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Triumph Spitfire

Published: 23rd Jan 2014 - 0 Comments - Be the first, contribute now!

Triumph Spitfire
Triumph Spitfire
Triumph Spitfire
Triumph Spitfire
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Triumph waged war on BMC with its Spitfire and the battles still continue on the green and pleasant fields of any classic car show...

Triumph waged war on BMC with its Spitfire and the battles still continue on the green and pleasant fields of any classic car show…

You wouldn’t think it, but VW’s Golf GTi and Triumph’s Spitfire have two important things in common. The first is that they redefined their respective markets (Triumph proving small, inexpensive sports cars needn’t be crude, Volkswagen showing you can happily amalgamate sports car thrills with family car practicality).

The second is that their company big wigs were set against both cars to such a degree that it needed determination and cunning to get them into production!

The Golf was conceived by a small bunch of VW engineers who, in their own time, fitted an Audi 80 GT engine in the recently launched family Golf just to see what it would be like. Begrudgingly, the management saw the finished product, liked it and the rest is history. In the case of the Spitfire, the sports car spin-off of the Herald was always planned since the car’s launch in 1959, a year after arch rival Austin-Healey had introduced the Sprite and invented the affordable (British) sports car.

However, Standard-Triumph was dying. The former took over the latter just after WW2 but never really recovered from the financial costs involved and was ripe for acquisition at the end of the 1950s. Salvation came from the increasingly expanding Leyland Motors corporation. It took over Standard-Triumph in spring 1961 just five months after the green light had been given to produce the Spitfire.

Once in through the doors, Leyland was horrified at the money that was being poured straight down the drain and in its own words immediately “began turning the taps off” to stem the flow. As a consequence it decreed that all future designs were to be canned and destroyed with immediate effect.

The Spitfire was grounded before it even had a chance to fly – except that the prototype (Codenamed Bomb) had quietly been hidden away by engineers beforehand, in the slim hope that one day it may earn its wings.

They didn’t have to wait long – by July and during factory tour, a Leyland senior management chappie ‘spied’ the car under a dust sheet. Upon seeing the Giovanni Michelotti-designed two-seater – which looked right from the word go – he immediately saw the car’s potential, especially in the lucrative US market, and ordered it into production. A stroke of luck – or did the engineers make sure he saw it…?

Why the name Spitfire? It was a swap. In the early 60s, the Vickers/Supermarine aircraft company wanted to use the Vanguard moniker for one of its passenger aircraft. In exchange it allowed Standard- Triumph to use the name of one of its wares. Standard-Triumph chose Spitfire.


Whatever, the Spitfire (Spitfire4 to give the car its proper title) made it into the showrooms in record time and immediately Triumph declared war on BMC, which by that time had also launched the Sprite as the MG Midget. It was two against one, but right from the off, the Triumph won the class war, being considerably more sophisticated in its make up; independent rear suspension, modern telescopic damping, wind up windows, to name a few enhancements over the crude but effective Austin A30-derived sports car.

As the ‘Spridget’ evolved during the 1960s, it gained a touch more civility.

But so did the Spitfire thanks to proper wooden dashboard, clearer instruments, decent carpeting, better seats etc. Best one-upmanship however was the option of overdrive for this class of car. It provided surprisingly relaxed cruising for such a small, inexpensive sportster. In fact, the Spitfire felt almost as refined as the larger, costlier TR4 of the same era – you could never say that about a Spridget and an MGB.

Powered by a tuned Herald engine, the Spitfire was always frisky rather than furious but in Mk3 guise it gained the engine stretched 1296cc (from 1147cc) first seen in the 1300 saloon. What’s more in Spitfire tune and complete with a new far more efficient ‘eight port’ cylinder head, it yielded 75bhp, 10bhp better than BMC wrung from its trusty A-Series of similar capacity.

For many, the Mk3, costing £717 against £672 for a rival Midget/Sprite, was the best Spitfire of them all. The raised front bumper height (done to appease US crash laws) gave the Spitfire a much sleeker look, while an improved rear suspension, stiffer front springs and better brakes made fast motoring less fraught than before.

The ‘Mk4’ of 1970 was never officially given that tag but it somehow stuck. Most know it for its Michelotti (whose ‘M’ is stamped on every bonnet catch) Stag-like rear end styling but in fact the changes went much further; the body was ‘de-seamed’ for smoother look, the wheel arches flared, and the windscreen became two inches taller.

Most think that the engine was detuned to 63bhp but this isn’t the case. The lower bhp figure was due to it being rated differently in the now accepted European DIN system. Having said that, the engine was slightly detuned two years later – but what really made the Spitfire slower was its revised taller gearing, again for more refinement rather than acceleration – strange thinking for a sports car some felt.

Compensations came elsewhere however, such as more cockpit revisions and a very stylish hard top option, again along the lines of the Stag. By now, and with all under the corporate British Leyland banner, the Triumph was distancing itself from the Spridget and this included the prices; now £837 for both the Sprite and Midget against £875 for the Triumph.

The Spitfire saw off the Austin-Healey by 1972 and always outsold ‘Spridgets’ in their entirety. Now adversaries rather than rivals, the Spitfire even donated its new 1500cc engine to the Midget in 1974 to keep it alive. The 1493cc unit was the same as that installed in the 1500TC saloon and while it gave 71bhp for genuine 100mph performance, purists hated the new, longer stroke engine because it robbed the car of its previous rev-happy nature. One has to remember that this engine started off at not much more than 800cc!

At £1500, the Spitfire was now some £90 dearer than the Midget 1500, which was fractionally the faster of the two (0-60 12.3 against 13.2 secs) although the trade off was too low a gearing. Inflation really bit hard during this decade and at the time the £3553 MG was discontinued, in 1979, the Spitfire retailed at a hefty £3870!

The Triumph lasted only another year in production and did not soldier on until the 1982 kill date that was originally planned, the only meaningful improvements by then were TR7 switchgear instead of the old Herald wands. Triumph by then had made the TR7 a convertible but it too had gone after only a few years of production.


Owning one of these sports cars was tribal and the automotive equivalent of the Mods and the Rockers (the Triumph being the former, of course) and only the brave few switched sides.

Sprite and Midget owners always regarded the Spitfire as a bit of a cissie due to its rather petite lines and graceful styling, not to say its comfy cockpit. Spridgets, on the other hand, were manly motors where crudity and cramped conditions were something to savour rather than criticise.

This was even something that an episode of Steptoe & Son eluded to in the 1970s when Harold mentioned that his local pub had been invaded ‘by the half pint and Triumph Spitfire brigade’.

That’s not to say that the Spitfire was Triumph’s MX-5. The separate chassis design always gave rise to far too many creaks, squeaks and bangs even on brand new models let alone ones where a few miles built up and the frame flexed even more. And while the cockpit was usefully the roomier, the offset pedal arrangement seriously spoiled matters.

As did the Triumph’s rock hard ride which didn’t assist the indifferent handling at all. This remains an area where Spridgets always truiumphed, because its simple Austin A30-derived chassis held no vices.

The Spitfire, on the other hand, inherited the slower Herald’s quirky, cheapskate, independent rear suspension design which featured a transverse rear leaf spring that would cause the lightly laden rear wheels to ‘tuck in’ just when you didn’t want them to… This was concerning enough on the Herald with its paltry 39bhp let alone a car with not only almost double the power, but also a much shorter chassis. Together this made the Spitfire far more ‘twitchy’ and many a Rodney came unstuck driving back from the pub – goodness knows how professional drivers coped with the 130mph Le Mans racers while winning their class at the event back in 1965…

The solution only came about in 1970 when a drastically revised location for the aforesaid spring was devised – and pretty effective it was too even if it was another cheapskate mod. “An immense improvement – one of the most sure-footed cars we have tested” decreed Popular Motoring even if it did nothing for the already rock hard ride that verged on the intolerable – or were we simply made of sterner stuff back then?

For an enthusiast, after their first taste of sports car ownership back in 1970s and 80s, a new or second-hand Spitfire was ideal. Apart from being pretty cheap to buy and run (fuel economy was always a strong point) they still remain a DIYer’s dream because that massive E-type-like bonnet allowed unrivalled access to the engine, front suspension and brakes. Sit on a tyre and you can adjust the tappets, c.b. points and plugs in a level of comfort that a poor hunched-back MG owner would be jealous of – even if they wouldn’t care to admit it!

Likewise, a clutch change on the Triumph didn’t entail lying on your back in the cold and rain wrestling with the gearbox as it came out from inside the car…

By the time the Spitfire flew its final flight, the shape of affordable sports cars had started to change. Fiat showed how it could and should now be done with its delectable mid-engined X1-9. But by then the Golf GTi arrived emphasising what silly, antiquated little Brits both the MG and Triumph had sadly become… Car simply labelled the Midget ‘Arthritic’ while poetically asked, “Oh, death where is they sting?”, in the case of the Spitfire.

Before the MX-5 came along and reinvented the affordable sports car in 1990, Reliant boldly tried to do it a few years earlier with its pig ugly Scimitar SS1.

A thoroughly enjoyable and simplistic sports car of the Spitfire mould, it just didn’t have the same bird pulling appeal sports cars had back in the 1960s, leading one road test to dub it ‘a Spitfire without the looks!’.

Spitfires and Spridgets may be history now but the love affair still burns. You’ll rarely see the two models displayed sideby- side at shows, of course, and the rivalry between owners still rages – only this time the silver surfers probably talk about old times over a coffee and how their commonsensical VW Golf TDis are running.

Why, they’d even help each other out if one broke down at a classic car show. No, that’s pushing it too far.

When The Car Was The Star

Does anybody remember ‘Wicksy’ turning up at EastEnders in a battered old Spitfi re upsetting the neighbourhood? It made an earlier appearance in an episode of The Brady Bunch in the US. Plenty of celebs were Spitfi re fans. Rod Stewart had an ambition to own one but did Uri Geller bend his…?

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