The Triumph Spitfire, named for the famous British fighter plane was launched in October of 1962. The original Triumph Spitfire had a 1147cc engine and was designed by Italian automotive designer Giovanni Michelotti of Turin Italy. The finished Spitfire was the opposite from it’s primary competition- The bug eyed Austin Healey Sprite and the MG Midget, the horribly named stocky ragtop from Austin-Morris Group. The smooth sleek lines and powerful looking front end provided a dramatic appearance that appealed equally to men and women. Not an easy objective for a British sports car to achieve.
Originally the Triumph Spitfire was supposed to be build on the Triumph Herald frame, but ultimately it was constructed from the ground. Besides the 1147c engine the Triumph Spitfire featured all-independent suspension tight cockpit with well placed instruments and reasonably comfortable bucket seats. The most innovative feature was the flip-bonnet that lifted over the entire front-end of the car exposing the engine in full view.
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Officially named the Triumph Spitfire Mark I, the car sold well as it was affordable, fast and fun. The car sold well from the start. In 1965 British Leyland released the Triumph Spitfire Mark II, which featured mild upgrades and no change in engine power. In 1967 the Triumph Spitfire Mark III saw a change to a 1296cc engine. In 1970 the Triumph Spitfire Mark IV engine grew to 1493cc, and the wheel size was widened for 4.5 inches from 3.5 inches. The interior saw cosmetic changes including a sportier steering wheel, cockpit padding and more comfortable seats. The instrument panel was moved from the center of the console to in front of the steering column in 1969. The bumper was steel but now sported chrome knobs that would eventually join the TR6 in becoming rubberized in 1975-1978.
The 1973 Triumph Spitfire saw few changes except for a U.S. mandated emission control system and an increased 1493cc engine. The Famous Triumph Spitfire 1500 appeared in 1975. This version of the now well established classic British Sports Car offered body styling refinements and interior enhancements that confirmed the Triumph Spitfire as one of the most stylish sports cars in the world. Stainless steel windshield wipers and chromed door handles were in keeping with late 1970’s styling. The Steering column was updated from the old Triumph Herald configuration to the modern one used the TR7. Inexplicably British Leyland changed the leather seats to cloth, and even more mysteriously swapped the classic wooden dash for a black plastic one in the 1980 version of the Triumph 1500. This showed a serious disinterest in the car and the beginning of the end for the Triumph Spitfire line. Ultimately the 1500cc engine could not meet California emissions standards. Instead of the accommodating this change British Leyland halved the production, ending the life of the Spitfire as a viable product in the world marketplace.
Alas, by the beginning of the 1980’s the end of British Leyland was inevitable. The decline of a once distinguished auto maker was the result of poorly produced products, management infighting, and a workforce more interested in striking and complaining that getting work done and moving the product line forward. Unlike U.S. union workers, who walk off the job when disputing labor contracts, the british unions purposely ruined parts on the line adding the long-term negative effects of putting defective products in the marketplace. The TR7/8 was a total disaster, which used up whatever resources British Leyland had left. Finally by 1981 it was over. The spitfire was dead, the TR7/8 sat on dealer lots, or in shops being repaired, and Triumph slapped their name on a saloon car name Acclaim.
Irrespective of the tragic end of the Spitfire, the car had an incredible run. It’s innovative styling can still be seen in the Mazda Miata, which was literally modeled on aspects of the Triumph Spitfire, as the engineers had a Triumph Spitfire on the floor as they designed the Japanese sports car. The long swooping bonnet and short back is also evident in the BWW Z3 and Z4. One can imagine that the Z4 might resemble what a modern day Triumph Spitfire might look like if things at British Leyland had worked out differently.