1971 Triumph Spitfire MKIV
The Triumph Spitfire was a small British two-seat sports car, introduced in 1962. The vehicle was based on a design produced for Standard-Triumph in 1957 by Italian designer Giovanni Michelotti. The codename for the vehicle was the "Bomb". The car was largely based on the Triumph Herald small saloon.
Five separate Spitfire models were sold during the production run:
- Mk 1 (or Spitfire4): 1962–1964
- Mk 2: 1965–1967
- Mk 3: 1967–1970
- Mk 4: 1971–1974/5
- 1500: 1974–1980
The new small sports car
The Triumph Spitfire was originally devised by Standard-Triumph to compete in the small sports car market which had opened up with the introduction of the Austin-Healey Sprite. The Sprite had used the basic drivetrain of the Austin A30/35 in a light body to make up a fun, budget sports car; Triumph's idea was to use the mechanics from their small saloon, the Triumph Herald, to underpin the new project. Triumph had one advantage, however; where the Austin A30 range was of unitary construction, the Herald featured a separate chassis; it was Triumph's intention therefore to cut that chassis down and clothe it in a sports body, saving the costs of developing a completely new chassis/body unit.
The Italian designer Michelotti—who had already penned the Herald—was commissioned for the new project, and came up with a traditional, swooping body. Wind-up windows were provided (in contrast to the Sprite/Midget, which still featured sidescreens at that time), as well as a single-piece front end which tilted forwards to offer unrivalled access to the mechanics. At the dawn of the 1960s, however, Standard-Triumph were in deep financial trouble, and unable to put the new car into production; it was not until the company was taken over by the Leyland organisation that funds became available and the car was launched.
The mechanics were basically stock Herald components: The engine was a 4-cylinder of 1147 cc, mildly tuned for the Spitfire with twin SU carburettors. Also from the Herald came the rack and pinion steering and coil-and-wishbone front suspension up front, and at the rear a single transverse-leaf swing-axle arrangement. This ended up being the most controversial part of the car: it was known to "tuck in" and cause violent oversteer if pushed too hard, even in the staid Herald. In the sportier Spitfire (and later the 6-cylinder Triumph GT6 and Triumph Vitesse) it led to severe criticism. The body was bolted to a much-modified Herald chassis, the outer rails and the rear outriggers having been removed; little of the original Herald chassis design was left, and the Spitfire used structural outer sills to stiffen its body tub.
The Spitfire was an inexpensive small sports car and as such had very basic trim, including rubber mats and a large plastic steering wheel. These early cars were badged as "Spitfire 4", not to be confused with the later Spitfire Mark IV. The MK 2 of 1965 incorporated some detail changes to trim and body as well as minor upgrades to the engine, including a tubular exhaust manifold.
The Mk3, introduced in 1966, was the first major facelift to the Spitfire. The front bumper was raised in response to new crash regulations, and this entailed a completely different front end and bonnet. The interior was improved again with a wood-veneer instrument surround. The 1147 cc engine was replaced with a bored-out 1296 cc unit, as fitted on the new Triumph Herald 13/60 and Triumph 1300 saloons. In twin-carburettor form, the engine put out a claimed 75 bhp and made the MK3 a comparatively quick car by the standards of the day. Popular options were a hard top, wire wheels, and an overdrive gearbox, giving six forward gears and far more relaxed cruising at high speeds.
Spitfire MKIV and 1500
1976 Triumph Spitfire 1500
1971 saw the most comprehensive changes to the Spitfire. The new MKIV featured a completely re-designed cut-off rear end, giving a strong family resemblance to the Triumph Stag and Triumph 2000 models, both of which were also Michelotti-designed. The front end was also cleaned up, and the doors were given recessed handles. The interior was much improved: a proper full-width dashboard was provided, putting the instruments ahead of the driver rather than over the centre console. The engine continued at 1296 cc, but was modified with larger big-end bearings which somewhat decreased its "revvy" nature; there was some detuning, which resulted in the new car being a little tamer than the MK3. By far the most significant change, however, was to the rear suspension, which was de-cambered and redesigned to eliminate the unfortunate tendencies of the original swing-axle design. The Triumph GT6 and Triumph Vitesse had already been modified, and the result on all these cars was safe and progressive handling even at the limit.
In 1975 the 1500 engine (which was a stroked 1300) was used to make the Spitfire 1500; though in this final incarnation the engine was rather rougher and more prone to failure than the earlier units, torque was greatly increased and the new engine at last made the Spitfire capable of the magic "ton". MG enthusiasts were less than impressed when, from 1974, the Triumph engine was fitted to all MG Midgets.
Detail improvements continued to be made throughout the life of the MKIV, and included reclining seats with head restraints, wood-veneer dash, hazard flashers and electric washers. Options such as the hard top, tonneau cover and overdrive continued to be popular, though wire wheels ceased to be available. The last Spitfire 1500, an Inca Yellow specimen with hardtop and overdrive, rolled off the assembly line in August 1980.
The reputation of the Spitfire, long considered something of a "hairdresser's car," has undergone a major revival through the classic car movement. Despite having sold more than the MG Midget the little Triumph often suffered from the comparison to the MG, due partly at least to the inadequate rear suspension of the early models. Today, values remain relatively low and it is a sought-after classic sports car for the enthusiast on a budget.