COAL: Triumph TR7 – A Real “Rat Motor”

My Uncle Gary was a popular radio DJ in Northern California. I don’t know when Cal State Chico got its reputation as a party school, but it’s difficult for me to think he wasn’t to blame. He grew up with the rest of my family in SoCal, and had a reputation for taking his velour-lined, beer-stocked Datsun 620 camper pickup to Newport Beach for liaisons. He played the guitar; I still own one of his vintage amps. His old Yamaha acoustic is still stuffed under my grandmother’s bed for sentimental reasons, and I believe his surfboards are still in her rafters after over thirty years.

My memories of him are rose colored as his bright red afro; I don’t know how *actually* pleasant having a boozy, party animal uncle is, because for most of my life he has not been with us. I know more about him from stories than first-hand. The stories always depict him in the best light; but they are repeated often enough, that they must be true. I cannot help but think he might have been the only relative I could have enjoyed the presence of, as there is significant overlap in our hobbies; surfing, liquor, guitars… And unreliable English cars.

The joke was, Uncle Gary never made it down for holidays. This was not because he didn’t make the attempt, but because he always wound up getting towed home after the first thirty miles. The reality is, several times he made it to Bakersfield or Fresno (outside practical towing distance) before he broke down and some unfortunate relative had to retrieve him.

When he died, the whole family drove to Chico to sort out his affairs. Since we knew there was no way the car could make the ten hour trip back to Orange without catastrophic failure, my uncle was wise enough to bring a car trailer. I had never seen this notorious car before due to its practical limitations as transportation, and I was shocked when I saw a very unfamiliar badge:

I was captivated. It had round, buggy headlights, taillights that looked like an afterthought in the way a lot of British cars do, what was once plaid/tartan interior, and the crown of Julius Caesar for some reason stamped on the nose cone. As it turned out, this car had been through three or four of my other aunts & uncles since new; each gave up on it in sequence, until it finally passed to someone who could love it enough to keep it; as an only car, no less.

Uncle Gary’s car lived in my grandmother’s garage for near ten years, blocking access to her laundry. For maybe the first two years at attempt was made by relatives to drive it and up-keep it every so often, but it was slowly forgotten and blended in with the eccentric environs that any good grandmother’s house becomes.

By 2005, I was in college and drove a Datsun 280z, with (very problematic) Bosch L-Jetronic fuel injection (or to be more specific, a Japanese rip-off of the Bosch system.) I bought a library of books and service guides to diagnose and fix just about every problem incorrectly, until I came to the actual problem (dirty connections in the Throttle Position Sensor.) But there was an interesting foot-note to one of the manuals. The Triumph TR7 also used Bosch L-Jetronic.

I always had thoughts in the back of my mind to ‘help my grandma clean her garage,’ and the fact that it used an EFI system I was now very familiar with made it seem like a perfect fit. Because my Datsun was running properly I became an incredibly bored person, so with my grandmother’s blessing we showed up with a trailer and high aspirations. Not high enough to think the car would still run after so many years sitting though; after some intense physics calculations, we determined the best way to get it down grandma’s (steep) driveway was to roll it down with someone behind the wheel to steer onto the trailer. That was a harrowing experience, but I’m glad it was me who did it; closest I ever got to driving the stupid thing.

I cleaned it out and determined I was actually the first person to actually go through the car since it was retrieved; I had bags and suitcases full of Uncle Gary’s documents and junk from 1995 . In retrospect, this was the most valuable thing about the car; I found a birthday card I had in fact sent him that year, neatly tucked in the glove box. I found tape after tape of recordings of his zany morning show; I found recordings of his own guitar playing and singing.

I stored those things in a safe place (and ripped the songs onto MP3,) then got to work; a new battery. A fluid change. I verified the electronics all seemed intact; never mind jokes about Lucas electronics. Even the pop-up lights worked. I verified I had firing injectors and ignition. The brakes were shot, and the clutch was inoperable, but after about a day of work I felt secure to make the attempt to actually start it. To my delight, it fired up in an eerie, direct way. The idle of course hunted, and there were some backfires, but it wasn’t so bad at all, for a car that had sat for a decade.

Then I smelled the smoke. It didn’t smell like anything electrical; it smelled like a barbecue, but I had no time to think about that as the intake piping had caught on fire (or I should say, the decades-old tape holding it together.) I grabbed an extinguisher and doused it prompt enough that no damage was caused to anything other than that intake tube….That’s when I learned the lesson to never try to start a car without first checking for dead, mummified rats in the intake. Those are flammable.

Rat evicted, I made starting attempt number two. I marveled at the fact that the gauges still even worked in this car. Steady, strong oil pressure… I had fantasies of wistfully driving to the next family reunion, triumphantly in my Triumph at about the same time I observed first-hand the strength of the oil pressure; in fact, there was a jet of oil emitting over the fender of the car.

I shut it off and rushed out; from the pain of starting and idling, a head bolt had sheared off and the hole was now squirting oil. The head bolts on a Triumph TR7 cause nightmares; I gave up on the car shortly thereafter, as it was now slightly less reliable than the ‘80s Lotus I wound up in around the same time.

It languished in my dad’s shop for another ten years after that; I’d visit it every so often, and family members would ask to see it, but there was never a question of whether it would run again. This fall, my parents finally sold the house it was stored at, and with no other room to put it, informed me they would need to donate it. Sentimental feelings had apparently transitioned from the material to the intangible, as far as British white elephants were concerned.

I couldn’t argue; I just told them to make certain it was properly emptied out first of any remaining bags and belongings. I wish I’d saved the KFM bumper sticker representing his workplace, but I at least took a picture of it. ‘My’ TR7 was as much a lost chance, as the TR7 was in general to British Leyland. It remains one of only three I’ve seen in person. I don’t know if Triumph TR7s go to heaven or hell when they die, and I don’t know whether hoping Uncle Gary now possesses it in the afterlife represents a curse or a blessing for him. But I do hope it’s in a better place; thanks to having it, I can now rip-off some guitar licks from Uncle Gary in his honor.