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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Around the same time, Michelotti also created a third design on the TR3 chassis: a neat fixed-head coupe called the Triumph 2000 Italia (later renamed Italia 2000). The Italia, which made its public debut at the 1958 Turin show. did not originate in Coventry; the project was the brainchild of Salvatore Ruffino, head of CESAC SpA, Standard-Triumph’s Italian distributor. Ruffino intended to offer the Italia in low-volume production, establishing a new company, Ruffino SpA, for that purpose. After some further adjustments to Michelotti’s original design, including a new front clip with exposed headlights and a conventional grille, the Italia was launched in 1959, with Vignale adding the Michelotti-designed bodywork and well-appointed interior to TR3 chassis and running gear. (Ruffino hoped to establish his own assembly plant for the cars, to be based in Naples, but he was unable to secure the necessary financing.) Sadly, Standard-Triumph’s initial interest in the project abruptly soured in 1960, leading to a legal battle over ownership of the Italia design and ending any chance of distributing the cars through U.S. Standard-Triumph dealerships. Ruffino threw in the towel in 1962, having built only about one-third of the 1,000 cars originally planned.
Although Standard-Triumph executives had liked Michelotti’s 1957 Zest proposal, they asked him to go in a different direction, commissioning two additional prototypes toward end of 1958. The main rationale for the new designs, which were codenamed Zoom, 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 rather an entirely new DOHC four. Codenamed 20X and nicknamed “Sabrina” (after the well-known contemporary model-actress), 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 1959, 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.
To that end, the Zoom prototypes 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. Consequently, the Zoom looked quite a bit different from the initial Zest, with headlights similar to those of the production Italia 2000 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.