As the Gambler sang: “You got to know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em, know when to walk away, know when to run”. Over the course of my 19 years of TR4 ownership I knew none of these things.
But first the backstory; If you know me at all you will know that I’m very imprinted on cars that I was exposed to during my childhood. In elementary school my best friend was named Jeff, and his mother had a TR3 for her summer daily driver. I’d occasionally catch a ride in it, growling along with my elbow over that cut down door was about the coolest thing going for a 10 year old sports car fan.
During the 1960’s Jeff’s father had raced a TR4 at Harewood Acres and Mosport, but by the mid-1970s the red TR4 lay derelict in their back yard. Jeff didn’t pay it much heed, but I was intrigued…
Fast forward 12 years, I was taking a summer calculus course at University and commuting from my Uncle’s farm. As I came off the highway and drove down the boulevard to school there it was, a shiny red TR4 for sale at the side of the road with $1,100 on the windshield. I stopped, of course. The guy came out of his house as I was looking and the first thing he said was “It needs a lot of work”. It started and ran (badly) and although this would have been a good time to “know when to walk away”, being the suave negotiator that I was I offered him eleven hundred dollars.
After promising my ever patient parents that this was the last car I would buy while still in school, Dad helped me get it home with our faithful Impala and a U-Haul trailer.
My original plan was to fix what needed fixing and get it on the road as soon as possible. Dad suggested we have a mechanic check it out to determine what it needed, and it turned out to need EVERYTHING.
Despite the hand I had dealt myself I decided to hold. I began with the front suspension, disassembled it completely, had the front of the frame sandblasted and placed the first of many, many parts orders with Moss Motors.
Luckily my summer job was delivery driver for an industrial tool supply company, and the owner took pity and let me buy quality tools at a discounted price.
Unluckily, I no longer had an automotive mentor in my life. In childhood I’d done a pretty good job of seeking out and following people who knew how to fix cars, but since we’d moved to suburbia there was nobody to help or guide me. I learned how to gas weld from a book, taught myself to paint with a Wagner power painter, and improvised tools like spring compressors and engine hoists.
After the TR4 was back on 4 wheels I took a closer look at the body, and here my real troubles began. Beneath the shiny red paint was the story of a very troubled past. My TR4 had been crashed hard front and back, fixed with lead, crashed again, fixed with bondo, rusted out, then fixed with fibreglass, more bondo, and pop riveted garbage can metal. And then crashed again in the back.
Indeed if you stepped on top of the rocker panel the whole body leaned in, and every seam had been filled and covered over with fibreglass.
After cutting out all the rot I was left with the two battered ends of the body tub, joined by shreds of original metal along the transmission tunnel and rockers. This would have been a good time to “know when to run”, but I ploughed ahead, too stubborn to quit.
I welded, and welded, had my tanks refilled, flipped the body over in the driveway and kept welding. I beat out the distortion caused by my inept skills. I later bought a MIG welder which was faster and created less heat distortion. New outer rockers came from Moss, but everything else was scratch bent over Dad’s workbench.
Tearing down the stout four cylinder engine the internals looked good, and many parts had been match marked, so it had been rebuilt at some point.
The head wasn’t great, and I found a rebuilt replacement from an ad in the local paper. The seller turned out to be my old friend Jeff’s father, reducing his parts stash as their TR3 had also been off the road for years.
For a long time the TR4 was spread over both bays of my parents’ two car garage. Work progressed in furious spurts when I was home, then stalled for months while I was away at school. Finally the edict came down that I had to at least put it together enough so that it took up only half the garage, and my focus shifted from restoration to reassembly.
When I began to rehang the body panels I was horrified to discover that I had not braced the body tub adequately during the floor repairs, and that with all my cutting, welding, bashing and shifting the body was now a good half inch shorter than it used to be. Even without weather-stripping the doors barely scraped into their apertures, and the bottoms of the rear fenders significantly overlapped the back edges of the doors.
I also came to the realization that I now had over $6,000 in the car. This was depressing for two reasons: First, because I was still a long way from having a functional TR4, and second because at the time you could buy a pretty decent Triumph for that amount of money. I continued my work, albeit with diminishing enthusiasm and dwindling progress. A few years later Mrs DougD and I bought our first house, and my parents watched with glee as the TR4 finally departed on a flatbed. After twelve years they could now park a car in their own garage.
I stuffed the Triumph into my own single garage, and got on with my increasingly busy life while the TR4 became covered in boxes. In 2006 I came to my senses and took stock of the situation. The TR4 was in one piece, it ran and you could sort of drive it but it was nowhere near complete. Some of my later repairs were quite good, but I now judged my early workmanship to be woefully inadequate. What the car really needed was to be torn down again, the whole middle section cut out and started over with everything properly aligned. I just couldn’t face that prospect and decided to fold.
Selling the TR4 was difficult too, not only did it mean admitting to myself that I’d given up, but I knew I’d be taking a bath on my investment. I also found out that the Triumph had somehow been registered with an additional digit in the VIN, and it took an expensive letter from the British Motor Heritage Trust and a lot of arguing at the MOT office to get the paperwork corrected.
After several months of me scaring away sellers by telling them the above story, one gentleman looked at the car, and just when I thought he’d get back into his Range Rover and scurry off like all the others he said, “I’ll take it.”
And so it was gone. I’d spent untold hours, lost three quarters of my money, and had driven it only a few times around the block. But was it a complete fail?
One day Mom had brought me coffee while I was welding. I shut the torches off and slumped back against the smoking ruin of my dreams, coffee in hand. Looking up at my Mother I moaned, “Oh Mom, why am I doing this?”
Her reply; “Well, it’s cheaper than therapy.”
So yeah, the Triumph kept me out of trouble, and busy during periods of my life when I needed to be busy. I mostly enjoyed working on it and I learned a lot about what to do, and what not to do as well. Amortized over 19 years my loss only amounted to $240 annually, which isn’t so bad in the grand scheme of things.
So ultimately I was able to extract a small amount of Triumph from a huge disaster.