As prices for its predecessor go stratospheric, Graeme Hurst champions the Triumph TR6, which offers the same thrills for a fraction of the cost.
There’s a certain irony about the impact of evolution in car design. The very decisions that were taken 40 or 50 years ago to improve a model have often resulted in a drop in today’s values. When Jaguar modified the floorpan of its seminal E-type just a year into production, the alterations unquestionably made the car more comfortable to drive, yet it’s the cramped ‘flat-floor’ cars that now command a premium. Likewise over at Lotus, the Hethel engineers’ attempts to update the Elan – first with bigger brakes and plusher trim, then fixed-frame electric windows and a better hood – no doubt improved the model, but it’s the purist S1 that enthusiasts most covet.
Those paradoxes are largely down to those old fundamentals of the free market economy, supply and demand, but they aren’t limited to prestige marques. Adding a fuel-injected straight-six to the Triumph TR5 gave the long-running and popular TR range a welcome boost in performance, but it was really only a stop-gap until the styling could be brought up to date with the mechanically identical TR6 in 1969. With its sharper, more fashionable lines complementing the TR5’s grunt, the TR6 was an instant success that secured Triumph’s future, with 13,912 UK-spec TR6s – and a staggering 77,938 US-spec carburetted cars – rolling out of Triumph’s Canley plant over six years. Some 34 years since the model’s demise, however, that rampant production total has merely served to fuel interest in the 2947 TR5s that left the line in just over a year following the model’s August ’67 launch. Which is why 5 values have rocketed in recent years, with good cars selling for £25k-plus and concours dealer fare at up to twice that sum.
All of which means that the 5’s successor is a bargain option today: £8-9000 should land you a reasonable TR6, with even the sharpest re-shelled examples only hitting mid-teens. What’s more, with its stonking perfomance and simple, handsome lines, the Triumph epitomises all that’s great about rugged, thrilling classic British sports cars. To find out if that reputation holds true, we have a thoroughly sorted TR for a blast across the West Midlands. Once the great bastion of the UK car industry – and this car’s birthplace – it’s equally steeped in landmarks of British history. More importantly, it boasts some fantastic roads on which to stretch the TR’s legs.
We kick off in the scenic Warwickshire town of Stratford-upon-Avon, once home to the nation’s most famous poet and playwright, William Shakespeare, who was born here in 1564. The town is also within spitting distance of the Cotswolds – just 10 miles down the A3400 – but the proliferation of tourist buses in the height of summer makes those narrow, stone-walled roads a bind, so instead we opt to head west towards Alcester. Once free of the traffic, the A422’s gentle sweeping bends invite you to explore the performance of the torquey 2.5-litre Lucas-injected ‘six’, revelling in the thrum of the exhaust as it echoes off the hedgerows. Give it another inch of throttle and the surge in acceleration – combined with the sunlight reflecting off the TR6’s bonnet – gives the first taste of the recipe for a classic British sports car: simple, predictable road manners and a delicious engine note. It’s a combination that Triumph served up so well over the years, ever since launching its line of TR-badged, Standard-engined sports cars with the TR2 in 1953.
More than 60,000 examples of the classic ‘sidescreen’ TRs were made, but those raw early roadsters were not without their flaws and criss-crossing the back-roads to avoid a plodding farm tractor reveals one of the TR6’s greatest virtues: independently sprung rear suspension. The switch to semi-trailing arms at the back came four years earlier with the TR4A, which paved the way for the brand’s future development. When Triumph commissioned Italian styling house Michelotti to re-clothe the TR3A’s chassis at the start of the 1960s, it retained the cart-sprung live axle at the rear and the venerable 2138cc ‘four’. Michelotti’s efforts were a big hit, cementing the marriage of continental design and British engineering for years to come, but the TR4’s underpinnings limited the car’s success. Triumph’s first move was to improve the handling by grafting on the 2000 saloon’s independent rear end, but its extra weight dampened performance. Cue the installation of the saloon’s six-cylinder motor, stroked to increase capacity to 2.5 litres, for the TR5.
With power up by a whopping 50%, the TR5 was an instant success. Motor described the new unit as ‘magnificent’ and ‘the answer to an enthusiast’s prayer’, but it was clear that added grunt alone wouldn’t be enough to ensure longevity. Automotive design was changing, with more rakish, sharp-edged looks becoming the norm, and Michelotti’s curves were looking dated. Again design salvation came from abroad, but this time from Germany: Michelotti was too busy to take on a restyle, so Triumph looked to Karmann for a rework of the TR5’s looks.
At first glance, the TR6’s crisp lines appear entirely fresh. But picture a TR4 in your mind and you start to appreciate just what a masterpiece Karmann produced. The flatter, broader front end freshened up Michelotti’s efforts, while the sharp, black-painted Kamm tail brought the rear right up to date. Yet the centre section was left unchanged to save cash – even the kink at the top of the door is made part and parcel of the new look. Yet if the average TR6 owner had never seen a TR4 or 5, they’d be none the wiser about their car’s origins. Adding even more of a ’70s feel was Triumph’s range of colours: Saffron, Tahiti blue and searing Magenta were just some of the cool colours to be chosen from British Leyland’s marketing palette.
This car’s bright Mimosa yellow certainly has presence against the rolling fields of still-green barley as we spear our way through the villages of Inkberrow and Upton Snodsbury. Five miles further along the A422, we cross over the M5 and head into Worcester. This Tudor town on the River Severn is home to another famous English product: Lea & Perrins Worcestershire Sauce. Punch ‘Midland Road’ into your sat-nav and you can swing past the site of the original factory, which has been producing the bitter-sweet condiment since it was formulated by John Lea and William Perrins in 1837. Head a couple of miles further west along the B4204 and you can stop at the village of Upper Broadneath, where William Elgar – composer of the patriotic Pomp and Circumstance March #1 – was born in 1857. It’s a fitting stop for a car that so aptly symbolises the genre. With the Healey axed a year before the TR6’s launch and the MGC a flop, Triumph was the last marque to fly the flag for the appealing formula of affordable, six-cylinder sports cars that evolved in the 1950s and ’60s from a handful of West Midlands factories and became coveted around the globe.
It was the combination of 150bhp grunt (or a mere 105bhp in the smog-strangled USA) and chiselled looks that catapulted this TR from its ’50s origins into the 1970s. Also underpinning its success was keen pricing: in January 1970, its showroom tag of £1367 was extraordinarily good value, when Jaguar’s built-to-a-price E-type was £2294 and Mercedes-Benz’s 280SL came in at a whopping £4466. No other six-cylinder roadster could come close for the money.
Roaring on through Worcestershire, we get a taste of why it hit the mark. The torque of that sonorous straight-six is thrilling, as the rear end hunkers down and the bonnet lifts. The engine’s impressive tractability comes courtesy of the Lucas fuel injection, although that aspect of the car also came in for criticism in the press when it was new for rough running – caused by the ‘hot’ camshaft that lay behind the magic 150bhp figure. On an empty country lane, however, it’s super-smooth when the rev counter starts to climb and the twin exhausts come on song, as you flick the overdrive in and out for bends.
It’s not all impressive, mind: having that cast-iron straight-six planted over the front axle translates into a tendency to understeer, although that quickly evaporates when you pile on the power as you exit a corner. The cockpit is narrow, too, and the slightest pothole results in some alarming scuttle shake – both attributes that can be explained by the separate chassis, which dictated the car’s width and was never likely to match the torsional rigidity of a monocoque structure over bumpy terrain. The seats don’t recline and the cockpit is a bit of an ergonomic mish-mash, with an ignition barrel so buried that you have to put your hand between the steering-wheel spokes to turn the key. But it’s that sort of idiosyncrasy that provides the TR6’s character – a ‘live with it or do without it’ aspect that seems to come with the territory.
With a view of open roads ahead across the long bonnet, those shortcomings are quickly forgotten as we surge on towards another local landmark. Half a mile west of Martley along the B4204, you’ll find Shelsley Walsh, the world’s oldest working motor sport venue. Pick any summer weekend and there’s likely to be no shortage of British fare being thrashed up the famous 1000-yard hillclimb, which has changed little for more than 100 years.
In a way, the TR6 is the automotive equivalent of Shelsley: a car that delivered sufficient thrills to soldier on largely unaltered while rival products came and went. The addition of dished steel wheels (instead of pressed hubcaps) aside, the only significant change came in mid-1972 when the engine was detuned to 125bhp. The revision was attributed to a change from SAE to DIN measurement and a switch to a milder cam profile in the interests of smoother idling, but it was also rumoured that BL bosses didn’t want the TR6 to outgun the new V8-engined Stag.
A drop in power was hardly the way forward, but with its outdated construction and the prospect of US safety legislation putting an end to convertibles Stateside, the TR6 was never going to be a candidate for further evolution. Besides, BL had its corporate eyes on the TR7, the wedge-shaped monocoque coupé that so spectacularly failed to pick up where the 6 left off. Such commiserations are academic today, with the brand now long dead, so we turn off for a final stretch of B-road fun up to the top of Clee Hill and the superb view over the Wyre Forest.
From here it’s less than 10 miles along the A4117 to Ludlow, foodie capital of Shropshire, or you can head north-west on The Long Mynd. The route south through the Brecons is tempting, too. Whichever you take, you’re guaranteed roads as rewarding as the TR6 is to drive. And you can take even more pleasure from the fact that BL churned out enough to ensure that it cost you a third of the price of a TR5.
This article was originally published in the September 2010 issue of Classic & Sports Car magazine, which retains the copyright to all words and images.
Words: Graeme Hurst; pictures: James Mann