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Triumph Spitfire

Triumph Spitfire Published: 5th Mar 2015 - 0 Comments - Be the first, contribute now!

Triumph Spitfire

Fast Facts

  • Best model: Mk 3
  • Worst model: 1500
  • Budget buy: 1500
  • OK for unleaded?: Needs an additive usually
  • Will it fit in the garage? (mm): L12ft 5in x W 4ft 1.05in
  • Spares situation: Generally excellent
  • DIY ease?: Brilliant, especially up at the front
  • Club support: Typical Triumph
  • Appreciating asset?: Surprisingly slowly
  • Good buy or good-bye?: Yes as a low cost starter sports classic?
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Easy going, easy owning starter classic that’s a DIY dream. Brisk performance and good touring capabilities thanks to overdrive, but handling needs watching. Still excellent value for money – but too ‘soft’ for you?

AHerald in hotter clothes the Spitfire may be, but what’s so wrong in that as a recipe for cheap thrills? Because that’s what this stylish little sports car has served up for more than half a century plus is a DIYer’s delight to keep sweet. As a starter classic this Triumph is second to none and is a lot smoother and more comfortable than the more macho Midget. Have we started World War Three by advising you to buy a ‘bomb’ that certainly doesn’t cost one to own and run?


1960 Codenamed Project Bomb, Spitfire was conceived just after the Herald first rolled off the production line. The sports car was a little more clever Michelotti re-skin on a cut-down Herald chassis using a development of the existing twin-carb Herald S engine, fitted with a go-faster cylinder head, camshaft and inlet and exhaust manifolds.

1962 Launched at the Earls Court Motor Show, curiously badged ‘Spitfire 4’‚ it cost £730, which was a hundred quid less than the also-new six-cylinder Vitesse 1600. Overdrive, offering a healthy 20 per cent reduction in revs, an inch wider wire wheels and a hardtop became available a year later.

1965 Now well established and selling well both sides of the pond, the Mk2 surfaces boasting a plusher interior and 4bhp more power from the 1147cc engine care of a new camshaft and better exhaust manifold, the latter whicg became unique to the Mk2.

1967 Widely regarded as the best Spitfire of them all, the Mk3 boasts the larger 75bhp 1296cc engine first seen in the 1300 TC saloon. Better, bigger brakes, firmer front springs, negative earth (making it easier to fit electrical accessories) and an improved hood also figured, as did a raised front bumper to appease US crash laws but which also improved the looks as well. A smaller TR4-style steering wheel stood out in a largely unchanged interior.

1969 A facelift was sneaked in just before a major revamp for the new decade, although to be honest, the Mk3 had undergone a myriad of minor changes since its ’67 launch. Changes now included a revised cooling system, GT6-style steering wheel, wider 4.5inch wheels plus a redesigned hood.

1970 A major landmark in the car’s life sees the Mk4 launched heralding a significant re-skin incorporating a Stag-style stern and cleaner looking wings. The interior benefits from safety switchgear and speedo and rev counter now located in front of the driver. Mechanical changes saw no power addition; indeed the sporty speed is slowed by the adoption of revised gearing plus a gearbox taken from the Toledo saloon to make cruising more civilised. A heavily revised swing-axle rear suspension boasting an increase in track width by two inches, albeit more to cut production costs rather than improve the handling, did both brilliantly and inadvertently the Spitfire became more fun to drive, and more secure, than the GT6!

A lot was said concerning an apparent reduction in engine power from 75bhp to 63bhp but much of the loss was due to a new European way of measuring power more than detuning. That said, despite its larger valves, the new Toledo cylinder did cause some reduction in power as did a milder camshaft design, further knocking the horses back. Wire wheels now carried a dull old Leyland rather than the proud Triumph badge but at least 155 radials were standard wear by this time.

1973/74 GT6-style dash, uprated overdrive unit and, just in time for Christmas 1974, the longer-stroke 71bhp 1493cc engine taken from the Triumph 1500 TC ruled the changes.

1976/77 A driver’s door mirror and standardisation of the Luxury Pack along with an upgraded carpet feature. The following March a refresh includes new door handles, 5J wheel rims and TR7 column switchgear along with new ‘houndstooth’ seat trim.

1978 Modified bonnet bracing, laminated windscreen and a viscous cooling fan are fitted. The steering wheel is now of the classic Moto-Lita style. For 1979, dual circuit brakes were fitted at long last along with a passenger door mirror.

1980 After almost 20 years of production the Spitfire was killed off during the summer after almost 320,000 sales both here and in the US, the latter where it was immensely popular. In fact, the Spitfire always outsold the rival MG Midget (except in 1969) and out of the whole strain of Spits, the least liked 1500 was the best seller of the lot, accounting for almost 96,000 sales in the six years it was on sale.


Spridget or Spit? The former was always seen as the more macho choice but (despite the creaks and groans due to its chassis construction) the Triumph was the more civilised and refined alternative, especially with overdrive fitted. On the MkIV this allows 70mph at just 3400rpm and – like on MGBs – is hard to live without.

Performance across the ranges fares no better than fairly brisk: 0-60 in 13-17 seconds depending upon model but only the unloved 1500 is a true ton up kid; try one as it’s a misunderstood engine. Admittedly the slower, sweeter Mk3 and MkIV are the preferred picks for purists but the added torque of the 1500 cannot be denied.

The Spitfire’s handling has always been a highly contentious subject due to its infamous rear suspension design which allows the rear wheels to tuck in just when you want them to stand up and be counted.

Pre-1970 models coud be particularly wicked handlers and it was only with the advent of the MkIV that the rear was properly tamed although many earlier cars were converted and modified over the years.

In their day, Spitfires were considered pretty good news to young enthusiasts.

Car was the first to pitch it against the arch rival Spridget, reckoning the Triumph scored with its looks and driving position, but the Sprite had better performance and more predictable handling.

With the Mk2, Sporting Motorist said the improvements and revisions “have made a good car into an excellent one” and thought the cheaper Spitfire was not much of a step down to the TR4A. Popular Motoring 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 a lack of pace over the Mk3 due to the taller gearing but still regarded the MkIV as the Super Spit while the newly launched Custom Car said the Spifire “sounds, drives and attracts birds like a real sportscar”. Say no more…

Autocar judged the final 1500, a “topping little sports car” although raining on the parade was Car who in 1978 thought that this sports car was now a joke and pleaded “Oh Death where is thy sting”. Clearly the Spitfire didn’t age well in the autumn of its life…


There’s huge potential if you want to give your Spit more polish. Even on standard cars, fitments such as electronic ignition and an uprated radiator (especially on the 1500) are wise. We’d start with the suspension to make the car less twitchy and there’s a host of mods such as firmer dampers and springs to do this although specialists say that you can’t simply tweak the rear without altering the front to compensate although many do.

That rugged little four pot can yield over 100bhp but around 90bhp is more usable for road use and the 1500 is as good as the 1300 reckon some specialists. Yes, you can fit the GT6 engine in to make the car Triumph dared not (for fear of hurting TR sales) but it’s not a simple drop in. What, apparently, is are Dolomite engines as it was designed in the early 1960s and the intention was to use it in the Mk3. Now a Dolly Sprint Spit sounds quite something…


Spitfires remain one of the cheapest classics to buy and run. Even top cars rarely break £9000 and you can pick really nice ones up for a grand or two less, yet having said that, five figure restorations are not that uncommon these days.

The Mk3 (1967-70) is still seen as the Spit with polish, although the added refinement of the MkIV/1500 may make them better for today’s owner. In contrast, Mk1s are for hard-core Spitfire fans only as later versions are demonstrably superior all round. In terms of desirability the Mk1 and Mk3 command top spot with the 1500 the lowest making the latter strong on value for money.

Lowly residual values on any classic mean that you need to carefully evaluate a poor example, no matter how cheap, as restorations still cost a fair bit and usually outweigh any up front savings – and the Spitfire is no different to any other starter classic in this respect despite being easy to fix and fettle yourself. Projects can start from less than a grand but embarking upon a nut and bolt resto may not be such a grand idea.

What To Look For


* Like the Herald, the Spitfire is tailor-made for home maintenance and if you fancy restoring one you can’t find a simpler car to rebuild. All that you need is available new or second-hand and there’s an army of Triumph specialists who can help along with excellent club support.

* Given the car’s budget nature, don’t be surprised to find originality taking a back seat (if you see what we mean) to pragmatism. Have many Herald parts been used, for example?

* On the other hand it’s just as likely that you’ll come across a car that’s been modified over the years. That’s no bad thing, especially in the handling and braking departments where the former can leave a lot to be desired, but overall condition is more important.

* It is invariably better to buy the best car you can afford from the outset and keep it that way as penny to a pound it works out cheaper in the long run. Certainly you should check out as many as possible. Mk4s drive the best but Mk3s are zippier.


* Rear needs a watch. Look at the transverse rear spring settling due to age, breakages and wear. Watch for worn front trunnions, shot dampers and iffy wheel bearings on a test drive.

* While easy to access, the front suspension is troublesome. Lack of maintenance is the main culprit, causing the trunnions to fail (budget around £80 for replacements, under half this for an overhaul kit if you can be bothered), along with the ball joints, drop links and front wishbone bushes.

* Check the myriad of bushes employed throughout as these wear out quickly and ruin the handling, especially at the rear. Uprate to poly if possible.

* By the same token, has the suspension already been modified? There’s been various aftermarket mods over the decades but few are better than Triumph’s own re-think for the MkIV.

* Brakes are conventional and have no real quirks. It is not unknown to see GT6 brakes fitted. Tight steering lock scrubs tyres; if wide ones fitted check it doesn’t rub the flexible brake hoses; not unknown.


* Engines usually robust although later 1500cc (a stretched 1296cc) is prone to bearing wear on number three cylinder and doesn’t rev half as well. Many recommend replacing the crank shells every 30,000 miles if you want to keep it running sweet.

* Other wear areas include camshaft (tappet noise), timing chain (clanking) and overheating, the latter a problem with the badly cooled 1500; an overhauled or uprated radiator is not a bad idea on any Spitfire.

* Another well-known Triumph trouble point is worn crank thrust washers (watch for lengthy clutch travel) and, if end float is excessive an entire engine strip down to replace them is the only real cure.


* Usually sound although may have led a hard sports car life and perhaps swapped with earlier or later units, some which possess different gearing.

* Worn universal joints (promoting a clunky take up) are commonplace and easy to diagnose on a test drive and correct (good haggling point).

* Clutches cost around only £50 in parts and the gearbox is removed from inside the car so no crawling around underneath – lightweight Le Mans transmission tunnels are available. Gear lever rattles are simply spent nylon bushes in the lever pivot.

* Overdrive is a huge asset although, if it’s been retro-fitted, the overall gearing may be wrong as Triumph fitted a lower axle ratio to compensate for the added weight. There again, cruising will be easier. So long as the oil level is correct with the right grade, no-go overdrives are usually nothing more serious than a bad power connection or a broken switch.


* The main problem is due to the car’s perceived value in the market, meaning a proper restoration is hard to justify with many owners and so corners are cut. If a car has been ‘restored’ check workmanship and for usual bodges.

* Having a separate chassis means the car can be stripped bare: good thing as welding in new chassis sections must be done with accuracy, ideally with body removed for best results.

* The rear bulkhead, where the fuel tank resides, is a huge rust area and the first place to check. If it’s no good here then the car probably is not worth saving.

* Ditto, look for patchwork repairs on the chassis and sections; if too bad or too many have been carried out over the years, then a new frame or reconditioned may be best option: £1995 with new running gear from K and N Engineering of Kent.

* Check for rust and past repairs. The (three-part) sills are highly critical. MkIVs can hide rust behind the front bumper. Even if okay, check floors, bulkhead and toe-boards, bottom of doors, rear arches, seat belt points and the rear valance panel. Replacement parts (new or used) available but remember, the chassis is shorter than Herald item and so can’t be used.

Three Of A Kind

This was the car the Spitfire should have evolved into if BL had used its head. Mid-engined, it’s a baby Ferrari in every way; 1500s have five-speed transmission. Rust is biggest woe on all cars.
A car you’ve probably overlooked but similar in make up and character to the Triumph. A good fun drive and spares are not a worry, either. Dirt cheap for what they offer – but oh those looks!
The rival to the Triumph, Austin-Healey Sprites and MG Midgets are the cruder more macho alternative and following is almost tribal like a football team. A1 support, like the Spitfire, Midget 1500 is least liked.


The best reason for buying a Spitfire is that the thing is a ball to drive. Everyone starts out with a Spitfire, or similar, and we don’t know anyone who looks back on the experience with anything other than fondness. They are not our words but American magazine Car and Driver from some 50 years ago. And we couldn’t agree more half a century on.

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