A brief look on the history of the Triumph Spitfire
The Triumph Spitfire defined the British sports car. Small, agile, light and evolved from modest beginnings, it was one of the most easily recognised and successful performance cars in a booming era for the industry.
It was thanks to the Austin-Healey Sprite that the Spitfire came about at all. Only after the Sprite had proved what lucrative potential there was in the sports car market did Standard-Triumph decide to offer up its own challenger. Following the formula laid down by the Sprite, the Spitfire was based on humble and – crucially – cheap underpinnings, from the Herald. Looking back from a modern age obsessed with unnecessary weight, power outputs and complication, the simplicity of a Herald-based sports car seems like another, simpler time.
1962: The new Spitfire model is introduced, coming with a promising 1147cc engine.
1965: A more powerful brother of the Spitfire is introduced, the MkII model.
1967: A third model comes to life which has better styling and an easier to manage hood, the MkIII, having a 1296cc engine.
1970: MkIV is the next sibling that joins the family and receives a new gearbox, better handling due to the superior rear suspension.
1971: Seatbelts are now the standard.
1973: The family grows bigger with 1500 model being built, available only for the US market. It gets a bigger engine due to the emissions control equipment and it has a wider rare track which makes handling issues more manageable.
1974: The UK market welcomes the 1500 model.
1977: The interior is revised for better comfort.
1980: The last version of Spitfire is made.
Construction: steel chassis, steel body;
Wheelbase: 6ft 11in (1208mm);
Length: 12ft 1-5in (3680-3785mm);
Width: 4ft 9-101/2in (1450-1486mm);
Height: 3ft 111/2in (1205mm);
Kerb Weight: 1568-1750lb (711-794kg);
0-60mph: 15.5-11.3 secs;
Top Speed: 92-101mph;
Fuel consumption: 29.8 mpg;
OHV 11477/ 1296/ 1493cc inline four-cylinder with twin 11/4/11/2in SU/Stromberg (Late US cars) carbs;
Power: 63bhp @5750 rpm-71bhp @ 5500rpm;
Torque: 67lb ft @3500rpm – 82lb ft @ 3000 rpm;
Transmission: four-speed manual, with optional overdrive on third/fourth, driving rear wheels
Suspension: front double wishbones, coils, anti-roll bar rear transverse leaf spring, fixed-length driveshafts, radius arms, swing-spring from 1970; telescopic dampers f/r;
Steering: rack and pinion;
Brakes: 9in discs front, 7in drums rear.
What are the price ranges?
The design behind the Spitfire
The body was drawn up by Michelotti, an Italian designer who had already penned the Spitfire’s donor car – the Herald. So far, so good, but unfortunately Standard-Triumph was on the verge of financial collapse. As a result, the project was deemed unfeasible and quite literally put under wraps and abandoned. For a while, it looked as though the project would never be given the green light.
However, when the owners changed, so did the fate of the Spitfire. It’s understood that when Leyland eventually took over its officials discovered the forgotten project hiding under a sheet. They liked what they saw and quickly recognised its sales potential. Having already flooded the company with much-needed funding, the car would see the production line after all.
In 1962, the MKI Spitfire hit the road. The production car was essentially the same as the prototype, which meant that underneath, it was almost all Herald running-gear. The engine was an existing 1,147 cc four-cylinder with two valves per cylinder, driven through a 4-speed gearbox with the option of overdrive on cars from 1964 onwards. To claim a modicum of sporting credential it was mildly tuned for the Spitfire and fed by twin carburettors. It produced 63bhp and 91 N.m of torque, giving the Triumph a 16.4s 0-60mph time and a 93mph top speed.
Although it thoroughly raided the Herald parts bin, the actual chassis bore little resemblance to that on which it was based. The outer rails and outriggers disappeared, the Spitfire relying on stiffness from its outer sills. Of course, the most noteworthy carry-over from the Herald was its infamous suspension set-up. Anyone who’s driven either car will most likely remember the unpredictable handling created by the single transverse leaf spring at the rear. It caused the car to ‘tuck-in’ or buckle, creating dramatic bouts of oversteer at even low speeds. Whilst this wasn’t a huge issue on the sedate Herald, in the faster Spitfire things were known to get a little eye-opening.
One quick fix was to alter the camber on the rear wheels, whilst fitting camber compensators was another option. Nevertheless, the early Spitfires were never known for their consistent handling.
Which Spitfire model stands out the most?
MkI & MkII
In 1965 the MKI bowed out to be replaced with the second generation of Spitfire. On the face of it, the MKII was much the same as the first iteration, changes occurring under the bonnet. Triumph upped the engine output thanks to a revised camshaft design, a water-cooled intake manifold, and tubular exhaust manifold, raising the brake horsepower from 63 to 67bhp. There were other minute alterations, including a different clutch and revised styling details, such as a new grille and badges.
It was in 1967 when the MKIII was introduced and proved a far more rigorous overhaul than its predecessor. A quick look at the front end was enough to single the MKIII out as a significant departure from those that came before it. Thanks to a change in crash regulations the front bumper were raised along with the front coil springs, whilst the rear saw the addition of a reversing light as standard. Another change occurred in the engine bay, with the bored-out 1296 cc unit from the Triumph Herald 13/60 and Triumph 1300 producing 75bhp. This allowed the MKIII to hit 0-60mph in 13.4 seconds, easily making it the quickest Spitfire yet.
Whilst the MKIII brought the first noticeable changes to the Spitfire, the MKIV moved the baton on again with some comprehensive design alterations. Visually it was a far smoother, more sophisticated looking machine, with a newly cut-off rear end bringing in line with Triumph’s new design language used on the Stag and 2000 cars. A rounded-off bonnet, recessed door handles and a full-length dashboard all made their way onto the MKIV. A hard-top option was also introduced.
The MKIII, on the other hand, remains a favourite of many drivers and that’s due to the simplicity of driving it and its nicer lines which the MKIV and 1500 failed to incorporate.
In 1973, Triumph decided to fit the Spitfire with its 1500 engine. It went on sale that year in the US and Canada, reaching the rest of the world two years later. It essentially put to bed any doubts about the MKIV’s output and performance, with power increased to 71bhp. This lowered the 0-60mph time to 13 seconds and allowed it to crack the 100mph barrier.
The 1500 model also built on the MKIV’s improvement with its handling, integrating longer swing axles and a lowered spring mounting point, giving the car a wider rear track and more negative camber.
The Spitfire continued to be produced until 1980, ending a near-on twenty-year lifespan. It proved to be one of Britain’s most successful sports cars during the hey-day of small, light and agile cars made by small, intelligent groups of engineers in the British cottage industry. The name Spitfire, chosen to commemorate one of the most awe-inspiring machines ever created, could have backfired on Triumph. It’s a testament to the quality of the product that it didn’t.
Developments to the drive-train failed to move along with the same pace as the design, with power if anything rated as slightly less than on the MKIII. Larger big-end bearings were introduced in 1973, but this – coinciding with new emissions regulations that forced Triumph to detune the engine slightly – made it a little more lethargic than the more spritely early cars. Weight increased too thanks to the more luxurious specification, from 711kg to 779kg, leaving the MKIV with a 15.8 second 0-60mph time and a top speed of 90 mph.
Thankfully, there was some good news concerning the MKIV’s sporting prowess. Triumph wisely decided to change the rear suspension, which was de-cambered and incorporated its ‘Swing Spring’. With this set up one leaf was removed from the stack, leaving only the bottom leaf attached rigidly to the differential. The other leafs were mounted so they could pivot freely. This served to eradicate the dubious handling characteristics infamous in earlier cars.
Buying a Triumph Spitfire
Find the right style for you
You have the option to go for a Spirefire that has a hardtop, bolt-on roof and no soft-top. Second-hand hoods and frames can be purchased easily, so if your preferences lie in a spitfire with a hood and the model you want doesn’t come with one, that can be easily done. If you do find a spitfire without a hood, you can safely assume that the previous owners took extra care of the interiors.
When it comes to restoration, you can even do it yourself at home as it’s pretty straightforward and easy to manage. We recommend you choose something that either needs a complete redo or buy one that is already top-notch. The reason why you’d be better off paying a mode that needs restoration is that the averages ones will most likely come with their own defects that will need more money in the long run. Regardless of your intention, you will need to be checking some elements to determine if the car is in good condition.
Biggest Warning Sign
Undoubtedly, rot is the ultimate killer when it comes to classic cars. Sign of rust should be the main element that you would want to inspect. Hardtops are usually the first parts to start rusting and you need to figure out if that is the case. Where should you check the car first? Inspect the front lip and side/rear windows and notice if there is any rot. Assessing the Chassis is going to be easily done once the car is on a ramp. You won’t have to worry too much about the body as it’s mostly a single-skin. Areas that you really want to be extra super are the sills, bulkhead and rear radius-arm mounts.
You will recognise a Spitfire engine by its number which starts with the letter F. FC is attributed to MkI& II, FD is for the MkIII, FH (FK for the US models) for the MkIV and FH (FM the US models) for the 1500 model. You will want the engine to be a specific Spitfire one but in some cases, you will encounter different Triumph engines. G from the Herald, D from the Dolomite and Y from the 1500 saloon.
Make sure you thoroughly inspect the state of the engine and if previous owners took good care of it. Otherwise, a rebuilt engine might set you back as high as £1400.
You will be delighted to find out that the Spitfire’s four-cylinder engine is quite simple to work on. Built for reliability, you will still have to check if the engine has signs of maintenance. See if the engine has the right oil filter fitted. A good filter will feature a non-return valve which has the role to stop the oil draining back into the sump. If you notice a bizarre rumbling or tinkling sound, that might be a red flag and it’s a sign that the incorrect type of filter has been fitted. Further, check the oil and water. Are there any oil or water leaks? Make sure that the oil light does not flicker at the tickover.
The origins of the four-cylinder engine stem from the Standard Eight of the early 50s but it can always be improved to attain better performance. The averages miles it can take is around 100,000 if taken care of and maintained periodically, but it’s recommended that after 20k miles on unleaded the engine will most likely need new hardened valve seats. If you notice a chattering top end due to the erosion of the rocker shaft and rockers.
As compared to other cars from the same age, you will be surprised to find that The Spitfire has a swing-axle rear suspension that performs better than most of its contemporaries. Non-overdrive cars are usually paired well with longer-ratio diffs. You will have to check if the lower trunnions have been oiled regularly. If they are not taken care of with proper lubrication, they will seize and snap the kingpin and turn hard over time.
You will need to remember that for the MKIV and 1500, there is an issue with the front valance, as it rots quite quickly. In this case, it’s recommended that GRP would be helpful but despite this, the top lip seals which support the bonnet are hard to fit.
The interior proves to be comfortable and minimalistic, but they tend to wear out quickly. You can opt for restoration and re-cover which is not that expensive to get.
The first three generations of Spitfire cars incorporated the same four-speed manual gearbox and included synchromesh on all gears apart from the first one. The MkIV model has a slightly different synchro, which was present on all ratios, while the 1500 model has a Marina-derives unit, which is also assumed to be the most durable one out of all gearboxes.
When it comes to transmission one of the first things you will want to check for is a layshaft noise. Dip the clutch in neutral and give it a listen to check for any strange noise. Make sure you’ve also checked for a weal synchros. If the gear-change is not performing well, you can cure them with new bushes. With this car, you also have the possibility of opting for an overdrive, which can be installed.
The Test Drive
When you take it for a test drive, you will want to hear the noises coming from the drivetrain. If you notice anything, this might be a sign that the car has worn universal joints in the prop or driveshafts and the mountings are defect. The good thing is that all those are affordable to repair. You also want to inspect the hood and how well it fits. Although draughts are inevitable, you need to remember that there is room for improvement in terms of how well a soft-top can be fitted.
Another thing to look for is the crankshaft thrust washers. Most of the time, the 1296cc engines are affected by this issue. With time, they are bound to deteriorate, and you will need to replace them. To check, simply get someone to press the clutch. You will then want to inspect the front pulley to see if it is moving. If the movement seems superfluous and erratic, the block and crankshaft get damaged and that’s a sign disaster is on its way. Look out for any rattling sounds and possible blue smoke as this is another sign that the crankshaft, pistons and rings are deteriorated. You will also want to check for any signs of overheating. The radiators can be easily replaced, and they will last you as long as ten years.
Synchromesh tends to present its own problems for most models as it’s the first part to wear out. If you feel there is any baulking whenever you change gears, this could potentially be associated with the synchro. Any other wheezing of the engine is most likely an indicator of used gears.
Gearboxes have been built to resist quite well over the years but the models with high mileage will be a sign that it needs to be rebuilt.
Braking is also something you need to take care of, if worn out, they will need to be rebuilt, given the modern times and traffic we have now. Inspect the steering for any knocks since signs of rack wearing are very common.
The Good Parts
- Easy to maintain and repair;
- Low costs for restorations;
- Car Parts are available to buy;
- Enjoyable opt-top motoring;
The Bad parts
- Easily corrosive and rut can take over any part of the car so need to take care of it often;
- Non-overdrive cars can be undergeared;