1981 Triumph TR8
1981 Triumph TR8. Click image to enlarge

By Bill Vance; photos by Paul Williams

Photo Gallery:
Triumph TR8, 1980-1982

The Triumph Cycle Company of Coventry, Warwickshire, England – a bicycle and motorcycle maker – began building cars in 1923, changing its name to the Triumph Motor Company in 1930. It did reasonably well for a while but by 1939 the company was in receivership.

Triumph was acquired by the Standard Motor Company in 1945, becoming Standard Triumph. It was absorbed by truck maker Leyland Motor Corporation in 1961, which ultimately, through a series of mergers and acquisitions, became part of British Leyland.

Triumph cars were little known in North America until after the Second World War. The first ones to arrive in the late 1940s were the 1800/Renown sedan and the 1800/2000 roadster. These were followed in 1950 by the little knife-edge design Mayflower sedan.

1980 Triumph TR8
1980 Triumph TR8. Click image to enlarge

Triumphs sold in limited numbers in Canada and the United States until the arrival of the Triumph TR2 roadster in 1954. In spite of its mundane roots, including a pre-war Triumph Flying Nine chassis, independent front suspension borrowed from the Mayflower and an engine shared with the Ferguson tractor and the Standard Vanguard sedan, it immediately captured the attention of sports car enthusiasts. For not much more than the popular MG TD the TR2 offered modern styling and much higher performance, including a top speed in excess of 161 km/h (100 mph).

The original Triumph TR series went through many models, culminating in the 1969-1976 six-cylinder TR6. But during this period it remained basically the same body-on-frame car, although the TR6 did get independent rear suspension.

Then for 1975 the TR6 was replaced by the all-new TR7. Its unit construction, MacPherson strut front suspension and wedge-shaped styling were a complete departure from the past. It reverted to a four-cylinder engine and a solid rear axle.

1981 Triumph TR8
1981 Triumph TR8
1981 Triumph TR8. Click image to enlarge

The wedge-shaped profile of the British-styled TR7 was, however, somewhat controversial after the distinctiveness of the Italian Michelotti-styled TR6. And the heavy, black, safety-induced bumpers gave it a rather foreboding look.

The TR7 was built from 1975 to 1981, but suffered some production and quality problems related at least in part to the labour difficulties that the declining British auto industry was going through. The result was that the TR7 didn’t command the same loyalty as the earlier TR series.

In spite of having been planned from the beginning to accommodate a V8 as well as the new four, it took a surprisingly long time to get the TR8 developed. When the last chapter in Triumph’s sports car history finally arrived for 1980, in coupe and convertible forms, it was essentially a TR7 fitted with a V8.

The Triumph’s V8 engine had American roots, having been acquired from General Motors by Triumph’s parent in 1965. It was a 3.5-litre overhead valve unit with an aluminum block and cast-in iron cylinder sleeves. GM had developed it for its intermediate sized cars and it first appeared in the 1961 Buick Special and Oldsmobile F-85.

After a few years GM decided that the little V8 was too expensive to continue, so Rover acquired the rights and tooling. When Rover and Triumph came together under the British Leyland banner the engine was now in the same family and thus was available to Triumph.

1981 Triumph TR8
1981 Triumph TR8. Click image to enlarge

Because the TR7 had been designed with an eight in mind, the transition from the TR7 to the TR8 was a relatively easy one. As expected, when it got into the hands of the testers it proved to have excellent performance.

Road & Track (6/’80) recorded a quick zero to 96 km/h (60 mph) time of 8.4 seconds, compared with the TR7’s 11.5 (R&T 9/’79). Top speed for the TR8 was 193 km/h (120 mph), and for the TR7, 175 (108).

To handle the extra performance of the V8, the TR8 got larger brakes and stiffer springs and shock absorbers. Power steering was now standard, as were alloy wheels. The battery was relocated to the trunk to help counteract the added weight of the engine.

With its modern unit construction, snug cockpit and the smoothness and performance of an American V8, the TR8 should have been a triumph for British Leyland. Alas it wasn’t. It lasted for only two years, during which just under 2,500 were built. The TR8 was a victim of several factors: the reputation established by the TR7’s spotty reliability record, the sinking of the British industry into confusion and disorder, and the rise of Japanese sports cars such as the Datsun Z-series.

It was a sad end for an industry that had introduced North America to the fun and camaraderie of sports car ownership, and had virtually “owned” the field in the 1950s and 1960s with cars like the Jaguar, MG, Austin-Healey, and of course, the Triumph.

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