(first posted 10/11/2016) Quick quiz – what car has low production numbers, available convertible top, rack and pinion steering, a manual gearbox, an all aluminum V8 engine but somehow remains unknown to most classic car enthusiasts? The photo above gives a pretty strong hint that the answer is the delectable Triumph TR8. Given it has some real collector car chops why can one be picked up for the same price as a common MG B?
Any write-up on the TR8 has to begin with the TR7. Designed by British Leyand the TR7 was not a bad idea or design but its execution left a lot to be desired. The aim was to build a modern sports car for the 1970s that could replace the MG B as well as Triumph GT6 and TR6. British Leyland had both MG and Triumph under its corporate umbrella and gave them both a chance to design the next iteration of the British sports car. The MG camp came up with a proposal code-named ADO21 that featured a wedge shape and mid engine design. The Triumph side of the house went with a much more conventional approach dubbed ‘Bullet’ with a front engine and rear wheel drive. While the Datsun 240Z and Porsche 914 were selling quite well in the US, which was the primary target market, British Leyland’s market research showed that Americans really wanted something mechanically straight forward. The feedback indicated prospective buyers wanted a car that was easy to fix and maintain. A conventional design had the added benefit of being cheaper as well. Given this the Triumph concept was pursued and it would take MG a couple more decades to get a mid engine design to market with the MG F.
While the prototypes had been fitted with Triumph four and six cylinder engines as the design moved from a Triumph one to a British Leyland one the straight six was dropped in favor of Rover’s V8. Additionally the proposed open and close variants changed to closed only with the option of a targa top. The idea of a MG version was slowly dropped at the same time. MG would continue to sell its open top B but the new car would be positioned above it price wise. To justify the cost premium the styling was overhauled and trendy pop up lights were included. Sadly the targa option was dropped. The new car was still envisioned as a range of cars with an eight valve four cylinder as the base, the mid-range powered by the Dolomite’s 16-valve engine and the range topping V8. A 2+2 variant dubbed Lynx was pitched as a Ford Capri competitor but never materialized.
The final design for the TR7 ended up being a unibody with suspension consisting of MacPherson struts up front and a well located live rear axle at the rear. Steering featured a manual rack and pinion setup with braking duties handled by discs at the front and drums out back. Power was supplied by a SOHC 2.0L four cylinder engine with the cylinders tilted over at a 45 degree angle. While not technically startlingly it was appropriate choice as a base engine for the era. Unfortunately, emissions requirements limited North American cars to only 90hp and the five speed gearbox was not ready in time for the car’s launch so it made due with a Morris Marina derived four speed. The envisioned 16-valve and V8 engine upgrades were limited to a handful of prototype cars which meant the TR7 was slower in acceleration than the outgoing TR6.
Sales started off for the North American market only in 1975. Critics were a little bemused by the wedge styling but found the ride and handling to be very good. Additionally the refinement and comfort was a huge improvement over the older models. Overall the reviews were very positive but a desire for more power was evident. UK specification TR7s went on sale in 1976 with slightly higher powered engines and less intrusive bumpers. The TR7 was built at the Speke plant which was one of the newer factories but unfortunately labor relations were among the most tense. There were stories of sabotage, incompetent management, work stoppages were common and quality was low. These issues meant the planned upgrades could never be implemented. A much talked about ban on convertibles sold in the US failed to come to fruition so a drop top version was on the horizon.
Up to this point it could be argued that the Triumph TR7 was a fine chassis in search of a worthy engine. The slant four while reasonable as a base engine did not produce a lot power but critically head and head-gasket issues were becoming commonplace. Starting for the 1978 model year a few early pre-production V8 powered coupes were produced. Most of early run of 150 did not sport any badging and were sent to North American primarily for British Leyland employees and the press to review. Visually the eight cylinder model hardly differed with only dual exhaust tips, special 13″ alloy wheels and a newly bulged hood. Inside the tachometer displayed a 5,500 rather than 6,000 rpm redline. The hood sported a bulge which was quickly added to the regular TR7 and a Spider edition received the same alloy wheels.
Specification wise TR8s received upgraded braking and suspension as well as a more relaxed rear end ratio (3.08:1) and the addition of power steering. The gearbox was a 77-mm Rover sourced five speed manual that also found its way into the four cylinder TR7. A three speed automatic was optional for those who wanted it. What really transformed the TR8 was the all-aluminum 133hp 3,528cc V8 with twin Stromberg 175CDSET carburetors. California and 1981/1982 models received Bosch L-Jet fuel injection (with a Lucas ECU) that produced 148hp.
The Rover V8 really deserves its own write-up but we will briefly cover it here. The engine started life as a Buick 215cid V8 introduced for the 1961 model year. Design started on the ultra-light weight engine in the 1950s before thin wall casting techniques were perfected. Aluminum looked to be a way to reduce weight improving overall vehicle performance and fuel economy. These engines were available in a base 2bbl 155hp trim all the way up to a 4bbl 200hp high performance variant. In 1962 this engine powered Mickey Thompson’s ride for the 1962 Indianapolis 500. By 1963 the Buick 215cid had garnered a somewhat troublesome reputation mostly due to incompatible coolant being used with the aluminum engine. The American market had less interest in smaller capacity engines and iron thin wall casting technology had evolved so the aluminum engine was discontinued by GM. Long lived iron V8 and V6 engines carried on with a very closely related design.
Rover managing director Bill Martin-Hurst managed to secure the rights to this engine from GM after spotting it at a Mercury Marine workshop in the US. Rover was looking for a new top of the range engine as it had only four cylinders and an older, heavier inline six. Rover made great use of the V8 installing it in a wide variety of mainstream vehicles such as Rover saloons as well as Land Rovers and Range Rovers. It also powered a huge array of specialty vehicles over its life including TVRs and Morgans. Like the ubiquitous Chevrolet small block V8 the Rover V8 became the staple of British hot rod builders. Interestingly GM still built more engines of this design in three years than Rover/British Leyland did in the decades that followed.
Production moved to the Canley factory in Coventry where quality improved and a drop top version became available in 1979. Most felt the convertible styling was much improved over the ‘turret top’ of the coupe. Despite improvements to the body shell to strengthen it the convertible actually weighed less the fixed roof coupe. Lopping off the top and the addition of a smooth five speed gearbox had transformed the TR7. All official, production TR8s were convertibles and had subtle badges to go along with the telltale dual exhausts.
After being officially launched, although only in the US and Canada, the TR8 received rave reviews. It was a bit of a throw back at a time when other manufacturers were downsizing engines. Triumph combined a modern and refined chassis with a V8 engine that featured a distinctly muscle car exhaust rumble. Motor Trend awarded it Import Car of the Year for 1980. Car & Driver featured a TR8 on its August 1980 cover and proclaimed it as ‘Nothing less than the reinvention of the sports car’.
The TR8 was not a cheap car however so sales never really took off. British Leyland while having success with racing the TR8 could not capitalize on it as it could not afford to properly advertise the TR8. Unfavorable currency conversion rates added to the headache. Roughly 2815 TR8s were sold including the prototype cars. TR7 V8 conversions remain popular especially in the UK and Australia where they missed out on the factory V8 car.
While the early TR7s had plenty of problems with quality the tail end of production cars were actually quite well built. The undersized four speed gearboxes and rear axles were gone. The production line was transferred to ex-Rover plant Solihull where labor relations stabilized. You can generally tell where a TR7 was made by the badge on the nose. Assuming the car has original paint the early Speke built cars have a decal with TR7 (or TR8) spelled out. This changed to a wreath with the word Triumph in the middle for the cars built in the Canley factory and a small black badge for the Solihull cars. The later cars also commonly have very nice metallic paint work but unfortunately lost the wacky tartan seats in the move to Solihull. The quality of the earliest cars along with the head-gasket and bolt issues of the slant four engine give the TR7 a reputation of being unreliable to this day. That is rather unfortunate as the later cars were quite well built and the head bolt concerns can be sorted with modern techniques.
The last of the TR8s were sold in Canada as 1982 models and it remains the last mainstream British roadster offered in North America. In the UK Triumph finished out its remaining days selling the Acclaim, a version the Honda Ballede (Civic). For the next several years TVR made excellent business selling wedge shaped cars powered by Rover V8 engines.
Given the TR8’s collector car resume of excellent handling, light weight, powerful engine, and rarity why has it not gained in value like some others? Parts availability remains excellent as the Rover V8 bits are easy to come by and body parts can be sourced from the much more common TR7. Maybe it is the lack of visual difference between it and the TR7? A set of 15” rims and some fat fender flares probably would have helped but the common look has not held back the Sunbeam Tiger versus the lower performing Alpine. Perhaps it is the poor reputation of the early TR7s or the fact that most people have no idea that the TR8 even exists. For those wanting to modify for higher performance the earlier carburetor TR8 is likely the first choice while the fuel injected cars are the better bet for an owner who wants the best performance from an original car.
In the era of six figure Porsche 911s the TR8 remains a classic car bargain. While it is the highest performing factory Triumph its values lag behind the earlier TR cars. In fact, pricing is similar to the much more common and lower performance MG B. For the same money I know I would choose the V8 rumble and relaxed cruising of a five speed gearbox.