Triumph Sports Cars

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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