Triumph Spitfire History
The Triumph Spitfire is a beautiful machine, a thing of wonder penned by an Italian genius, but it almost never happened, if not for a chance, find in a dusty corner of a factory. The Triumph produced a car that still inspires new creations today and has a strong and loyal fan base around the world nearly 60 years after it burst on the scene. Here’s the Triumph Spitfire story.
Our story starts with the Austin Healey Sprite, launched in 1958. This was a cheap, fun 2-seater that the everyday man could afford and the public loved it. The Standard Motor Company that owned the Triumph name already produced a sports car that made the Tier two and Tier three since 1953.
But it competed with more premium sports cars.
What they needed was something more price competitive at the low end. So, they felt that they could produce something superior to the standard. Already made the Triumph Herald, which featured a chassis with a bolt-on the body to save development money they believe they could use. The Herald chassis is a starting point to cut it down to size and put on a sleek new shell.
So in 1960, the Triumph boffins got out the angle grinders and got to work under the project that was code-named Bomb. The design fell to Giovanni Michelotti, one of the most prolific sports car designers of the 20th century.
He designed iconic vehicles like:
- The Leyland National Bus
- Triumph Spitfire
He’d already designed the Herald for Triumph and was brought in to work his sports car Magic for the Bomb Project.
He created a beautifully balanced design that was to be a cut above the competition, having a bigger, faster engine and more interior space. However, Triumph’s owners were in dire financial shape and were forced to sell it in late 1960. The Bomb project was forgotten. First Triumph and Leyland focused on merging operations.
In fact, the Triumph Spitfire would have been lost to time if it hadn’t been for an enterprising Leyland manager, who, while poking around the trim factory, decided to look under a dust sheet and found the Bomb prototype.
Leyland loved the idea and started the project up again on July 1961.
Triumph Spitfire was brought to market in an amazingly short time, launching in October 1962, just 15 months after Leyland had found that dusty prototype it helped with.
The chassis was already being used on the Triumph Herald, but it’s still surprising that it was completed so quickly. A little too quickly maybe, as owners discovered that when pushed hard, the rear end would have unpredictable responses that could make the car dangerous.
Drivers found aftermarket solutions to fix this during the 60s, but it would take 8 years until it was fixed on production models.
The car was launched as the Triumph Spitfire for a nod to the iconic plane from the Second World War and a reference to its inline 4-cylinder engine.
The exact reason why Triumph got to use the Spitfire name is unclear.
At that time, the name was owned by vehicles, makers of the Vicas, Valiante, and other aircraft, and there’s no record of Triumph licensing the brand. One theory goes that Triumph made Spitfire parts and that Coventry factory during the war. So Vicas turned a blind eye. But there isn’t any evidence to back this up.
The engine used was the 1.1-liter straight out of the Triumph Herald, was access through a glorious one-piece bonnet that opened with side catches. The car came with fancy wind up windows and something the Sprite was lacking:
- rubber floor mats,
- a big plastic steering wheel as power steering wasn’t yet common,
- locking doors
- a soft hop that took a degree intent assembly to master optional extras included a hardtop,
- wire wheels
- a heater.
Triumph Spitfire was more expensive than the Austin Healey Sprite, but customers were willing to pay a little extra. And soon the Spitfire was the top seller, and it certainly looked a pure racing machine.
But it’s interesting to compare the performance figures from such a small engine vehicle to modern-day cars. Think of the most underperforming econobox you can buy today. That car can go faster from zero to 60 than the first Spitfire, which took over 16 seconds. But the Spitfire was about enjoying the open road and customers loved it.
Makers of the Austin Healey Sprite continued to compete with newer versions, but they were always a little more underpowered.
In 1964, they came up with the improved Sprite with door handles, locks plus wind-down windows. But it was still a smaller car and had less power. 59 brake horsepower Triumph reacted in 1965 with a Triumph Spitfire Mark II, but it was only a small upgrade. It had more power. 67 hp, up from 63 hp. The US version had uprighted suspension and the interior was a little more comfortable with carpets on the floor for the first time.
Triumph Spitfire in the USA
Meanwhile, in the USA, sales were gaining apace, trying to encourage both Triumph Spitfire and their models to be entered into motor racing events and heavily advertised and win.
The Mark III Spitfire, introduced in 1967, included more major upgrades.
The front bumper was raised to comply with U.S. safety regulations, which gave it a dog with a bone in its teeth.
The car received a larger 1.30-liter engine, which made it quicker and gave it a higher top speed. Although 1969 US emissions laws robbed the engine of some of that sportiness.
The Do It Yourself tent-like soft top was updated to a more practical fold-down model.
The dashboard received a stylish wood veneer finish in 1968. Over 100000 Spitfires rolled off the production line. Over 75% of them have been exported, with 45% alone going to the USA.
Triumph Spitfire really was a British export success story
Triumph was always in hard competition with BMC and their Sprite and MG Midget, but in 1968, all three marks were joined under the same company, British Leyland. The competition between these cars wouldn’t be quite as fierce from now on.
1970 brought the biggest changes. The Triumph Stag and Triumph 2000 came. They had fled wheel arches. The front was cleaned up with simpler chrome bumpers and black plastic underwriter’s enthusiast drivers were happy that the rear and stability problems were finally solved.
The dashboard got a big change from the previous spitfire’s how the dashboard in the center of the car, which made it simpler to make left or right-hand drive models. But the Mach four put the dashboard behind the steering wheel, something that had been added to the U.S. nineteen sixty nine mark 3s and the HITA is now finally standard equipment.
But problems are just starting with pair and British Leyland. As the 70s rolled on, money got tight, which rob the spitfire of major updates.
However, for now, sales continue to be strong, and it seemed to be easy for British Leyland to keep raking in the export cash from their range of sports cars. In 1966 Triumph introduced a coupe version of the Spitfire with a larger 2.0-liter, 6-cylinder engine.
The project had started out trying to make a coupe version with a Spitfire 4-cylinder engine, but the weight of the roof made the car too slow, so a larger engine was used. It’s unfortunately also inherited the spitfire’s rear end stability issues.
The Mark III arrived the following year in 1970, taking interior and styling changes. It never sold in the numbers British Leyland had hoped for and was discontinued in 1973.
There was a constant complaint from US salespeople that British management only design cars for the UK market. They didn’t understand the features needed by drivers in other countries.
For example, North American temperatures were more extreme and cars did more sustained highway cruising. This affected the Triumph Spitfire less than other models, but it was something that lost sales along the way.
In 1974, the Spitfire has renamed the Spitfire 1500 with the bigger 1.50-L engine producing a faster car than before. But in the US, further emission requirements meant the new car was actually slower than the Mark III. The laws meant large black override is on the front and rear bumpers, which made the car look ugly. However, handling was further improved, making it a really fun driver’s car.
British Leyland decided not to invest further in the Triumph Spitfire.
It was probably down to the general lack of finances after being bailed out by the government in 1975. But certainly, impending US legislation making Open-top is hard to sell didn’t help.
Furthermore, Japanese imports like the Datsun were continuing to eat into the British sports car market share. Competing with them would have required a big injection of cash.
By the late 1970s, British Leyland was looking to close. The factory where the Spitfire was produced, had built the Triumph saloons and TR.
But those models had ceased or been moved to other factories with the US exchange rate making the Spitfire an expensive car at its largest market. The decision was made to end production in 1980. Triumph Spitfire 1500 was the last to roll off the production line.
Over 300 000 Spitfires were made over 18 years. Certainly, Triumph Spitfire was a great success.