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.