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 U.S. owner surveys revealed 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. However, 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. The workers felt that quality control didn’t 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 between those cars and the ones sold in North America was revised bumper covers with no built-in overriders, which reduced 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), the Triumph was usefully cheaper. To help its case, Leyland terminated European sales of the MGB and Midget in June.
All TR7s received several important 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. Demand was so strong that Triumph standardized the five-speed for 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).