A Triumph of vision and design

Chic, sophisticated and spacious, the Spitfire was everything a ‘real’ British sports car was supposed not to be

For many traditional British motorists, 1962 was yet another nail in the coffin of civilisation. Triumph, not content with besmirching the name "sports car" with its decadent TR4 in 1961 (winding windows were fitted as standard) was now about to launch a smaller alternative so louche that the dashboard was even fitted with an ashtray and a hood that looked simple to operate. All this flew in the face of the unwritten law that British sports cars should be draughty machines appealing to masochists. Faced with clear evidence that civilisation was going to the dogs, many sportsmen retreated for a regulation cold shower.

Standard-Triumph had been considering the potential of a light sports car as an alternative to its TR range from as early as 1956, and it was spurred on by the huge success of the Austin–Healey Sprite, announced to the press in 1958. The next year saw the arrival of the Triumph Herald, replacing the deeply uninspiring Standard Eight and Standard Ten small saloons. The new car was chassis built as the firm had no in-house means of mass-producing monocoque bodies and its production system led to the Spitfire project, which commenced under the code name "Bomb".

A prototype Spitfire emerged in September 1960 with Giovanni Michelotti's elegant coachwork mounted on the chassis of a Herald 948. Unfortunately the project coincided with Standard-Triumph's impending bankruptcy in the face of dismal sales for its existing models and complaints about the Herald's poor build quality. When the firm was taken over by Leyland Motors the model was literally hidden under a dustsheet – where it remained until Stanley Markland, the Leyland executive who was appointed Standard-Triumph's new MD, discovered it in a corner of the design department. On 13 July 1961 he ordered the project to go ahead, ready for launch at the 1962 Earls Court Motor Show.

To save on costs the new Spitfire would be based upon a shortened version of the Herald's chassis. To ensure a low profile, the side members were replaced by strengthened stills, and to overcome the flexibility problems that plagued early Heralds the Spitfire's body was completely welded and attached to the frame by twelve bolts.

Power came from the 1147cc Herald engine, which was tweaked with twin SU carburettors, an improved camshaft and a higher, 9:1 compression ratio. The Herald's bonnet design, in which the complete front part of the car hinged forward, was retained on the Spitfire.

The new car may have cost £641 compared with the £587 Austin-Healey Sprite, but, in the somewhat optimistic words of the sales brochure, it boasted a cockpit that was "a place for spacious living. The deeply upholstered seats cushion you in luxury." Indeed it came with equipment that would automatically brand any owner as an effete cad: door handles and winding windows, neither of which were standard fittings on the Sprite/Midget; windshield washers; an adjustable steering column, albeit one requiring a spanner; and a "detachable windscreen – for sportsmen". The extras list included a heater, a tonneau cover, four-ply radial whitewall tyres and a laminated screen. Combine these with the front disc brakes, the all-round independent suspension and Michelotti's coachwork and you had a small sports car with genuine pretensions to sophistication.

The Spitfire always outsold the Sprite/Midget range (except for one year, when production was hit by workforce strikes) and was a big success in the US. For a reasonable $2,199 budding Don Drapers who enjoyed "turning on the power and turning girls' heads" could have a sports car with elegance and, thanks to Herald-sourced rear suspension, a 24ft turning circle – ideal for a car that was aimed at chic urbanites.

However, despite claims that "the Spitfire will corner at speed with a sureness most cars only give on the straight" the fact that the transverse rear leaf-spring assembly was bolted to the top of the differential casing could, and did, result in violent camber changes. "If you go for swingers you'll go for the Triumph Spitfire!" ran one faintly unfortunate advertising campaign, but for several years the handling was variously described by proud owners as "challenging", "jolly manly" and "help!".

The MkII version, launched in 1965, added carpets and a slightly more powerful engine to the Spitfire formula, and two years later the MkIII introduced raised bumpers in accordance with US safety regulations, a new 75bhp 1.3-litre engine, and even a wood-veneer dashboard. The Spitfire was augmented by the 1966 GT6, which combined a 2-litre six-cylinder engine from the Vitesse with a three-door coupé body that gave motorists of limited budget – and necessarily limited stature – the opportunity to own a mini E-Type.

In 1970 the MkIV was launched, which offered improved handling thanks to its upgraded suspension. But despite its better road manners, and the fact that it boasted a heater as standard, the face-lifted body with its Kamm tail lacked the purity of the original – even if it was less likely to pay unexpected, high-speed visits to hedgerows. Spitfire customers in the US were offered a 1.5-litre engine in 1973, the year the GT6 ceased production; this engine became available to British motorists two years later. In an irony appreciated by Triumph enthusiasts, if not by MG owners, the Midget was now powered by the same unit, thanks to the byzantine series of mergers and policies that led to the formation of British Leyland.

The last Spitfire was built in 1980, having outlived its Herald parent by nine years. Triumph's Canley factory closed a month later and the marque itself had only four more years to live, seeing out its retirement years on the grille of a British-built Honda Ballade, a four-door version of the Civic. In reality the British sports car formula was hopelessly outdated by the 1970s, in the face of alternatives such as the Fiat X/19 and the VW Golf GTi, but the Spitfire name will be remembered as long as there are string-backed gloves to be donned.

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
a clockwork orange, stanley kubrick
The Tesco Hudl2: An exceptional Android tablet that's powerful, well-built and outstanding value

Sarah Silverman (middle) with sister Reform Rabbi Susan Silverman (right) and sister actress Laura Silverman (left) at Jerusalem's Western Wall for feminist Hanuka candle-lighting ceremony
peopleControversial comedian stages pro-equality Hanukkah lighting during a protest at Jerusalem's Wailing Wall
After another poor series in Sri Lanka, Alastair Cook claimed all players go through a lean period
Arts and Entertainment
The Bach Choir has been crowned the inaugural winner of Sky Arts’ show The Great Culture Quiz
arts + ents140-year-old choir declared winner of Sky Arts' 'The Great Culture Quiz'
Life and Style
food + drinkAuthor DBC Pierre presents his guide to the morning after
Life and Style
food + drink
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Recruitment Genius: Finance Director

    £65000 - £80000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Finance Director required to jo...

    Recruitment Genius: Medico-Legal Assistant

    £15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a unique opportunity fo...

    Ashdown Group: (PHP / Python) - Global Media firm

    £50000 per annum + 26 days holiday,pension: Ashdown Group: A highly successful...

    The Jenrick Group: Quality Inspector

    £27000 per annum + pension + holidays: The Jenrick Group: A Quality Technician...

    Day In a Page

    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
    Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

    Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

    As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
    The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

    The Interview movie review

    You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
    Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

    How podcasts became mainstream

    People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

    Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
    Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

    A memorable year for science – if not for mice

    The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
    Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

    Christmas cocktails to make you merry

    Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
    5 best activity trackers

    Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

    Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
    Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

    Paul Scholes column

    It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
    Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

    Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

    2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

    Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

    The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
    Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

    Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

    The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
    Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

    The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

    Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas