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Triumph GT6

Published: 8th Dec 2014 - 0 Comments - Be the first, contribute now!

Triumph GT6
Triumph GT6
Triumph GT6
Triumph GT6
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 says Richard Dredge who has just written a book on both classics

When you think about it, the GT6 is just about the perfect classic car. It’s very pretty, pretty affordable, surprisingly practical and, thanks to its smooth six-cylinder engine, it’s rapid without costing a fortune 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 a year thanks to its poor dynamics. 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 sports cars produced over the years.

So why hasn’t the 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 sales volumes. What Triumph supremo Harry Webster wanted was a hatchback Spitfire.


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. 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 short.

It’s not known which engine was fitted to the prototype GT6, other than that it was a four-cylinder unit. It’s assumed to be Triumph’s 1147cc unit, perhaps tuned in some way. Whatever was fitted, the closed Spitfire’s 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. Smooth, compact and torquey, this would turn the closed Spitfire into a true GT – 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-cylinder engine would ensure the closed car was more accelerative, it still wouldn’t be capable of taking the car to a top speed much (if any) higher than the 1147cc edition. Another rethink was needed, but it didn’t take long to come up with an answer: a larger (2.0-litre) edition 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.

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. With a power-to-weight ratio of 117bhp per ton, the GT6 had good performance and looked the part; thankfully for Triumph, that’s the verdict most reviewers would reach.


When Car (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. 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”.

In the autumn the UK’s dock workers went on a long and painful strike in sympathy with their Merseyside colleagues over working practices. Jack Dash was the trade union leader who gained notoriety during the late 60s and 70s.

The 1960s wasn’t always about good times… Strikes became extremely common and, like now, belt tightening became the result. The then Chancellor, James Callaghan (right), devalued our pound that autumn plus announced we were going over to decimalisation in February 1971.

In sport, Spurs beat Chelsea in the FA Cup 2-1, Scotland beat England 3-2 in the Home Internationals (and so became unofficial World Champions!) while Denny Hulme, in a Brabham, became the only Kiwi to win the driver’s F1 crown after a pretty nondescript season.

Entertainment-wise, BBC 2 became more widespread, The Prisoner started its long, mysterious cult following, top soaps were Crossroads and Peyton Place, and the UK Government killed off the Pirates, and all for the sake of Radio 1 and 2.

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 and new lighting and new Rostyle wheel trims.

Of more significance, however, was what Triumph had done under the skin – and particularly to the rear suspension. The GT6’s 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 considering the car now effectively featured double-wishbone suspension at each end. The transformation really was complete and the handling not so scary.


Although the GT6 had proved to be a winner for Triumph, by 1968 sales had 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 more modern interior. Making its début alongside the Spitfire MkIV at the Turin motor show of October 1970, the Mk3 was 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 introduced a whole raft of revisions, in a final bid to increase sales. Now standard were Sundym glass, a brake servo, a more powerful alternator, revised switchgear and a better steering wheel. But at the same time, the rotoflex rear suspension was ditched, with the original swing-axle design adopted again. Though effective, this suspension was costly and since the demise of the Vitesse in 1971, British Leyland’s sole car to feature it was the GT6. It made no sense to buy in the components for a single model that by now was selling in small numbers. It’s doubtful any buyer ever noticed…

Although the GT6 still looked great (arguably better than ever), it no longer had the performance of a sports car, which is why US buyers stayed away. Triumph was dependent on the federal market for the GT6 to remain viable, and with global registrations for the model plummeting to 2745 in 1973, it no longer made sense to keep building the car. As a result, the final GT6 was produced that November – a full seven years before the last Spitfire was built – while the rival MGB GT prospered and spawned the V8…


This month’s Memory Lane feature is taken from Richard Dredge’s latest 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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