Carshow Classic: 1976 Triumph TR7 Fixed Head Coupe – The Case For The Defence

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Let me start with a confession. In 2012, I very nearly bought a 1980 Triumph TR7 roadster (or Drop Head Coupe as it was officially labelled). It was a close call, and I was probably only a successful test drive and final haggle away from agreeing to a purchase. Quite likely, you will now shake your head in some form of despair or perhaps in confirmation that what is sometimes said about the misty eyed English and old sports cars is true. But perhaps I can try to change your mind.

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Let’s start by checking the background to the TR7. It was conceived by British Leyland, not Triumph, to replace the MG B, BGT, Triumph GT6 and TR6 – indeed it was also known within BL as the Corporate Sports car. All these cars had their roots in the 1950s – either as derivatives of elderly and very ordinary saloons (the MGB was based on the 1959 Austin Cambridge/Morris Oxford Farina saloon and the GT6 on the Triumph Spitfire, which in turn was built on the 1959 Triumph Herald chassis) or as the latest in a line of cars traceable back to the original TR2 of 1953.   In other words, cars that were more than ripe for replacement by the 1970s.

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Of course, these cars also covered a wide space in the market, ranging from 4 cylinder 1.5 litre to 6 cylinder 2.5 litres, from easy going sports car to the powerful full British roadster experience, from 60 bhp to 125bhp. Or maybe, it wasn’t actually a wide space – after all, Ford didn’t worry about competing in it at all.

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And then there are the regulatory and legislative influences. In 1972, it was widely expected that open cars would be effectively banned in the North American market, on safety reasons. Add in prevailing and expected emissions legislation and a fuel crisis, and you can see why many were saying that the sports car’s days were numbered, and the more powerful ones’ very definitely limited.

So this had to be a car to cover several bases, it had to fit into an environment that was much more complex and constraining than previously, and had to be of the 1970s. Simply taking the platform from, say, the Morris Marina or Triumph Dolomite was not going to be enough, even before you think about such alternatives as the Ford Capri or VW Scirocco. Indeed, you could argue that cars like these killed the British roadster as much as its own inadequacies did. ”You can have a sports car if we can get the shopping and the kids in it”. Dare I say dependability might have been a factor as well?

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To try to understand more fully what the largest market for this car would want, BL sent a team from Product Planning and Engineering, led by Spen King, Triumph’s Director of Engineering and the technical author of the Range Rover and Rover SD1,  to the USA in late 1970 to meet not just BL’s American operation and the US dealers, but also journalists and sports car racing teams, to gather information on what was wanted. The answer was a conventional car, with an easy-to-fix-and-adapt format. Meaning, a front engine, rear wheel drive, good handling and roadholding but no need for independent rear suspension or fuel injection. Four cylinders should be enough. Comfort and interior space were pre-requisites as well, as was some style.

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Photo from www.aronline.co.uk

 

Prior to the TR7 (or Bullet) project getting the go ahead in 1971, British Leyland had two competing possible sports cars, one from Triumph and one from Austin-Morris. The Triumph proposal was for a conventionally engineered car with a Targa roof and restrained but contemporary styling with a resemblance to the Porsche 914, at least after Michelotti, Triumph’s preferred Italian designer, had been asked to finish it.

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Photo from www.aronline.co.uk

 

The Austin-Morris (or MG if you wish) proposal was for a mid-engine car, with an Austin Maxi engine and gearbox driving the rear wheels, Issigoinis’s hydrolastic suspension and striking styling, emphasising the mid engine in an almost pocket supercar way. In engineering layout, it was close to the much later MGF. The two concepts were to be cut down to one preferred option by BL’s top management, taking input from the American trip, and Triumph and Austin-Morris were both challenged to provide styling proposals for the car, as BL considered the existing proposal front-engine Triumph proposal as possibly too conservative in style to  succeed.

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The Austin-Morris response to this request was by Harris Mann, perhaps one of the best known stylists in Britain at the time, with the Austin Allegro and Princess to his credit. Limiting any option was the expected National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) Safety Standard 208, which was expected to effectively outlaw fully open cars. Mann therefore worked around the concept of a strong rear quarter and Targa roof, enabling him to give a mid-engine impression to the style of the car. BL were also noting the success of the Datsun 240Z. Perhaps America wasn’t going to be allowed convertibles, but perhaps also America didn’t mind?

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Power came from the Triumph Dolomite Sprint’s 2.0 litre 4 cylinder engine, though with a conventional 8 valve head rather than the innovative 16 valve single camshaft head fitted to the more powerful Sprint. This gave something like 105bhp in UK spec but perhaps only 80bhp on the first cars into North America. Still, it was a significant step up from the MGB’s performance.

Size wise, the car was on an 88 inch wheelbase, shorter by 6 inches and 3 inches compared to the MGB and TR6 respectively, although the TR7 was longer than either, with longer overhangs, and around 6 inches wider as well. It weighed around 2350lb; more than an MGB, though with a much stronger structure and a full roof. BL briefed the press about ambitions for 60-70,000 cars per year, which proved to be quite wide of the mark. Total production was around 115,000, and the most in any one year was 38,000 in 1976, though the aged but open-top MGB continued to be produced at a rate barely reduced in the face of a new competitor, and actually outsold the TR7 in every year except one.

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The key European competitor to the TR7 was the Fiat X1/9. Size wise they were very close, with the Triumph being a couple of inches longer and wider, and 200lb heavier at 2238lb. The Fiat had a 1.3 litre, and later a 1.5 litre mid-mounted engine that lost out on power to the Triumph but made up for it in character and tuneful noises. In acceleration, the Fiat lost out initially, but actually outran the Triumph eventually.  The Fiat also had the Targa roof denied the Triumph, of course, and had an even longer life, lasting from 1982 to 1989, and outselling the Triumph by 45,000 cars.

The first production cars came to America in early 1975. The striking styling had survived, complete with the pop-up head lamps. It was launched to the US press at Boca Raton in Florida in January 1975. A shipment of 35 pre-production cars (as production cars were held up by a strike in the factory in Speke, Liverpool) were assessed on arrival and with a lot of midnight oil, 17 presentable cars were prepared. Initial press reports were certainly not unfavourable, and several reports gave essentially positive reports in the context of the step change from the very dated TR6, which was discontinued a year later, and MGB, the GT version of which the TR7 effectively replaced in North America.

Three cars were handed over to leading journalists from the monthly magazines for extended drives across country. Don Fuller, from Road and Track, got back to California safely; John Christy of Motor Trend was forced into a ditch by a truck in a snowstorm and Leon Mandel of Car and Driver set out for Nevada. His engine seized in northern Texas.

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After delays to accommodate the volume requirements of North America (or the inability of BL to meet even disappointing sales volumes), the car was launched into the UK in May 1976, again to a welcome that was broadly favourable, as long as you weren’t expecting a direct TR6 replacement or a convertible, including from LJK Setright, who drove one for CAR magazine. Being Setright, although he hadn’t needed them for visibility, he tried the headlights, as he wanted to experience any aerodynamic effects. Only only one popped up.  But, if you were used to an MGB or MGB GT and the (very small) rear seats were not necessary, then this was a distinct improvement in just about every department, though I accept the looks are subjective.

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In 1978, the Speke factory was closed, against a lot of political pressure, and assembly moved to Canley in Coventry, Triumph’s traditional home, joining the Triumph Dolomite in the factory. Quality markedly improved at this point, though it may well have been too late.

The convertible version finally came to North America in 1979 and to Europe in 1980, with a design by Michelotti (did BL really have insufficient engineering capacity for this relatively minor task?) that incidentally addressed some of the criticisms of the styling. Not all by any means – the side creases remained though they were no longer clashing with the roof line and the wheels still looked slightly lost in the wheel arches.  Still, it was enough for BL to withdraw the MG B roadster from the US market in 1980.

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The convertible was promoted in the UK with this rather effective poster ad, which I remember passing during my (successful) driving test. One interesting technical fact about the convertible is that structural vibrations were damped out by harmonic dampers (essentially weights) in the front bumper – when you look closely at convertible TR7, you may notice a drooping profile across the bumper.

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The other big event was the installation of the Rover (ex-Buick) 3.5 litre V8 in 1979 to create the conveniently named TR8, which was capable of 125 mph or more and 60 mph in around 7.5 seconds. This created a car much more capable of competing on performance with the Datsun/Nissan 240Z/260ZX for example. Around 2,700 TR8s were sold, the vast majority in North America. Only a few hundred remained in the UK.

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Production moved again in 1980 to the Rover factory in Solihull, alongside the Rover 2300/2600/3500 SD1, but the strong pound, low volumes and the closure of Solihull for car production in 1981 put a final nail in the coffin. BL’s hard-nosed Chairman Michael Edwardes stated that the car had never made any money.

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So, that’s a quick history of the car. What is there to like in the TR7?

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Well, I’d start with the styling. Yes, there’s a lot going on but it’s distinctive, characterful, and in many colours, almost fun. Isn’t that what a sports car should be? There was some originality too, and it doesn’t attempt to wear any traditional style or brand identifiers, like a predictable grille shape. The fact the style implies the car has a mid engine is a bonus, and helps give it a good sized boot. If you don’t like the fixed head, then the convertible has some more classic elegance.

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Then there’s the interior. Compared with its predecessors’, this was major step forward, not only in practicality but also appeal. The six dials were all clearly visible, the minor controls all reachable and the style was fully contemporary. There was plenty of space (one of the feedback points from the American research trip in 1970), the seats were quickly praised for their shape and comfort, and the heating and ventilation worked. And you can easily replace the tartan fabric.

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On the road, compared with the MGB, the car was almost a revelation. Autocar described it as a chassis in search of an engine. This may be overselling the chassis a bit but this car was reasonably class and time competitive in road manners, though more power would have been useful. That’s where the TR8 (belatedly) comes in, of course.

And don’t forget the car’s motorsport achievement, in Europe and North America.

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In Europe, using Dolomite Sprint or V8 engines, the car had some success on road rallies between 1976 and 1980, whilst in North America the car won the SCCA PRO Rally Championship from 1977 to 1980.

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It’s also very modifiable. Adding a Dolomite Sprint engine in straight forward – BL always planned to do this as a production option, but it never came to pass. Slotting in the V8 is relatively easy too. The gearbox for both is shared with the Rover SD1, making the process even easier, and indeed most examples of the “TR8” over here are actually conversions. The Rover V8 is available in many different increased capacities, up to 5.0 litres and over 300 bhp was available as late as  2006, so some significant power can be slotted in.

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And then the strange things that happened (or more often didn’t happen) to the TR7 somehow add to its appeal, like old folklore adds to the appeal of rural England. BL planned a stretched 2+2 version, known as the Triumph Lynx to truly take the fight to the Ford Capri and VW Scirocco. Politics, lack of money and the closure of Speke ended this dream, but some of the prototypes remain, and the idea is sound, as it could have truly competitive with the Capri on style and ability, with a sports car name and link.

Project Broadside

Even as late as 1979, BL were looking at a reskinned, extended wheelbase car with the BL O Series engines from the Morris Marina and Princess to replace the TR7 as we remember it, and to finally replace the MGB in the UK. BL actually planned Triumph and MG versions of this idea. There were proposals for an MG version of the car all way from the early 1970s until 1980, sometimes to complement to the Triumph, sometimes instead.

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You may want to applaud BL for trying to make the idea work, arguably three times from various factories, and with three configurations – fixed head coupe, drop head and V8.

So, my reasons can be summarised as liking the styling, that it was modern, and not a reworked mediocre saloon, and British; that the concept was what the dominant market said it wanted. Asking the market what it wanted can be a good plan – after all, the next team to do so in this market were successful. As early as 1976, Bob Hall of Motor Trend was approached in exactly that way in what can be seen as the start of the Mazda Miata MX-5 project.

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Add in that it had a great interior; there was a decent suspension set up, itself a novelty for a British sports car; the V8 engine made it quite a car; the convertible adaptation was visually successful and is still very appealing; as a classic car, it’s great value and easy to own and it still gets recognised, turns heads, gets a smile and (all too often) a shake of the head.

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And some of the 70s colours are great; I never said this was scientifically based preference; this is my very personal preference – opinions expressed here may not be those of the CC Community.

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Photo for illustrative purposes only

And why didn’t I buy that TR7 in 2012? Well, the car failed to start at one point during that test drive.  To be fair to the car and the seller, it was actually due to a (deliberately) loose battery connection, but the seed was sown. And the seller said the roof would leak. They all did, apparently.

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I bought a 1990 Mazda MX-5 instead.  After all it’s the same idea, just executed a little better.