COAL: 1962 Triumph TR3B – Nonsense and Sensibility

Part 1 – Nonsense. When logic makes a (full opposite lock) left turn.

Life changes can be tough. Even when they are expected or results of our own choices. Marriage, divorce, moving, job change (or loss) often bring unpredictable impacts that resonate in our lives for a long while afterwards. As I recounted in my last COAL article, 1983 brought a new car, 1984 marriage, and 1985 fatherhood. When we married, my wife, also an Ozark flight attendant, was the owner/driver of a 1982 Mazda RX-7. I always thought highly of the RX-7s and influenced her decision to let go of a clunky 1980 V6 Firebird and go with the Mazda. Although I did not drive it all that much, it was a very nice car and a good value. However, she still owed on it, and we were preparing for a single-income lifestyle, so we made a decision to sell it. Which then and now, in retrospect, seemed to be a sensible choice. What followed however, was anything but.

The dreaded side curtains

With my two-year-old GTI, we were covered with four seats and a fairly utilitarian vehicle. I figured we had about five grand to spend on a good used car. However, my logic was clouded by a photo posted on a cork board just around the corner from our crew scheduling area where we reported for work. On it was a photo and advertisement for a powder blue 1962 Triumph TR3B with (apparently very rare) U.S. Mag wheels and 58,000 miles on the odometer.

A close approximation of the U.S. Mags though mine had a knockoff centerpiece

For me, growing up in the early sixties, the term “sports car” was pretty much synonymous with two-seater British roadsters. The most popular ones were MGs, Triumphs and Austin-Healeys, and there was a local dealer, Continental Cars, that had two large dealerships in the St. Louis area which carried these three makes and at times a few others. Their popularity began to wane as I reached driving age in the early seventies, but ironically as second or third-hand MGBs, Midgets and Spitfires became more affordable they were quite common among my high school peers. I often say, looking back, that the popular cars and motorcycles of that era were treated like disposable lighters. Used up and discarded when subsequent repairs bills were expected to exceed the value of the car.

I am anything but unimaginative, so I was already coming up with reasons why this would be a good deal. The car itself was in original condition, across the river in Centralia, Illinois. It had a unique, if somewhat macabre provenance. The original owner was from Centralia, but had lived near Santa Barbara, California for decades. His mother died and he and his wife drove across the country to attend her funeral, when he unexpectedly passed away in his hometown. I can only speculate, but as he and his wife (now widow) were both in their sixties, I’m sure after traveling one-way from California to Illinois in a TR-3, she was not anxious for the return trip, so she arranged to sell the car. It ran well and unlike virtually any midwestern examples, it was free of rust. That said, this was not a logical choice. That said, perhaps the fears of impending responsibilities were directing me to one, last “what the hell” decision. My wife gamely agreed and we bought it for $5,000.

The first thing it needed was a new exhaust system, that I purchased from Moss Motors and installed myself. In fact, our mailbox was soon filled with catalogs from Moss, British Victoria in Lenexa, Kansas and one other supplier whose name I cannot currently recall. The availability of parts was definitely not an issue. The car cleaned up nicely and became my daily driver. I’ve never been an excellent mechanic, but it was a simple machine and came with a service manual, and there were several British car enthusiasts among our pilot population (as well as one of our aircraft mechanics who was available to do work on the side). I do recall mentioning to one of our pilots that I dreaded having to begin what I expected to be never-ending adjustments of the twin SU carburetors (which seemed to be inevitable judging from my friends who had owned similarly equipped cars) and having owned Volvos equipped with SUs gave me some of the best advice. “Once you set those, if they go out of adjustment, nine time out of ten it’s not the carburetors that need adjustment, it’s usually valve clearance or some other issue.” And he was correct. I did have to have the steering box rebuilt and it was the only car I have ever owned that had an oil leak inside the car (the fitting on the mechanical gauge where the slim brass line attached would occasionally work loose) but other than that, it was extremely reliable. The engine had started life as a tractor powerplant, and was pretty sturdy.

What it wasn’t was comfortable, with a single-layer vinyl top and side curtains, and a heater that was activated by turning a spigot on the rear of the engine block. And the only fair weather ventilation came from open air. But I didn’t have to drive it all that often, and I was not at all uncomfortable leaving it on our guarded parking lot for a two or three-day trip with the top down and the tonneau cover zipped closed.

Compared to nearly any vehicle of recent vintage, it could hardly be considered sporty. Most of the mass was pitched forward, the steering was slow, and it was riding on some very tall, high profile tires. Also, as it had a relatively high compression ratio, it had a nasty habit of the rear end breaking loose under sudden deceleration (we used to refer to this as “back-spin,” when the compression resistance caused the tires to rotate more slowly than at speed and lose contact). There’s a reason why, when you look at vintage photos of sports car racing in the 1950s, that virtually everyone is sliding through the turns with their front wheels at full opposite lock.

I have to say, however, cleaned up, it made quite an appearance. With the top down, it was like a time machine that gave me a deepened insight into the cars that generated so much enthusiasm. Experiencing the limitations of this mostly first generation sports car has only made me more impressed with the levels of performance and reliability that we now take for granted.

Whatever urge had compelled me down this road had been satisfied, and especially after two winters I was ready for a change. We sold the GTI and purchased the sensible (Part 2) Jetta sedan, and shortly afterwards I sold the TR for around $4,500, which was not at all bad for nearly three years of use. The purchaser intended to begin a complete frame-off restoration, and this car was probably an ideal choice to begin from. It also taught me a good life lesson, that as much as I love, cars I am not the person who has the skills, money and/or patience to attempt any kind of restoration.