Way of the Wedge: The Triumph TR7 and TR8

TR7 LAUNCH

Since the ramp-up of Triumph TR7 was slow and fraught with problems, British Leyland decided to concentrate on cars for the U.S., which was expected to be the new car’s biggest market. The TR7 finally had its American press introduction in January 1975 and went on sale in April.

Reaction was decidedly mixed. On the positive side, the TR7’s handling was quite good, with sharp steering and a tight turning circle. It was more comfortable than the TR6, with a roomier cabin and available air conditioning, and it returned reasonable fuel economy, a good thing in the wake of the OPEC embargo. On the negative side, the brakes were unimpressive, the four-speed’s gearing was too short for unstressed freeway cruising (particularly since overdrive was not available), and the federalized 1,998 cc (122 cu. in.) four-cylinder engine couldn’t match the muscle of the TR6’s 2,498 cc (152 cu. in.) six. Straight-line performance was adequate but not inspiring: 0-60 mph (0-97 km/h) in around 11 seconds and a top speed of about 107 mph (172 km/h).

1977 Triumph TR7 front copyright 2009 John Catlow (per)
The five small grilles on the trailing edge of the Triumph TR7’s bonnet are a vestige of the more prominent grilles featured on the original MG Magna concept in 1971; here, they feed air into the ventilation system. Most, if not all, Speke-built TR7s shared this bonnet, with its single prominent central bulge, but later cars had a new bonnet with a second, inset bulge to provide clearance for the carburetors of the Rover V8. Four-cylinder cars used the same bonnet, presumably for reasons of production economy. (Photo: “SEPTEMBER 1977 TRIUMPH TR7 1998cc DCW737S” © 2009 John Catlow (Leichester-Vehicle-Photography); used with permission)

The harshest criticisms were of the TR7’s styling. Leyland advertising trumpeted the wedge as “the Shape of Things to Come,” but many critics and some BL dealers thought it rather ghastly. The most notorious response was that of designer Giorgetto Giugiaro, who, according to legend, was horrified to discover that the side sweep was on both sides of the body; when he first saw the TR7 at the 1975 Geneva show, he allegedly thought (or hoped) that it was only a styling concept, not a production car.

With a starting price of around $5,100, the TR7 was over $700 more expensive than an MGB tourer — the MGB GT was dropped in North America in December 1974, probably to avoid competing with the TR7 — but about $200 cheaper than the TR6, which remained available into the 1976 model year. Early TR7 sales were promising, although to Leyland’s surprise, the new car’s edge over the MGB was never very great.

Unfortunately, many early TR7 customers were soon grumbling about the new car’s fit and finish and mechanical reliability. Commonly cited complaints included overheating, head gasket failure (with an attendant risk of warping the aluminum head), timing chain failure, and various electrical problems. Warranty costs averaged more than $500 per car and contemporary owner surveys found considerable dissatisfaction with dealer service.

Automotive historians frequently lay the blame for the early TR7’s woes on the supposed inexperience and poor attitudes of the Liverpool workforce, quite a few of whom were new to the auto industry. Former Speke workers, interviewed for a union-sponsored publication in 1978, complained of a litany of issues beyond their control, including constant engineering and specification changes (numbering in the thousands), frequent shortages of tools and equipment, and serious organizational problems such as sending parts down the line in the wrong order for the cars that were to receive them. Workers also contended that management pressure to speed up production effectively discouraged shop foremen from stopping the line to address problems; workers felt that quality control did not seem to be a high priority for factory management.

1977 Triumph TR7 rear copyright 2009 John Catlow (per)
Fixed-head Triumph TR7s had a nominal 10.3 cu. ft. (292 L) of cargo space, reduced somewhat on the TR8, which had its battery in the boot. The taillights are not one of the TR7’s more attractive aspects (although the use of a body-colored molding on later cars helps somewhat), and a number of facelift proposals included substituting the units from the Rover SD1 saloon. All TR7s had provision for rear side marker lights, but they weren’t always fitted in markets that didn’t require them; cars without them had black plastic inserts to fill the space. (Photo: “SEPTEMBER 1977 TRIUMPH TR7 1998cc DCW737S” © 2009 John Catlow (Leichester-Vehicle-Photography); used with permission)

Many of the TR7’s reliability issues were eventually rectified, but that took about two years and did little to restore lost buyer confidence. In 1977, consumer advocate Ralph Nader and the Center for Automotive Safety filed a complaint with the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) alleging that the TR7 had more than two dozen serious defects. In July 1978, owners filed a $15.5 million class-action lawsuit against British Leyland.

The non-U.S. Triumph TR7 debuted at the Geneva show in March 1976 and went on sale in Great Britain and Europe in May. Externally, the only major difference was revised bumper covers with no built-in overriders, reducing overall length by 5.5 inches (140 mm). Under the hood, the eight-valve engine had higher compression, no emissions controls, and two S.U. carburetors, giving 105 hp DIN (77 kW) and 119 lb-ft (161 N-m) of torque, enough to trim 0-60 mph (0-97 km/h) times to less than 10 seconds and raise top speed to 110-112 mph (177-180 km/h). The TR7 was still no match for a V6 Ford Capri, but with a starting price of £2,999 (around $5,400) was usefully cheaper. To help its case, Leyland terminated European sales of the MGB and Midget in June.

All TR7s received several useful new options for the 1976 model year. The first was automatic transmission, the three-speed Borg-Warner Model 65, which was offered in most markets except California. Second was a five-speed gearbox, borrowed from the Rover SD1. In addition to its overdrive top gear, the five-speed was accompanied by a sturdier rear axle with a shorter (higher numerical) 3.90 ratio, larger drum brakes, and wider H-rated tires. The combination provided calmer high-speed cruising while benefiting performance, fuel economy, and, as it turned out, durability. The five-speed proved so popular that Triumph had trouble keeping up with demand, but it was finally standardized in all markets in 1978.

1979 Triumph TR7 Tartan interior copyright 2010 Murilee Martin (per)
Most of the earliest TR7s had all-black interiors (sometimes including the headliner!), which made for a rather gloomy ambiance. In the spring of 1977, Triumph added an optional Tartan interior, with red, blue, or green plaid cloth inserts in the seats and door panels. These were usually but not always combined with color-keyed carpets; it’s hard to tell if this particular car has mismatched carpets or if they’ve just faded badly from the original dark red. More subdued color combinations were offered later in the model run. (Photo © 2010 Murilee Martin; used with permission)

In mid-1976, the U.S. market also got the first of what would be an assortment of special editions, including a regional Southern Skies package and a Victory Edition, commemorating the TR7’s achievements on the racetrack (see sidebar below).

SIDEBAR: Triumph TR7 in Competition

Whatever critics thought of its looks, the fixed-head Triumph TR7 had a sturdy structure and a competent chassis capable of handling considerably more power than the stock engine produced. In 1976, British Leyland’s Competitions Department [sic] began campaigning the TR7 in European rally events. The rally cars were powered by the 16-valve engine from the racing Dolomite, making 200 to 220 hp DIN (147-162 kW). (We’re not sure how BL homologated that combination, since the 16-valve engine had still not been installed in production TR7s; we assume that they were able to homologate the cars and engines separately.)

The works rally team got off to a slow start due to mechanical problems, but in August, drivers Tony Pond and Dave Richards managed a respectable third place at the Manx Trophy Rally, followed by another third-place finish at the Castrol 76 Rally two months later. In February 1977, Pond and Richards won Belgium’s Boucles de Spa Rally, the TR7’s first European victory.

In 1978, the works team discarded the four-cylinder engine for the 3,528 cc (215 cu. in.) Rover V8. Dubbed “TR7 V8,” the new cars were far more powerful than the four-cylinder TR7s, initially making about 260 hp (191 kW), later increased to as much as 320 hp (235 kW) with fuel injection. The V8 cars were more challenging to drive than the fours, but proved quite formidable, enabling Tony Pond to win the 24 Hours of Ypres and Manx International in 1978. Pond briefly parted ways with British Leyland in 1979, but returned in 1980 for another string of victories at Ypres, the Manx International, Rothmans Manx, and the Eaton Yale Rally Sprint.

Starting in 1977, British Leyland’s U.S. and Canadian organizations also campaigned TR7s in Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) and Canadian Auto Sports Club (CASC) rallies, racking up eight victories in their first season alone. Seven of those went to American driver John Buffum, earning him the SCCA Pro Rally Championship and the North American Rally Cup. Buffum went on to win the SCCA Pro Rally cup in 1978, 1979, and 1980.

Racing TR7s also competed in SCCA road racing events, with Bob Tullius of the Virginia-based Group 44 team achieving five consecutive D-Production victories in the 1976 season. Group 44 subsequently turned their attention to the Jaguar XJ-S, but later ran two TR7 V8 cars in the 1979-1980 SCCA Trans Am and International Motor Sports Association (IMSA) GTO series, with great success. In 1979, Lee Mueller also took the SCCA D-Production championship in a four-cylinder TR7 prepared by Huffaker Engineering.

British Leyland withdrew factory racing support after the 1980 season, but privately owned TR7s and TR8s continued to compete for several years afterward. In 1981, for instance, Ken Slagle won the C-Production title in a TR8 convertible.

6 Comments

  1. I enjoy your articles. Please note that of the 2 spellings you have used, “Herald” is correct, as in “one who brings news”. “Harold” is incorrect. My sister had one in the Bahamas and it was notable for its “backbone” frame with outriggers to support the body. Not very rigid but no small British cars were at the time and the Herald wasn’t the worst.

    1. Eek — how embarrassing. The perils of putting something up late at night. I’ve fixed that…thanks!

  2. Aaron,
    The text of the initial Triumph article appears to be cut off on the right side.
    JJD

    1. Sorry about that. It was a word wrap issue in the bibliography, which I believe I’ve now fixed. (I didn’t notice it immediately because it doesn’t happen in all browsers.)

  3. I had a silver 1979/80 TR7 convertable with the red Tartan interior like the picture on page 3. The red carpet did indeed fade to orange then yellow after only a few days worth of parking at the beach (northern CA) with the top down. Pretty pathetic but representative overall of the materials and workmanship of the whole car.

    I bought it new thinking with proper care and maintenance, it would be a decent ride. In 26K miles over 2 years it went through 3 head gaskets, the ignition system, brakes, clutch and pretty much any seal that came into contact with any liquid – oil, coolant etc.

    When it did run it was fun to drive, especially up and down the coast highway. Such extravagances were usually punished by a trip to the dealer for more $$$ of repairs.

    About the only good thing about it was that it was a chick magnet. One chick picked me up and dropped me off at the repair shop often enough eventually married me – probably out of sheer pity.

  4. Drove my TR-7 Victory Edition almost 100,000 miles with no problems, and often drove at 90 mph on Louisiana highways for extended periods. Guess I was lucky, but the car was great, except the paint did fade.

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