Curbside Classic: Triumph Spitfire Mk1 – One Of The Cars I’ll Probably Never Own

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Hopefully, my love of automobiles is evident in my writing.  As Bill Mitchell might have said, I was born with gasoline in my veins, and there’s no signs of the tank running dry.  Therefore, it stings a bit to write the title to this contribution, as I love Spitfires.  They’re on my list of 28 (combined with the GT6); I think they’re glorious, beautiful, fun-looking…there aren’t enough superlatives to express my love.  As kids in the schoolyard might say, “If you love the Spitfire so much, why don’t you marry it?”

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It’s because I’m chicken.

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With inattentive drivers in these battleships vying for the same road space as I am, the idea of driving a car that will fit into the back of my Dart wagon scares the Spitfire out of me.  It’s actually nonsensical: I manage to drive a Corvair convertible on a regular basis, and a Suburban would certainly do a number on that.  It’s just that, well, even a Corvair is just so much BIGGER than a Spitfire–it adds to the illusion of safety.

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As pretty much everyone knows, a Spitfire is based on the Triumph Herald, a vehicle that was almost completely unheralded (ey-oh) in the United States.  As Triumph’s go-to guy in the 50s and 60s, Giovanni Michelotti penned a Herald-based prototype code-named “Bomb,” which managed to get shuffled into a corner of a garage while Triumph went through a lean financial period (was Triumph ever NOT in a lean financial period?).

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Interest in the Bomb wasn’t revived until Leyland went all-in on Triumph–the Bomb was dusted off and turned into the Spitfire, an 1147 cc mini-TR4.  It was introduced in late 1962, and was a much bigger hit in America than the earlier Herald.  That doesn’t mean they are growing on trees, but Spitfires are still among the great bargains in classic cars.  That’s good news for the average car person, because a Spitfire is apparently great fun to drive and own (if you can get used to the weird handling of the early models).

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The weird handling is a direct result of the Herald’s basic swing axle suspension design, which was similar to that used on the Beetle, early Corvair, and early Tempest.

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Pictures of the Spitfire’s awkward tail attitude when it’s pushed to the limit are common on the internet.  The backbone design of the frame also meant that the sills (or rocker panels to Americans) formed much of the car’s strength.  Therefore, when the almost inevitable rust attacked, the driver was left with a car of dubious structural integrity.  Of course, the Spitfire’s continuous popularity means that parts to repair these issues are plentiful.

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photo credit: hemmings.com

While the Spitfire’s faults and credits are automotive common knowledge, I’m not sure the Spitfire gets enough credit for its styling.  This could be one of Michelotti’s greatest achievements, as the same basic shape lasted all the way through 1980, with only one major update. Apparently, in a cost-cutting maneuver, Spitfires used the same windshield as a TR4, just inclined more steeply.  The gas cap and its location are obviously race car-inspired, and the minimal bumper protection adds to the feeling that the driver is getting away with something.  I prefer the basic original Mk1 and Mk2 models, but they’re all beautiful; unfortunately, you rarely see a Mk1.

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Until you do.  I spotted this one at Waterford Hills in Michigan at the annual vintage car event.  It’s easily the cleanest early Spitfire I’ve ever seen, and a guy and his son were out enjoying it.  Talk about envy: it’s too bad I don’t have the kind of guts to just not worry about the other guy.  Black must have been an uncommon color for a Spitfire; because in the ads and brochures, most Spitfires were red, white, or powder blue.  Just about any color looks good on a Spitfire.

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I overheard the owner telling a fellow Spitfire-fan that he gave this car a complete restoration, and it was easy to believe him.  It was nearly immaculate.  This photo shows off one of the best features of the Spitfire, its ease of maintenance.  Just about everything on the twin-carbed engine is in easy view, and the tire makes an effective seat for a backyard mechanic.  Advertisements lauded the Spitfire for its 25-foot turning circle, although in the real world, anything under 30 feet would have probably been perfectly acceptable.

Unfortunately, many Spitfires fell prey to the demon rust, so finding an example like this is a rare and happy occasion.  It’s probably the closest I’ll get to driving one, and that’s sad.

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If, like me, you appreciate the Spitfire from afar, the above book is for you.  It’s by Graham Robson, whose writing I’ve always enjoyed, and it explains the Spitfire’s story in just the right amount of depth to be engaging.  You’ll almost certainly appreciate Mike Cook’s Triumph Cars in America as well, for a perspective on the Spitfire’s sales and impact in the USA.

Related reading: 1962 Triumph Herald CC