When British Leyland introduced the replacement for the much loved TR6 in 1975, all of America became a great big Missouri – The Show Me State. Buyers rightly wondered if Old Blighty could still build a decent car that was fun and reliable enough to drive every day, to work and play. The outgoing TR6 had set a high standard. Could its successor live up to it ? Well, yes and no. The TR7 was stunning in form, flawed in function and it’s failure signaled the end of the line for Triumph in the U.S. Let’s take a look at today’s turkey– The 1976-1981 Triumph TR7.
The decade of the 70’s was not kind to the British auto industry. Swept up into the maelstrom of inflation, recession and the decline of the manufacturing sector in England, the managers and engineers at British Leyland were desperate to rationalize the sports car lineup that the firm continued to produce after bringing MG, Alvis, Rover and even Jaguar into its corporate tent. The TR7 would be the first offering that the company would assign to the design teams that had so recently been rivals and its importance was hard to overstate. The new model would be a classic case of addition by subtraction. It made much more business sense to design and tool one successful car than try to squeeze a profit out of multiple low volume vehicle platforms.
The TR7 was introduced to the world with all of the urgency that a make or break model can have in mid January 1975 in Boca Raton, Florida. Actual showroom sales began April 2nd and buying interest was initially quite high. But as we will see, the product couldn’t sustain Triumph’s presence in the U.S. for much longer.
The predecessor TR6 had built a reputation as a hard nosed little flogger that could inject a little joie de vivre into the daily commute and still provide a fun weekend rally car or top down cruiser. It was attractive, reasonably well assembled and above all, fun. In short, a tough act to follow.
But Triumph flubbed its lines badly. The styling was/is controversial for its day. Advertising flummery touted the door stop profile as “The Shape Of things To Come” and in this, they were way off the mark. The wedge set no long term styling trends here or overseas. It was the Airflow of sports cars.
A contemporary of the 7 was the Fiat X/19 , which also had its own wedge body, but it was not really influenced by Triumph. And later, the Pontiac Fiero and Toyota MR 2 aped the shape and both proved to be short lived wonders. Ad hyperbole aside, what really did this car in was the intractable quality problems endemic to British cars in those years. To be sure, the 7 did sell well initially (even better than the TR6) , but like a soufflé, once fallen , sales could not be revived before BL gave up.
The TR7 was a car that could have never survived its first year if there had been an “internet” in ’75. Feedback on hardware faults and dealer/factory response is now instantaneous. When the facts of the TR7’s numerous quality problems finally emerged, sales slackened and never recovered. It just took years, not months, for word to spread. Leaks, overheating, doors that refused to open or close properly and the standard issue British Leyland electrical gremlins (available at no extra charge) contributed to the overall slipshod reputation that was destroying an entire industry, not just Triumph. One important factor that compromised quality was that the TR7 was assembled in three different factories during its production run. This was the result of constantly closing facilities in response to a hostile, unionized work force.
Another thing that hurt the 7 was the tardy introduction of a convertible in 1979. Had one been available at launch, already strong sales would probably have been considerably higher. By ’79, though , it was way too late in the game to save the car as a business proposition. Triumph was not entirely to blame for this. Federal crash and rollover regs had made the true factory convertible a near extinct species on the ground here, and BL had to work harder than expected to get a drop top that met standards. When finally available, the TR7 droptop was arresting to look at and the cars basic shape lent itself to an open body quite well. Today, well kept TR7 convertibles are prized fun machines.
Even with all of the invective later aimed at the TR7, just about everybody praised its handling and overall road manners at launch. With coils at all corners and a low center of gravity, handling was by far its strongest suit. Front discs and rear drums (a setup that was becoming the industry norm) meant that there was no drama on the skid pad and the buff magazines of the day gave the brakes a passing grade. Many enthusiast drivers,however, spend a few bob to upgrade the binders that they consider unworthy of the rest of the package.
The engine in the TR7 was the 2.0 L “ Slant 4” that was bolted to a 4 speed manual that had lately seen duty in the Dolomite /Marina models and was considered quite unsatisfactory for a modern car. Later models got the robust Rover SDI 5 speed box and these units were generally agreed to be a vast improvement. (A three autobox was also available, but not popular). In essence, the engine was half of the Triumph V-8 found in the Stag and a very close relative to Saab’s new four.
It may seem dangerously underpowered by the standards of today, but the 90 Hp that the car produced was considered adequate by the diminished expectations of the late 70’s. Forty nine state Zenith Stromberg carbs delivered fuel. But with only 90 HP to move an almost 2300 pound car, performance was middling. The TR8 derivative made the car a proper sporting machine, but by then it was way too late in the game to entice customers back to Triumph showrooms.
Endgame– After the TR7 was taken off life support, the Triumph name had outlived its time and would lose its place in the BL lineup. The marque expired sadly in 1984, as a hastily rebadged Honda Civic dubbed the Acclaim. After that, the Triumph brand eventually became just another balance sheet asset to be bartered in boardrooms around the world. BMW currently owns the rights to the marque, but as of this writing, has no plans to revive it.
Today, the TR7 is far from forgotten, and several associations exist worldwide to ensure that the cars that have survived will stay on the road for a long time to come. Aftermarket parts are still being produced and enthusiastic clubs still hold rallies and provide valuable restoration advice.
After packing it in with the Triumph in early 1981, times looked grim indeed for motor sports enthusiasts that had come to love their jaunty, open air fun machines. Sporting roadsters in the early / mid 80’s meant weak-tea, uninspired transport appliances with their tops sometimes sheared off in a cynical pursuit of easy money. Nobody that had driven a TR6 , MGB or any “real” sports roadster would look twice at a Le Baron K- Car drop top or a Renault Alliance without a roof. But even then, when things looked their worst, there was a revival of the proper “British” sporting machine on the drawing board- just not in Britain. When it finally hit the market later in the decade, the flame that had been thought extinct was rekindled and went on to burn brighter than ever. It was from Mazda. It was called Miata.