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Triumph Spitfire

Still Flying High Published: 6th Aug 2012 - 0 Comments - Be the first, contribute now!

Triumph Spitfire

Fast Facts

  • Best model: MK IV
  • Worst model: 1500
  • Budget buy: 1500
  • OK for unleaded?: Needs additive usually
  • Will it fit in the garage? (mm): (imperial): L12ft 5in x W 4ft 1.05in
  • Spares situation: Generally excellent
  • DIY ease?: Brilliant, especially up front
  • Club support: Typical Triumph
  • Appreciating asset?: Starting to move upwards
  • Good buy or good-bye?: Yes… but is a GT6 better?
Eatly cars are most valued but Mk3 is best all rounder. Bottom left: Engine access is a DIY dream; 1300 best unit. Right: Cabin better than MG Eatly cars are most valued but Mk3 is best all rounder. Bottom left: Engine access is a DIY dream; 1300 best unit. Right: Cabin better than MG
1500 most civilised but 1.3 (below) most fun… 1500 most civilised but 1.3 (below) most fun…
Tin lids but wires were optional. Tyre choice important Tin lids but wires were optional. Tyre choice important
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Triumph’s Spitfire is now 50, and its appeal as a stylish, easy-owning sports classic is as strong today as it ever was

Pros & Cons

Ease of maintenance and restoration, prices, clean looks, economy, overdrive option
Tepid performance, poor ride, many bodged ones around, too soft an image?
£1500 - 6000

While all the fanfare is being directed at two other famous nifty 50s – the Lotus Elan and, of course, the MGB – it’s easy to overlook the fact that Triumph‘s rival to the Sprite and Midget has also reached the half century mark. And, doesn‘t the Spitfire still look in good shape?

For too long the Spitfire was simply seen as Herald in sexier clothes… but what‘s so wrong in that, especially if it results in simple and cheap ownership? And you have to admit that the dainty styling has aged remarkably well, looking a bit like a Ferrari California don‘t you think? Well, petrol head shock jock Chris Evans certainly thinks so – he’s owned both in his varied motoring life!

Canley, not California, dreamin‘ may not sound quite so appealing, but for those on a less than Ferrari budget, the Triumph makes a sensible starter classic for less than £2000 and is a DIY-ers delight. However here‘s how to avoid that nightmare buy!


Codenamed ‘Project Bomb’Spitfire was conceived just after the Herald first rolled off the production line around 1960, although the green light wasn‘t given to the design until Leyland (of BL fame, of course) took the ailing company over and the then MD, Stanley Markland, saw a mock up hiding under wraps and demanded it be made!

The car was a clever Michelotti re-skin on a cut-down Herald backbone chassis, using a development of the twin-carb Herald S engine with go-faster cylinder head, camshaft and manifolds. The Spitfire was launched at the 1962 Earls Court Motor Show badged as ‘Spitfire 4’ and costing £730, a hundred less than the also launched Vitesse 1600. A year later overdrive, wire wheels and a hardtop became available. Originals are now exceedingly rare, but most experts reckon you should concentrate on the superior Mk2 anyway if you want an early car. This surfaced in 1965 with a plusher interior and slightly more power.

Universally regarded as the best of them all, the Mk3 arrived in ‘67. Costing £751 (overdrive £58 extra, heater £13!) this had the larger 1296cc engine (first seen in the Triumph 1300 TC) instead of the old 1147cc unit, as well as better brakes, negative earth polarity (making it easier to fit modern electrical accessories) and an improved hood assembly. Style changes included raising the front bumper to appease US crash laws and relocating the exhaust back pipe – both which improved looks no end.

The biggest change to the Spitfire occurred in 1970, when a major re-skin saw a Stag-style rear end cleverly moulded on to identify the MkIV. The once ugly exposed wing seams were nicely smoothed over and the wheel arches flared. The interior was modified, with safety switchgear and re-sited speedo and rev counter. But you certainly paid for it, with the car ticketed at £985, £60 dearer than a Midget, and a hefty £110 (two week‘s typical wages) over the Mk3. Mechanical changes saw (at long last) a heavily revised swing-wing rear suspension to counter those oversteer tendencies, while the car‘s gearing was raised for more relaxed touring, along with a quieter exhaust design.

At around the time the GT6 was phased-out, the Spitfire soldiered on with a nicer GT6-style dash, uprated overdrive unit and just in time for Christmas ‘74, a new longer-stroke 1493cc engine, first seen in the Triumph 1500TC saloon a year earlier.

Following almost 20 years of production the Spitfire was killed off in the summer of 1980, after almost 320,000 sales, both here and in the US, where it was immensely popular. In fact, the Spitfire always outsold the MG Midget, except in 1969 when production was hurt by an industral strike. Out of the whole strain of Spits, the 1500 wa the best seller, accounting for almost 96,000 sles. The car’s best ever year was almost at te end of its life, in 1978, even at an inflatioary £2700, although UK sales peaked six years earlier.


Perhaps it was the car‘s rather effeminate looks, but the Midget was always seen as the more macho choice. Certainly the Triumph was the more civilised and refined alternative, especially with overdrive fitted; on the MkIV with its raised gearing this allows 70mph cruising at a soothing 3400rpm and as with MGBs, is very hard to live without.

Performance is no better than fairly brisk mind: 0-60 is 13-17 seconds depending upon model and only the 1500 is a true ton-up kid. That said, the slower but sweeter Mk3 and MkIV are the preferred picks for purists.

The Spitfire‘s handling has always been a contentious issue, due to that infamous rear suspension design which allows the rear wheels to tuck in. Pre-1970 models could be a bit wicked and it’s only with the advent of MkIV that the Spitfire‘s rear was properly tamed (although many earlier cars were converted and modified over the years) and to be fair, the set up was widely praised by the press for its new-founded security. That said, anybody used to a ‘modern‘ is in for a surprise and, even if they find the tail twitchiness containable, they’ll certainly note the over firm ride.

In their day, Spitfires were considered good news. Popular Motoring magazine judged the Mk3 to be a “fast sure-footed, economical sports car you can’t help liking” back in 1967. Three years later the late and lamented Hot Car magazine bemoaned the lack of pace over the Mk3, due to the taller gearing, but still regarded the MkIV as the “Super Spit”. Autocar called the ‘67 Mk3 “sparkling with outstanding fuel economy”, and reckoned that the MkIV, with its new rear suspension and Stag-like look, was “almost sophisticated” and the final 1500, a “topping little sports car”. Raining on the parade was critical Car which, in 1978, simply said “Oh Death where is they sting?”. Even with the delightful mid-engined baby Ferrari Fiat X1/9 costing a not inconsiderate £1000 more than the steam age Triumph it was their darling, and we don’t think they particularly liked the Brit by this stage… if they ever did judging by earlier road test verdicts!


Spitfires are one of the cheapest cars to buy and run, but prices are on the up, and its 50th is certain to cement values. Top cars rarely break the £5000 barrier and you can pick nice ones up for a grand less, although five figure restorations are not that uncommon these days. In terms of desirability, the Mk3 (1967-70) is seen as the model to have, although the added refinement of the MkIV and the 1500 may make them a better bet for everyday use. Mk1s are for hard-core Spitfire fans only, as later versions are demonstrably superior all round.

Given the Spit’s still lowly values, you need to carefully evaluate a poor example, no matter how cheap, as any restorations needed will cost a fair bit and perhaps outweigh any upfront savings – unless you like being up to your elbows in grease and rust that is.


Popular with Boy racers in their day, there‘s still a fair bit you can do to a Spitfire to make it fly. The 1300 unit is best for uprating, as the larger 1500 is rather weak and hates revs, and you can see over 100bhp for reliable road use. Of course it‘s not that hard to slip in the six-cylinder engine from the GT6, to turn a Spitfire into a mini-Stag – Vitesse parts make the conversion fairly straightforward and it sure shames a TR6 if done right! Many Spitfires came with overdrive and, if not fitted, then it‘s a very sensible and cost-effective step.

Suspensions benefit from the usual harder dampers and springs but take care not to make the ride over-hard; it was never that comfortable. Replacing the myriad of bushes with harder competition ones will improve the feel. Brakes can be uprated, either using GT6 components or aftermarket kits. Although it’s tempting, Spitfire experts recommend keeping the tyre size down to 185-section for best results.

Finally, even if you intend to keep a later 1500 standard, an uprated-core radiator and electric fan is wise, as these engines are prone to overheating at speed.

What To Look For

  • Emission-laden carbs fitted on mid 70s cars can be prickly to set up and best converted back to earlier SU units say the experts, especially if you envisage tuning the engine for more power anyway.
  • Transmissions are generally sound although may have led a hard sports car life and perhaps swapped with earlier or later units, which have different gearing – check if you’re unsure. Worn universal joints (promoting a clunky take up) are easy to correct. Clutches cost around £50 in parts and the gearbox is removed from inside the car so there’s no struggling underneath. Gear lever rattles are due to nothing more serious than spent nylon bushes in the lever’s pivot.
  • Overdrive is a great asset as it aids high speed work as well as economy although, if it‘s been retro-fitted, the Spitfire’s overall gearing may be incorrect as Triumph generally fitted a lower axle ratio to compensate for added weight. That said non overdrive axles are entirely satisfactory but may make the car feel less agile.
  • So long as the oil level is correct, no-go overdrives are usually nothing more serious than an electrical fault such as bad connection or a broken switch on the gearlever.
  • Triumph’s rear suspension needs a careful watch. It depends upon which type is fitted but in the main look at the transverse rear spring settling due to age and wear. Watch for worn rear lower trunnions promoting a clunk. Rear wheel bearings shouldn‘t be neglected as they can damage the drive-shafts if left unattended and these can cost between £60-£150 if the whole assembly is shot.
  • There are rear trunnions to check but are often overlooked as they need to be disconnect from the rear transverse spring to detect seizure. Good quality dampers and rear springing will transform many spent Spitfires without the need for further uprating.
  • While brilliantly easy to access, thanks to that forward-opening bonnet, the front suspension is troublesome. Lack of maintenance is the main culprit, causing the front suspension‘s trunnions to fail (budget around £80 for replacements, under half this for an overhaul kit), along with the ball joints (£10), drop links and front wishbones bushes (£10). Check the myriad of compliance bushes employed throughout as these wear out quickly and ruin the handling as a result, especially the rear radius road ones; when past it, spooky rear-wheel steering can occur.
  • Expect the hard-used interior to be a bit ratty unless it’s been restored, which is easy, albeit pricey, to do because every part needed is readily available. Hoods can be purchased from as little as £125, dash top covers £30, later ‘houndstooth‘ seat re-trimming set £115, hood weatherseals £25, carpet sets £100 and so on. With so many specialists around you can shop around for the best deal.
  • If you come across a Spitfire that’s been converted to become the car that Triumph never made because it would have spoiled the TR show – a GT6 drophead – thoroughly check that the conversion has been done properly with the right engine mounting mods, suspension springs, transmission and so on. And don‘t pay over the odds for such a hybrid either unless it‘s something special indeed. Ditto a home made ‘GT4’.

Three Of A Kind

Fiat X1/9
Fiat X1/9
This was the car the Spitfi re (and the MG for that matter) should have evolved to in the ‘70s. It’s mid-engined and of stiff monocoque construction, with an easy to use Targa. A baby Ferrari in style and design, a good one remains a delight to drive with spry performance and cracking handling. Rust is the main worry as are clutch hydraulics and poor hot starting – both curable
Arch enemy was in-house rival, the Austin-Healey Sprite and the MG Midget; a simpler if cruder sports car. Great, low cost with a high fun factor, they boast classic rear-wheel drive handling and easy modifi ed A-Series engines. There’s no overdrive and the tight cockpit negates the car for some, but they are easy to own. Like the Spitfi re, the last of line 1500s are least wanted.
Reliant SS1/Sabre
Reliant SS1/Sabre
Here’s a Brit you’ve overlooked, perhaps for its ungainly looks. But, underneath, this Reliant is an entirely decent modern sports car that’s well developed. Original cars use Ford Escort MK3 power, which was supplemented by a potent Nissan powered revised line up. Their rarity doesn’t mean high prices, but does result in ownership issues, with problems getting spares, for example.


Spitfires will fly high soon, so now is the best time to get one, while prices are still on the ground. Perhaps not as earthy as a Sprite or Midget, the Triumph is the more refined, roomier alternative, which can be easily modded and enhanced for modern day use, like the MG – and arguably make a better car out of it into the bargain. With a massive aftersales and club support, it’s one of the easiest and cheapest real sportsters to own and run. As for that Ferrari well we can always dream, can’t we!

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