The Triumph TR7 emerged from the most tumultuous period in the history of the British auto industry — the last and most controversial of a long line of Triumph sports cars. In this installment of Ate Up With Motor, we examine the tangled history of the 1975-1981 Triumph TR7 and its V8-powered sibling, the short-lived Triumph TR8, and take a quick look at the history of Triumph itself.
FROM BICYCLES TO BRITISH LEYLAND
Although it is most known as a British carmaker and motorcycle manufacturer, Triumph was originally founded by a German immigrant, Nuremberg-born Siegfried Bettmann, as a reseller of imported bicycles and sewing machines. The firm was initially called the S. Bettmann & Co. Import Agency, but in 1886, Bettmann adopted the trade name Triumph, and the company subsequently became the Triumph Cycle Co. Ltd. By the 1890s, Triumph was manufacturing its own bicycles in a factory in Coventry. It offered its first motorcycle in 1902 and its first three-wheeler in 1903, but four-wheeled passenger cars didn’t follow until April 1923, about two years after Bettmann bought out the defunct Dawson Car Company works on Clay Lane in Stoke Heath, a northeastern suburb of Coventry.
By the 1930s, the Triumph Motor Co. Ltd. (as it had been registered since 1930) offered a variety of upscale four- and six-cylinder models, even dabbling briefly with an eight-cylinder sports car, the Dolomite, designed by experimental engineer Donald Healey. Despite its proliferation of products, however, Triumph’s volume was never large — total prewar production amounted to fewer than 50,000 units — and the Depression made slow sellers of expensive cars like the 16 HP Gloria Six, whose price would buy three Ford Model Y saloons.
The sale of the cycle business in 1936 provided only limited relief and by the summer of 1939, Triumph was in receivership. That September, it was purchased by Thomas W. Ward Ltd., a steel-making firm, but the outbreak of war stymied plans to resume production under the management of Donald Healey. Triumph’s Gloria Lane factory was sold to the government, while the original Clay Lane works were leased to Armstrong Whitworth for the manufacture of military aircraft. The latter was decimated by the Luftwaffe in November 1940 and there was little left by the time the Standard Motor Company purchased the Triumph name and remaining assets in 1944.
The initial postwar Triumphs, now built at the Standard works in Canley/Fletchamstead, a southwestern suburb of Coventry, were wholly unrelated to their prewar predecessors, using Standard engines and running gear. The early postwar cars were fairly expensive, aimed at the Jaguar 1-1/2 Litre (which used the same engine), but they were supplemented from 1949 by the tiny and much cheaper Mayflower sedan, developed for a vain assault on the American market.
By 1950, Standard managing director Sir John Black was keen to add an MG-style sports car to the line. After a failed attempt to buy Morgan, Standard-Triumph developed its own in-house design, the Triumph TR2. Introduced in Geneva in early 1953, the TR2 was an eccentric-looking but rugged roadster, powered by a well-massaged version of Standard’s big four. The TR2 was somewhat more expensive than an MG TF but a good deal faster, capable of perhaps 103 mph (165 km/h) in stock form. With muscular performance and a reasonable price, the TR2 and its TR3 and TR3A successors found many fans in the U.K. and abroad.
Nonetheless, by 1960, Standard-Triumph’s finances were shaky, overextended by new model development costs and recent expansions, including additional assembly facilities in Canley and a new factory in Speke, in southeastern Liverpool. A suddenly drop in export sales forced massive layoffs and production cuts, and so in December, the board agreed to a merger with a better-funded partner, truck and bus manufacturer Leyland Motors. The merger was initially quite cordial, but as Standard-Triumph’s losses continued to mount, the new owners began to exert greater control. In August 1961, Leyland dismissed most of Standard-Triumph’s directors and sacked hundreds of senior executives, replacing them with Leyland people like Donald Stokes, who would be appointed Standard-Triumph managing director in 1963.
Under Leyland management, Standard-Triumph abandoned the Standard marque and introduced a range of new Triumph models, including the compact Herald and Vitesse, the Herald-based Spitfire roadster, the 2000 executive saloon, and the front-wheel-drive 1300, all developed by Triumph chief engineer Harry Webster and designed by Turin’s Giovanni Michelotti. Leyland further bolstered its passenger car offerings with the acquisition of Rover in 1967. Although the 2000 and Rover P6 were direct rivals, Triumph and Rover each had models and expertise the other did not. Together, they commanded a respectable 10.6% of the British market and Leyland had ambitious plans to boost Triumph production to as many as 200,000 units per year.
By the autumn of 1967, an additional merger was in the works: The Wilson government was pushing for a consolidation of Leyland and British Motor Holdings, which included BMC (Austin/Morris/MG/Riley/Wolseley) and Jaguar. The merger was completed in the spring of 1968, with Donald Stokes becoming chairman of the new British Leyland Motor Corporation. Triumph managing director George Turnball was reassigned to run the new Volume Car and Light Commercial Division (Austin-Morris), with Harry Webster replacing Alec Issigonis as Austin-Morris chief engineer. Triumph, meanwhile, was grouped with Rover and Jaguar in a new Specialty Division, with Cliff Swindle replacing Turnball as managing director and Rover’s Spen King succeeding Harry Webster as technical director.
BULLET AND LYNX
Among the pressing issues for the new administration was determining the direction of Triumph’s new model development. While the saloons did well in the U.K., the company’s export business depended heavily on the sports cars, which by the late sixties included the popular four-cylinder Spitfire, the six-cylinder GT6 coupe, and the ‘big’ TR roadster; the Michelotti-styled, V8-powered Stag was then in development for a 1970 debut. With the exception of the Stag, all were becoming a bit gray at the temples — even the new TR6, introduced in January 1969, was essentially a Karmann facelift of the TR5/TR250, itself a six-cylinder make-over of the 1961-vintage TR4 — and their future was further complicated by emerging U.S. regulations.
By the time the TR6 debuted, Triumph was working on two all-new sports car models codenamed Bullet and Lynx. The Bullet, designed by Triumph styling chief Les Moore, was a roadster intended to replace the TR6; prototypes were tested with both four- and six-cylinder engines. The Lynx, designed by Les Moore and Michelotti, was a hatchback coupe with a fastback roofline and a Kamm tail, looking a bit like a foreshortened Lamborghini Espada. The Lynx was intended to succeed the GT6, but it would have been somewhat larger, with 2+2 seating. Both cars were to have considerable structural commonality and would likely have shared most of their running gear.
In the wake of the merger, there was a new possibility to consider: the prospect of rationalizing the separate (and ferociously competitive) sports car offerings of Triumph and MG. In retrospect, that notion seems misguided — even the use of Triumph engines and gearboxes in the Mk 4 Midget provoked outrage from the MG Faithful — but from a financial standpoint, an integration of the two lines appeared eminently reasonable. The sports cars represented a small percentage of British Leyland’s total production and the costs of developing all-new models that would meet U.S. safety and emissions standards would undoubtedly be very high.
Leyland management canceled development of the Lynx in 1969, but directed Triumph to continue work on the Bullet as a potential replacement for both the TR6 and the MGB. Around the same time, MG engineers in Abingdon were asked to develop a smaller, mid-engine car, codenamed ADO21, to succeed the MG Midget, Austin-Healey Sprite, and Spitfire. Developed by Harris Mann and Peter Hughes of the Austin-Morris studio in Longbridge, the ADO21 emerged as a low-slung, wedge-shaped coupe with ‘flying buttress’ sail panels, probably influenced by the Zanda concept car Mann’s team had developed for the 1969 London Motor Show. It was designed to accommodate either the 1,275 cc (78 cu. in.) four from the Mini Cooper S or four- and six-cylinder versions of the newer E-series engine.