Way of the Wedge: The Triumph TR7 and TR8

1975 Triumph TR6 front3q
Launched in January 1969, the Triumph TR6 had styling by the West German coachbuilder Karmann, essentially a facelift of the previous TR5PI/TR250. Like its predecessor, the TR6 was powered by a 2,498 cc (152 cu. in.) six-cylinder engine derived from the straight six in the Vitesse and 2000 saloons. In the U.K. and other markets, the TR6 had Lucas fuel injection, but U.S. cars had lower compression, a milder cam, and twin Zenith-Stromberg carburetors. By 1973, federalized cars were rated at 106 net horsepower (79 kW) and 133 lb-ft (180 lb-ft) of torque.

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. The ADO21 was instead 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 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 futuristic look of the ADO21, which the committee thought would help to mitigate the car’s 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 that began at the nose and traced a roughly horizontal arc through the fenders and doors.

1975 Triumph TR6 rear 3q
Although it had body-on-frame construction, the TR6 had fully independent suspension with double wishbones in front and semi-trailing arms in back. Front disc brakes and a four-speed gearbox were standard and most cars had the optional Laycock de Normanville overdrive. The TR6 remained in production after the launch of the TR7. The European TR6 was dropped in late 1975, but U.S. cars remained available into mid-1976.

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 fixed C-pillars and a 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 that concept ever reached the model stage.

In July 1971, both proposals were presented to BL management, which strongly preferred the MG Magna concept; the Bullet’s only proponents 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, 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 Triumph TR7, as the new model was christened, was a significant departure from its predecessors in many respects. First, it was to 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 erratic 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, would be 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 matched with 8.0-inch (203mm) drums in back.

1977 Triumph TR7 side copyright 2009 John Catlow per
All Triumph TR7s rode an 85-inch (2,160mm) wheelbase; overall length of non-U.S. models was 160 inches (4,064 mm), but U.S. cars were 5.5 inches (140 mm) longer thanks to more prominent bumper covers with molded-in rear overriders. Curb weight was around 2,300 lb (1,045 kg). (Photo: “SEPTEMBER 1977 TRIUMPH TR7 1998cc DCW737S © 2009 John Catlow (Leichester-Vehicle-Photography); used with permission)

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 originally 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.

SIDEBAR: Triumph’s “Saab Engine” and the Stag V8

The origins of Triumph’s OHC slant four and Stag V8 are convoluted. Back in 1962, Standard-Triumph engineer Lewis Dawtrey conceived the idea of a compact, 90-degree V8 that could also share its architecture and tooling with a 45-degree slant four, providing a common basis for all future Triumph engines. Both four and eight were to have iron blocks, aluminum heads, and chain-driven overhead camshafts.

Swedish automaker Saab learned about the project very early in its development and approached Standard-Triumph about purchasing the four-cylinder engine for the upcoming Saab 99 sedan. Triumph didn’t yet need the new engine for its own cars, but agreed to put the four into production for Saab at the rate of about 50,000 units a year. In the first Saab 99, which debuted in Sweden in mid-1968, the slant four displaced 1,709 cc (105 cu. in.) and made 87 hp (65 kW). A bored-out 1,854 cc (113 cu. in.) version followed in 1971.

Having granted Saab a short window of exclusivity on the four-cylinder engine, Standard-Triumph focused on the development of the V8, which was intended for the Triumph Stag and future versions of the big 2000/2.5 saloons. The V8 initially displaced about 2.5 liters (153 cu. in.), but when Spen King arrived following the BL merger, he decided to expand the engine to 2,997 cc (183 cu. in.) for additional low-end torque. In this form, the V8 went into production in early 1970.

Following the end of Saab’s exclusivity period, Triumph installed the 1,854 cc (113 cu. in.) slant four in the compact Triumph Toledo saloon to create the first postwar Dolomite. Dawtrey subsequently developed a 1,998 cc (122 cu. in.) version with a 16-valve head, a rarity for production cars of that era. Although the 16V engine was primarily intended for competition use, it also went into the sporty Dolomite Sprint, Triumph’s answer to the BMW 2002tii. In production form, the Sprint engine was rated 127 hp DIN (93 kW) and 124 lb-ft (168 N-m) of torque, a healthy improvement on the 91 hp DIN (67 kW) and 105 lb-ft (142 N-m) for the standard Dolomite. An additional version of the engine was developed for the TR7 by combining the 1,998 cc (122 cu. in.) block with the standard Dolomite’s eight-valve heads.

1979 Triumph TR7 engine (c) 2010 Murilee Martin (per)
The 1,998 cc (122 cu. in.) Triumph slant four, seen here in what we believe is a federalized 1979 Triumph TR7. At launch, federalized cars had 90 SAE net horsepower (67 kW) and 105 lb-ft (142 N-m) of torque with 8.00:1 compression and two Zenith-Stromberg carburetors; California cars had a single carburetor and only 76 hp (57 kW). By 1980, stricter federal emissions standards had reduced non-California cars to 86 hp (64 kW), prompting all U.S. cars to adopt Bosch L-Jetronic injection for 1981, good for 89 hp (66 kW). (Photo © 2010 Murilee Martin; used with permission)

Other than a single prototype 2.5 saloon, the Triumph V8 was used only in the Stag, where it quickly developed a very poor reputation. Its warranty costs were extremely high and by most accounts BL was glad to be rid of it when production finally ended in the fall of 1977. Triumph’s slant four, which the factory often called “the Saab engine,” died with the TR7 in late 1981, but Saab continued to use improved derivatives of it into the 21st century.

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.

1977 Triumph TR7 rear 3q copyright 2009 John Catlow (per)
Early Triumph TR7s sat relatively high on their suspensions for greater wheel travel, but in early 1977, the springs were shortened to lower ride height about an inch (25 mm), probably as much for appearances as anything else. This car appears to have the factory alloy wheels, which did not become available until a year or so after this one was built and thus may be a later retrofit. We’re not sure if the sunroof is the factory item or one of the many dealer or aftermarket add-ons. Note the position of the fuel filler on the rear deck, just ahead of the boot lid. (Photo: “SEPTEMBER 1977 TRIUMPH TR7 1998cc DCW737S” © 2009 John Catlow (Leichester-Vehicle-Photography); used with permission)

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 the Speke plant into BL’s 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 coupe, which resurrected 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. Its styling went through several iterations before returning to more or less its original form, which had been the work of Triumph stylist John Ashford. British Leyland management was very optimistic about the Lynx, even transferring Toledo production to Coventry in order to accommodate the 2+2 coupe’s 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.

1977 Triumph Lynx prototype front 3q copyright 2009 Mark Brown per
Although the Triumph Lynx never made it to production (and we don’t know what it would have been called if it did), various prototypes were built, including this one, seen at the Heritage Motor Centre in Gaydon. To provide extra passenger and cargo space, the Lynx had a significantly longer wheelbase than the TR7: 96 inches (2,438 mm) to the TR7’s 85 inches (2,160 mm). (Photo © 2009 Mark Brown; used with permission)

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 enactment of the new U.S. federal bumper standards, but the new model didn’t enter pilot production until mid-1974. By then, Leyland was teetering, due in part to the OPEC embargo’s chilling effect on new car sales. The Lynx program was frozen due to lack of funds and the SD2 project 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.

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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