COAL: 1968 Triumph Spitfire – Nose Job

This is the car I wish I had bought after the Beetle abruptly quit on Route 17, just east of Binghamton. Mine was a bit rougher around the edges than this beautiful right hand drive model.

We didn’t make it home until late Friday night after the Beetle died. And we had to be back to school by Monday morning, so my girlfriend and I went car hunting early Saturday morning. Well, I went car hunting, she tagged along for moral support. I had been eyeing a brown Spitfire that had been sitting outside of a house on the northside of town since summer. They were asking $600 and since it had languished for so long, I should have been suspicious.  I didn’t know much about Spitfires, they were fairly rare in our neck of the woods back then. I did know of a couple of Spridgits and a high school friend owned a Triumph Herald convertible.

I favored the looks of the Triumphs with their hinged hood and fenders over the Austins and MGs.  If I ever were to learn how to work on a car, that seemed like a decided advantage. We knocked on the door where the Spitfire was parked and met the owner. I can’t honestly remember anything about the purchase process now, 46 years later, but we obviously ended up buying the car. The 1968 marked the second year of the Mk 3 version with its revised front end, but retaining the smaller tail lights of the original design. The Mk 3 also got an upgraded 1,296 cc engine, based on the original 1,147 cc, making 75 bhp. I loved the sound of that motor.

David Saunders covered the final version of the Spitfire, the 1500, in his COAL piece back in 2014. But to my eye, the Mk 3 is the best looking of the Spitfires. I preferred the rear ends on the early versions with their delicate, individual lights to the later years with their one piece taillights and lopped off tail. Mine had been repainted a metallic brown, a color not offered in 1968, but it was a decent paint job. And mine featured a unique hood which I came to learn was taken from a GT6, I could boast to friends that I could accommodate the GT6’s compact 6 cylinder, should the need arise. The interior was pretty beat up and you had to lift the doors a bit to get them to close and latch but otherwise it seemed to start and stop well enough for my needs.

I do remember jacking up the car to swap the spare for one of the rear tires. I had a bit of a scare seeing those wheels tucked under. Someone told me not to worry about it, when I got it back on the ground and rolling, the wheels would sort themselves out. The original Spitfire 4 and succeeding versions were built on a modified Herald chassis that included the swing axle rear suspension. A fix for the wild rear wheel tuck under came with the Mk 4.

I appreciate that Triumph waited to apply the fix until later as I missed the joys of a swing axle in my ’69 Beetle, the first year with the double-jointed independent rear suspension.

After taking care of the license and registration Monday morning, we were off on the three hour drive back to school. I still have vivid memories of just how small that car was. We didn’t talk much the whole way back, I just white-knuckled the steering wheel and kept clear of the endless stream of eighteen wheelers that seemed to be unusually abundant that day. The car got us back to school with no issues at all. But my cool aftermarket wooden shift knob was stolen within a week, maybe a sign of trouble to come. With nowhere to quickly source a new knob, I drove the next couple of weeks shifting with just the threaded shaft. We took a Saturday trip up to Oneonta to visit friends at the SUNY school there. We left to return home at dusk and when I went to turn on the lights, nothing. Too dark to diagnose, we turned around and spent the night in a spare dorm room. Tinkering around the next day I discovered that lights could be turned off with the steering column stalk. I don’t know if that was a standard Lucas feature, maybe that’s how the British flash their lights to pass back then?  

After driving the car for a couple of months and knowing I would be making at least one long trip to the north fork of Long Island to visit my girlfriend’s family, I reached the conclusion that this was not the car I needed at that point in my life. I sold the Spitfire to my oldest brother for $500.  The car broke down on the way to his house in Rochester. He managed to get it running again and replaced the brakes along with some other general housekeeping and it turned into a nice weekend ride. He eventually sold it to another brother for $400. That brother managed to get to mid-Ohio where it broke down again. He ended up swapping it for a 1954 Ford F100 with a homemade wood flatbed. 

Meanwhile I had been in touch with the local VW dealer in Horseheads, NY. After the Beetle died, I had it towed to them for a diagnosis. My memory is a little hazy all these years later, but I do remember the answer the dealer gave me: We would be happy to sell you a new short block. They quoted something in the $700-800 range and I said do it. A couple of weeks later I had my little red Beetle back, better than ever.