Despite boardroom bullying and a slim budget, the TR2 was an unlikely success. Giles Chapman on one of Britain's best-loved sports cars

How weird to recall that Triumph cars were originally a sideline for the eponymous motorbike-maker that's so successful today. From 1923 to 1984, they came and went. And the marque's career was never less than fervent - back-stabbing, bickering and bankruptcy. Occasionally, however, the thrashing, corporate beast gobbed out a much-loved car. Like the Triumph TR2.

I choose my words carefully. "Much loved" the TR2 certainly was. But like most other Triumphs, "great" would surpass the truth. Until the Triumph Acclaim of 1981, simply a renamed Honda, Triumph had never really launched a car whose development had been fully resourced. It was always a fibres-stretched operation, fuelled not by Teutonic-style engineering zeal but by boardroom bombast. The bosses kicked the arses of the employees who, through an unedifying mix of fear and talent, somehow got the job done.

The TR2 was born of a fury at the success of MG, emanating from Standard Triumph's tyrannical boss Sir John Black - a man so insensitive that he once described his Standard Eight/Ten series of cars as the "Belsen line" because they were so austere. He commanded his engineers to produce a 2-litre sports car to gatecrash the MG party that could be sold at a price he plucked from the ether - £555. The only thing was, they weren't actually allowed to spend any money on it.

So the backroom boys dutifully hoicked the chassis of a pre-war Standard Nine out of a skip, plonked in the 2-litre engine from the Standard Vanguard, and designed a body whose curves could be replicated using the cheapest press tooling. It was given the codename 20TS and unveiled, to general approval, at the 1952 Earl's Court motor show.

"It's the most awful car I've ever driven in my life; it's a deathtrap," declared Ken Richardson, manager of the company's rally team, to an aghast Black, after he'd tried it. "The chassis, brakes and steering are all wrong."

His thunder-faced employer summoned a quaking Richardson to his office, where he fully expected a four-letter dress-down and his final payslip.

Instead, he was asked to fix the car's maladies, which Richardson proceeded to do with vigour because the on-sale date was set at May 1953, just eight months away.

The main improvement was to design a straightforward ladder-type chassis to replace the bendy old bedstead the "TR1" had used. The company's stylists - spurred on by the snappy styling of the rival Austin-Healey 100/4 - replaced the TR1's runtish tail with a more graceful, tapering rear end, adding a boot lid and a locker for the spare wheel. Then Richardson began the arduous, night-and-day process of fettling the car's suspension, steering, brakes and gearbox until it resembled a proper sports car.

"We used to get up at 3am of a morning and carry on working throughout the evenings," recalled Richardson, who would roar off to the Welsh mountains and back to Coventry twice a day to perfect the TR2's roadholdling. "I used to get up as soon as it was light and test the maximum speed along a stretch of road on which we had marked out the kilometre and quarter-mile accurately with a chalk line." In those days, of course, before airbags, anti-lock brakes and electronics, this sort of intuitive approach was perfectly normal. So, it seems, was closing off a Belgian motorway to prove a car's performance. Sir John had thundered into his Bakelite receiver that he wanted the dead-straight Jabbeke Highway closed off for an hour or two, and no doubt clumps of Richardson's hair fell out at the thought of failure.

In fact, Tuesday, 18 May was warm and dry, and a prototype TR2 howled along the deserted two-lane tarmac to nudge an average of 125mph in its series of demos, timed by the Belgian Royal Automobile Club. Okay, that was with special aerodynamic tricks and a tiny windscreen shielding Ken Richardson's helmeted bonce from the rushing air. But, even in normal trim, the TR2 managed 114mph. It all made stirring stuff for Triumph's perpetually coshed PR department to hawk.

Through Herculean effort, the runt had turned, if not into a greyhound, then at least into a healthy Labrador. The TR2 hit the shops in July 1953 at £787, the £555 with purchase tax added. Its 2-litre, twin carburettor engine gave a lusty 90bhp, thanks to tuning experts at racecar company BRM, and this endeared it to the sports jacket brigade. "The Triumph TR2 has a nicely balanced feel that quickly inspires confidence", cooed The Autocar approvingly.

A one-two in the 1954 RAC Rally helped bestow enough widespread credibility. It returned an excellent 35mpg yet licked 108mph with optional overdrive, and could manage 60mph from standstill in under 12 seconds - all down to a low 1888lb weight.

The TR2's frills were few. The hood and upholstery were plastic, and unless you paid extra for a heater it was horribly draughty with the hood and flimsy sidescreens up. There were also plenty of irksome faults, like doors that opened too low and scraped on kerbstones, and the large steering wheel that skimmed the thighs.

But skip, as you would, to the final paragraph of The Autocar's generally turgid 1954 road test and these key phrases are there: "value for money," "fine performance," "very economical". These were the days when a Spam fritter was a treat but The Autocar's very final words were: "fun to drive". And that was an almost unheard-of quality in any car then.

The bellicose Black was ousted in a boardroom fracas, also in 1954. The TR line, by contrast, proved pretty venerable. The TR2 became the TR3 in 1956 after 8,628 had been sold, many in the US, and its hearty, homespun spirit survived until the last TR6 was built, 20 years later.

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