Way of the Wedge: The Triumph TR7 and TR8

THE FALL OF SPEKE

The introduction of non-U.S. cars brought TR7 production to almost 33,000 units for the 1976 calendar year, which was decent for a two-seat sports car, but still short of break-even. Demand was also cooling, perhaps in part because of the TR7’s warranty issues, which prompted price cuts and incentives to pep up sales. With no convertible body style, the TR7 remained a harder sell than the MGB roadster, which was now a novelty in the U.S. According to former Triumph advertising director Michael Cook, U.S. dealers were also frustrated by the many special editions, which cut into dealer profit margins by offering extra equipment at discounted prices.

To make the TR7 and the Speke plant economically viable, Triumph desperately needed more spin-offs. The Lynx, which had been revived in 1975, shortly after nationalization, was still a going concern, but was somewhat behind schedule; by 1977, tooling had finally begun for a planned 1978 introduction. Through the first half of 1977, Speke also built a few dozen preproduction TR7 Sprints, with 16-valve fours, and between 145 and 200 preproduction V8 cars. Most of the latter went to U.S. dealers for evaluation.

1974 Triumph Dolomite Sprint front 3q copyright 2010 The Car Spy CC-BY 2.0 Generic
The abortive Triumph TR7 Sprint would have borrowed the 16-valve engine from the Triumph Dolomite Sprint saloon. Introduced in 1971, the Dolomite was an upscale version of the compact RWD Toledo (itself based on the FWD Triumph 1300) with the 1,854 cc (113 cu. in.) slant four. The Dolomite Sprint, added in June 1973, had a new 1,998 cc (122 cu. in.) version with four valves per cylinder; output was 127 hp DIN (93 kW) and 124 lb-ft (167 N-m) of torque. Aimed at the BMW 2002tii, the Sprint combined compact dimensions with a luxurious interior and brisk performance: 0-60 mph (0-97 km/h) in less than nine seconds and a top speed of around 116 mph (187 km/h). About 23,000 Sprints were sold between 1973 and 1980. (Photo: “1974 Triumph Dolomite Sprint” © 2010 The Car Spy; used under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license)

All of these projects were complicated by a series of production stoppages that left Speke No. 2 idle for much of March, September, and October, the result of industrial action at suppliers and other BL subsidiaries. In November, just as Michael Edwardes replaced Lord Ryder as chairman of British Leyland, the Speke workforce itself declared the first strike in that plant’s history.

According to the union, the principal cause of the strike was Leyland management’s decision to terminate the “Mutuality Agreement” that had been part of the Speke workforce’s contract since November 1973, when both plants had switched from piecework pay to fixed day rates. The day rate system was unpopular with workers because it made it possible for management to greatly increase the expected pace and volume of work — potentially to unrealistic levels — for no additional pay. To alleviate those concerns, the contract had included a clause requiring management to consult shop stewards on any proposed changes to schedules and job timings (i.e., the expected duration of each job and how many operations workers were expected to complete per hour or per day).

In practice, neither side had been especially happy with how the agreement had worked out. Workers complained that management had repeatedly cut the time allotted for each job while doing little to address the plant’s operational and organizational problems. Shop stewards claimed they were rarely consulted and when they were, their input was usually ignored. BL management, meanwhile, charged that the stewards had not offered any constructive input. The company finally announced that it was abrogating the agreement entirely, which proved to be the final straw for the union local.

1977 Triumph Lynx prototype rear 3q copyright 2009 Mark Brown (per)
Another view of the surviving Triumph Lynx prototype. It is reportedly very close to John Ashford’s original concept, although its final shape also shows the influence of Rover designer David Bache, who became head of Rover-Triumph styling in 1972. Note the lift-up rear window, the unique taillights, and the absence of the TR7’s upward side sweep. Rover-Triumph seriously considered deleting the sweep lines from the TR7 when the Lynx was launched, but that possibility was eventually abandoned as too expensive. (Photo © 2009 Mark Brown; used with permission)

The strike lasted four months, bringing TR7 production to a complete halt. Striking workers received little public sympathy; since the publication of the Ryder Report in March 1975, British popular opinion had tended to blame the ‘militancy’ of Leyland workers for the company’s problems. (It’s worth noting that while Lord Ryder’s report was not overly sympathetic to the unions, that report actually attributed most of BL’s productivity shortfalls to limited capital investment. Indeed, Michael Edwardes later publicly lamented the primitive conditions of most Leyland factories.)

Even the national Transportation and General Workers Union organization was slow to officially recognize the Speke strike, something the union local attributed to fear of spoiling relations with Britain’s majority Labour government, which had appointed the right-wing Edwardes to rein in Leyland’s losses. About a year earlier, catastrophic inflation and a harrowing decline in the value of the British pound had forced the government to request a substantial loan from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), which had in turn demanded cuts in public spending — a category that now included the ailing automaker.

Edwardes’ response to the Speke action, announced in February 1978, was to order the closure of the No. 2 plant. The ostensible rationale was to reduce British Leyland’s unused excess capacity (which would be a major theme of Edwardes’ tenure as chairman), but Eddie Loyden, Labour MP for Liverpool Garston, alleged that BL executives had told members of Parliament that the plant would have been shut down even if it had been operating at full capacity. Union officials believed that the closure was intended to send a message; closing plants rather than negotiating with strikers was a tactic that British industry would use repeatedly over the coming decade. In any case, the workers in Speke finally agreed to end the strike and eventually accepted a company severance package in exchange for their cooperation with the closure of the plant in late May. (The No. 1 plant would remain in operation.)

1981 Triumph TR7 convertible dash
The basic design of the Triumph TR7’s dashboard changed little during the production run, but there were a variety of trim changes, including several different steering wheel designs and the adoption of more subdued color combinations, like the tan velour and vinyl upholstery seen in this 1981 TR7 convertible. (We believe the steering wheel is an aftermarket piece.)

The demise of Speke No. 2 did not mean the end of the TR7, whose assembly shifted later that year to the older Triumph works in Canley, using body stampings now sourced from Pressed Steel Fisher in Swindon. However, the Lynx project died with the Speke plant, even though much of the 2+2’s tooling had already been purchased. It’s not clear how much of a role the plant closure actually had on the fate of the Lynx. Bruce McWilliams later told David Knowles that the decision to cancel the 2+2 coupe came in an executive meeting in which McWilliams reiterated his conviction that the Lynx would not sell in the U.S. The decision to close Speke may have forced the issue, but if BL management had felt there was a market for the Lynx, we assume the project could have been moved to Canley along with the TR7. Workers in Speke suspected that the company simply didn’t have the money for the new model, noting the frequent stops and starts in the Lynx’s development over the previous four years. The same issue may have doomed the Sprint, which was canceled at the same time.

Nearly 6,000 cars were built in Speke in the spring of 1978, but the lengthy strike made 1978-model TR7s rather scarce and the situation did not help the TR7’s popularity. To keep sales alive, Triumph needed something new.

THE TR7 CONVERTIBLE AND THE TRIUMPH TR8

Throughout its life, the TR7’s failure to consistently outsell the much older MGB had caused Rover-Triumph officials a great deal of consternation. The federalized Mark IV MGB was certainly no faster than the TR7 and calling the late rubber-bumpered MG better-looking was a stretch, but the MGB’s folding top was a strong advantage in the U.S. market. The federal roof crush standards that would have outlawed convertibles had failed a court challenge in 1972 — the regulation was revised to include an explicit exemption for convertibles — but the threat of those regulations had helped to make open cars rather thin on the ground by 1975. The fact that the MGB, Midget, and Triumph Spitfire were among the remaining holdouts was undoubtedly a major factor in their continued popularity.

1981 Triumph TR7 convertible front 3q
The Triumph badge on the nose (replacing the earlier decals) and 2.0 Litre emblems on the fenders mark this TR7 convertible as a late Solihull-built car; this is a 1981 model. If you look closely, you can also see the front spoiler fitted to most (if not all) U.S. cars.

The obvious solution was a TR7 convertible, development of which began not long after the launch of the fixed-head car. Designed by Michelotti, the convertible was almost universally considered better-looking than the coupe, although the drophead required extensive structural modifications to maintain the car’s torsional rigidity, including the addition of harmonic balancing weights in the front bumpers. Surprisingly, the convertible was only slightly heavier than the coupe and was stiff enough to avoid compromising the TR7’s handling.

While dealers undoubtedly would have liked the convertible as soon as possible, production didn’t begin until after the TR7 moved to Canley and the first cars didn’t go on sale in the U.S. until late in the 1979 model year. The convertible was very well received and it was clear that it would be more popular than the coupe despite a higher price. Company officials told the press they anticipated more than three-quarters of future production would be convertibles.

1981 Triumph TR7 convertible rear 3q
The Triumph TR7 convertible’s canvas top was a neat installation, with prominent quarter lights providing better-than-average visibility when erected. When lowered, the top stowed into a well behind the seats so that cargo space was not affected. Note the molded overriders on the rear bumper cover, standard on all U.S. TR7s.

At the same time, BL finally announced the much-delayed V8 version, now called Triumph TR8, which finally went on sale in the U.S. later in 1979. Early federalized cars had 8.1:1 compression and two Zenith-Stromberg carburetors, good for 133 hp (99 kW) and 174 lb-ft (236 N-m) of torque; California-bound TR8s substituted Bosch L-Jetronic electronic fuel injection, raising output to 137 hp (102 kW) and 180 lb-ft (244 N-m). (Fuel injection was standardized on all U.S. cars for the 1981 model year.) Since the 3,528 cc (215 cu. in.) Rover engine was somewhat heavier than the slant four, the battery was moved to the boot to maintain weight balance and power steering, never offered on the four-cylinder car, was added as standard equipment.

Although the TR8 was heavier than the four-cylinder car and had a taller 3.08 axle ratio, it was decisively faster than the TR7. Five-speed cars were capable of 0-60 mph (0-97 km/h) in a bit over 8 seconds and a top speed of around 125 mph (201 km/h); even with automatic, the TR8 was a fast car by the standards of its time. Handling remained quite good, aided by a quicker steering ratio, although the brakes still left something to be desired.

1981 Triumph TR8 convertible blue front 3q
The Triumph TR8 was nominally available as either a convertible or a fixed-head coupe, but except for the early preproduction models (which were not badged as TR8s), it appears that all or nearly all were convertibles. A TR8 convertible weighed 2,660 lb (1,205 kg) all up, around 175 lb (80 kg) more than a drophead TR7, but other dimensions were identical. Note the second, inset bulge in the bonnet and the passenger-side mirror, which became standard for the 1981 model year.

The American press was ecstatic about the Triumph TR8, saying it was what the TR7 should have been from the start. Unfortunately, the V8 arrived in the wake of the Iranian Revolution, which sent oil prices soaring and once again made buyers wary of thirsty cars. The TR8 was also expensive: The convertible started just under $12,000, $2,000 more than a TR7 or Datsun 280ZX and $4,000 more than an MGB. Sales were disappointing and by the 1981 model year, BL was offering substantial rebates on new TR7s and TR8s.

The TR7 convertible was introduced in Great Britain and other markets in the spring of 1980. BL also announced the non-U.S. TR8, but only a few were actually built. These featured higher compression and two S.U. carburetors, giving the same 155 hp DIN (114 kW) and 198 lb-ft (268 N-m) of torque as in the Rover 3500. Sources disagree on whether the cars ever officially went on sale (the consensus appears to be no), although some later ended up in private hands.

1981 Triumph TR8 convertible blue rear 3q
Alloy wheels were standard on the Triumph TR8, although this car appears to have aftermarket Minilites; the stock wheels were the same 13 x 5.5 inch (330 x 140 mm) size as used on the TR7. The TR8 had stiffer springs and different damping rates than the TR7 (and in fact has a unique front subframe) along with thicker front discs and front brake pads. Contrary to some reports, the TR8 did not have ventilated front discs, although they would have been a useful addition.

BROADSIDE AND BOXER

The demise of Speke No. 2 was only the first salvo in Michael Edwardes’ campaign to reduce BL’s costs, capacity, and headcount. The closure of the MG plant in Abingdon was announced in September 1979. A few months later, the company announced that the Canley Triumph Works would also be closed by the fall of 1980, with TR7/TR8 production then moving to the Rover plant in Solihull.

Around the same time, BL once again broached the possibility of introducing an MG-badged TR7 as a replacement for the MGB, which was slated to die with Abingdon. According to David Knowles, he MG version, known internally the MG Boxer, was intended as a cheap interim model with tooling costs of no more than £1 million (around $2.2 million). In mid-1983, both the Boxer and existing TR7/TR8 were to be replaced with a more extensively redesigned model, codenamed Broadside. Originally intended as a cheaper version of the defunct Lynx, the Broadside was close to the TR7 in structure, but rode a stretched 89-inch (2,260mm) wheelbase to accommodate the Lynx’s larger doors, tooling for which had been purchased prior to that project’s cancellation.

Like the Lynx, the Broadside was supposed to offer nominal 2+2 seating, while power would be from either the Rover V8 or the 1,994 cc (122 cu. in.) O-series engine, which was supposed to replace the Triumph slant four in mid-1981. Later iterations of the Broadside concept tidied up the TR7’s styling, eliminating the side crease and adding body-colored bumpers, hopefully keeping the design fresh enough to survive until an all-new car could be fielded in the late eighties.

1981 Triumph TR8 convertible blue dash
The Triumph TR8’s interior was largely the same as that of late TR7s, although air conditioning and automatic transmission were more commonly specified on the TR8 than on four-cylinder cars. (This car’s wood steering wheel is not stock.) Radios were not standard equipment even on the TR8, although many cars had them fitted by dealers. The Broadside redesign would have brought a fairly extensive interior makeover, including a new instrument panel.

Neither the Boxer nor the Broadside ever got past the prototype stage. A marketing study suggested that Boxer sales would be dismal and its potential to offend MG fans very high, so the project was canceled by mid-1980. The Broadside died after the latest corporate reorganization integrated Rover and Triumph with Austin-Morris in a new Light Medium Cars division. The company was still trying to focus its limited resources on mainstream family cars, so the specialty divisions were seen as secondary concerns.

In May 1981, BL announced the imminent termination of passenger car production in Solihull. This time, there would be no reprieve for the TR7, the last example of which rolled off the line in October. (TR8 production had apparently ended in mid-summer.) The Triumph marque was not long for the world, either: The Spitfire and Dolomite were already gone and with the demise of the TR7 and TR8, the only remaining model to wear the Triumph nameplate was the Acclaim, based on the FWD Honda Ballade. Even that would expire in June 1984; its replacement, still Honda-based, would be badged as the Rover 200. (You can read more about Rover’s relationship with Honda in our article on the Rover 800 and Honda/Acura Legend)

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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