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; its V8-powered sibling, the short-lived Triumph TR8; and 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. Triumph 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 and used 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 sudden 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 later 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.
Over the next year, those plans shifted significantly. By mid-1970, corporate interest in replacing the Midget and Spitfire — which according to author David Knowles was never great — had faded almost completely and the ADO21 was repositioned as a potential MGB/MGC successor. While British Leyland executives liked the ADO21’s looks, there were growing doubts about its mid-engine layout and complex De Dion rear suspension, which would have made it much more expensive to build and risked alienating U.S. dealers and customers, who had expressed a strong preference for conventional engineering. The Bullet’s more orthodox configuration was more to the tastes of American buyers, but its styling was not; J. Bruce McWilliams, head of Triumph’s U.S. organization, considered it hopelessly dated. Worse, it was incapable of meeting the stringent new federal rollover and roof crush standards that had just been announced.
While Triumph reworked the Bullet, the corporate sports car committee solicited an alternative proposal from Harris Mann’s team in Longbridge. Like the Bullet, the Longbridge proposal was to have a conventional front-engine/rear-drive layout with no exotic mechanical features, but it was to share some of the look of the ADO21, which the committee thought would make it look sophisticated and futuristic, despite its mundane specifications. The ADO21 project itself was left to languish and was finally canceled in late December.
For his proposal, Harris Mann took the ADO21’s wedge theme in a new direction, featuring a notchback profile whose substantial rake was emphasized by a dramatic sweep line through the body sides, curving upward from the front wheelhouses through the doors and rear fenders. From the start, the new design was conceived as a roomy two-seat coupe with a Targa-style lift-off roof panel. The full-size mockups, badged “MG Magna,” had large black bumpers (to suit U.S. crash standards), a tiny lip spoiler, and a bulged hood with five sets of rectangular cooling vents. Longbridge also prepared a clay model of a Triumph version, distinguished by the deletion of the bonnet bulge, a unique front bumper treatment, silver trim on the sail panels and roof, and different sweep line, beginning at the nose and tracing a roughly horizontal arc through the fenders and doors.
Concurrently, Spen King commissioned Michelotti to help Triumph’s in-house designers revamp the Bullet. The revised design had bigger bumpers and pop-up headlights, giving it a superficial resemblance — at least from the front — to the Porsche 914. To deal with U.S. rollover and roof crush standards, it adopted a fixed C-pillar and wraparound glass backlight with lift-off T-tops. (Some sources suggest that this configuration was adopted much earlier in the Bullet’s development, apparently based on an undated factory photo showing scale models of the Bullet and Lynx with “1972” and “1973” number plates. However, David Knowles’ account, based on interviews with BL personnel and written with extensive access to corporate archives, implies that the T-top design was actually a later response to federal regulations.) As a backup, Les Moore asked freelance stylist William Towns, then a Triumph consultant, to prepare an alternative design, although it’s not clear if it ever reached the model stage.
Both proposals were presented to BL management in July 1971. The MG Magna concept was the clear winner; the Bullet’s only supporters were Spen King, Triumph sales chief Lyndon Mills, and Jaguar’s Sir William Lyons. The Towns proposal also failed to make an impression on the board and so Harris Mann’s concept carried the day. However, Donald Stokes decided that the MG Magna version of the Longbridge proposal should be engineered and sold by Triumph, not MG. Longbridge’s proposed Triumph version was abandoned and plans to replace the MGB went on the shelf.
Few people at Triumph were pleased with the decision — Bruce McWilliams strongly disliked the Longbridge design and Spen King tried unsuccessfully to convince Lord Stokes to tone down its more radical elements — but they were now left to make the best of it.
THE TRIUMPH TR7 EMERGES
The TR7, as the new model was christened, was a significant departure from its predecessors in many respects. First, it would have monocoque construction; while Triumph was no stranger to unit bodies, which had been used on many of its sedans since 1963, all of its previous sports cars except the Stag had been body-on-frame. Second, the TR7 would abandon independent rear suspension for a four-link live axle on coil springs. This was probably at least partly for cost reasons, but it also stemmed from Spen King’s oft-expressed mistrust of contemporary independent rear suspensions, many of which had an undesirable propensity for undesirable camber changes.
In front, the TR7 would exchange the earlier TR’s double wishbones for MacPherson struts, probably in part to provide room for a V8 engine. The gearbox and rear axle, meanwhile, were borrowed from the Triumph Dolomite, albeit without the sedan’s optional Laycock de Normanville overdrive. Steering was an Alford and Adler rack-and-pinion setup, while brakes were 9.75-inch (248mm) solid discs in front, 8.0-inch (203mm) drums in back.
While it was designed to accommodate a V8, the TR7’s base engine would be a 1,998 cc (122 cu. in.) version of Triumph’s slant four (see the sidebar below), shared with the Dolomite saloon. The V8 was slated for introduction a year or so after launch; there were also plans to offer the hotter 16-valve slant four from the Dolomite Sprint.
The MG Magna prototype’s lift-off roof was an early casualty of the development process. Harris Mann said later that its engineering had proved troublesome; even the large sunroofs later offered as options took a serious toll on the rigidity of the TR7’s body and we assume a Targa-style roof would have been even more problematic. As a result, the production TR7 was planned only as a fixed-head coupe.
SPEKE NO. 2 AND A SECOND LYNX
The Triumph TR7 was to be built at British Leyland’s Speke No. 2 plant in southeastern Liverpool. Standard-Triumph had acquired its first factory in Speke in 1959 and had purchased space for a second plant a year later, although financial problems delayed the latter’s opening until 1969. Speke No. 2 was one of the only integrated factories in the Leyland empire, with its own welding, painting, sewing, and assembly facilities. It was only about a mile (1.6 km) from No. 1’s stamping presses, which meant that everything but engines and transmissions could be produced in Liverpool.
When TR7 development began, Speke No. 2 was assembling Stags and building the compact Toledo, both of which used stampings produced at the No. 1 plant. However, No. 2 was still operating well below its nominal capacity, a money-losing proposition. In April 1972, British Leyland decided the solution was to make Speke its sports car specialist, building the TR7 and a family of TR derivatives. While the idea of an MG version had been at least temporarily shelved, there was strong interest in a new 2+2, resurrecting the Lynx codename. This was not the earlier Michelotti-designed car, but a new proposal sharing the TR7’s running gear and much of its inner body structure.
Development of the Lynx began in late 1971. It went through several iterations before returning to more or less its original form, the work of Triumph stylist John Ashford. British Leyland management was very optimistic about it, even transferring Toledo production to Coventry in order to accommodate its anticipated volume. Combined with the Sprint and V8 versions, BL projected that the combined volume of the TR7 family could reach 80,000 units a year, enough to put Speke No. 2 firmly in the black. Further economies of scale were expected to accrue from commonality between the TR7 and the forthcoming SD2 sedan, the planned replacement for the Toledo and Dolomite, which was to share the TR7’s front suspension. To finance all this development, Leyland promised to invest some £50 million (about $122 million) a year into Rover-Triumph over the next four years.
It all sounded good on paper — although Bruce McWilliams strenuously disliked the Lynx, insisting it was wrong for the U.S. market — but those plans soon began to slip. First, the TR7’s development proved unexpectedly protracted, thanks in part to management changes (including the merger of Triumph and Rover in early 1973) and British Leyland’s ongoing financial problems.
Triumph had originally hoped to have the TR7 ready quickly enough to replace the TR6 before the arrival of new federal bumper standards, but the new model didn’t enter pilot production until mid-1974. By then, Leyland was teetering, thanks in part to the OPEC embargo. The Lynx program was frozen due to lack of funds and the SD2 was first scaled back and then canceled entirely. By the end of 1974, the British government had commissioned economic adviser Sir Donald Ryder to study the prospects for a massive bailout: the de facto nationalization of British Leyland, which would be completed by the following August.
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).
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.
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.
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).
THE FALL OF SPEKE
The introduction of non-U.S. cars brought TR7 production to nearly 33,000 units for the 1976 calendar year, decent for a two-seat sports car, but still short of break-even. Demand was also cooling, perhaps in part because of the TR7’s warranty issues, which prompted price cuts and incentives to pep up sales. U.S. dealers complained that the TR7 was a harder sell than the MGB and that the various promotions and special editions (most of which included extra equipment for a discounted price) cut into their margins.
To make the car and the Speke plant economically viable, Triumph desperately needed more spin-offs — particularly the Lynx, which had been revived in 1975, shortly after nationalization. By 1977, tooling had begun for a 1978 introduction: somewhat behind schedule, but still a going concern. A few dozen preproduction TR7 Sprints were also built throughout the first half of 1977, along with between 145 and 200 preproduction V8 cars, most of which went to U.S. dealers for evaluation.
All of these projects were complicated by a series of production stoppages that left Speke No. 2 idle for much of March, September, and October, the result of industrial action at suppliers and other BL subsidiaries. In November, just as Michael Edwardes replaced Lord Ryder as chairman of British Leyland, the Speke workforce itself declared the first strike in that plant’s history.
The principal cause of the strike was Leyland management’s decision to terminate the “Mutuality Agreement” that had been part of the Speke workforce’s contract since November 1973, when both plants had switched from piecework pay to fixed day rates. The day rate system was not popular with workers because it made it possible for management to greatly increase the expected pace and volume of work — potentially to unrealistic levels — for no additional pay. To address those concerns, the contract had included a clause requiring management to consult shop stewards on any proposed changes to schedules and job timings (i.e., the expected duration of each job and how many operations workers were expected to complete per hour or per day).
In practice, neither side had been especially happy with how the agreement had worked out. Workers complained that management had repeatedly cut the time allotted for each job while doing little to address the plant’s operational and organizational problems. Shop stewards said they were rarely consulted and when they were, their input was usually ignored; BL management maintained that the stewards had not offered any constructive input. Finally, the company announced that it was abrogating the agreement entirely, which proved to be the final straw for the union local.
The strike lasted four months, bringing TR7 production to a complete halt. The striking workers received little public sympathy; since the publication of the Ryder Report in March 1975, popular opinion had tended to blame the ‘militancy’ of Leyland workers for the company’s problems. (While Lord Ryder’s report was not overly sympathetic to the unions, that report actually attributed most of BL’s productivity shortfalls to limited capital investment; indeed, Michael Edwardes later publicly lamented the primitive conditions of most Leyland factories.)
Even the national Transportation and General Workers Union organization was slow to officially recognize the Speke strike, something the union local attributed to a fear of spoiling relations with Britain’s majority Labour government, which had appointed the right-wing Edwardes to rein in Leyland’s losses. About a year earlier, catastrophic inflation and a harrowing decline in the value of the British pound had forced the government to request a substantial loan from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), which had in turn demanded cuts in public spending — a category that now included the ailing automaker.
Edwardes’ response to the Speke action, announced in February 1978, was to order the closure of the No. 2 plant. The ostensible rationale was to reduce British Leyland’s unused excess capacity (which would be a major theme of Edwardes’ tenure as chairman), but Eddie Loyden, Labour MP for Liverpool Garston, claimed that BL executives told members of Parliament that the plant would have been shut down even if it had been operating at full capacity. Union officials felt the closure was intended to send a message; it was a tactic that British industry would use repeatedly over the coming decade. In any case, the workers in Speke agreed to end the strike and eventually accepted a company severance package in exchange for their cooperation with the closure of the plant in late May. (The No. 1 plant would remain in operation.)
The demise of Speke No. 2 did not mean the end of the TR7, whose assembly shifted later that year to the older Triumph works in Canley, with body stampings now sourced from Pressed Steel Fisher in Swindon. However, the Lynx project would die with the Speke plant, even though much of the 2+2’s tooling had already been purchased. It’s not clear how much of a role the plant closure actually had on the fate of the Lynx; Bruce McWilliams said the decision to cancel it came in an executive meeting in which he reiterated his conviction that the Lynx would not sell in the U.S. The decision to close Speke may have forced the issue, but if BL management had felt there was a market for the Lynx, we assume the project could have been moved to Canley along with the TR7. Workers in Speke suspected that the company simply didn’t have the money for the new model, noting the frequent stops and starts in the Lynx’s development over the previous four years. The same issue may have doomed the Sprint, which was canceled at the same time.
Nearly 6,000 cars were built in Speke in the spring of 1978, but the lengthy strike made 1978-model TR7s rather scarce and the situation did not help the TR7’s popularity. To keep sales alive, Triumph needed something new.
THE TR7 CONVERTIBLE AND THE TRIUMPH TR8
Throughout its life, the TR7’s failure to consistently outsell the much older MGB had caused Rover-Triumph officials a great deal of consternation. The federalized Mark IV MGB was certainly no faster than the TR7 and calling the late rubber-bumpered MG better-looking was a stretch, but the B’s soft top was a strong advantage in the U.S. market. The federal safety standards that had threatened to outlaw convertibles had failed a court challenge in 1972, but the threat of those regulations had helped to make open cars rather thin on the ground by 1975. The fact that the MGB, Midget, and Triumph Spitfire were among the remaining holdouts was undoubtedly a major factor in their continued popularity.
The obvious solution was a TR7 convertible, development of which began not long after the launch of the fixed-head car. Designed by Michelotti, the convertible was almost universally considered better-looking than the coupe, although the drophead required extensive structural modifications to maintain torsional rigidity, including the addition of harmonic balancing weights in the front bumpers. Surprisingly, the convertible was only slightly heavier than the coupe and was stiff enough to avoid compromising the TR7’s handling.
While dealers undoubtedly would have liked the convertible as soon as possible, production didn’t begin until after the TR7 moved to Canley and the first cars didn’t go on sale in the U.S. until late in the 1979 model year. The convertible was very well received and it was clear that it would be more popular than the coupe despite a higher price. Company officials told the press they anticipated more than three-quarters of future production would be convertibles.
At the same time, BL finally announced the much-delayed V8 version, the TR8, which finally went on sale in the U.S. later in 1979. Early federalized cars had 8.1 compression and two Zenith-Stromberg carburetors, good for 133 hp (99 kW) and 174 lb-ft (236 N-m) of torque; California-bound TR8s substituted Bosch K-Jetronic injection, raising output to 137 hp (102 kW) and 180 lb-ft (244 N-m). (Fuel injection was standardized on all North American cars for the 1981 model year.) Since the 3,528 cc (215 cu. in.) Rover engine was somewhat heavier than the slant four, the battery was moved to the boot to maintain weight balance and power steering, never offered on the four-cylinder car, was added as standard equipment.
Although the TR8 was heavier than the four-cylinder car and had a taller 3.08 axle ratio, it was decisively faster than the TR7. Five-speed cars were capable of 0-60 mph (0-97 km/h) in a bit over 8 seconds and a top speed of around 125 mph (201 km/h); even with automatic, the TR8 was a fast car by the standards of its time. Handling remained quite good, aided by a quicker steering ratio, although the brakes still left something to be desired.
The American press was ecstatic about the Triumph TR8, saying it was what the TR7 should have been from the start. Unfortunately, the V8 arrived in the wake of the Iranian Revolution, which sent oil prices soaring and once again made buyers wary of thirsty cars. The TR8 was also expensive: The convertible started just under $12,000, $2,000 more than a TR7 or Datsun 280ZX and $4,000 more than an MGB. Sales were disappointing and by the 1981 model year, BL was offering substantial rebates on new TR7s and TR8s.
The TR7 convertible was introduced in Great Britain and other markets in the spring of 1980. BL also announced the non-U.S. TR8, but only a few were actually built. These featured higher compression and two S.U. carburetors, giving 155 hp DIN (114 kW) and 198 lb-ft (268 N-m) of torque — the same as the Rover 3500 saloon. Sources disagree on whether the cars ever officially went on sale (the consensus appears to be no), although some later ended up in private hands.
BROADSIDE AND BOXER
The demise of Speke No. 2 was only the first salvo in Michael Edwardes’ campaign to reduce BL’s costs, capacity, and headcount. The closure of the MG plant in Abingdon was announced in September 1979. A few months later, the company announced that the Canley Triumph Works would follow by the fall of 1980, with TR7/TR8 production moving to the Rover plant in Solihull.
Around the same time, BL reexamined the possibility of an MG-badged TR7 as a replacement for the MGB, which was slated to die with Abingdon. The MG version, known internally the MG Boxer, was intended as a cheap interim model with tooling costs of no more than £1 million (around $2.2 million). In mid-1983, both the Boxer and existing TR7/TR8 were to be replaced with a more extensively redesigned model, codenamed Broadside. Originally intended as a cheaper version of the defunct Lynx, the Broadside was close to the TR7 in structure, but rode a stretched 89-inch (2,260mm) wheelbase to accommodate the Lynx’s larger doors, tooling for which had been purchased prior to that project’s cancellation.
Like the Lynx, the Broadside was supposed to offer nominal 2+2 seating, while power would be from either the Rover V8 or the 1,994 cc (122 cu. in.) O-series engine, which was supposed to replace the Triumph slant four in mid-1981. Later iterations of the Broadside concept tidied up the TR7’s styling, eliminating the side crease and adding body-colored bumpers, hopefully keeping the design fresh enough to survive until an all-new car could be fielded in the late eighties.
Neither the Boxer nor the Broadside ever got past the prototype stage. A marketing study suggested that Boxer sales would be dismal and its potential to offend MG fans very high, so the project was canceled by mid-1980. The Broadside died after the latest corporate reorganization integrated Rover and Triumph with Austin-Morris in a new Light Medium Cars division. The company was still trying to focus its limited resources on mainstream family cars, so the specialty divisions were seen as secondary concerns.
In May 1981, BL announced the imminent termination of passenger car production in Solihull. This time, there would be no reprieve for the TR7, the last example of which rolled off the line in October. (TR8 production had apparently ended in mid-summer.) The Triumph marque was not long for the world, either: The Spitfire and Dolomite were already gone and with the demise of the TR7 and TR8, the only remaining model to wear the Triumph nameplate was the Acclaim, based on the FWD Honda Ballade. Even that would expire in June 1984; its replacement, still Honda-based, would be badged as a Rover.
FROM SEVEN TO ZERO
For all the production issues and complaints about the Triumph TR7’s styling, performance, and reliability, it actually sold rather well. Calculating an exact production total is complicated by ambiguities and contradictions in the official records, but the TR7 accounted for about 112,000 units between 1975 and 1981, the Triumph TR8 a further 2,700 or so. By comparison, TR6 production amounted to fewer than 95,000 units over a similar period of time.
Nonetheless, it appears that British Leyland never made a profit on either the TR7 or TR8. Production and demand were frequently short of expectations and we assume that the expense of repeatedly transferring production to different factories drove up the TR7’s per-car costs, as did having to ship body stampings for later cars some 60-odd miles (~100 km) from Swindon to Canley or Solihull. Many Triumph experts maintain that the later cars were better built, but from an economic standpoint, the integrated production facilities in Liverpool made much more sense. (Former Speke workers lamented that they had finally gotten the bugs out just as the No. 2 plant was closed.)
Although the TR7 still regularly appears on lists of the worst cars ever made, it has gradually become more collectible. The polarizing styling no longer looks as strange as it once did, overshadowed by far more confrontational subsequent designs, and most of the original mechanical shortcomings can be rectified. Quite a few survivors have been modified over the years, including an abundance of Sprint and V8 conversions.
If nothing else, the TR7 stands as a unique artifact of its time; had it been designed a few years earlier or a few years later, we suspect it would have been a very different car. It was also the last ‘real’ Triumph to date and marked the end of an era for mass-market British sports cars. The latter would eventually return, but as of this writing, we’ve heard of no plans to revive the Triumph marque, which we believe is now owned by BMW. We’re not holding our breath for a TR9, but the Triumph brand was originally created to help a German businessman market his wares to an English-speaking audience, so in that sense, at least, history may yet repeat itself.
The author would like to extend special thanks to John Catlow, Murilee Martin, and Mark Brown for the use of their photos and Professor Huw Beynon of Cardiff University’s Wales Institute of Social and Economic Research, Data and Methods for his kind help in better understanding the Speke No. 2 strike.
In 2012, we licensed a condensed version of this story to the Angie’s List classic cars channel. However, Angie’s List had no connection with the original article.
NOTES ON SOURCES
Information on the development and history of the TR7 and TR8 came from Keith Adams, “Feature: Triumph TRs, 30 years on — The end of the line,” Octane, October 2011, www.classicandperformancecar.com, accessed 3 January 2012, “In-house designs: Triumph SD2,” AROnline, 14 June 2011, www.aronline. co.uk, accessed 4 January 2012, “People: Spen King,” AROnline, 13 December 2002, www.aronline. co.uk, accessed 11 January 2012, “Sports car projects: Triumph,” AROnline, 25 June 2011, www.aronline. co.uk, accessed 4 January 2012, and “The cars: Triumph TR7/TR8,” AROnline, 6 August 2011, www.aronline. co.uk, accessed 4 January 2012; Andy’s TR7 Website, www.andys-tr7.co.uk, accessed 4 January 2012; the Auto Editors of Consumer Guide, “1962-1976 Triumph TR,” HowStuffWorks.com, 4 September 2007, auto.howstuffworks.com/ 1962-1976-triumph-tr.htm, accessed 5 January 2012; “Buffum’s TR7 Wins 1977 Pro Rally Championship,” Triumph Newsletter, Triumph Sports Owners Association Vol. 23, No. 6 (December 1977), pp. 31-35; Marcus Chambers, Stuart Turner, and Peter Browning, BMC Competitions Department Secrets (Dorchester, Dorset: Veloce Publishing Ltd., 2005); Michael Cook, Triumph Cars in America (St. Paul, MN: MBI Publishing Co., 2001); Mike Covello, Standard Catalog of Imported Cars 1946-2002 Second Edition (Iola, WI: Krause Publications, 2001); Mark Dixon, “Triumph or disaster?” Popular Classics April 1993, pp. 43-46; Jim Dunne, “Detroit Report: TR7 convertible and TR8,” Popular Science Vol. 216, No. 1 (July 1979), p. 26; Jim Dunne and Ray Hill, “Small sports cars: big on handling and economy,” Popular Science Vol. 209, No. 4 (October 1976), pp. 32-38; Jim Dunne and Ed Jacobs, “Mid-price sports cars–six exciting performers,” Popular Science Vol. 215, No. 5 (November 1979), pp. 43-50; “Early TR7 Sprint Competition Cars,” TR Drivers Club, 2003, www.trdrivers.com, accessed 23 January 2012; “Five is alive! Triumph TR7” Hot Car March 1977, pp. 50-51; Graham Fountain, “TR7 Sprint Report,” TR Driver, 1991, www.trdrivers.com, accessed 4 January 2012; “Group Test: Two plus twos and a TR,” Motor Road Tests 1979, pp. 94–99; Richard Gunn, “People: Harris Mann,” AROnline, 28 August 2011, www.aronline. co.uk, accessed 10 January 2012; Bill Hartford, “Imports & Motorsports: Automatic TR7,” Popular Mechanics Vol. 147, No. 5 (May 1977), pp. 68-69;Ed Jacobs, “Sleek English convertible – V8 power for new TR8,” Popular Science Vol. 217, No. 1 (July 1980), p. 28; Jonkka’s World Rally Archive, www.juwra.com, accessed 23 January 2012; David Knowles, MG: The Untold Story (Osceola, WI: Motorbooks International, 1997); Michael Lamm, “Driving the Rover 3500 and Triumph TR8,” Popular Mechanics Vol. 154, No. 1 (July 1980), pp. 68-69, 145; F. Wilson McComb, MG by McComb, Second Edition (Colchester, Essex: Osprey Publishing Ltd., 1978); “Motor Road Test No. 22/80: Triumph TR7 Drophead,” The Motor Road Test Annual, pp. 210-212; Dan Neil, “The 50 Worst Cars of All Time,” TIME, 9 September 2007, www.time.com, accessed 5 January 2012; Bill Piggott, Original Triumph TR7 & TR8: The Restorer’s Guide (Osceola, WI: Bay View Books/MBI Publishing Company, 2000); David Price, “Triumph TR8,” AROnline, 1 April 2003, www.aronline. co.uk, accessed 4 January 2012; Chris Rees, Fantasy Cars: An A–Z of the World’s Best Contemporary Classics (New York: Hermes House, 1999); Graham Robson and Richard Langworth, Triumph Cars: The Complete Story, Second Edition (Pitlake, Croydon: Motor Racing Publications Ltd., 1988); Neil Sawyer, “TR7 V8 Rally Car,” TR Drivers Club, 2003, www.trdrivers.com/ tr7_v8_rally_car.html, accessed 4 January 2012; LJK Setright, “TR7: Lousy Icing: Lovely Cake,” CAR June 1976, pp. 50-52, 57; Will Shiers, “The Magnificent 7?” Real Classics May 1998 pp. 6-11; “The Design Council Award Went to the Triumph Marketing Department’s Head,” Unique Cars and Parts, www.uniquecarsand parts. com.au, accessed 6 January 2012; “The Last Waltz,” Classic Motorsports July 2008, classicmotorsports.net, accessed 4 January 2012; The Wedge Shop, TR8.com, www.tr8.com, accessed 9 January 2012; Triumph TR7.com, www.triumphtr7.com/, accessed 4 January 2012; Richard Truett, “Head-to-Head: Ford Capri vs. Triumph TR8,” AROnline, 29 May 2011, www.aronline. co.uk, accessed 4 January 2012 and “The life and times of a Stateside TR7,” AROnline, 1 January 2008, www.aronline. co.uk, accessed 4 January 2012; Tjeerd van der Zee, “Walter Boyce,” RallyBase.nl, n.d., www.rallybase.nl, accessed 23 January 2012; Paul Williams, “History of the Shape,” Team.net, 1995-2011, www.team.net/ TR8/ TR7-TR8-History.html, accessed 4 January 2012; Roger Williams, The Essential Buyer’s Guide: Triumph TR7 & TR8 (Dorchester, Dorset: Veloce Publishing Ltd., 2010); www.triumph-cars. co.uk/, accessed 23 January 2012; and the Wikipedia® entries “Triumph TR7” (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Triumph_TR7, accessed 4 January 2012); and “Triumph TR8” (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Triumph_TR8, accessed 4 January 2012).
Additional information on the Speke No. 2 strike and British labor issues in the seventies came from Huw Benyon, “Engaging Labour: British Sociology 1945-2010,” Global Labour Journal Vol. 2, No. 1 (2011), pp. 5-26, and What Happened at Speke? (Liverpool: TGWU 6-612 Branch, 1978); Brian Marren, “Closure of the Triumph Tr7 Factory in Speke, Merseyside, 1978: ‘The Shape of Things to Come’? 11 June 2009, University of Liverpool Department of History, liverpool.academia.edu /BrianMarren/, accessed 4 January 2012; Theo Nichols, The British Worker Question: A New Look at Workers and Productivity in Manufacturing (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1986); and “Obituary: Eddie Loyden: Hard-left MP not afraid to rebel,” The Guardian 4 May 2003, www.guardian. co.uk, accessed 17 January 2012.
Additional information on the history of Standard-Triumph and British Leyland came from Keith Adams, “History: Timeline 1952-2005,” AROnline, 25 August 2011, www.aronline. co.uk, accessed 10 January 2012, “Marques: Triumph Story, part one,” and “Marques: Triumph Story, part two,” AROnline, 26 July 2011, www.aronline. co.uk, accessed 3 January 2012, “News: It was 30 years ago…” AROnline, 14 October 2011, www.aronline. co.uk, accessed 3 January 2012, “The whole story – Chapter 3: British Leyland, turbulent time,” AROnline, 25 August 201, www.aronline. co.uk, accessed 10 January 2012; David Traver Adolphus, “Visionaries: Henry George Webster,” Hemmings Sports & Exotic Car #22 (June 2007), p. 60; “Archive: Standard-Triumph ‘Saved from Bankruptcy,'” 23 January 1963, reproduced at AROnline, www.aronline. co.uk, accessed 3 January 2012; Serge Bellu, “People in history: Giovanni Michelotti, a great free-spirited designer,” Auto & Design No. 154 (2005), p. 50; Mike Cook, “Passing of a Pioneer,” Hemmings Sports & Exotic Car #20 (April 2007); Ian Elliott, “The road to perdition: Part two” and “The road to perdition: Part three,” AROnline, 25 August 2011, www.aronline. co.uk, accessed 10 January 2012; “Obituary: Lord Stokes,” The Guardian 21 July 2008, www.guardian. co.uk, accessed 10 January 2012; and the following Wikipedia entries: “British Leyland” (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/British_Leyland, accessed 6 January 2012); “Donald Stokes, Baron Stokes (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Donald_Stokes,_Baron_Stokes, accessed 10 January 2012); “Sir Michael Edwardes” (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Michael_Edwardes, accessed 6 January 2012); “Siegfried Bettmann” (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Siegfried_Bettmann, accessed 9 January 2012); “Triumph Cycle” (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Triumph_Cycle_Co._Ltd., accessed 9 January 2012); and Triumph Motor Company, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Triumph_Motor_Company, accessed 9 January 2012.
Additional background on other Triumph models came from “A brief history of Triumph Gloria models – 1933 to 1938,” Pre-1940 Triumph Motor Club, www.pre-1940 triumphmotorclub. org, accessed 9 January 2012; Keith Adams, “The cars: Triumph Herald/Vitesse,” AROnline, 4 July 2011, www.aronline. co.uk, accessed 4 January 2012, “The cars: Triumph 2000/2500 development history,” AROnline, 29 August 2011, www.aronline. co.uk, accessed 10 January 2012, “The cars: Triumph 1300/Toledo/Dolomite,” AROnline, 14 July 2011, www.aronline. co.uk, accessed 4 January 2012; Keith Adams and Dale Turley, “Triumph 1300>Dolomite timeline,” AROnline, 28 July 2011, www.aronline. co.uk, accessed 4 January 2012; Peter Cahill, “History of the Dolomite Sprint,” CMM No. 77 (August 1995), www.triumphdolomite. co.uk, accessed 4 January 2012; Jamie Kitman, “Triumph Dolomite Sprint vs. BMW 2002tii – The 2002 We Never Knew,” Automobile April 2010, www.automobilemag.com, accessed 6 January 2012; “Model specs: 1973-1980 Triumph Dolomite Sprint,” Classic and Performance Car, n.d., www.classicandperformancecar. com, accessed 6 January 2012; “Triumph Dolomite Sprint,” Classic Cars for Sale, 13 May 2011, www.classiccars4sale. net, accessed 6 January 2012; “Triumph Dolomite Sprint,” Unique Cars and Parts, n.d., www.uniquecarsandparts.com. au, accessed 6 January 2012; Bill Vance, “Triumph TR2 (1953-1955),” Reflections on Automotive History (Rockwood, Ontario: Eramosa Valley Publishing, 2000), reprinted on the web (with the permission of the author) at the TR Registry, www.trregistry.com, accessed 9 January 2012; and the following Wikipedia entries: “Triumph Dolomite” (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Triumph_Dolomite, accessed 4 January 2012); “Triumph 1300” (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Triumph_1300, accessed 6 January 2012); “Triumph Toledo” (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Triumph_Toledo, accessed 6 January 2012); and “Triumph TR6” (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Triumph_TR6, accessed 4 January 2012).
Additional background came from Kit Dawnay, “A history of sterling,” The Telegraph 8 October 2001, www.telegraph. co.uk, accessed 5 January 2012; “IMF crisis forced Labour to consider scrapping Polaris,” The Guardian 28 December 2006, www.guardian. co.uk, accessed 5 January 2012; “Sterling devalued and the IMF loan,” National Archives, www.nationalarchives. gov.uk, accessed 5 January 2012; and the Wikipedia article “Fiat X1/9” en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fiat_X1/9, accessed 10 January 2012.
Exchange rates for the dollar and British pound were estimated based on Lawrence H. Officer, “Exchange Rates Between the United States Dollar and Forty-one Currencies,” Measuring Worth, 2012, http://www.measuringworth.org/exchangeglobal/, used with permission. Exchange rate values cited in the text represent the approximate equivalency of British and U.S. currency at the time, not contemporary U.S. suggested retail prices, which are listed separately. Please note that all exchange rate equivalencies cited in the text are approximate, provided solely for general reference; this is an automotive history, not a treatise on currency trading or the value of money, and nothing in this article should be taken as financial advice of any kind!
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