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.
I saw the 2nd photo and thought “That’s not right, there’s a VW beetle in my garage”
Uh, maybe not.
Anyway, what a great story. The only remotely interesting automotive item I’ve ever inherited was my AMC Concord,
Uh, maybe not, scratch that too.
Well, at least you didn’t suffer much, just briefly when you first tried to get it going. Not like you tried and tried for 10 years to get it going, only to be thwarted at every turn. Maybe that’s what the Lotus was for 🙂
“Those are flammable.”
That line made my afternoon.
Found a mummified rat in a drawer when cleaning out my grandfather’s shed years ago, never thought to see if it would burn!
Did your grandfather work for Triumph? There are probably people on forums looking for NOS rats. Just too bad they didn’t fireproof them from the factory.
That’s British humour.
The British would burn mummies for heat when they occupied Egypt, so yeah, mummified things will burn
Speaking as a Briton, I must say I’m continually amazed that our country managed to export as many of our unreliable, half-engineered vehicles as we actually managed to do. Perhaps in the 1950s they had a certain sturdy, old-world worthiness and charm, but by the late sixties our car industry was turning into a joke, and the joke was mainly on us. The constant industrial strikes by most British factories, and the terrible build quality of many of our cars led to this state of affairs. And, slowly but surely, the European and Japanese manufacturers (the ones who could actually build cars effectively) caught up and overtook us. I’m afraid a large part of this is due to the British (or probably more accurately English) phyche, which is basically “We’re better than everyone else, we make the best cars, have the best police force, the best army in the world” etc etc, statements tediously trotted out but which are constantly proven to be completely untrue. And thereby goes the reason for Brexit, that national disaster which will ruin our country but is seemingly unable to be stopped by our spineless politicians.
Rant over. There are some good things about our country by the way.
You have a wonderful country. Shame about the auto industry’s decline, but I’d still love to own an MG or Triumph one of these days.
TOP GEAR UK did an episode on the demise of the British car business. Don’t know when it was actually filmed, as we got it here in the states on BBC /America
(Well, at least until Clarkson started bitch-slapping producers over the lunch menu!) It was a sad demise, Y’all made some great cars, Piston airplane engines, and Jet engines.Much like the fall of the steel industry in the USA in the 70’s, Unions striking, iron clad contracts that couldn’t be adjusted for the reality of the market. New environmental regulations that mandated you could no longer use rivers and streams as open sewers to dump your waste in. and you couldn’t pump it in the air. So, rather than upgrade, they closed.The us versus THEM belief of the rank and file about management. In America, steel mills fell like dominos. Foreign steel was just as good, and cheaper No one either in UK, or America though tit ridiculous that Japan could possibly take over the world in vehicle production. Times changed quicker than anybody, over here at least noticed and did anything about it. Maybe on your side too?
The political fallacy of a global market and level playing field has pretty much killed off Australian industry. The same ideals probably impacted many other countries too. Shutting down production and importing product from elsewhere (but at what quality, and how much transport cost?) is always easier than addressing the issues. Societal impact is often only paid lip service. The company (if it remains) still makes money from importing, even if there is nobody working locally any more.
I have a lot of sympathy for environmental concerns though.
Sadly, America will learn this, too.
The “genius” of Ford was that he understood that paying workers enough to buy the products they were building meant that there was a viable market for the product. As a service economy, we no longer build, rather, we import. Factories supported far more semi-skilled and unskilled labor than any customer service job ever will, and paid higher wages to those doing the labor. When workers cannot afford what is imported any longer, what will we do? Or more likely, do without?
As I understand it, the $5/day wage was motivated by a desire to reduce worker turnover. It made good corporate propaganda.
Today, some companies have a problem finding enough workers who can pass a drug test.
I think it was a fatal mixture of unruly unions and stubborn execs unwilling to listen to them or the market. Note how Toyota, after the War, also had union problems, but they sorted things out and everyone benefited (Kiichiro Toyoda resigned to resolve the dispute, something Anglo-American execs would never do). Putting aside build quality, you look at the unforced marketing errors and suspect Bertie Wooster types were running the show.
Speaking as an Aussie, I think we bought British cars for what we wanted them to be, expected them to be. Fond memories of the old Austin, Morris, Standard or Rover dictated the replacement car, almost regardless of what the current product was actually like. Older folk used to refer to the “mother country”, even if they, their parents, and even their grandparents had never lived there. That sentiment has gone now; we are Australian.
All true, and makes one wonder just what sort of post Brexit trade deal the UK can realistically expect. Times have changed
After reading several of the articles at http://www.aronline.co.uk I concluded that the real kiss of death was that even their biggest successes were money losers. The Mini, the XJ6, the SD1 (in the early years), etc. were all smash hits. And yet… they didn’t make money. Sometimes the issues were a complex combination of labor disputes, technical issues, quality, or business plan. Sometimes it was just that the price was too low given the volume they could reasonably produce. Regardless, if you can’t score even when you hit a home run, you can’t win the game.
Yes, it’s a pain. Yes, it’s unreliable as hell. Yes, it was the final nail in the coffin of British Leyland in America.
Yes, I want to own one.
Oh my, how both fabulous and awful all at the same time. But somehow it would not have been right that Uncle Gary had owned a Falcon or Valiant that started and ran flawlessly on the first try. That would have been much too practical for the Uncle Gary that you have so beautifully described.
I am convinced that sometimes cars just want to be dead.
I am convinced that sometimes cars just want to be dead.
lol. I never tried to resurrect an old hulk. I tend to get rid of cars as soon as they start edging toward the “needy girlfriend” stage.
The body looked to be in a great shape still. I can understand the frustration as I briefly owned the more rare TR8 variant. It was fuel injected as well but ran. Actually it ran really well. But everything else electrical didn’t work. The TR7/8 sort of straddled two era electrically. They had lots of issues like older cars but increased complexity of newer cars. But those issues weren’t easy to track down like the oldies. I did eventually fix all the issues but I hated every minute of it. Then of course my wife announced we needed cash for other family related things so I had to sell it. Ugh.
It had dents in the rockers and the opposite wheel arch. My Uncle’s illness toward the end of his life caused him to fall asleep at the wheel once or twice.
I remember now, I did also change the fuel pump but somehow that was the only electrical thing broken. Also; I believe it had both head bolts and cut-off head nuts & studs mixed, and none of the mess would budge beyond the one that sheared
I’d love a TR8. I’d be very tempted by one that even slightly didn’t look like a project. A
Your TR7 would have been a good candidate for a Buick V6 engine swap.
I was thinking a V6 swap too. Maybe a Ranger 3.0 and 5sp.
I think this car proofed that it lasts if you don’t drive it. And since it didn’t drive it lasted.
Wonderful story! Too bad it had a sad ending, for both your Uncle and the Triumph.
Great story, and Uncle Gary sounds like a true character. Every family should have someone like that.
On a side note, what in God’s name is supposed to be happening in that picture with the underwear model, the deeply unsettling gentleman, and the candy box ? The poor car seems to be closing its eyes in shame.
In Australia there are a series of magazine advertisements for the TR7 (we only got the 4 cylinder with carbs, no convertible) with the theme “How you mother/boss etc sees the TR7”
One version had the tag line “How her mother sees the TR7”. The photo shows a middle aged worn looking outside her front window to a double bed “parked” on the road, whilst her daughter and the boyfriend walked to it.
Even as a 12 year old I though it was hilarious as I knew even then the car was shit and even it it was reliable, the styling to me was horrible and unsexy.
Why on earth wouldnt one buy a Celica etc unless one was a masochist.
Another ad in the same style-woohoo!
Shortly after we got married in 1976, my wife worked with a lady whose boyfriend was a salesman at a Triumph dealership. I talked to him about purchasing a TR7, thinking he might be able to give us a good deal and instead he told us that these things had terrible, terrible reliability issues. Over forty years later I still appreciate the wave off.
Great story about your uncle. As J.P said above, a reliable Valiant just wouldn’t have been right.
As for the TR-7, they just saddened me greatly. I loved the TR-6 and still do. Despite all its flaws, and they were legion, it had a grunty straight 6 engine, and looks to die for. When I read that BL was going to do the TR-7 I was excited. I was single, and the right age and had enough money, and I made early plans to buy one when they were just rumors. I really did start saving up money. I figured that all the stuff I didn’t like (such as lever shocks and flaky electronics) would be engineered out, and the hoary old 6 updated, but the styling would remain as sexy.
I was shocked when I actually saw a picture of one…what the heck? Why was it jacked up like a Hotwheels car? What was with that weird roofline? And I then learned that the engine was a 90 HP 4, with a 4 speed, and a live rear axle instead of the TR-6’s IRS.
pimicturated on their opportunity with an ugly, problematic design.
Pass… and this was long before the horror stories about the labor-related build problems appeared. You know you’ve got problems when you have to shut the factory, fire everybody, and move production to a new location….
I do think the design worked better as a convertible though, and the TR-8 actually turned out to be a decent car, I’ve heard, but Triumph was among the walking dead in the U.S. by the time of it’s appearance.
Question about the engine, please. Was it 1/2 of the notorious Stag V-8? Just guessing because of the headbolt problem.
Nope, engine is not any part Stag but they did use it in some Saabs. Turbocharged ones!
Hmm. Has anyone tried swapping a Saab turbo engine into a TR7? Might be more reliable.
Saab actually used the imported Triumph engine first, then starting making a better (do tell!) version of it itself after the early ’70’s, including getting rid of the strange bolt pattern. So really, in one sense, all Saabs were powered by this engine for years. The head in the TR7 is same design as the Stag V8, hence the common problem of bolt removal. Apparently, the pattern was so that the heads could come off without removing the camshaft. Bizarre, designing an engine so as to facilitate major repairs; is there something you’d like to tell us, Mr Triumph?! Only in the sometimes-dotty world of British engineering.
Lovely article btw.
Yes the Slant 4 in the TR7 is part of the Stag V8’s family.
The engines were set up so that the head(s) could be removed without disturbing the timing components. You turned the engine to the proper space and use a couple of the bolts you’ve already removed to bolt the cam gear to a guide plate. Then you can unbolt the gear from the cam and wiggle it off. You can then lift the head off to replace the gasket.
Yep, right on; I got corrected on it down below 🙂
A wonderful read that was both humorous and devastating at the same time. A very well done tribute to your Uncle Gary, Sir.
They say pets take on the characteristics of their owners. Wonder if that works for cars?
The TR7 and your uncle Gary sound like they had some of the same qualities……a lot of fun to be around, delightfully eccentric, not the most reliable at times and will be sorely missed by all.
His pet was a talking gray parrot. I believe it’s still alive and they never managed to get the bird to stop cursing.
Please, please, please tell me this is really true. That is fantastic!
Sure is. My other Uncle’s family got custody. I remember my then-ten year old cousin telling me one of the more printable things it would say was “creamy white stuff.”
I was drinking Sprite at the moment I heard that, and it didn’t go well for someone’s carpet.
I had an early coupe.
Blue 4-speed gearbox.
Thing was, girls loved it, they melted once sitting in the car, I must admit, it had a very cosy, homey, safe atmosphere.
That is why I kept it.
It was a first class P.O.S.
The gearbox lever broke the night I’d leave for Greece, ferry booked, upset girlfriend etc.
Borrowed a 404 Diesel that had already done over 300000 kilometers and had a dead battery from standing for over 8 months outside. New battery, oil top up and we went to Ancona, Italy to catch the ferry to Corfu.
Sold the darn TR7 and bought an MGB, the car the TR7 was supposed to kill inside Leyland. I knew why that would never happen. The B was simply a good car. But that old 404 Diesel went to Egypt a month later.
And the guys came back! About a year later.
But I must admit that I still have a soft spot for the TR7.
The whole classic car bubble ignores the TR7.
They’re still a ten cents the kilo car.
Like those Maserati Bi-turbo’s are.
I’d forgotten all about that “Caesar’s crown” graphic. Resting on their laurels, I guess. The TR8 convertible is what this car should have been, at it’s launch, but that would still probably not have been enough to save Triumph. Though to be fair, the motoring press wasn’t very favorable toward the TR6 in its final years. Nice styling, and yes it had IRS, but otherwise not hugely evolved from the TR2 and it’s tractor roots. So an overhead cam 4 cylinder unit body Triumph, bigger than the Spitfire, wasn’t necessarily a bad thing.
Great story, very nicely written. The people and stories behind a car are really what it’s all about.
I owned a TR7, a 1980 model with twin carburetors. There were some initial problems, but after sorting things out mine actually turned out to be a good car. It was a great auto-crosser, and I had great fun driving my TR7 all over the Smoky Mountains near where I lived at the time. My TR7 was made later in the production run, and I think they had many of the problems sorted out by then.
I’ve owned 3 British cars, two of them as daily drivers (and still own one), and I would agree with the comment that the earlier ones where better designed and built. They aren’t for everyone, but if you can put up with their idiosyncrasies, they can be a lot of fun (and there aren’t many better ways to drive down a good country road on nice day).
MEngineer … I’ve had that exact 1980 BRG TR7 since 1981 and its been parked in my garage for the past 30 years. Lately its been a shelf for GTO parts, but I agree mine had minor issues. Mostly a bad 2nd gear synchro I learned to live with like the 3rd gear issues I had with the TR6 I owned before the 7. Other issues, the pop up head light switch contacts (once cleaned worked properly again) a throttle cable broke, replaced the drop top and re-cored the radiator.
One big issue with the 7’s slant 4 was the fact they used an aluminum head with iron block. The head was notoriously known to warp because the radiator core was insufficient to handle the heat load. When I had the radiator re-cored the shop could only source one that was a half inch thicker. It never ran hot again with the proper 180 t-stat in the summer. Before the core was changed, I ran with a 160 t-stat and couldn’t sit in traffic longer then 20 minutes before watching the temp gauge head to its limit.
Thinking about seeing my ex-wife drive up in one still makes me smile. “Wow, C., that’s a great looking 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. “
Wow. Just… wow.;
The Stag V8 was a direct development of the Triumph slant-4, essentially using this engine for each of its two cylinder banks…
I stand corrected as apparently I’d forgotten this; for some reason I thought the Stag V8 was DOHC or alloy or totally different in some way.
The shape of things that break.
“The Shape of Things to Come…Apart.”
Good one! Wedges make good door stops, too.
The Lotus Esprit fit the “wedge” theme much better.
Spoiler alert, that’s what I wound up with. It’s too predictable of a story to be a good COAL. “I had a Lotus. It broke down a lot. The engine fell out once. It was fun. It was like dating a whole Tilted Kilt at one time. The end.”
Thank you, I really enjoyed the article and the connection drawn between a car I’ve felt ambivalent about and your late uncle who sounds very cool.
Isn’t anyone going to ask about the car in the background in the last photo?
what is the car in the shadows in the background in the last photo? Who, what, when, where, why? And how.
Actually a tale behind it, though that story is not even half mine to tell. COAL-worthy but my brother would have to write it up, the car is his.
Short version: It’s a ’57 Benz Pontoon sedan with a straight six. The shadow on the trunk is from a French license plate; a servicemember purchased it new and dragged it back to the US. Same servicemember gifted it to my brother, in the above approximate state.
It has its own aside of briefly running and catching on fire; as far as I know it’s now awaiting restoration, and it is the most solid car I have ever touched.
Great story! I took one for a test drive in ’76… I was impressed by the roomy cockpit (I owned an X1/9 at the time), but drove it around a curve that crossed railroad tracks and that live rear axle reaction/ride soured the experience.
Horrible, just horrible. One of these with fuel injection. Should have come new with some bus passes.
TR7 engine is very much related to Stag V8. SAAB was developing the 99 @ the time & thought that the 4-cylinder would be good in that car – backwards.
SAAB tried a number of fixes & finally developed their 2-liter engine along the same pattern. The valve shims interchange, but not much else.
That said, the Triumph & SAAB engines interchanged in the 99s, should be an easy fit into a TR7, but why bother?
These things are better off as scrap.
Great read. More please.
With the constant questions of “Why?” after the TR-6, we forget that this wasn’t a Triumph designed car. It was a British Leyland (some places I’ve read Austin) design shoved on Triumph for production.
The exact parallel of the Vega being a GM design shoved on Chevrolet.
And they were about equally successful.
Part of the TR-7 design brief was addressing American bumper standards (cf. MGB), and was not convertible at first, as there were fears (unfounded as it turned out) that such would be banned outright. The Ford stalk horn-button (airbag-friendly) is another example of trying to anticipate future legislation.
With lead times as they were, carmakers, esp. foreign ones lacking lobbyists, couldn’t afford to misread capricious bureaucratic decrees and legislation.
Shuttering MG, despite its contented Abingdon workforce and dedicated base of American customers, had to rank as one of the dumbest British mgmt. decisions ever.
I bet a engine swap of a toyota 20R would have worked nicely.
That pic of the TR7 next to the scantily clad woman and the dude with the cigarette would have made a hell of a album cover. I could just see Joe Jackson putting it out.
I wonder what’s so big she needs that abacus to calculate the size of it. Anyway I think that’s the guy’s race car bed and not s real TR7
A friend of mine had a TR7 convertible. She called me over to her house once to see if I could help her with a problem: When she turned on the headlights, they started alternately raising and lowering, left, right, left, right…. I poked around a little and learned that the wiring for the motors to move the headlights up and down was all through the switch; there wasn’t a separate relay. I walked away shaking my head…don’t remember how they eventually got fixed.
Perhaps the TR7 would have made a better race-car bed than a car….
I love me some elderly BMC products, I know it’s foolish but either you love LBC’s or you don’t .