COAL : 1969 Triumph Spitfire Mk3 – Lean, Green, Sporting Machine

British roadsters have always been quite popular over here in Sri Lanka. They were brought in by the dozens when new, both by Brits based here (supervising our tea plantations and such) and local people as well. MGAs and Austin Healey Sprites are the most numerous, but all the other major players of the time are well represented, and they are a pretty regular sight on nice days as well as during classic car events.

My first exposure to the peculiar joys these minimalist roadsters bring was through my father’s uncle, who was the only petrolhead in our family. He always had interesting cars around him and his very first car was apparently an Austin Healey Sprite, back in the early 70s. This was long gone by the time I was aware of cars, but sometime in the early 90s he ended up with another one, and rolled up to family gatherings in it quite often, to my delight.  After he retired he had a lot of idle time on his hands, which he spent by messing about with cars. The Sprite was still around and was joined by a second Sprite, an MGA and a Triumph Spitfire 1500. By this point I had my driving license and was very interested in cars, so I used to visit  often to talk cars and help give the collection some exercise, which was a fun way to spend a few hours on a weekend.

The collection before the Spitfire was added.

During our chats I made it a point to tell him that if he ever wanted to get rid of one his cars, to let me know first but he was more focused on adding to his little collection than reducing it. In early 2008 he picked up the Spitfire 1500, and a few months later mentioned to me that the guy who sold it to him had another couple of Spitfires that he wanted to sell, and did I want to go take a look? Obviously the answer was yes and the very next Saturday the two of us went to take a look at the cars. The guy had two, another 1500 and an earlier Mark 3, both of which needed significant restoration work. Although the 1500 was the more modern version, I greatly preferred the more dainty looking Mark 3 and after some back and forth on the price the guy agreed to sell me the car. “Car” was perhaps overstating the case, because what I actually got was a somewhat rusty rolling shell with the engine/gearbox separately stored, and a few boxes of parts.

Forgive the lousy picture, this is all I have of the car at the seller’s place

Just some of the pile of bits that came with it. Amazingly, almost everything needed was present!

The shell was loaded onto a large truck while the drivetrain and other bits rode in the back of the pickup truck that replaced the Beetle as my daily driver (COAL coming next)

1296 cc of Britains finest!

My uncle had a large yard at his house and he generously allowed me to keep the car with him while it was being restored. He thankfully knew an exceptionally talented bodywork man and a very good painter, so they were drafted in to start bringing the Spitfire back together. Over the course of the next 6 months, work on the car progressed at a pretty regular pace. I spent most of my evenings and weekends over there helping out wherever I could, but the heavy lifting was done by the professionals, of course. Dayananda, the bodywork man (or “tinkering baas” in our local vernacular) was truly gifted with metal work. All you needed to do was show him some pictures of how the car was supposed to look and he would could visualize everything in his head and more importantly, translate that into metal. The car had a fair amount of rust in various places, so he had a lot of work to do, and ended up fabricating quite a few repair sections from scratch.

Hand forming a section of wheel arch

Fitting the formed arch section

The car had been sitting for several years and it seemed to have been left at the mercy of the elements, so although it wasn’t too badly rotted there were quite a few rusty sections that need to be worked through. The Spitfire is technically a body on frame car but the chassis is basically a backbone and a lot of structural strength is derived from the sills and floor. For this reason rusty sills are not ideal, and as you’d expect, the sills and floor on my car had lots of rust. So all of that was attended to as well, slowly and carefully, step by painstaking step.

New sills, and part of the floors.

This was quite the learning experience for me, and I helped out wherever I could, but mostly just watched and absorbed all of it. Eventually the bodywork was done, and the engine and running gear were also refreshed while that was happening. The engine was in surprisingly decent shape and after new filters, fluids, spark plugs, plug wires, points and condenser it was good to go. The suspension needed a few bushes here and there, and the rear transverse leaf spring needed some fettling, but there was remarkably little that was needed, for a car that had been sitting for an undetermined amount of time.

The chassis, with a fresh coat of paint.

Once the body and chassis were put back together, road testing went well and it was time to decide on the final paint and trim. Since the car was already green, I figured it should stay that way, but we went through many shades before settling finally on a rather lovely deep metallic green. The interior was  a mess so everything there also needed to be done from scratch. I wanted a darker color but my uncle badgered me into going with a very light beige/cream that looked fantastic but ended up being the wrong choice for an open car in a dusty country.

The beige carpeting going in.

The seats, which were actually from a GT6, and were more comfortable than the stock items.

The car needed a full rewiring as well, which was done at a known automotive electrician. They basically had to rebuild the entire wiring harness, so it was a good job that it was not a very complex one! Finally, about 8 months after I initially brought it to my uncle’s house, the Spitfire was ready to roll. Driving it home for the first time was an experience to remember, I had some experience of the British sports car driving experience thanks to my uncle’s cars, but this was my own and that was an incomparable feeling! Roads that I drove on every day seemed to take on a new and more interesting dimension, and the sounds and smells that any other car would isolate you from were all there to experience at full strength. Honestly I think I went into sensory overload at one point, and the whole drive back I had a mile wide grin.

My mother, the first passenger to ride in the car after it was completed.

That grin didn’t really subside for quite a while after, because every drive in the thing felt like an event. The color really set off the Spit’s Michellotti penned lines and since the model was comparatively rare in Sri Lanka anyway it drew loads of attention everywhere it went. Driving it anywhere was almost guaranteed to generate at least one conversation about it and I believe a lot of folk learned more than they bargained for about the Triumph brand and the Spitfire Mark 3 in particular when I got started. Being a 22 year old male, I was kind of hoping the Spit would prove irresistible to to members of the opposite sex, but although they did like it, I can’t honestly say it helped me much in that department though! The majority of attention the car drew was from other car people, and older blokes who remembered these from years past.

It was pretty good fun to drive, the low stance and light weight meant that you always felt like you were going much faster than what the speedo read, and it was agile and responsive when pushed through  corners, definitely much more so than the Beetle and Escort, but not quite as much as my uncle’s Sprite. I wasn’t brave enough to push it very hard, so I didn’t run into the model’s well known Achilles’ heel of sudden rear end breakaway due to the swing axle suspension getting overloaded. I didn’t ever work up the courage to take it on a long road trip either, so most of the running it did was in the city on weekends. it was used pretty regularly for the first couple of years, even drove it to work on occasion, but as time passed and life got in the way this became less and less. It eventually came to a point where the car sat for months at a time, and after one particularly long stretch of sitting a lot of work and expense had to go into undoing the resulting atrophy.

By mid 2013 the Spitfire had been with me for 5 years and I started to feel like it was time for a change. The market for classic British sports cars had gotten quite hot, and the Spit had definitely appreciated in value. I spent a couple of months thinking about it, but somehow couldn’t bring myself to actually place an advertisement. Then one fine Sunday morning I was browsing the classifieds and an ad caught my eye. It was for a car that was a bit of a rarity in Sri Lanka,  that I thought was cool since childhood. The asking price was reasonable enough and part exchanges were considered. So I called the number and found myself speaking to a fellow who we shall call R (he will reappear in this series), who I already knew slightly through the car scene. He was interested in the Spitfire and after a bit of back and forth, we worked out a deal. I got the advertised car plus what I thought was a generous amount of cash to hand, and R picked up my Spitfire. At first I felt like I had gotten a really good deal, but that turned out to be far from the truth. That sorry tale will be told soon enough.

Anyway, R was one of those people who bought classic or unusual cars, did some cosmetic work to pretty them up and then flipped them for a (usually) massive profit. Obviously this is what he did with the Spitfire too; my carefully chosen green paint was replaced by a generic maroon, the interior was redone in red as well and the car was sold to a collector for something like double what his initial purchase figure was, within 6 months no less. The car remains with that collector to this day, and has been refinished in a (in my opinion) rather unfortunate looking two tone color scheme. To each their own I guess, I’m just happy that it is being looked after.

How it looks today

The Spitfire remains my most ambitious restoration project, and I learned a lot from the process. It also instilled a love of convertibles in me that persists to this day, but I don’t really miss it at all. I suppose I never quite bonded with it as much I thought I would. My uncle was a lot more upset than me when I sold it, and gave me an earful about it for quite a while after. He eventually calmed down, and continued to be interested in whatever automotive oddity I picked up next. I would still make it a point to drop in on him to talk cars from time to time. Sadly, he passed away a couple of years ago after a battle with throat cancer, at the young age of 62. He always did claim he wasn’t interested in becoming a doddering old man who couldn’t drive his beloved sports cars, so I’d like to think he’s driving them to his heart’s content now, on an endless road somewhere.

My uncle, taking the car for its very first test drive after completion.