- Front body mounting brackets trap water and rot. Theyfre also damaged by careless jacking and replacement can be a fiddle.
- The sills are structural and they do rot. Most of the strength is hidden in the inner sill and the membrane that is sandwiched between the inner and outer panels.
- On the MkIV and 1500, check that rot in the chassis extensions behind the front bumper hasnft spread into the main chassis rails as it usually does.
- Bonnets can get expensive to repair properly. First points to go are around the arches and behind the light units.
- Check the heel board carefully behind the seats, as the rear suspension trailing arms bolt to it. If the rear wings are rusty, they will usually have taken the inner wings with them. These often part company with the boot floor too.
- The front footwells below the A-posts commonly rot out. Windscreen pillars too can rust badly . peel back the door sealing rubbers to check.
- Engines are cheap to rebuild and generally durable. Their single biggest weakness is for the crankshaft thrust washers to wear, sometimes to the point where they drop out. Get somebody to step on the clutch while you watch for in-and-out movement of the crankshaft pulley to check for this.
- Some timing chain rattle is not uncommon. Try to distinguish between this and noisy tappets though, which could suggest the need for a new cam and followers.
- 1493cc engines are prone to overheating, and wear on the last pair of cylinders/ends, so check for signs of oil in the coolant or mayonnaise under the oil filler cap. Have a compression test done, if possible.
- The waxstat jets fitted to the carburettors on post-1976 cars can cause misfires and a reluctance to start when hot.
- Electrical problems are most likely with the overdrive units, especially in MkIV cars with the switch located on the gear knob. Donft worry about sluggish engagement on the D-type overdrive . they all do that sir!
- Rear wheel bearings need to be regularly greased. The front suspension trunnions must be lubricated with EP90 oil only. If neglected, the steering will be stiff until the wheel collapses into the wheelarch.
Not fast, but good fun with some interesting handling traits
One of the most practical and cheap sports classics around
Excellent DIY accessibility plus fine aftermarket support
Sports cars just can’t be any easier or so pennywise
Cheaper than a Midget, Spitfire values have yet to go skywards
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Turning 50 nest year, the Spitfire is a much maligned sportster, due to its petite looks reckons Scott Bradley
Two iconic sports cars turn 50 next year, the MGB and the Lotus Elan. But there’s also a third one that’s almost certain to be overlooked – the Triumph Spitfire. Launched to rival the Austin- Healey Sprite and the MG Midget, the Spitfire was for many years seen as the softer option, but the car was far better equipped than its main MG Midget/ Austin Healey Sprite rivals and looked arguably more stylish too. The car also lead to a six-pot fastback variant, the Triumph GT6, and the Spitfire continued in recognizably the same form until production ended in 1980.
Thirty years on, the Spitfire is finally being seen as a likeable, easy-to-run sports car that’s as much fun as a Spridget and more civilised. And we agree.
Which model to buy?
In practice all Spitfires are hugely entertaining to drive
Under the skin, the Spitfire made use of the Herald’s backbone chassis, shortened to bring the wheelbase down from 91.5in to 83in. The front and rear suspension assemblies were carried over, but the Herald’s outriggers and perimeter rails were replaced with stubby mounting brackets on the backbone, and a load-bearing shell whose sills were vital for its integrity. After sitting under a dust sheet for several months, the new car was finally given the green light for production by the Leyland Motors’ top brass, who had taken over the cash-strapped Standard-Triumph company in early 1961.
The first cars were curiously badged as ‘Spitfire 4’, followed in 1965 by the MkII. These both came with the Herald’s 1147cc engine, albeit tweaked so modest performance keeps prices down to around £3000 for a really good one, and a grand less for a decent example needing a little tidying. They can be the hardest to find, however.
The MkIII produced between 1967 and 1970 is generally considered the best of the bunch, preserving the earlier styling but mating it to a 75bhp 1296cc engine and topping it off with an easy-to-use folding hood. Expect to pay up to £4000 for a good one, closer to £2500 for a ‘condition 2’ car.
The MkIV (1970-74) was visually cleaned up by Michelotti, with a de-seamed bonnet assembly and Triumph’s new trademark Kamm-tail, first used on the Stag. In many ways it was a highly successful refresh, and included both an improved design of rear suspension and an all-synchromesh gearbox.
It became less powerful than the MkIII though, and today is the cheapest of the bunch, costing up to a few hundred less than the earlier cars – but it’s the best all rounder by far. You can still find most MkIVs qualify for free road tax, too.
The 1500, introduced in 1974, gets closer to the MkIII in terms of both power and current values, particularly the last versions, which borrowed a chunk of interior trim from the Dolomite. With all cars, DIY restoration is relatively easy.
As with many classic cars though, the costs of professional restoration will considerably outweigh its finished value, as it takes a really concours Spit with polish to make £10,000.
Behind the wheel?
Yes it is possible for the back end to get out of line
The Spitfire is small and low, so it helps to get in and out if your joints have retained a modicum of flexibility. Once behind the wheel though, there is cosy space for two, width wise, and plenty of legroom for six-footers. Headroom with the roof up can be a little compromised, the crossbar of the frame being positioned to make life particularly uncomfortable on bumpy roads. The pedals are offset to the right, a position that you soon get used to and which at least leaves room for a footrest on the transmission tunnel.
In standard trim, no Spitfire is remotely quick by today’s standards, average 0-60mph times varying between 14 and 16 seconds. But those are merely paper figures, and in practice they are all entertaining to drive. The smaller engines in particular are rev-happy chappies, the gearchange is snappy and the steering is both light and nice and direct – just like the Spridget! The 1500 engines are much less willing to rev, but careful tuning and balancing can persuade them to stray beyond 7000rpm and live to tell the tale.
Ah, yes, now we come to the handling where the ‘Sprout’ has always held the upper hand. You see, that Herald derived chassis with its swing axles has always been taxed more in the Spitfire – let alone the GT6 – and it is possible for the back end to get out of line, especially on the pre-MkIVs. And, to be honest, if you’re more used to a modern, the lack of poise will be alarming at first. An MX-5 it isn’t but in reality you need to be really going some, or be rough with the car, to lose it on quality modern radials. The last rear end is the best design; Popular Motoring magazine was just one of many testers who at the time reckoned that it was, “One of the most surest-footed cars we have tested” but that was back in 1971! There are plenty of similar types of rear end tweaks on offer from Triumph specialists which cure the dreaded ‘tuck in’ and make this Triumph more of an understeering car, although the back will still step out of line if provoked.
Brakes were disc/drum from the start and, if kept in good condition, are perfectly adequate for a car in standard trim. But of course, many cars are no longer in standard trim. Spitfires can be modified as little or as much as you like, either sticking with the four pot or even replacing it with the GT6’s 2000cc six-cylinder engine to create the ‘Spitfire 6’ that Triumph never did.
The beauty is that, so long as you are not looking to squeeze the last fraction of a second out of the car for that racing victory, then the modifying path is well-worn and can be relatively affordable.
Try not to worry overmuch about the occasional rattle and squeak from the body along the way though – it is part and parcel of Spitfire ownership. Invest in a good stereo instead!
The daily option?
Spitfire is better suited to daily driving than the Spridget. The cockpit is roomier and more comfortable (just), the steering lock is taxi-like and around town and on smaller roads, any of the models will keep up with the traffic flow. For motorway driving, the optional overdrive is almost essential and the taller differential fitted from 1978 makes the experience a bit more relaxing although takes the edge of performance. The Toledo/Marina derived all-synchromesh gearbox introduced with the MkIV also helps make the later cars nicer to drive in traffic and around town – first gear on the earlier cars can take a real hammering.
If you do plan to use your Spitfire as a regular workhorse, then the folding hood fitted from the MkIII is far easier to use than the earlier hood-and-sticks affair. You can also opt for a (factory) hardtop during the winter – they’re still about and, while it still might not be totally airtight, at least the heater will have a little less work to do. The boot too is fairly large for this class of sportster. Certainly you could tuck a few tools in there just in case and still leave room for the weekly shop.
After teetering on a knife edge, the ‘Bomb’ project is finally given the green light by Leyland management. Engine is taken from Herald coupe, so it’s still 1147cc albeit with a lot more power thanks in part to a modified head and twin SU carbs.
Car is launched at Earls Court Motor Show as the Spitfire 4. Criticism of the cheap, skittish rear suspension that was carried over from the Herald widespread, but most pundits gave this pretty car their seal of approval.
Few changes are needed as the Spitfire 4 sells strongly, racking up over 45,000 sales before bowing out in 1965. Welcome additions to the options list included overdrive, hardtop and wire wheels.
Spitfire Mk II arrives. Earlier criticisms of the interior addressed with better padding for the seats and such luxuries as carpets. Engine is tweaked to give a little more power - up from 63bhp @ 5750rpm to 67bhp @ 6000rpm.
Mk III arrives with bigger 1296cc engine (now 75bhp @ 6000rpm), uprated brakes and a proper folding hood.Visual clues include a front bumper raised by nine inches to comply with US crash legislation. Electrics become negative earth too.
Cleaned up Mk IV introduced with better cockpit. Mechanical upgrades include an all-synchro gearbox, alternator and higher gearing. Biggest improvement is a better design of swing-spring rear suspension.
After a wood-finish dash for 1973, modest changes create the Spitfire 1500 using Triumph 1500 TC engine and a Marina gearbox. It is less sporting and willing to rev, but the Spitfire is finally a genuine 100mph car.
The Spitfire has had a good run for its money, but can no longer keep up with ever-tightening legislation in the crucial US market. As sales fall the plug is finally pulled and the last Spitfire is produced in August.
When new, the Spitfire helped introduce a whole generation of youngsters to sports car driving on a budget. Today this Triumph is a great way to get into cheap classic sports cars. Fun, cheap to buy as well as run and easily tweaked and improved, the Triumph Spitfire remains one of our hobby’s best kept secrets.
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