The Shape of Things to Come – And Go
In a recent ranking of the 100 Worst Cars of all Time – sitting at 47 – was the TR7 – described as “British Leyland’s lame attempt to reinvent the British sports car for the 1970s. An underpowered, four-cylinder, wedge-shaped hardtop that seemed to disintegrate around its owners.” It has become fashionable since its disappearance to deride the TR7 as the car that killed Triumph, but Triumph was far enough down that path to have done so without any assistance from the Wedge. Even Triumph fans – including marque expert Richard Newton who described it as “so bad that no company could ever recover from this mistake” – tend to dismiss the car as a something-less-than-real TR. In truth, the TR7 sold well – 112,368 were built – and it did so in greater numbers than any Big Triumph had before and most of the problems for which it was reviled are for external factors beyond its control.
The union in 1968 of BMC and Leyland to form British Leyland was an uneasy marriage. The conglomerate produced everything from buses to trucks, family sedans to sports cars, and in the latter segment competed against itself with no fewer than three separate marques: Austin-Healey, MG and Triumph. Healey was the first to go, with BL accountants loathe to spend the money necessary to adopt the Big Healey to US safety and emissions rules and reluctant to pay royalties for the Sprite. MG would die slowly – with the same two sports cars at the end, Midget and MGB, as were there when BL took first over in the 60s. Little funds were devoted to improvements at MG and the cars suffocated under a mass of flat black rubber bumpers unceremoniously atop their jacked up suspensions.
Because the largest – and most powerful – contingent in BL’s managerial ranks had come from Leyland, it was natural that more attention was lavished on Triumph than its two corporate siblings. Unlike Cinderella, however, there would be no carriage ride to the ball and there was certainly no Fairy Godmother, as the monies that Triumph should have received to fully develop an entirely new car were never provided and the gestation of the TR7 would be protracted and beset by difficulties. Work on a replacement for the TR6 had started during the late 60s and as matters progressed it was determined by management to abandon the independent rear suspension and fuel injection that made the UK market TR5 and TR6 so desirable were to be abandoned in favor of a live rear axle and carburetors to reduce expense and complexity. By 1971, the mechanical kit had been settled and the new TR could have reached market two years later but for hesitancies over the car’s styling which was seen as too bland. At this point, fate’s fickle finger picked up a pen – from a designer at Austin-Morris no less – and sketched a radical new design that looked like a doorstop and that drawing found its way into the hands of senior management that actually liked what they saw. In this one stroke, the work of Giovanni Michelotti – who had designed the Herald, Vitesse, Spitfire, Stag and TR4 not to mention the BMW 2002, Maserati 3500 GT and Lancia Aprilia – was cast aside in favor of a car that looked like a wedge of cheddar.
Worse was the decision to build the car in coupe form only – based on the mistaken belief that overzealous American regulators would ban open cars – which meant that the next TR would also be different from every one that had come before. The decision to equip the car with the 1998-cc overhead-cam slant-four engine that was used in the Triumph Dolomite and Saab 99 – making only 92 hp @ 5000 rpm in US trim – ensured that the TR7 would struggle to match the performance of its predecessors. The interior was roomy – it was eight inches wider than the TR6 – and the layout was decidedly modern with liberal use of black plastic and – for the first time – cloth covered seats, which were the most comfortable ever offered in a Triumph sports car. Production of the car started in late 1974, and contrary to what we believe now, was much more enthusiastic than could be expected. It had been assumed that these first coupes would eventually be followed by open versions with more powerful engines – they would follow in time – and given that understanding the press was pleased that Britain had tried a stab at something new. While every previous TR shared a chassis that could trace its origins to the first TR2, the Wedge sported monocoque construction – resolving the cowl shake that had plagued the Big Triumphs forever – that predicted a more solid and much quieter platform for years to come.
The styling – expectedly – was not met with rave reviews with Sports Car World commenting that “overall it’s attractive in a crudely rakish sort of way,” while one writer quipped, “the shape is marginally better than the brick-like TR6.” What the TR7 did provide initially, other than the obvious improvements to comfort and weather protection, was really exceptional handling. Despite the fact that the IRS used in the TR6 had been discarded in favor of an inexpensive live rear axle, with its wide track and coil springs, the TR7 handled so well that Road & Track admitted that “the TR7 is miles ahead of any Triumph sports car ever built … with cornering power to spare … the ride is outstanding for a small sports car.”
The brakes were seen to work well – “short stopping distances and excellent directional control” – while the steering was praised for its precision, effort and feel. The gearbox used in the earliest TR7s – the 4-speed – was somewhat disappointing but, in reality, probably no worse than those used in every TR in the past. What let the TR7 down with the press was the fact that it was not fast – though to be fair this was a time when the Corvette offered only 165 hp out of its V8 – and importantly, it did not feel fast. With almost 2400 pounds to drag around with 92 hp – 200-lbs heavier than the TR6 – there was little chance of spritely acceleration, but what was frustrating was that the 16V version of the same engine was producing 127 hp in the Dolomite Sprint and it could easily have been used in the TR7 instead.
Unfortunately, the Sprint engine would only be used in a handful of cars – around 60 – and the US was forced to wait for the TR8 before any meaningful speed came to the Wedge. In 1976, Triumph offered an optional 5-speed that was the finest transmission ever offered in a TR with smooth, crisp shifts from a gearbox that was quiet and reliable and greatly improved the driving pleasure of the car. When fears that US regulators would eliminate open cars from the American market subsided, work was begun on producing a convertible version of the car that would answer the largest criticism that had plagued the car since its introduction – lack of a folding top. The TR7 was comfortable, handled well and the upcoming convertible would look much better than the awkward hardtop. The future was bright with sales improving amid growing acceptance of the TR7’s attributes over more traditional sports cars. Then things got worse – much worse.
If there is a villain in the story of who killed Triumph, then the greatest blame should be laid squarely at the feet of the labor force that built the car. In 1977, just as the car was receiving a restyled interior with improved seats and tartan plaid trim, the workers at the Speke factory in Liverpool went on strike – which they did with surprising regularity – and stayed on strike for several months which forced Triumph to shift assembly to its factory at Canley in Coventry. Even before the really damaging strike at Speke, stories began to circulate that workers were deliberately sabotaging cars and those that were not directly affected suffered from quality that could charitably be described as indifferent. Design issues affected the cooling system and head gasket failures – and attendant damage to the cylinder head – were not uncommon while electrical issues were endemic and crippling to the overall operation of the car.
By the time that the convertible version of the car was finally released in 1979 – after several years of development – Triumph’s reputation for durable and reliable cars was shattered beyond repair. Despite these issues, sales of the TR7 Roadster were strong – while coupe sales all but disappeared – and the odd wedge shape actually seemed attractive without the oddly shaped roof to spoil its unique lines. The new convertible top provided real weather protection – unique in a British sports car – and it was quiet inside when raised. The upgraded seats and interior trim diminished the expanse of black that dominated the interior previously and the car received favorable reviews with Road & Track stating that “Triumph’s new two-seater is a thoroughly enjoyable, well-developed and refined car with lively performance and reasonable economy.”
The strong initial reception from buyers to the TR7 Roadster had begin to diminish with cars continuing to suffer from indifferent build quality and random mechanical maladies such that when the TR8 finally arrived – in fits and spurts – during 1979, there was precious little goodwill remaining to fritter away. The new car was good, however, displaying all of the handling ability and comfort that was present in the TR7 and adding 133 hp at 5000 rpm from its aluminum 3528-cc V-8 – derived from the an old Buick design – that transformed the car into a ferocious performer faster than an RX-7 and barely slower than the Corvette. To accommodate the increased horsepower and torque, the suspension components and body structure were strengthened and its final drive ratio was raised to offer much quieter cruising at freeway speeds. The TR8 would become the fastest TR ever sold in America – it was only marginally slower than the TR5 – and it offered real performance in an affordable package. In its first US road test, Road & Track hailed its arrival – “Just when it seemed as though we would never again see another mass-produced, lusty-hearted convertible sports car, here comes the Triumph TR8. You aren’t going to have to track down a Sunbeam Tiger or older Corvette after all, because now you can buy a brand-new V8 roadster, one that will outrun almost every other sports sedan and sports car this side of $15,000.” For the third time, Triumph was forced to move production in 1980 – this time from Canley to Solihull – where quality improved and changes were implemented to increase reliability. Alas, it was too little, too late as the continued strength of the pound to the dollar forced the price of the car in the United States ever higher and when an oil crisis and recession struck, BL pulled the plug on the last Triumph sports cars.