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Triumph GT6

Triumph GT6 Published: 6th Nov 2019 - 0 Comments - Be the first, contribute now!

Triumph GT6
Triumph GT6
Triumph GT6
Triumph GT6
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Hailed as the poor man’s E-type, the Triumph GT6 is much more than a tin-top Spitfire yet sales didn’t match the expectations this classy GT rightly deserved

When you think about it, the GT6 is just about the perfect classic car. It’s very pretty, still pretty affordable, surprisingly practical and, thanks to smooth six-cylinder power, it’s rapid without being rabid to run. And yet it’s a formula which hasn’t really been copied by other car makers very much.

There was a half-hearted attempt by MG to ape the GT6, with its six-cylinder BGT (the CGT), but that lasted just two years thanks to its dubious dynamics (now mostly attributed to wrong tyre pressures at launch-ed). Many years later, BMW introduced the Z3 Coupé, with six cylinders and a short-wheelbase shooting brake bodyshell. But other than that, powerful, compact hatchbacks are noticeable by their absence when you look through the roster of roadsters produced over the years – why the MX-5 has never spawned one after 30 years we can’t understand.

So why hasn’t this winning formula been used over and over again? Nobody knows, but what we do know is that the GT6 was launched largely because when Triumph launched the Spitfire, the company’s finances were in poor shape. Before it was even launched, thoughts were turning to developing the model to increase vital sales volumes. What Triumph supremo Harry Webster wanted was a hatchback super Spitfire.

Webster’s wisdom

Webster envisaged a car that also offered far greater practicality than the Spitfire including a tailgate to allow easier access to the luggage bay plus more carrying capacity. The idea was to produce a mini GT for those who wanted performance but rated practicality over exposure to the elements. The Spitfire GT would have a fixed steel roof, a hatchback and rakish lines to attract buyers.

Initially, it was assumed that the GT would be little more than a closed Spitfire meaning it would be mechanically identical, while forward of the A-pillars there would be no body changes at all. With so many parts shared between the open and closed editions of the Spitfire, it would cost Triumph a minimal amount to put the new car into production, while the development process would also be extremely, cost effectively short.

It’s not known which engine was fitted to the prototype GT6, other than it’s assumed to be the Spitfire’s 1147cc unit, perhaps further tuned. Whatever was fitted, its performance was somewhat underwhelming, thanks to the much greater weight of the new bodyshell.

With production costs for the closed car being significantly higher than for the open edition, Triumph couldn’t charge a premium for a car with less performance, so a rethink was required. Webster hit upon the idea of fitting the 1596cc straight-six recently introduced in the Vitesse. Silky smooth, compact and torquey, this would turn the closed Spitfire into a true GT Triumph wanted – except it didn’t.

In standard form the straight-six produced just 70bhp and 92lbft of torque while the 1147cc unit could push out 63bhp and 67lbft. So while the six pot would ensure the fastback was more accelerative, it still wouldn’t be capable of a top speed much (if any) higher than the 1147cc edition. Another rethink was calLed for, but it didn’t take long to come up with an answer: a larger (2.0-litre) format of the straight-six, as fitted to the 2000 saloon and estate.

While the GT6 turned out to be more than a fastback Spitfire, Triumph succeeded in carrying over much of the bodywork of the latter, to keep expenditure to a minimum. The floorpans, bulkhead and doors were the same, as were most of the external panels including the bonnet – complete with a bulge to clear the six-cylinder engine.

The usefulness of the load bay was increased by the refusal to fit rear seats: instead there was a carpeted platform that ran from the tailgate edge right through to the back of the front seats. There could have been even more space available if this platform hadn’t been so high: it was designed to cover not only the spare wheel but also the fuel tank, jack and tool kit. A really worthy option was a sliding fabric sunroof, which gives the GT6 Spitfire-like open air delights, yet retains the versatility of a hatchback. Small wonder many are thus equipped.

Well before its unveiling, Triumph’s marketing team made a crucial decision, which was to drop any references to the Spitfire for the new car. By doing this the GT6 could be sold as a distinct model, for which the company could charge a premium price.

With a power-to-weight ratio of 117bhp per ton, the GT6 finally had good performance to match its looks; thankfully for Triumph, that’s the verdict most reviewers would reach in 1966.

Handle with care

When the critical Car magazine (October 1966) got its hands on GWK 884D, it was impressed. Its testers discovered that they “were startled to find how entirely different the GT6 feels from the Spitfire on which it is based – a much greater difference, for example, than between a Herald and Vitesse… Thanks to fatter tyres and much greater front-end weight, and in general the whole car feels solider (sic) and more substantial.”

Autocar was equally positive about Triumph’s new baby when it was tested also that October in time for the London Motor Show. Comparing the handling to Jaguar’s E-type, the car was praised for its engine’s flexibility, overall refinement and the performance, too. The magazine concluded: “With so much performance at such reasonable cost, we can foresee long waiting lists long before home allocations begin in six months’ time”.

Predictably, the GT6 proved a smash hit when it went on sale, but in a bid to maintain interest in the car, two years after the original had been unveiled, Triumph took the wraps off a heavily revised car at the 1968 Earls Court motor show. Stylistically, this Mk2 edition of the GT6 incorporated the same changes as the Spitfire Mk3 compared with its predecessor. That meant raised front and rear bumpers (for pedestrian protection) new lighting and hardly tasteful Rostylelike wheel trims.

Of more significance, however, was what Triumph had done under the skin – and particularly to the rear suspension. The GT6’s Herald-based swing axle rear suspension was always going to be a compromise and was taxed to the limit with 2-litre power. The answer was to graft in the same rotoflex rear suspension design that Triumph fitted to the identical Vitesse 2-Litre Mk2.

The new rear suspension transformed the GT6 through the bends – as was to be expected – and the handling became not so scary. “No one needs to black-ball the GT6 in its Mk2 form” declared Motor who thought that the Mk1’s traits were ‘unroadworthy”. The weekly said the changes made the GT6 “a much safer more predictable car… nevertheless we were a little disappointed with the roadholding”. The Mk3 was tested by the same weekly in 1971 and the sands of time saw this heavier car a tad slower and the testers now carped that further changes to the suspension, if anything, had turned the twitchy but fun sportster into an understeerer “in a rather unsporting way”. Worse still it hinted that the inevitable advancing age had made this GT corner no faster than many younger saloons although reckoned that at £1224 (£109 cheaper than the MG) it was still good value, praising the car’s excellent accessibility for easy DIY work.

Hardly a hit for six!

Although the GT6 had proved to be a winner for Triumph, by 1968 sales had already started to wane, forcing some kind of facelift. The answer was simple: to restyle the car along the same lines as the Spitfire MkIV, which meant a heavily restyled nose and tail, along with a plusher looking interior. Making its début alongside the Spitfire MkIV at the Turin Motor Show of October 1970, the Mk3, complete with its new Stag-like tail treatment, was easily the most accomplished of the GT6 breed.

Unfortunately, the introduction of a Mk3 GT6 did nothing to halt the slide in sales, although the model soldiered on throughout 1972. Then, in 1973, Triumph ushered in a whole raft of revisions, in a final bid to increase sales. Now standard equipment were Sundym tinted glass, a brake servo, a more powerful alternator, revised switchgear and a nicer steering wheel. But at the same time, the expensive Rotoflex rear suspension was ditched, with the original swing-axle design reinstated but modified along with a stouter front anti-roll bar.

Though effective, the Rotoflex suspension was costly and since the demise of the Vitesse in 1971, British Leyland’s sole car to feature it was the GT6 and it made no sense to use it for a single model that by now was selling in small numbers. It’s doubtful many buyers ever noticed either…

Although the GT6 still looked good (arguably better than ever), it no longer had sports car pace, which is why US buyers stayed away. Triumph was dependent on the federal market for the GT6 to remain viable, and with global registrations it plummeting to 2745 in 1973, the writing was on the wall. As a result, the final car was built that November, a full seven years before the last Spitfire was made. The rival MGB GT prospered and spawned the V8 by then…

Remember when… 1973

After initial promise, this was the year that Triumph ditched the poor selling GT6. Here’s a snapshot of the year that saw petrol prices almost double by Christmas-time…

Sunderland caused one of the biggest FA Cup shocks ever when it beat the mighty Leeds 1-0. Jackie Stewart won his third F1 title but the year was marred by three deaths, including his team mate.

It was the glam rock era but there were also some great songs all the same, such as Golden Love, Limme & Family Cooking’s You can do magic and Gaye by the late, great Clifford T Ward.

The energy crisis hit hard as the Yom Kippur war saw the oil taps turned off, leading to a world recession that was to last a decade and the UK was one of the hardest hit due to industrial strife elsewhere.

On the tele there was just a choice of three channels but with decent programmes such as the Dutch detective Van der Valk, comedies like Man about the house and Whatever happened to the likely lads? And don’t forget quality war dramas like Pathfinders and Colditz. Oh for a coloured television!

This was the year that the UK joined what was then known as the Common Market, our Queen opened the new London Bridge, Pink Floyd launched Dark Side of the Moon – and women were allowed into the Stock Exchange for the first time…

This month’s Memory Lane feature is taken from contributor Richard Dredge’s book, which charts the complete history of the Triumph Spitfire and GT6. Published by Crowood at £25, the book delves into the Spitfire’s motorsport history and offers guides to buying and modifying both the Spitfire and the GT6. The ISBN is 978-1-84797- 703-8.

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