Curbside Classic: Triumph TR6 – Last Call

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(first posted 11/9/2014)    For decades, British roadsters had a spell on Americans. The rivalry between the MG and Triumph, the two leading exponents of the genre, was legendary. They each had loyal adherents to the respective marques, and the stiff competition kept the improvements coming, even if not exactly at breakneck pace. But by about the time this TR-6 first appeared in 1969, the race was essentially over: the new MGC was DOA, and the MGB was quickly slipping into its ossification period; meanwhile the Triumph reveled in its final incarnation of the classic formula: old school, but with a healthy kick of life in it yet.


The TR Series began with the 1953 TR-2. It must have been a bit of a shocker for MG, as it was significantly more powerful and of course vastly more modern looking than the pre-war styled MB TD and TF. The TRs were always a notch more powerful and expensive than the corresponding MGs; the TR-2 established not only the TR formula, but was the very basis for the whole series until the all-new TR-7 appeared in 1975. The TR-6 is a direct descendant of that hoary and rough-riding TR-2, including its old-school body-on-frame (BOF) construction.

After the TR2 wake-up call, MGs enjoyed a somewhat more vigorous rate of development, given that in 1953, the MG’s TD was still very nineteen-thirties in look and feel. MGs went through at least three major new platforms, and the MGB was a substantially more modern unibody design than the corresponding TR-4. Not that it made all that much difference.

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Triumph’s underdog status always led to creative and incremental solutions, and the TR range continued to evolve in ways that most directly addressed its most immediate shortcomings. The 1961 TR-4 had a handsome new body designed by Michelotti, and rack and pinon steering.

In 1965, the TR-4A was blessed with an independent rear suspension to tame the very much alive rear axle.

Triumph TR_250_Valencia_Blue

And in 1967, the TR-5, called TR-250 in the US, finally replaced the rude old four cylinder with a much smoother and lusty 2.5 L six. And yes, it’s true; the old four really was a design that was also used in a Ferguson tractor engine, for what its worth. The Brits liked a bit of sportiness while plowing their fields.

The TR-5 is my personal favorite of the bunch (including the TR-6), since I’m rather fond of the earlier Michelotti design, which looked its best with the revised grille on the TR-5. With its 150hp fuel-injected engine (111 hp carb engine in in the US version TR250), it had quite brisk performance for its day, not to mention a lovely exhaust note. And with the overdrive, one had seven gears to play with. Triumph’s first sports car, the Roadster, was an attempt to compete with Jaguar’s XK series, at lower cost. The TR-5 and 6, with their six cylinders and more refined suspensions, finally approached that goal of a poor man’s Jag.

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Even though I’m not so hot about the TR-6’s styling, which was obviously a low-budget face and tail lift done with help from Karmann re-using the TR-4’s center section, it has its charms, especially if British Roadsters are one’s thing. It’s clearly the most vibrant, appealing and civilized of its era, given the how the MGB became such a pathetic thing, with its hippo-nose, jacked up suspension and feeble 77hp four. The TR-6’s arrival was embraced; the MGB’s decline could only be endured, at best.

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The TR-6 appeared in 1969 with generally enthusiastic reviews, as the old TR magic was still to be found in the right settings. It was still old-school, but hardly ossified.

Triumph TR6 Straight-6_engine

Since US bound TR-6s had a desmogged engine with only 104 hp to the British market’s 150 hp, acceleration in that era of Detroit muscle cars was hardly breathtaking. But it had a useful torque curve, and certainly sounded right, especially with the top down.

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Ergonomically, the Triumph was obviously still old school: a narrow and cramped little cabin; getting in was more like sliding into a sleeping bag. But there was that handsome dash board (literally) to savor as a compensation to the lack of comforts. This car has an after-market burl-wood dash; the stock one was veneer on plywood.

The TR-6 was the best selling of the TR series so far, and some 95 k were made from ’69 through 1976. The fact that 86k of those were exported gives a pretty clear picture what the intended market for the TR-6 was. They might just as well have put the Stars and Stripes on its flank instead of the Union Jack.

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The beginning of the end happened about the same time this TR-6 first appeared in 1969, and reflected the relative dynamic qualities of the two parent companies that had just merged to form British Leyland. The much smaller Leyland was essentially called on to bail out the moribund BMH (formerly BMC). Leyland was clearly the better managed of the two, but it quickly got bogged down in the mind boggling morass of over 100 companies that made up the new company, making everything from appliances to tractors (real ones, that is). Soon, the government would have to bail out the sinking conglomerate.

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It was clear that Triumph, as part of the original Leyland would get preference over MG in the sports car segment, and an all-new TR-7 would soon see the (dismal) light of day as a replacement for the TR-6.  TR-6s like this obviously nicely restored one enjoy an enthusiastic following. Its engine is easily upgraded for more punch, and its ride is much less punishing than its predecessors. Just the ticket for as summer’s day drive into the mountains.

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