COAL: 1978 Triumph Spitfire – How To (Almost) Fix Up A Classic Car For Under $200


It has became a bit of a theme in my COAL series that I have a bigger appetite for classic or interesting cars than my modest budget allows. To mitigate this situation means I have to get my hands dirty and get a little creative. In this episode we see how far a two hundred dollar budget will go in a Triumph Spitfire resuscitation. Surprisingly far, in this case.

The 1974 Triumph Spitfire I had owned several years earlier might just be my favorite of all the cars I have owned. It was simple to work on, fun to drive and it certainly does not hurt that it is tied to several great bonding moments with my eldest son. Since selling, I always thought I should try another one. Unfortunately, Spitfires have gained some value over the years and the right one never seemed to be around at the right time.

1978 Triumph Spitfire 1

I sold the Mercedes 220D for the seed money and allotted myself a further $200 from the proceeds gained by flogging a set of old winter tires and rims as my restoration budget. As always with a young family, money is on the tight side, but I managed to find a running Triumph Spitfire for cheap. The low price was in no small part due to the seller, who was a massive hassle to deal with. He refused to communicate with me but kept lowering his price online. Eventually I was able to persuade him to reply to an email but he really did not give any information beyond the photos in the ad. It was located about three hours away but it was the only affordable non-parts car example I had seen in years. So I took a gamble and committed to buy it.

This Spitfire was a 1978 model and while fundamentally the same as my old 1974 model, there are a few differences between them.

  • The steering wheel is smaller in diameter.
  • The Zenith Stromberg carburetor has the much maligned automated water choke instead of manual actuation. The air cleaner is slightly different as well.
  • The 1978 has a dash plaque celebrating Triumph’s SCCA Championships in 1965, and 1968-1973. They won more than this but must have had a stock of plaques to use up.
  • Speedometer is in kilometers instead of miles.
  • The bumper over-riders are a bit smaller.
  • Valve cover painted red.
  • More modern looking handbrake and steering column sourced from the TR7.
  • Some of the exterior chrome is painted black. Windshield wipers no longer chrome.
  • Horn button on the stalk instead of the steering wheel.
  • Electric seat belt reminder (not hooked up though)
  • Houndstooth style seats and beige coloured interior. The 1974 was all black.
  • Different engine fan.

My old 1974 also had an aftermarket Pacesetter header and Monza exhaust, both of which conspired to make it rather noisy. It did however have a nice oil pressure combination gauge sourced from a MG Midget.


There is always a difference from what the seller tells you and reality. I quickly assessed the actual condition. While the tires had like-new tread they were obviously a few years old. One had gone flat. A quick test drive confirmed that the tires, while in good shape, were absolutely horrible in the snow.  The battery was flat, and wouldn’t hold much of a charge. A previous owner had somewhat sloppily applied primer over the brown paint. The floors appeared to be in good shape so it looked promising on the rust front. Impressively the windshield was free of any cracks or rock chips. In the minus column the transmission tunnel was off since reverse gear could not be selected without fiddling with the linkage.


After airing up the tire, boosting the battery and easing the top up we were off. The vinyl top had a couple small tears but it was so cold I could not close it completely. You can see the sides blowing in the breeze above. Unfortunately the seller had been two hours late showing up to his own house so it was getting seriously cold and dark. I should mention that the heater fan blew well but sadly not with hot or even warm air. My old Spitfire had the same issue which turned out to be a clogged heater control valve. As the temperatures outside dropped to a chilly -25C (-13F) the inside of the Triumph was very cold. I had come prepared with hat, gloves, warm boots and a blanket but with a long drive the cold gets to your extremities. My friend Rod and I swapped after the half way point but both of us were frozen at the end of our stints.

At just over the half-way point, the Spitfire mysteriously died. The gas gauge did not work (neither did the coolant temperature gauge or the speedometer for that matter) so I suspected we had run dry despite filling up before leaving. The Spitfire was running rather rich as the auto-choke appeared to be sticking, as the revs could not be brought down under two thousand. Could it be that rich that we had drained the tank? I had the foresight to bring a Jerry can with me but apparently not enough to bring one with gasoline in it. By the time we travelled to the next town and back with a filled Jerry can and emptied its contents into the Spitfire, it was able to roar back life. I attempted to fill the tank at the town but could only squeeze into $2.39 in. I got an odd look paying for that. Obviously there was some deeper issue but with limited options we set off to see how far she would go.


My $200 Spitfire did manage to make it all the way home. As luck would have it, after almost three hundred kilometers the engine starting making a racket on the last corner. The engine had been a little noisy but this was something much more. Quickly popping off the valve cover showed a very bent push rod. The inside driver’s side door handle also choose this moment to give up on life. The exterior one never did work so my friend Rod, who had been driving the last leg, had to make a rather undignified exit via the open roof.


The above photo certainly explained the engine clatter. A set of used push rods yielded a replacement and the 1.5 was running again. Adjusting the valves on the Spitfire has to be easier than just about any other car. The clam shell style hood allows you to sit on a front wheel while adjusting each valve. When in neutral the revs were still far too high, but the previous owner had included a carburetor rebuild kit with the car. Apart from the carburetor, the mechanical side looked quite good with almost new-looking brakes and still good shocks.

broken handle

The first repair was to the driver’s side door as it was rather annoying to have to climb over the door to enter the car. The Spitfire had come with a broken driver’s side handle and the previous owner had used vise grips to operate what was left of the handle. The remainder of the handle had snapped off however. It was a little bit of a challenge to get door panel off as the first instruction in the sequence is open the door wide… which I couldn’t do at all. At least the replacement part had been included with the sale.


After a struggle the interior handle was replaced and working. The exterior handle took some sleuthing as it functioned fine when the door was open but not at all when it was closed. After much head scratching and detective work I figured out that someone had been in there before and buggered up the locking mechanism. A few minutes of fiddling got the door opening from both the inside and outside.


The window winder knob had been replaced with a brass furniture one and a too long machine screw. Luckily, the included aftermarket AM radio had a set of knobs that were a very good match for the stock item. Radios in a Spitfire are like trying to paddle a canoe with a coffee cup, somewhat less than ideal, so I liberated its knob for another freebie fix.

The missing side view mirror was replaced with a Canadian market Mini 1000 item I had in my spares pile. Thanks to British Leyland parts sharing it was almost identical. A spare voltage stabilizer got the fuel and temperature gauges working again. The speedometer had a broken cable which explained its non-functioning status. A little electrical work got the headlights and tail lights working consistently.


My Spitfire was fitted with a set of rather attractive and rare Exacton Type SA aftermarket alloy wheels. They are a period item manufactured in the United Kingdom and I was able to find the above brochure online.


Unfortunately, I had to do quite a bit more welding than I initially thought on the rocker panels and corners. While the floors were perfect, the rockers had quite a bit of filler in them. I knocked that out, cut out the rust and replaced with some metal patch panels fabricated from left over Toyota truck cab metal. Luckily I only had to rebuild both the inner and outer rocker at one corner. The car had a luggage rack at some point which left four holes in the trunk lid but welding them shut rounded out the body work. After a significant amount of work I now had a rust free Spitfire in need of paint.


Painting a car is usually a massive cost, but for years I have been intrigued by the so-called “$50 Paint Job.” It involves massively thinning down anti-rust paint and rolling it on. There is a lot of sanding involved, so a small car like the Spitfire seemed like an ideal candidate. While British Racing Green would have been a natural for the Spitfire, I felt a light color would better mask any flaws so a shade of bright yellow was chosen. Critically, I could get it both in tin and spray can form. While my paint job cost about twice the quoted fifty dollars, I did all the door jambs, trunk, under hood and floors. If I stuck to the stock Russet Brown color, a lot this extra work would have been avoided but I did not want my little roadster to look like a potato.


With a total of twelve coats of paint, I had plenty of time waiting on it drying to tackle some other jobs. The bumpers were straight but looking a bit shabby, so a revival was required. When removing the bumpers in preparation for body work and paint, I noticed the rear was made up of several smaller pieces that were bolted together. I did not care for the thicker chrome section of the later Spitfires and after further inspection it looked like this would unbolt as well as the rubber over riders and brackets. So you can convert to the smaller European style bumpers at the rear for very close to free. All that you need to purchase are some carriage bolts to cover the holes.


The interior of the car was now the weakest link. It was well worn in places as well as light tan in color which worked for a brown car but looked a bit dull with the yellow paint. While black is not the ideal color for an open top car it looks really sharp against a lighter exterior color. The door panels were worn looking and stained but physically still intact. I felt they could be refreshed rather than replaced. A spray can of black vinyl paint did wonders for the overall look.


The seats proved to be more of a challenge. They had the same tan vinyl but with a cloth insert which was in tatters. While still as comfortable as Spitfire seats could be, they looked awful. Initially I planned on swapping them out for something newer but soon found out that the only seats that really fit a Spitfire are the stock ones. They are very narrow and sit close to the floor. Others have wedged in Miata seats but they tend to look like a large lady sausaged into a skin tight dress. It is functional but not a great look.


While the seat situation could have been partially solved with a set of seat covers, I had a bigger issue with the Zenith-Stromberg carburetor. This particular carburetor does not have a great reputation, especially with the coolant temperature controlled automatic choke. A lot of Spitfire owners toss it in the nearest dumpster and fit something else. A Weber DGV or a set European-market SUs are the most common options. I had the rebuilt kit so it seemed reasonable to at least attempt to repair it. The rebuild went reasonably well with several issues noted and corrected. With the issues found I am surprised the car was able to run at all before the overhaul. I confidently re-installed the carburetor was disappointed to find it made absolutely no difference. Over the next month I tore down the carburetor several times with absolutely no luck. I was able to reduce the revs most of the time but it still ran very, very rich. I can see why a lot of folks pitch them into the trash.


In the end I came up just a little bit too short of my goal of turning a probable parts car to respectable and roadworthy roadster, as I never could get that darned Zenith-Stromberg figured out. I suspect it was the enrichment tube in the auto-choke mechanism that had some internal issues. I could have either replaced the casting with another or swapped to alternative carburetor. Any of those options would have ballooned my budget, but I was not keen on struggling further with the stock set up. So with a heavy heart I put the little Spitfire up for sale and used the proceeds to take care of some family-related expenses. I do hope to successfully complete the whole revival with the next project rather than selling half way though.


This concludes my COAL series, at least for now. I hope it has been as enjoyable a ride for the reader as the drive down memory lane has been for me.