TRIUMPH’S BABY SPORTS CAR WAS ALWAYS A GIRL’S CAR
There is much debate over where the Supermarine Spitfire came by its iconic name. There is no doubt whatsoever that the Triumph Spitfire was named for the war-winning fighter aircraft. Originally known as the SC, (Small Car). Developed on a tiny budget, by engineers who had no experience of small sports cars, the Spitfire was a sales success for well over 18 years. It was always an underrated car, too pretty for its own good. It was always built down to a price, having to compete with its rival the MG Midget / Austin-Healey Sprite, in the small sports car market. Interestingly, the Spitfire only came into being because of the take-over of Triumph by Leyland Motors.
The Spitfire was very closely related to its saloon car sister, the Triumph Herald, being based on a chopped-down version of the same separate chassis-frame. Unfortunately for the Herald, Vitesse, and Spitfire this chassis was rather flexible. It did have independent front and rear suspension, rack and pinion steering with an incredibly small turning circle, and the ability to accommodate a six-cylinder engine. In any event, there was no possibility of Triumph producing a monocoque bodyshell in any volume.
The incredibly pretty body was the work of Michelotti, and featured a decent boot, (trunk), space behind the seats, and a front end bonnet, (hood), that completely lifted up to allow unrivaled access to the engine bay and front suspension. Sadly this lift-up front end, coupled to a rather flexible chassis, was not very stiff and was prone to rattles. The chassis was very much of the back-bone type, so the Spitfire has strong sills to add a little stiffness. Like all Triumph sports cars of the period, the Spitfire could be bought with a pretty detachable hardtop.
The original Spitfire prototype was known as ‘Bomb,’ had a tuned version of the 1,147 cc in-line 4, which gave a paltry 63 bhp, ran on skinny 3.5-inch wheels and had a soft-top you had to build like a tent. The four-speed gearbox had no synchromesh on first gear, and came straight from the Herald 1200. The independent rear suspension was by transverse-leaf with swing-axles and would always be a weak point when it came to fast corners taken under power. Top speed was around 90 mph and the 0-60 time was a slow, slow, (by today’s standards) 17 seconds.
The Mk1 Spitfire went on sale in 1963 at £641. Development of the Spitfire Mk 1 included 3 different motorsport tuning kits, although there is no record of the stage 1 kit ever being sold. The stage 2 kit included a high compression eight port head new manifolds, 2 twin-choke 40DCOE Weber carburettors, new camshaft, and was said to be good for a serious 90bhp.
The Spitfire Mk2 came out in 1965. It had different manifolds and valve gear to the Mk1, giving the engine 67bhp. You could also have a heater, (optional), and carpets replaced rubber mats. In 1967, only 2 years later, the Spitfire Mk3 was launched. As well as a new front bumper, the Mk3 had a 1,296 cc engine, eight-port head, and churned out 75bhp. Better brakes were fitted and the electrical system was switched to negative earth. The Mk3 was ‘theoretically’ capable of the magical 100mph. The Mk3 was the first Spitfire to have a decent soft-top. With more power and a higher top speed, the swing-axle rear suspension really started to show its weak character. Initial understeer would snap to strong oversteer as the rear wheel began to tuck-in.
Somewhere in here electric overdrive was offered as a very desirable option.
The Spitfire Mk IV was eventually launched in October 1970, by which time Triumph was part of the same Leyland company that owned MG / Austin-Healey. Because the original body-tooling was worn out, Michelotti could design new front and rear end bodywork, which featured the cut-off tail also seen on the TR6. The turned-out panel joints disappeared, giving a much smoother look to the car. The new car was supposed to have a completely new front end body with flip-up headlamps, but these was dropped because of US safety legislation that never came into force. Perhaps the best part of the redesign was a brilliant angular hard-top option.
In the Spitfire IV was a new gearbox, new rear suspension, stiffer anti-roll bar at the front, new interior, and a slightly less powerful set-up of the venerable 1.3 engine.
The final version of the Spitfire Mk IV was the 1500. This shared the same long-stroke engine and all synchromesh gearbox with the final version of the MG Midget. The only bodywork change was that 1500 decals were added.
Both the Spitfire and Midget were killed-off as all development money and effort went into the much-disliked TR7.
All in all, the ‘best’ version of the Spitfire is the 1500, which is pretty to look at, quite nice to drive, very easy to tune, and mostly without vices. The car is easy to work on and maintain, and is mostly likely to have cooling and electrical problems. A well-sorted Spitfire IV / 1500 is quite capable of an extended continental road-trip, and offers decent fuel economy and ample luggage space.
The Spitfire is very easy to rebuild and restore. The bodyshell can be easily removed from the chassis, there are only 10 bolts to worry about. But, getting it back on again is more than ordinarily difficult if you don’t want badly fitting doors and uncertain alignment. Before you even buy a Spitfire, obtain the appropriate catalogs from Rimmer Bros.
With the body off, the first job is to carefully measure the chassis, in accordance with a workshop manual, to make certain the frame is still square. It is very easy to nudge a front corner out of line, some bad parking is enough to do that. A complete strip-down of the frame to bare metal is a good idea. At present I don’t believe that new chassis frames are available, so it’s a case of welding and re-alignment.
Having rebuilt a Spitfire, Vitesse and TR6, I would very strongly recommend a complete strip down of the chassis to the bare metal, shot-blasting, repair and galvanising. Any expensive work you do elsewhere on the car will be wasted when the chassis inevitably breaks somewhere around the rear suspension.
The other major problem is that bits of the bodywork will have rusted, particularly that big tip-up bonnet. The most crucial area to take back to bare metal and rebuild / repair are the sills because these contribute to the cars overall structural rigidity.
You can pay anything from under £1,000 to £15,000 for a Spitfire, depending upon condition. At the high end you want a car that has been taken back to the bare metal, had the chassis repaired and galvanised, and the bodywork restored and refitted using a proper jig. New gearbox with electric overdrive should also feature on the the more expensive car.
All versions of the Spitfire are fun, but the early version SHOULD NOT be cornered hard.