Grandfather’s Ax: The Many Evolutions of the Triumph TR4, Part 1: TR4 and TR4A

If you replace a car’s body, a few years later replace its chassis, a few years after that replace the engine, and finally replace the body again, is it still the same car? That is the question posed by the Triumph TR4 and its immediate successors. Introduced in 1961 to replace Standard-Triumph’s popular TR3 sports car, the Michelotti-styled TR4 was less new than its appearance would suggest; it would not be until almost eight years and three name changes later that it would truly become an all-new car. In this installment, we begin our look at the curious evolution of the TR line, starting with the 1961-1967 Triumph TR4 and TR4A.

1967 Triumph TR4A badge

THE TRIUMPH TR2 AND TR3

The birth of the Triumph Motor Co.’s first postwar sports car is a convoluted saga that deserves to be explored more fully at a later date, but suffice to say that after several false starts, the initial Triumph TR2 made its public debut at the Geneva auto show in March 1953 and went on sale later that year.

Designed on a very restrictive tooling budget, the TR2 was an awkward-looking little car and its chassis and brakes were as yet underdeveloped, but it boasted a torquey 1,991 cc (121 cu. in.) OHV four, a de-bored version of the 2,088 cc (127 cu. in.) wet-liner engine found in the Standard Vanguard saloon and some Ferguson tractors (which Triumph’s parent company had been manufacturing since 1946). Initial sales were encouraging and really took off with the subsequent arrival of the facelifted TR3, which over the next few years gained worthwhile features like outside door handles and standard front disc brakes, a first for British production cars. The TR3 was a solid commercial hit, with production totaling nearly 75,000 units through the end of 1962.

1954 Triumph TR2 roadster front 3q © 2008 Brian Snelson modified 2014 Aaron Severson CC BY 2.0 Generic
The original Triumph TR2. Note the gaping-mouth grille (redesigned for the TR3 later in 1955), removable windscreen, and cutaway doors. A total of 8,628 TR2s were built between 1953 and the end of 1955. (Photo: “Triumph TR2” © 2008 Brian Snelson; modified 2014 by Aaron Severson and used under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license with modifications offered under the same license)

The Triumph TR3 was what we might call a car of very specific appeal. Particularly in post-1957 TR3A form, it was certainly better-looking than the original TR2, but we would be hard-pressed to call it prettier than a Mk 1 MGA or an Austin-Healey 100, the TR3’s principal rivals. Civility did not rank high on the Triumph’s list of virtues either, owing to high noise levels, a backslapping ride, and slapstick weather protection. Where the TR3 earned its keep was in sheer performance. The power-to-weight ratio was a close match for the pricier Austin-Healey and enabled the TR3 to humble some significantly more expensive sports cars. Moreover, the Triumph was surprisingly fuel-efficient and it was a rugged beast capable of enduring considerable punishment, traits that lent themselves well to rallying and road racing work. The factory competitions department accumulated an impressive array of class victories in the European rally circuits and the TR3 was also very popular with amateur and semi-professional racers, bolstered by a lengthy list of optional competition equipment.

1959 Triumph TR3A front 3q
Built from September 1957, the Triumph TR3A was much like the TR3 save for its wider grille — inspired by the Michelotti-styled “Dream Car” shown at Geneva earlier that year — and the addition of outside door handles. (The TR3A designation was used by the factory, but rarely showed up in advertising or official literature; the cars were usually advertised simply as TR3s.) Late TR3s and all TR3As had Girling front disc brakes, an uncommon feature in that era. Wire wheels were optional, but frequently specified. (author photo)

While the TR3’s success was undoubtedly gratifying to Standard-Triumph management, they recognized that the tastes of sports car buyers can be fickle indeed, so advance planning for a TR3 successor began around mid-1957, with an eye toward a 1959 introduction. As is usually the way of things, early thinking focused on polishing the TR’s various rough edges: better weather protection, a more comfortable ride, and perhaps 2+2 seating. (Take-up for the TR3’s optional rear seat had been surprisingly good, particularly considering that even a largish dog would have complained about a lack of legroom.) There was also serious interest in independent rear suspension, something even Jaguar did not yet offer in those days.

However, in the meantime, Standard-Triumph had many more pressing matters to consider, some of which would have a profound effect on the future of the TR line.

1959 Triumph TR3A rear 3q
With cutaway doors, snap-in side screens, and a rather rudimentary top, weather protection was not a TR3 strong suit; a detachable hardtop was optional. An interesting feature is the small hatch behind the rear license plate, which allows access to the spare wheel (located beneath the boot) without unloading one’s luggage. (author photo)

ZEST, ZOOM, ITALIA

One of the most significant of these developments was the decision in mid-1957 to retain the services of a gifted Italian stylist by the name of Giovanni Michelotti.

Michelotti had begun his career in the mid-thirties as an apprentice for Stabilimenti Farina (founded by Pinin Farina’s older brother Giovanni) and started his own Turin shop in 1949. While he did work for and with some of the other major Italian styling houses, particularly Vignale, Michelotti remained resolutely independent throughout his career. He was introduced to Standard-Triumph in early 1957 through an outside businessman who claimed to know a designer capable of styling and building a complete car in 12 weeks or less at what was by contemporary British standards an outlandishly low price.

If Standard-Triumph managing director Alick Dick and chief engineer Harry Webster were initially skeptical, they soon learned that this was no idle boast: Michelotti was highly inventive, worked cheap, and was extraordinarily fast. According to Webster, it took Michelotti less than 24 hours to not only create a completely new concept for the car that became the Triumph Herald (the first production car he did for the company), but also produce a complete set of scale illustrations. This was fortunate indeed for Standard-Triumph, as chief designer Walter Belgrove had resigned in late 1955, leaving the company’s in-house styling efforts in a state of flux.

1966 Triumph 1200 front 3q © 2012 pyntofmyld CC BY 2.0 Generic
The first production design Michelotti created for Standard was the subcompact Triumph Herald, launched in 1959 to replace the Standard 8 and 10. This is a 1966 Herald 1200, which has a larger, 1,147 cc (70 cu. in.) engine rather than the original 948 cc (58 cu. in.) version. (Photo: “Triumph Herald” © 2012 pyntofmyld; used under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license)

Michelotti’s first pass at a new Triumph sports car was the be-finned, TR3-based “Dream Car” that Standard-Triumph exhibited at Geneva in March 1957. That car was more an audition than a serious production prospect, but later in the year, Standard-Triumph commissioned Michelotti to develop a proposal for a new TR. The result, completed in early 1958, was a prototype codenamed Zest. (Four-letter codenames, initially all beginning with “Z,” were a tactic recently developed by Harry Webster to confuse Standard-Triumph’s competition — a practical move, given the speed with which the company’s suppliers were being absorbed by rivals in the mid-1950s.) Zest rode the latest TR3A chassis, but the new body had a more squared-off shape than the TR3, with fin-like rear fenders, a bonnet scoop, and partly hooded headlights set into the grille. Zest also featured a steel hardtop based on the roof of the Triumph Herald coupe.

1964 Triumph TR4 front © 2008 TR001 CC BY3.0 Unported-AS
The front-end treatment of the production TR4 looks much like Michelotti’s original Zest prototype, although the Zest was narrower (in part because it retained the TR3’s 45-inch (1,143mm) front tread), had a flatter bonnet scoop rather than an asymmetric bulge, and mounted its bumper guards farther inboard. (Photo: “Triumph TR4 (front) © 2008 TR001; resized and modified 2012 by Aaron Severson and used under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license with modifications offered under the same license)

Michelotti subsequently created a third design on the TR3 chassis: a neat fixed-head coupe, assembled by Vignale and sporting a completely new nose treatment with pop-up headlights. This was not an official Standard-Triumph project; Michelotti created it at his own expense to show at the 1958 Turin show. However, the car caught the fancy of executives from Standard-Triumph’s Italian distributor, Ruffino S.p.A., which commissioned Michelotti to revise the design (substituting conventional exposed headlights for the pop-up units), arranged to buy chassis and running gear from Standard, and offered the car to private buyers as the Triumph Italia 2000 GT. About 300 of these were made, all again built but not designed by Vignale.

Standard-Triumph executives liked Michelotti’s Zest proposal, but asked him to go a different direction. The main rationale for the new design was the need to accommodate a new engine: not, as you might expect, the small six that would shortly power the Standard Vanguard Six and Triumph Vitesse (although Standard did apparently consider that possibility, albeit briefly), but an entirely new DOHC four. Codenamed 20X, the twin-cam engine had nearly the same displacement as the wet-sleeve engine (1,985 cc/121 cu. in.), but had oversquare dimensions and five main bearings to the existing engine’s three. Although intended primarily for competition — in June, the company would run three 20X-powered cars at Le Mans — the 20X needed to fit the production car, if only for homologation purposes. That initially seemed a tall order; since the 20X was a good deal bulkier than the existing four, Standard-Triumph engineers assumed that the twin-cam engine would not fit the TR3A chassis without modification.

1959 Triumph Italia 2000 front 3q © 2010 Rex Gray CC BY 2.0 Generic
Under the skin, the Michelotti-styled, Vignale-built Triumph Italia was basically a stock TR3A. The Italia was handsome, but very high prices made for slow sales and many remained unsold by the time Standard-Triumph bought out Ruffino’s distribution contract in 1961. A few dozen Italias were sold in the U.S. in 1962-63. List price was $3,695 POE — fully $1,000 more than a mechanically similar TR3B. (Photo: “1959 Triumph Italia 2000” © 2010 Rex Gray; used under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license)

To that end, around the end of 1958 Standard-Triumph commissioned Michelotti to create two new prototypes, codenamed Zoom. These featured a 4-inch (102mm) wider tread and a 6-inch (152mm) wheelbase stretch ahead of the firewall to make room for the DOHC engine. The Zoom looked quite a bit different from the initial Zest, with headlights similar to those of the Italia 2000 GT and a new grille treatment.

What Zest and Zoom had in common was that neither was a roadster: Both traded the TR3’s cutaway doors, side curtains, and folding windscreen for conventional doors, roll-up windows, and a fixed, curved windshield. The Zoom had a proper convertible top and we assume that had the Zest reached production it would have as well. Those features meant more weight, which made the extra power of the Zoom’s DOHC engine particularly attractive (although in production form it was to be optional, not standard equipment). By year’s end, the Zoom was the frontrunner to become the next TR.

9 Comments

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  1. drifting a little off topic …

    About a year ago I was at an informal show (cruise night) parked next to a ’63 TR4. The couple who owned it had purchased new it on their honeymoon in England, the car and the marriage still intact.

    Perhaps one of the longest current ownerships of one of these cars.

  2. I’m looking for a fully restored 1967 Triumph TR4A IRS, overdrive would be nice, convertible and with left hand drive.

    1. Harry,

      I’m afraid I can’t help with buying or selling cars or parts — sorry!

  3. thanks. Nice article. BTW, the TR2 did not have a folding windscreen. Wish it did. It was, however, removable and could be fitted with optional folding brooklands screens.

    1. Thanks for the clarification — I’ve amended the text.

  4. Thanks for the website. My first new car was a 1966 TR4A IRS; British racing green, wire wheels and knock off hubs. It was hot in summer and cold in winter. Wife (no, we) got pregnant and the Triumph got traded off for a 1968 Opel Kadett station wagon. We have a wonderful daughter and 3 grandkids, but I still miss my TR4A!

  5. While the road-going version of the 2.0 DOHC 20X Sabrina prototype engine was said to put out around 120 hp or more (and around 150-200 + hp in race tune), it would have been interesting to find out how much of a power increase a full production Sabrina DOHC engine would have put out had it been equipped with fuel-injection like on the 150 hp 2.5 Triumph I6 PI.

    One question though is how did the 2.0 Sabrina DOHC compare with the 2.0/2.5 Triumph I6 in terms of size and weight?

    And would a production Sabrina DOHC engine have fitted into models like the Triumph GT6 and (pre-Sprint) RWD Triumph Toledo / Triumph Dolomite?

    1. These are excellent questions to which I unfortunately don’t have answers. My guess (which is worth about as much as guesses usually are) is that the 20X was around the same length, a little taller, and probably more or less the same weight as the 1,998cc Triumph six, but my sources didn’t have any specific dimensions or weight figures, so that’s just a very rough guess. If anyone has real numbers, I’d love to see them.

  6. I had a ’63 TR4 and a ’66 TR4A. Drove them across country, including Chicago to LA with all my earthly possessions. Good cars for their time.

    One aspect you might have mentioned: The TR4 had the world’s first Targa top. Porsche copied it for their 911 Targa.

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