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Triumph Spitfire

Triumph Spitfire Published: 9th Jun 2017 - 0 Comments - Be the first, contribute now!

Triumph Spitfire
Triumph Spitfire
Triumph Spitfire
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Why not own a...?Triumph Spitfire

Launched to rival the Austin- Healey Sprite and the MG Midget, Triumph’s Spitfire was viewed as the softer more sociable option, but this Herald in drag was far better equipped and looked the more stylish sports car too. Fifty five years on, the Spitfire is as likeable as ever and, if anything, is even easier to run than a Spridget.

Model choice

There’s five derivatives but essentially the same under the skin, all making 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 integrity, unlike Herald.

The first cars were curiously badged as ‘Spitfire 4’, and can be the hardest to find. 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 boasting a plusher interior and slightly more power.

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 easierto- use folding hood. Better brakes, negative earth polarity (so making it easier to fit modern electrical accessories) and styling changes which included raising the front bumper to appease US crash laws and relocating the exhaust back pipe were the other revisions.

The MkIV (1970-74) was visually cleaned up by designer Michelotti, with a de-seamed bonnet assembly and Triumph’s new trademark Kammtail, 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. The once ugly exposed wing seams were nicely smoothed over and the wheel arches neatly flared.

The interior was modified, with safety switchgear and a re-sited speedo and rev counter. Mechanical changes saw (at long last) a heavily revised swing-wing rear suspension to counter those infamous oversteer tendencies, while the car‘s gearing was raised for more relaxed touring, aided by a quieter exhaust design.

However, the new gearing blunted performance somewhat as did standardising the cylinder head with the detuned Toledo saloon.

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. Not the most liked but of the whole strain of 320,000 Spits, the 1500 was the best seller, accounting for almost 96,000 sales. The car’s best ever year was almost at the end of its life, in 1978.

Behind the wheel

The Spitfire is small and low, but once behind the wheel, there is cosy space for two, width wise, and plenty of legroom for six-footers – unlike the aptly named Midget.

Headroom with the roof up can be a little compromised however, as the crossbar of the frame is positioned to make life particularly uncomfortable on bumpy roads. The pedals are offset – a position that you soon get used to – and which at least leaves room for a welcome footrest on the transmission tunnel.

In standard trim, no Spitfire can be regarded remotely quick by today’s standards, average 0-60mph times varying between 14-16 secs. But those are merely paper figures, and in practice they are all entertaining to drive; the gearchange is snappy and the steering is both light and nice and direct – just like the Spridget! The smaller engines in particular are happier to rev, in contrast to the 1500 which, thanks to a longer crank stroke, are much less willing to venture up the scale.

Ah, yes, now we come to the handling where the ‘Sprout’ has always held the upper hand. The Spitfire‘s handling has always been a contentious issue, due to that quirky 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 stern was properly tamed (although many earlier cars were converted and modified over the years) and to be fair, the set up was widely praised for its new-founded security.

An MX-5 it most certainly isn’t but, in reality, you need to be really going some, or be rough with the car, to lose it if fitted with quality modern radial tyres. Brakes were disc/drum from the start and, if kept in good condition, are perfectly adequate for this car, even if in lightly modified trim.

Spitfires are better suited to daily driving than a 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 work, the optional overdrive is almost essential and the taller differential gearing, fitted from 1978, makes the experience a bit more relaxing too, although takes the edge off the 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 and preferable to the Sprite or Midget.

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 they look good on the MkIV body.

The boot too is fairly large for this class of sportster and you could tuck a few tools in there just in case and still leave room for the weekly shop.

What to pay

Spitfires were always one of the cheapest cars to buy and run and broadly speaking remain so, but prices are on the up and we’ve seen top cars break the £10,000 barrier but they have to be really special or well restored for this outlay. 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 in every department.

MkIVs, and particularly the 1500, is the cheapest; say £7000 for a super Spit and under £5000 for an average-to-good example.

Projects can be had for around a grand but 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 up front savings – unless you like being up to your elbows in grease and rust!

Making one better

Popular with Boy racers and highly successful with grown up ones in their day, there’s still potential to make a Spitfire fly. The 1300 unit is best for uprating, as the larger 1500 is rather weak and hates revs, and you can see 100bhp for reliable road use. The 1300 unit yielded up to 130bhp as a racer in its heyday but in this state will be a pig for road driving; it’s best to go for a milder tune but you’re still looking at some 100bhp on Weber DCOEs or 80-90bhp if keeping with the standard 1.25in twin SU carbs. Larger twin 1.5in Strombergs found on the Vitesse, GT6 and 2000 saloons are a useful upgrade but speak to a Triumph tuner beforehand as some advocate 1.5in SUs instead which fit much more easily and give much greater needle selection.

Don’t pooh-pooh the 1500 say certain experts. If you don’t mind a less rev happy but lustier engine, then the 1500 is a good option and not as bad as many claim it to be, adds Triumph tuner Moordale Motors in Potters Bar, Hertfordshire (01707 650284). “A lot of rubbish has been spoken about these engines,” says Dale and he particularly favours the welcome torque of the larger unit plus it can rev almost as high as the 1296cc once the bottom end is carefully balanced and the flywheel lightened by around 5-7lb, he adds.

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

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 bits make a conversion fairly straightforward and can shame a TR6, if done right! Many Spitfires came with overdrive and, if not fitted, then it‘s a very sensible and costeffective step and does away with the need to a five-speed conversion (you can’t use six-cylinder overdrive units incidentally). O/D Spares of Rugby (01788 540666 http://www. odspares. com) charges around £80 to uprate your existing unit and once wired up properly you effectively have an eight speed gearbox that is brilliant for competitions such as Autosolo/Autotests and if you tackle rallies with lots of hairpin bends.

Suspensions benefit from the usual harder dampers and springs but take care not to make the ride over-hard; as it was never that comfortable. The Achilles heel is the rear, so sort that out first. £248.70 buys Canley Classics’ swing-spring conversion kit for Heralds and pre-71 Spitfires, which usually eliminates the risk of rear wheel tuck-under. Add £150 or so for adjustable dampers. Although it’s highly tempting, Spitfire experts recommend keeping the tyre size down to a modest 185-section for best results.

Maintenance matters

Like the Herald, the Maccano-made Spitfire is a dream come true for home maintenance and if you fancy restoring one you can’t find a simpler car to rebuild. That vast forward opening bonnet means that engine access is magnificent – you can sit on the wheels to service the ignition and set the tappets if you want an easy time! Clutches cost around only £50 in parts and the gearbox is removed from inside the car so no crawling around underneath either – lightweight Le Mans transmission tunnels are available, incidentally.

While super easy to access, the front suspension is troublesome. Lack of maintenance is the main culprit, causing the trunnions to fail prematurely (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.

Given the car’s budget nature, don’t be surprised to find originality taking a back seat (if you see what we mean) to parts pragmatism. Have many Herald bits been used, for example? On the other hand, it’s just as likely that you’ll come across a car that’s been modified in some shape or form 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, and besides overall condition is more important than any mods, either good or indifferent.

Look for past 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 one may be the best option: K and N Engineering (Kent) with new running gear from £1995. 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 that comes with the badge.

In conclusion

Petrol head and famous Ferrari fan Chris Evans has a soft spot for this soft top, once likening the Triumph to a smaller scale Ferrari California! You don’t get the same performance and glam naturally but, on the other hand, nor the attendant running costs form this titchy Triumph that’s still as low cost – but as much fun – as ever. California dreaming?

Buying tips

Body and chassis

The main problem is due to their value in the market, meaning a proper restoration is hard to justify. 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.

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.

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 rear valance panel.

Engine

Usually robust but ‘1500’ (a stretched 1296cc unit) is prone to bearing wear on number three cylinder and so experts recommend replacing the crank shells every 30,000 miles if you want durability.

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

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.

Transmission

Worn universal joints (promoting a clunky take up) commonplace and easy to diagnose on test drive and fix. Gear lever zizz is just worn bushes.

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, no-go overdrives are usually nothing more serious than a bad power connection or a broken switch.

Suspension

Look at the transverse rear and watch for worn front trunnions, shot dampers and iffy wheel bearings on a test drive. Check the myriad of bushes employed throughout as these wear out quickly.

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.



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