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
  • Get to the point
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: Car Sales Executive - OTE £36,000

    £12500 - £36000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This established Wakefield Deal...

    Recruitment Genius: PHP Web Developer / Full Stack Developer

    £24500 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

    Recruitment Genius: Bookkeeper / Receptionist

    £21000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A bookkeeper/receptionist posit...

    Recruitment Genius: Operations Manager

    £28500 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company offers unique corp...

    Day In a Page

    General Election 2015: The masterminds behind the scenes

    The masterminds behind the election

    How do you get your party leader to embrace a message and then stick to it? By employing these people
    Machine Gun America: The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons

    Machine Gun America

    The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons
    The ethics of pet food: Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?

    The ethics of pet food

    Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?
    How Tansy Davies turned 9/11 into her opera 'Between Worlds'

    How a composer turned 9/11 into her opera 'Between Worlds'

    Tansy Davies makes her operatic debut with a work about the attack on the Twin Towers. Despite the topic, she says it is a life-affirming piece
    11 best bedside tables

    11 best bedside tables

    It could be the first thing you see in the morning, so make it work for you. We find night stands, tables and cabinets to wake up to
    Italy vs England player ratings: Did Andros Townsend's goal see him beat Harry Kane and Wayne Rooney to top marks?

    Italy vs England player ratings

    Did Townsend's goal see him beat Kane and Rooney to top marks?
    Danny Higginbotham: An underdog's tale of making the most of it

    An underdog's tale of making the most of it

    Danny Higginbotham on being let go by Manchester United, annoying Gordon Strachan, utilising his talents to the full at Stoke and plunging into the world of analysis
    Audley Harrison's abusers forget the debt he's due, but Errol Christie will always remember what he owes the police

    Steve Bunce: Inside Boxing

    Audley Harrison's abusers forget the debt he's due, but Errol Christie will always remember what he owes the police
    No postcode? No vote

    Floating voters

    How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

    By Reason of Insanity

    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
    Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

    Power dressing is back

    But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
    Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

    Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

    Caves were re-opened to the public
    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

    Vince Cable interview

    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
    Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

    Promises, promises

    But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
    The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

    The death of a Gaza fisherman

    He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat