RESCUED BY LEYLAND
The fly in the ointment, as you might expect, was money. Standard-Triumph had been profitable for some time, but a great deal of the company’s available capital had gone into a far-reaching expansion/consolidation program, sparked by rival BMC’s acquisition of Fisher & Ludlow, which made the body stampings for some Standard and Triumph cars. Deciding that the only way to ensure Standard-Triumph’s security was to bring the supply chain in-house, Alick Dick had begun buying up suppliers like the Birmingham-based coachbuilder Mulliners Ltd. and suspension manufacturer Alford and Alder Ltd. before they could be absorbed by similarly minded rivals.
Around the same time, Standard decided to get out of the tractor business. Back in 1953, Ferguson had been acquired by the Canadian tractor company Massey-Harris. While Standard-Triumph had renewed their manufacturing contract with the new Massey-Harris-Ferguson conglomerate, the relationship had become increasingly uneasy, culminating in M-H-F’s unsuccessful attempt to snatch Mulliners out from under Standard’s nose in the summer of 1958. By mid-1959, Standard-Triumph had divorced itself from the Canadian firm, a move that brought a short-term infusion of cash, but deprived Standard of a major revenue stream. Most of the proceeds from the divorce went into the purchase of a body-stamping plant in the Liverpool area (later known as Speke No. 1) and land for a second, adjacent plant that would be able to assemble, paint, and trim complete cars; the latter was completed in 1969 as Speke No. 2.
None of these was a bad business decision, but together these purchases left Standard-Triumph’s pockets rather light at what proved to be a very inopportune moment. Export sales, previously strong, suddenly began to slip badly just as the British government, nervous about rising inflation, put the brakes on credit and consumer spending. Standard-Triumph’s total volume plunged by more than 40% from the previous year’s record and by summer the company’s monthly losses had reached £600,000 (equivalent to $1.7 million at the contemporary exchange rate).
Since becoming managing director in early 1954, Alick Dick had devoted considerable energy to finding an outside partner for Standard-Triumph, resulting in ultimately fruitless discussions with the likes of the Rootes Group, Rover (on two separate occasions), and even American Motors. With the situation growing increasingly desperate, Dick approached Sir Henry Spurrier of Leyland Motors, a major British truck and bus manufacturer. Despite the increasingly bloody state of Standard’s balance sheet, Leyland officials were receptive; Sir Henry had been considering a return to the automobile market and acquiring Standard-Triumph was a straightforward way to do so. A deal was announced in December.
Remarkably, Standard-Triumph’s mounting financial crisis did not prevent the company from returning to Le Mans in June 1960. The DOHC-engined TRS prototypes had not finished the race in 1959, but Dick and Harry Webster opted to try again with three new cars, all sporting fiberglass bodies molded in the shape of Michelotti’s Zoom prototypes. Unfortunately, while all three cars made it to the finish line, they were not counted among the finishers because their average speed was deemed insufficient.
The 20X-powered cars would run again in 1961 with better results, but by the late summer of 1960, the Zoom project was losing momentum. While Standard-Triumph was still committed to a new body — unsold TR3s were fast accumulating at Triumph distributors and dealerships — there was now little money to spare for a new chassis. The plans for a longer wheelbase were dropped; it ultimately proved unnecessary in any case, as engineers belatedly discovered that the 20X engine could indeed be shoehorned into the existing TR3A chassis. However, Standard decided that the wider track was worth preserving, particularly since that change required only minor alterations to the existing frame and axle tubes.
This new brief — wider tracks, same wheelbase — meant that the existing Zest prototype was too small and the Zoom too big, so Standard-Triumph went back to Michelotti and asked him to create a Goldilocks version. With customary alacrity, Michelotti returned with a tidy amalgam of the two previous designs. He also added several minor refinements, including the deletion of the bonnet scoops in favor of an asymmetric bonnet bulge, which allowed the low bonnet to clear the carburetors.
Despite Standard’s financial constriction, a few mechanical changes did make the cut, including new rack-and-pinion steering (with a telescoping, collapsible “Impactoscopic” steering column) and a redesigned four-speed gearbox with a synchronized low gear. These revisions were defensible as production rationalization: The steering was an adaptation of the Herald’s, while the all-synchro gearbox had obvious applications elsewhere in the line. Another significant modification was the standardization of the previously optional 2,138 cc (130 cu. in.) version of the wet-sleeve engine, whose additional torque would compensate for the extra weight of the new body. While helpful, this was not a particularly dramatic change, since the big engine differed from the 1,991 cc (121 cu. in.) four only in the bore diameter of the replaceable cylinder liners; the 2.1-liter version was already optional on the TR3A.
THE TRIUMPH TR3B
Although less elaborate than originally envisioned, the TR redesign was still costly; the tooling alone ran to almost £1 million ($2.6 million U.S.), a lot of money for Standard-Triumph at that point. After the merger was completed the following spring, Leyland management — already alarmed by what they saw as a general lack of corporate thrift — considered various cost-saving measures, including the possibility of abandoning the roll-up windows in favor of side curtains. The board eventually concluded that such revisions would be a false economy and approved the design as was. Now officially called TR4, the new sports car went into pilot production in August 1961, nearly two years behind schedule.
There was one final complication, however, this time from overseas. While one might assume that the TR4’s added amenities would appeal to buyers in the crucial U.S. market, Triumph’s North American distributors worried that their buyers might see the new car as a sign that Triumph had gone soft. Part of the TR3’s appeal to Americans was precisely that it was stark and uncompromising; U.S. buyers who wanted a big, plush convertible had many other options. The possibility of automatic transmission, also floated around this time, received a similarly negative response.
The automatic transmission option was not pursued, but Standard-Triumph did agree to continue production of the TR3 for an additional year alongside the new TR4. This was perhaps slightly less inconvenient than it might otherwise have been because the bodies for the two cars were produced at different factories: The TR3’s stampings came from Mulliners (and its Forward Radiator Co. subsidiary) in Birmingham, while the TR4’s body was made at the former Hall Engineering plant in Speke that Standard had purchased in 1959. Bodies were trucked to the Canley-Fletchamstead complex in Coventry for final assembly.
It would have been a simple exercise to mate the old body with the new chassis. In fact, Triumph built two “TR3B” prototypes that did just that, adding wider fenders and a new grille to account for the greater track width. However, the company decided not to go that route, so the actual TR3B was much like the last TR3A, albeit with the new fully synchronized gearbox and the previously optional 2,138 cc (130 cu. in.) engine — a potentially appealing combination for racers.
The TR3B did not actually go into production until March 1962, probably to allow time to clear stocks of leftover TR3As. As it turned out, the TR3B’s career would be very short-lived.
THE TRIUMPH TR4
The Triumph TR4 finally made its public debut in September 1961. In the U.K., it had a basic price of £750, £51 more than the last TR3A, which pushed the price with purchase tax over the £1,000 mark (by £32 5s 3d) for the first time. However, as before, very few TRs were sold in the home market. Most went to the U.S., where the TR4 now listed for $2,849 POE, $174 more than the TR3A (or the TR3B, which did not appear until the following spring). Although the TR4 was more expensive than before, its market position had not really changed: It was still priced roughly halfway between an MGA roadster and an Austin-Healey 3000 Mk II.
At least on U.S. price lists, there were technically two TR4s: a convertible and a hardtop coupe. The latter was not exactly a separate body style, but a convertible with the folding top deleted in favor of a semi-permanent bolt-on hardtop. (We assume the rationale for offering the hardtop as a separate model was to facilitate racing homologation. Hardtop-equipped TR3s had been allowed to compete in the GT classes rather than as sports cars, a distinction the factory was no doubt eager to preserve.)
The hardtop was a novel two-piece affair, conceived by Michelotti and previously seen on the Zoom prototype. The center roof panel, made of steel on all but the earliest cars, could be detached without removing the rear section or its wraparound glass backlight, giving an effect much like the lift-off roof of the later Porsche 911 Targa. Unfortunately, the center panel was too big to fit in the boot, leaving occupants at the mercy of changeable weather. To cope with sudden showers, a snap-on vinyl panel known as the “Surrey top” was offered as an additional extra-cost option.
With either top, the TR4 had a wider and more comfortable cabin and a larger boot than the TR3. The new car was still a two-seater, but the factory again offered a set of rear cushions that could be installed in the tonneau area behind the front seats, providing at least notional capacity for a small child or a medium-size and reasonably compliant dog. A new ventilation system provided face-level vents, rare in British cars of the era, and a new and more powerful heater was optional. In addition to wind-up windows, there was a much-improved convertible top with a large three-section backlight for better rear visibility.
The first indication that the TR4 was still the same familiar brute under its new Italian suit was the ride quality. While the shock absorbers were slightly softer than before and effective spring rates a touch lower (the springs themselves were unchanged), the TR4’s ride remained harsh and choppy enough to threaten directional stability on bumpy surfaces. The TR4 had learned some manners — the steering was sharper than before and the wider track and improved weight distribution made smooth-road handling more nimble than ever — but broken pavement still brought out the Triumph’s thuggish side, a consequence not only of the stiff springs but also of the carryover chassis’ acute shortage of rear wheel travel. Some critics also complained that the quicker steering made the TR4 rather twitchy, particularly given the car’s susceptibility to bump steer.
Some Triumph fans were undoubtedly disappointed to learn that the TR4 was no faster than the TR3A. The 2,138 cc (130 cu. in.) engine now had 105 gross horsepower (78 kW; 100 hp/75 kW net) and 127 lb-ft (172 N-m) of torque, up 5 hp (3 kW) and 10 lb-ft (14 N-m) from the 1,991 cc (122 cu. in.) TR3A, but those increases were neatly canceled by the new body’s slightly greater frontal area and greater weight (up 78 lb (35 kg), according to factory figures). Measured performance was almost unchanged: 0-60 mph (0-97 km/h) in 10 to 11 seconds, a top speed of nearly 110 mph (175 km/h). That was still very good by contemporary sports car standards — drivers of any Porsche 356 other than a Carrera were advised to tread cautiously at stoplights — but not by as commanding a margin as before, leaving some reviewers wondering when the DOHC Le Mans engine would be available. The answer, sadly, was “Never,” although the earlier 1,991 cc (121 cu. in.) wet-sleeve engine was optional for owners looking to campaign their cars in the under-2.0-liter classes.
Nonetheless, the Triumph TR4 was still one of the sportiest sports cars available in its price class, offering strong acceleration, nimble handling, and first-rank stopping power. Rivals like the Sunbeam Alpine or Alfa Romeo Giulietta Spider were a little more livable on real-world roads, but neither stood a chance against the Triumph in any sort of direct performance contest. The TR4 also benefited from Triumph’s comprehensive assortment of competition equipment (most TR3/TR3A pieces would bolt on), as well as the optional but commonly installed Laycock de Normanville overdrive. The latter was usable on every forward gear except first, effectively giving the Triumph seven speeds — very handy for rallying. The overdrive could also be ordered with a shorter 4.10 axle ratio (replacing the standard 3.70), also benefiting acceleration.
Even at its peak, the TR4 never quite matched the popularity of the TR3A, but concerns that North American buyers would shy away from the new body proved unfounded. The TR3B, introduced in the spring of 1962, survived only seven months and sold only 3,331 copies, making it very rare today.
RACING THE TR4
In August 1961, shortly before the Triumph TR4 went on sale, Leyland sacked almost the entire Standard-Triumph board and asked for the resignation of Alick Dick, who was promptly replaced by Stanley Markland. An early casualty of the new administration was the factory racing program, shuttered about the time the TR4 debuted. Others included the Le Mans effort and the 20X engine, both of which were deemed too expensive and of limited commercial applicability.
Nonetheless, the TR4 had obvious potential for racing. In 1962, the factory reopened the competitions department, now under the direction of Graham Robson, later to become a well-known automotive writer. The budget was a modest £16,000 (about $45,000), enough for only four TR4s, each painted powder blue. These started off relatively stock, but became progressively less so over the next two years, gaining lightweight aluminum body panels and various engine modifications.
The factory cars won a number of team prizes, but the 2.5-liter (153 cu. in.) class had become tougher than before and the TR4’s European rally career was short. By 1964, Standard-Triumph decided it was no longer competitive and withdrew the TR4 in favor of the Spitfire and 2000 saloon.
It was a different story in the U.S., where TR4s were well-represented in Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) competition. The initial impetus came from driver Bob Tullius, who spent weeks lobbying Mike Cook, then Triumph’s U.S. advertising manager, for a TR4 to drive in the 1962 season. Cook and Standard-Triumph U.S. president Martin Tustin eventually agreed, but the factory-provided TR4 was wrecked during a practice session shortly afterward. Since the U.S. organization wasn’t willing to provide a second car, Tullius and his friend Ed Diehl cobbled together a TR4 out of the remains of three different wrecks, which Tullius used to claim the 1962 SCCA E-Production national championship.
Inspired, Triumph’s North American organization decided to run three cars at the 1963 Sebring 12 Hour, prepared by R.W. “Kas” Kastner. Kastner, who had won the 1959 SCCA F-Production Pacific Championship in a TR3A, had previously been the service manager for West Coast Triumph distributor Cal Sales, becoming Western Zone service manager when Cal Sales was bought out by Standard-Triumph in 1961. Kastner resigned after being told that as a Triumph executive he could no longer compete, but he was lured back by the Sebring project, the cars for which were prepared in Kastner’s home garage in Manhattan Beach, California, south of Los Angeles. TR4s took first, second, and fourth place in their class at Sebring, after which Kastner was appointed the head of a new U.S. competitions department.
Later that year, Bob Tullius drove one of the Sebring cars to another SCCA national championship, this time in D-Production, where the SCCA had recently reclassified the TR4. (Since 1960, the SCCA had classified cars based on relative performance rather than engine displacement, so it was not uncommon for cars to be bumped up or down a class to keep things competitive.) Tullius would repeat that achievement in 1964. Amateur and semi-pro drivers also had great success with the TR4, thanks in part to Kastner’s driver assistance program, which provided small cash prizes to drivers who won or placed in competition to partially offset the cost of tires, fuel, and maintenance.