inclines could twist the unitized hull sufficiently to prevent opening the doors. Despite all this, BL built more than 112,000 TR7s but only 2497 TR8s, of which 2,308 were U.S. models (including just 202 coupes).

Though pleasant and satisfyingly quick when working right, the TR8 was too little too late. By the time it arrived, BL was on the ropes, and the firm's 1980 British government takeover left no future for any TR -- or MGB, or Triumph Spitfire. BL has since become the privately held Rover Group, which has a dandy new sports car in the MGF. That leaves the TR8 to be mourned as the last sporting Triumph and a promise unfulfilled.

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