Curbside Classic: 1955 Triumph TR2 – Who Is Number One?

British roadsters could not remain in the ‘30s forever, though some tried to very hard (looking at you, Morgan). Some makers were quicker than others off the mark, of course. After having bought the remains of a bankrupt Triumph, whose works had been utterly destroyed by the Luftwaffe’s many raids on Coventry, Standard elected to revive the brand pretty much from scratch. The pre-war-looking 1800 roadster and a pair of peculiarly-styled saloons were proposed initially, but then came the masterstroke, the sports car that everyone was waiting for. All hail the TR… 2?

Woah there, Standard-Triumph, hold your horses. Did you start a brand-new generation of models with a 2? What kind of pre-decimal nonsense is this? No worries, it all started with an X, actually.

At the 1950 Paris Motor Show, Triumph displayed a very sleek (and very short) drop-top with hidden headlamps dubbed TRX. It sat on a cut-down Standard Vanguard chassis, but was only devised for publicity purposes, not production. It did manage to garner a lot of attention though, so Triumph pressed on with their work.

In October 1952, the firm seemed ready for prime-time and exhibited the 20TS, also known as Triumph Sports. The principle was not too different from the TRX, except the body was styled far more conservatively. They had brochures printed and everything. But Standard-Triumph boss Sir John Black felt the car might need a bit of last-minute fine-tuning, so he roped in BRM driver Ken Richardson to get his impression of the car. It was pretty negative, so the bun went back in the oven for six months.

And this is what finally launched at the 1953 Geneva Motor Show. The tail was completely redesigned, the cockpit widened, the suspension reworked, the engine improved and the chassis stiffened. The stillborn 20TS was now pretty much a new car, so they renamed it TR2. Even though it was the third new Triumph roadster. But who’s counting?

The TR2 was immediately fêted as one of the best 4-cyl. roadsters ever to be made. The styling was (as ever, with Triumph) a bit strange, but blended modernity and tradition with aplomb. But the TR’s secret weapon was its engine. The “big” 2.2 litre Standard four was initially seen in Ferguson tractors in 1947, but that same year, Standard launched their groundbreaking post-war saloon, the Vanguard. Production started in the spring of 1948 with a 68hp 2.1 litre version of the tractor engine. Using this as a base, Triumph shrank it down to a shade under 2000cc, made dozens of other modifications, stuck two SU carbs on it and, lo and behold, squeezed 90hp out of it.

This was a lot of power for a minimal amount of car, enabling the Triumph to claim over 100mph in top speed. In fact, just two months after the TR2’s launch, a production car with a bit of extra streamlining (tonneau cover, rear spats, etc.) managed to reach 125mph. This attracted the attention of Britain’s smaller carmakers, who relied on majors like Austin, Ford or Standard-Triumph for their engines: for instance, the Morgan +4, hitherto motivated by the Vanguard motor, switched to TR power as soon as possible, gaining over 20hp and comforting its sporting credentials in one fell swoop.

It’s clear that Triumph had a good thing going with their new roadster. From a cost-performance point of view, the TR2 was head and shoulders above everything else on the market. I guess the Austin-Healey might also fit in this table (it would have cost £1063 at the time), and it did make for a serious competitor performance-wise, but with a 2.7 litre engine, it was in a different class for European customers.

Before the TR2, Triumph had little notoriety outside of the Britain and some corners of its fading Empire. But the hot little roadster changed all that and word spread quickly, in Europe, the US and beyond. The American market was key, of course – a veritably unquenchable thirst for Triumph drop-tops was created, not unlike what happened to MG a few years prior. North America was a large enough market for both Triumph and MG to thrive, and so they did for several decades.

The TR2, good though it was, had a short life. By September 1955, it was replaced by the TR3. Finally, Triumph were following some sort of numbering logic – which they kept going to the TR8, 25 years hence. That’s quite the dynasty.

In two and a half years, Triumph built 8636 units, of which only 2823 were sold domestically – and a few of those later migrated to Japan, it seems… A significant share of the export cars went Stateside, of course.

Hundreds of thousands of TRs owe their existence to this excellent first effort. Who is number one? The TR2.