1973 Triumph Spitfire. Click image to enlarge
Story and photo by Bill Vance
The Triumph Spitfire two-seater roadster was introduced for 1963 as a more affordable sports car for those who didn’t want, or couldn’t afford something larger like the Austin-Healey or Triumph TR4. It was Standard Motor Company’s better answer to British Motor Corporation’s MG Midget/Austin Healey Sprite twins, and like those two it inherited much from small economy sedans. Standard Motor Company had become part of truck builder Leyland Motors in 1961, so the Spitfire was still a Standard design.
The basic components of the Spitfire came from the Triumph Herald sedan that had made its debut in 1959 with a 948-cc, 38-horsepower four-cylinder, overhead valve engine. This engine had started life in the 1953 Standard Eight with only 803 cc and 26 horsepower, and by the time it got into the Spitfire it was up to 1.1 litres and 63 horsepower, thanks in part to twin SU carburetors.
This was adequate at the time, considering that the Spitfire weighed only 705 kg (1,555 lb). Power went to the rear wheels through a floor-shifted, four-speed manual transmission with the top three gears synchronized.
It led its class in suspension by inheriting the Herald’s fully independent type comprised of A-arms, coil springs and anti-roll bar in front, and swinging axles and a lateral leaf spring at the rear. When introduced in the Herald, this rear suspension inspired an English writer to pen one of the most memorable lines in automotive journalism: “Hark the Herald’s axles swing.” We all wish we had written that.
The Spitfire had semi-unit construction with the welded steel body bolted to a backbone frame that splayed out into a “Y” front and rear, in front to accommodate the engine/transmission, and at the rear for the chassis-mounted differential. Steering was rack-and-pinion with a remarkably short curb-to-curb turning circle of only 7.1 m (24 ft), which was shorter than a London cab’s. It gave wonderful manoeuvrability and was a breeze to park. Braking was by front discs and rear drums.
With an overall length of just 3,683 mm (145 in.), the Spitfire was a quite a small car, but in spite of this it carried its lines off very well. The shape was the work of Italian stylist Giovonni Michelotti, and its 5.20 X 13 tires seemed just right. For easy maintenance access the entire front hood and fender assembly hinged upward.
Performance was quite good for an entry level sports car of that era. Road & Track (4/63) reported a zero to 96 km/h (60 mph) time of 15.5 seconds, and a 145 km/h (90 mph) top speed. By way of comparison, the Austin-Healey Sprite (R&T 8/63) achieved zero to 96 km/h (60 mph) in 18.3 seconds and had a top speed of 137 km/h (85 mph).
An optional and very welcome overdrive operating in both third and fourth gears arrived for 1964, as did standard knock-off wire-spoke wheels. Then for 1965 came the Mark 2 version of the Spitfire with four more horsepower, now 67, but performance that remained substantially unchanged. An optional fibreglass removable hardtop was now available.
For 1967, the Spitfire was joined by a hardtop version, the Triumph GT6, a handsome, fastback “mini E-Type Jaguar” coupe powered by an inline six from the Triumph 2000 sedan. It was essentially the four with two cylinders added. The 2.0-litre 95-horsepower six gave much better performance than the Spitfire: zero to 96 km/h (60 mph) in 12.3 seconds and a top speed of 172 (107) (R&T 4/67).
The GT6 Mark 2 coupe arrived two years later, now with a fully articulated rear suspension replacing the Spitfire’s swing axles. It went through a Mark 3 version before being discontinued in 1973.
Back to the Spitfire, the Mark 3 arrived in 1967 with a slight restyling and the front bumper raised so that it almost obscured the grille, a change necessitated by bumper height regulations. Power now came from a 75-horsepower, 1.3-litre, overhead valve four from the Triumph 1300 front-drive sedan.
The Mark IV (now using Roman numerals) replaced the Mark 3 for 1971. Its most outstanding feature was replacement of the old swing axles with a fully articulated independent rear suspension, a la the GT6. Its transmission was now fully synchronized, and Micholetti had freshened the body and gave it a squared off tail similar to the TR6’s.
By this time North American emissions regulations were biting into engine power and the Spitfire suffered too. In an effort to retain performance, a 1.5-litre engine was fitted in 1973 for the North American market (others got it for 1975), making it the Spitfire Mark IV 1500. Even with the larger engine, power was still only 57, although they were now quoted as SAE (Society of Automotive Engineers) net ratings, which were more realistic than earlier gross figures.
This carried the Spitfire through its last five years; it was discontinued in August 1980 because debt-ridden British Leyland was phasing out sports cars. In a remarkably long lifetime of 18 years more than 300,000 had been built.
The Spitfire had admirably filled its intended role as an affordable, good performing, entry level sports car, albeit with the swing axles’ quirky handling in the early years. It was popular in its day and still enjoys a specialized following as a desirable collectible.