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.
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 Alder rack-and-pinion setup while brakes were 9.75-inch (248mm) solid discs in front matched with 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 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.
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 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.
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.