Triumph TR7/TR8: It was the Best of Cars and it was the Worst of Cars
As a co-editor of the Spanner, it is my position to edit articles generally written by others. Well I fell in love with Jane James’ TR8. When I first saw photographs of it at one of the BACLV events I asked, “What kind of car is that?” These questions led me on a quest – the TR7/8, why, what and how.
The story of the TR7/8 and Triumph as a part of British Leyland and then BL, Ltd., seems to be a story of missed opportunities, lack of capital and simply bad timing. It is the story of a bold departure from the norm, tried and true, over the edge.
The odd perspective, since the TR-4, Triumph cars had been the design ideas of a single ITALIAN design, not British, Geovanni Michelotti. Then in the 1970’s a “home-town boy”, Harris Mann, produced a design that would not be recognized for 30 years.
Researching this article to coincide with Jane and Simon’s new TR8 acquisition brought about an understanding of the British sports car and the British automotive industry that I had never understood. Design, regardless of the type of design, must be recognized through the perspective of the time in which it was produced. It is difficult to regard a design in the 1880’s and compare it to the designs produced in the 2000’s. To take a TR7/8 and compare it to a design of 1960 or that of 2017 is an impossible task, especially in automotive design that caters to the whims of the culture that formed it.
So as you read the following article, place yourself in the late 1960’s (yes some of you were not even a glimmer then), 1970’s and 1980’s. Think about what was happening around you then. Think about a car company that was struggling to find its niche, hoping to predict the future and remain alive. Think about a nation that was setting trends, was an epicenter for the Pop culture, and was known for its ‘classics’.
Into this ocean Triumph dove. It went in as a unique badge and came out as a Japanese (Honda) clone.
This bit of research was supported by authors that found this period complex, confusing and amazing. It was a period of opportunity and disappointment. In an article by a Texan, a Canadian and a Brit, the perspective and commentary were diverse and identifiable. At the end of the reading, one can only ask how they ever produced a sports car as wonderful as the TR8.
To understand the TR8 you must step back to the TR7, for it was the TR7 that birthed the TR8, and visa versa. Know that the person penning this article owns a Triumph Stag, one of the 50 Worst Automobiles ever. He has a soft spot for the underdog and is lost in the muck of British automotive design not knowing a clear direction, simply knowing what he likes. He is ready to suffer the slings and arrows of those that are classicists and those that are modernists. Simply know it is fun and interesting.
Jane and Simon James have a beautiful and unique bit of automotive history. Like it, love it and appreciate it for all it represents in the aesthetics and engineering. It is beautiful (my opinion).
Do you remember long, shoulder length hair on guys, Bob Seger, protests, VW Buses with flowers all over and the event that changed the world – Woodstock (good you’re older than me)? The shape of the world was changing and the youth of the world was the force of change. It was the late 1970’s and we were about to enter a brand new decade, optimistic and positive. The decade was to be formed by the United States. Design sensibilities, the aesthetics emanated from the U.S. and imported to Europe and the world. “THE” consumer market, the “pot of gold”, was in America,
Fresh, new, brash and bold, this is where you had to be to be a success. Triumph, a division of British Leyland and then BL, Ltd. saw this opportunity and decided they were going to be the cool ones. So in the early 1970s Triumph set out to design a car for the U.S. market and design a sports car for the times. They were going to leave MG (also a British Leyland marque) in the dust. Truly it was The Shape of Things to Come according to Triumph and British Leyland. Left behind were the designs of Giovanni Michelloti (Spitfire and TR4), Karmann (TR6) and turned to the new ideas of Harris Mann with his more youthful aggressive designs for Triumph. The thirty-something Mann set to work designing for the Cultural Revolution with the “Wedge”. Mann was equipped with experience living in America, working as an automotive designer/consultant with the likes of Ford Motors, penning the Escort and Capri. North America was to be the target for the new breed of Triumph. It was their path to future industrial success and relevancy.
Triumph was not the only company to see the ‘wedge’ as a The Shape of Things to Come. In Great Britain, there was Lotus’ wedge entry with the Esprit (1976), Italy had the Fiat X-1/9 (1972) and for a few dollars more, there was the Lancia Stratos (1973), and the Ferrari 308 (1975). So by the time the TR-7 entered the North American market in July of 1979, the aesthetic was not the shape of things to come, but the shape of what was.
Challenges to the new design that Triumph found hard to overcome in the U.S. market were the U.S. Congress, not to mention the fuel shortages that plagued the world in general. There were the safety concerns and requirements that effectively prohibited the “drophead” (convertible), but ultimately never enacted. Bumper heights were raised. And the every attractive 5 mph bumpers were talked of being legislated. At home it was a time of social unrest and labor protest. The TR7/8 ended up being produced in three different factories. With each of the three factories, improvements were made, subtle and not so subtle changes were exacted.
By the time production was enacted, some of the design decisions that impacted the result were finally and excursionly made.[ms1] The TR7 had been designed. It hit the North American shores in 1979 and was well received. At the same time, the TR8 found its way to North America in any significant number (it is possible to find some 1978 TR8’s which were shipped to the U.S. as promotional cars for dealers and later sold off[i]). 1980 was the first year the TR8 was formally sold in the U.S. and Canada.[ms2]
The fuel shortages had strangled the TR7 to a 90 horsepower, slant-four cylinder engine. The TR7 was built in a factory in Speke, England which was a hotbed for labor oriented strikes and sabotage which earned the TR7 a poor reputation for build quality. The V-8 version of the TR7, the TR8, found themselves in similar circumstance as the Triumph Stag; stymied by engine unavailability and labor strife. Unlike the Stag, the TR8 employed the Rover V-8 which was based upon the General Motor’s 215 c.i.d., alloy engine developed for Buick in 1961 and licensed to British Leyland[ii]. British Leyland developed it further and featured it as the popular 3.5 liter V-8 with 135 hp with a top speed of 118 mph[iii].
The TR8 was an “upscale” sports car offering power steering, rumbling dual exhaust. Leather steering wheel, a five-speed manual transmission, twin Zenith-Stromberg carburetors and fuel injection (Bosch K-Jetronic, California market). From the TR7, Triumph improved the handling of the TR8 by adding larger brakes, a more responsive suspension a better differential gearing (3.08:1) to adapt to open road cursing. There was also an optional three-speed automatic transmission available for the North American market.[iv] This Rover spec engine was the engine that was ultimately denied to the Triumph Stag spelling the doom of the model and a contributor to the demise of the Triumph marque.
By 1979, the production of the TR8 (and TR7) moved from the troubled Speke plant to a more modern factory in Canley, Coventry.[v] The very positive result of this move a not found in radical improvements in the TR8 as much as the improvements in the build quality of the car. Visually, there were changes in the badging including a newly designed TR8 logo, the car was lowered by one inch, new 13-inch steering wheel and the dual exhaust system. The interiors were then designed around a tartan plaid that was popular at that time. The cars produced in Canley were mainly intended for sale in the North American market, though they did not hit the shores here until May of 1980 in the drophead configuration.[vi] There was a good deal of recognition of the TR8 by numerous publication and in 1980, the Triumph TR8 was proclaimed the “Import Car of the Year” by Motor Trend magazine, and a featured car in Car & Driver, proclaiming it as “Nothing less than the reinvention of the sports car.”[vii]
Triumph appears to have produced majority of the TR7/TR8 cars at the Canley facility.
The total number of TR8 cars produces seems to be between 2,722 and 2,815 according to the British Motors Institute. Of those it is thought that 400 were coupes and approximately 2,346 drophead (convertibles). This number is in some dispute between the various researchers. It would appear that Triumph production records were less than accurate. The VIN’s did not necessarily match sequentially with the production records and at times seemed somewhat arbitrary in their assignment.
The production of the TR8 also produced significant results on the race track. North America Group 44 campaigned a TR8 in IMSA GTO competition with wins that climaxed in a 1980 12 Hours of Sebring in the GTO class. The TR8 also found success in the SCCA ProRally National Championship with wins in three of the four years of competition.[viii]
Sadly, Triumph was never able to capitalize on the success of the cars produced in the Canley plant. By this time British Leyland was now BL, Ltd. And was suffering financially. Triumph itself was so strapped for capital they were unable to invest in the needed marketing and advertising to promote the TR8 and its achievements.[ix]
This prompted a move from the Canley plant to the Solihull plant which became the final resting place for the TR7 and TR8. At this third production facility additional cosmetic changes were instituted. The period popularity of the tartan interior was dropped in favor of a simple nylon interior scheme. The dash fascia became a gray-blue instead of black and once again the logo badge on the nose of the car was revised. By the end of 1981 the TR7/TR8 ceased production with a production run of 8,000 units as far as the records can be deciphered. There is some rumored indication that a few 1982 cars were produced and shipped to Canada, but cannot be substantiated.[x]
On October 5th, 1981 the production of the TR7/8 ended with the final production of a TR7[xi]. After the end of TR production the Solihull plant turned to the production of the Honda-based Triumph Acclaim. At this time the “Triumph” marque is the property of BMW. BMW has found substantial success with the Mini marque; might they consider the Triumph marque resurrection?
Why a TR8? Do you have an extra $5,500,000? Carroll Shelby took a Ford V8 engine and stuffed it into an AC Ace body. Selby’s own AC Cobra sold for $17,700,000 on August 20, 2016. Then Shelby also put a Ford V8 in the Sunbeam Tiger; if you have an extra $100,000 you can pick one up on eBay (watch the numbers for the foux). It had been a dream to take a small British car and put a V8 in it. Many a car builder tried with various degrees of success. All too often the result was an ill-mannered, poorly assembled car with lumps and bumps, hood scoops and an interior fit for a bordello. Most of the ‘production’ British bodied, American powered cars were a product of the 1960’s when they hit the road and were produced in very small numbers. Even the Sunbeam Tiger produced by Rootes Group only hit a 7,085 number including all prototypes[xii].
There is a secret car out there that was imported into North America for two years, 198 and 1981, with worldwide production at 2,015 to 2,746 (see above). It is estimated that there are about 750 dropheads and 190 coups still traveling the roads worldwide in various conditions[xiii].
The original 1980 price for a TR8 was around $11,000. As of 2016 a “nice” example of an unmodified car was listed around $12,000[xiv]. This is for an original TR8, not the TR7V8 which is the conversion of the TR7 with the upgraded V8 power train. Currently at the Wedge Shop you can find a good example for $12,500. This is an amazing price for a British bodied V8 powered, low-production British sports car. Most of these cars are to be found in the United States and Canada. The trick is not to tell anyone about the TR8. Once the word gets out and the secret spreads, perhaps the best deal in town will disappear.
A Brief Chronology of the TR7/TR8[xv]:
January 1975: TR7 comes to North American shores
May 1976: TR7 released to remainder of world
February 1977: Prototype TR7V8 coupes produces (estimated 40 cars)
October 1977: Speke plant strike shutting down production of TR7/8, through November 1977, management/engineers assembled some cars
March 1978: Speke production resumes
May 1978: Speke plant closes
October 1978: Canley plant begins production of TR7
November 1978: TR8 production may have begun at the Canley plant
July 1979: TR7 drophead (convertible) introduced to North America
January 1980: TR7 drophead (convertible) introduced to Europe
March 1980: TR7 drophead (convertible) introduced to United Kingdom
March 1980: The press is provided with the TR8 for review
June 1980: North American TR8 drophead (convertible) is available
Summer 1980: TR7/8 production is moving to Solihull
August 1980: Canley plant production line is closed
August 1980: All production is assumed by Solihull plant
October 1981: Production of the TR7 and the TR8 ceases
[I] [i] Williams, Paul, “History of the Shape”, 1995, http://www.team.net/TR8/WWWedgeHome.html
[ii] [ii] Williams, Paul, “History of the Shape”, 1995, http://www.team.net/TR8/WWWedgeHome.html
[iii] Saunders, David, October 11, 2016, “CC History: Triumph TR8 – The Wedge Perfected”, http://www.curbsideclassic.com/blog/history/cc-history-triumph-tr8-the-wedge-perfected/
[iv] Moss Motors, “Triumph TR7 and TR8: Wedges Polarize Enthusiasts”, January 6, 2012, www.mossmotors.com
[v] Saunders, David, October 11, 2016, “CC History: Triumph TR8 – The Wedge Perfected”, http://www.curbsideclassic.com/blog/history/cc-history-triumph-tr8-the-wedge-perfected/
[vi] Williams, Paul, “History of the Shape”, 1995, http://www.team.net/TR8/WWWedgeHome.html
[vii] Saunders, David, October 11, 2016, “CC History: Triumph TR8 – The Wedge Perfected”, http://www.curbsideclassic.com/blog/history/cc-history-triumph-tr8-the-wedge-perfected/
[viii] Moss Motors, “Triumph TR7 and TR8: Wedges Polarize Enthusiasts”, January 6, 2012, www.mossmotors.com
[ix] Saunders, David, October 11, 2016, “CC History: Triumph TR8 – The Wedge Perfected”, http://www.curbsideclassic.com/blog/history/cc-history-triumph-tr8-the-wedge-perfected/
[x] Williams, Paul, “History of the Shape”, 1995, http://www.team.net/TR8/WWWedgeHome.html
[xi] Williams, Paul, “History of the Shape”, 1995, http://www.team.net/TR8/WWWedgeHome.html
[xii] Tigers United, “Production Numbers”, http://www.tigersunited.com/history/prodfigures.asp
[xiii] The Wedge Shop, “History”, http://www.thewedgeshop.com/triumph-tr8.html
[xiv] Wallens, David S., “Vintage Views: Triumph TR*”, December 13, 2016, https://grassrootsmotorsports.com/articles/vintage-views-triumph-tr8/
[xv] Williams, Paul, “History of the Shape”, 1995, http://www.team.net/TR8/WWWedgeHome.html
[ms1]I don’t’ know what finally and excursionly made means.
[ms2]Revise in any significant number.