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.

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