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1975 Triumph Spitfire 1500
A real Triumph


AutoWeek | Published 05/03/02, 12:00 am et


There is a tendency among some Triumph enthusiasts to view the Spitfire as something less than a real Triumph. Yes, it was diminutive in terms of size and horsepower, but with more than 314,000 produced between 1962 and 1980 (on par with the entire TR line), it was the sports car heart of the company.

Triumph started as an auto manufacturer in 1923. It failed during the 1930s but was reborn after World War II under the umbrella of the Standard Car Co., best known for its saloons. Standard-Triumph premiered its first sports car, the TR2, in 1952. The TR2 was more successful than Standard saloons and was followed quickly by the TR3 and 3A. In 1958 Austin launched the tiny Donald Healey-designed Sprite to great success. A smaller roadster had also been discussed at Triumph and the Sprite’s success encouraged the firm to produce it.

In late 1960 a prototype, codenamed “The Bomb,” was constructed in Turin by designer Giovanni Michelotti, using a Triumph Herald saloon chassis as its foundation. But the project was shelved when truck maker Leyland absorbed Standard-Triumph in 1960. A year later, a Leyland exec spotted The Bomb in a corner and the little sports car was given the go-ahead.

It debuted at the London motor show in October 1962 as the “Spitfire.” Synony-mous with the Battle of Britain fighter, the name resonated with the British public. Though more expensive, the Spitfire outsold the Sprite, offering more content than Austin’s petite convertible. The Spitfire 4, as it was officially called, came with a 1147-cc derivative of the Herald engine, pushing it to 60 mph in 17 seconds and topping out at 92 mph. Sales took off in the United States as well, climbing steadily as successive iterations of the car, including the more powerful MkII and MkIII, appeared.

The Spitfire’s racing potential was highlighted when Triumph decided to use it in place of the under-performing TR4 in 1964. Four fiberglass hardtop racers were built for Le Mans, one of which finished third in its class. The racer bodies foreshadowed the eventual GT6 Spitfire coupe but were campaigned with the same 1147-cc engines as their street counterparts. The cars raced successfully at Sebring that year and returned to Le Mans in 1965, taking first and second in class. Piloted by notables like David Hobbs, they also performed with distinction in various European rallies and in the SCCA where Bob Tullius took his Group 44 Spits to a number of wins in the late ’60s.

Michelotti freshened the design in 1970 (MkIV), which featured rear suspension improvements and a stroked 1493-cc version of the four-banger good for 71 horsepower.

In 1973 British Leyland rebadged the model as the Spitfire 1500. Minor interior and exterior details changed but most significantly, emission and safety regulations were met with raised suspension, bumper and engine modifications. Lucas electrics and traditional reliability problems were still part of the package but more than 90,000 examples of the popular machine were sold. The 1500 continued in production until 1980 when stricter emission requirements convinced Leyland to retire its venerable sportster.

This 1975 1500 is an American car converted to European specifications: The front suspension was lowered, the stock, emission-challenged Stromberg carb was replaced with twin SU HS4s, and a new exhaust manifold was fitted. The stock Girling 8.75-inch disc/drums remain, set inside larger Passport wheels. The car’s four-speed has the optional overdrive feature (a 2:1 reduction planetary gear system at the back of the tranny activated by a dash switch), which makes highway cruising a realistic proposition.

Handling and ease of maintenance are big draws for Spitfire devotees. Indeed, when cornered hard, the car’s double-wishbone/trailing-link/leaf suspension hunkers down. The driver’s bottom moves more than his shoulders. Swing the front-hinged bonnet forward, take a seat on the tire and you have complete access to the engine. With just 10 bolts, the wiring harness and brake lines joining the shell to the chassis, swapping Spitfire and GT6 bodies is a popular single-day project.

The 50th anniversary of Triumph sports cars will be recognized at Mid-Ohio ( this summer, the weekend of June 14-16. The grounds will be filled with Spitfires—get a trackside seat and you can watch this real Triumph dogfight with its bigger brothers.

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Updated 12/30/05, 10:13 am et
>> Almost Showtime: A look at what's on tap so far for the 2006 Detroit Auto Show
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