TR4: Triumph’s rally underdog

| 4 Aug 2021
Classic & Sports Car – TR4: Triumph’s rally underdog

There’s something about the guttural gulp of a pair of Weber carburettors gasping for air that can give even the most prosaic of engines a sense of purpose.

Take the Vanguard four-cylinder, cast-iron dollop of an engine that sits beneath the bonnet of a standard Triumph TR4.

The expectancy when firing up the beautiful, Giovanni Michelotti-penned roadster is always a tad deflating.

It appears at first sight like a baby Maserati that promises to have at its heart an exotic powerplant, with at least a couple of camshafts and a pair of side-draught carbs, but no.

Classic & Sports Car – TR4: Triumph’s rally underdog

Restored… but this TR4 is no garage queen

It is sadly true, in more than one respect, to say that what lurks under the hood is agricultural and there is a good reason the SU-fed 2-litre engine would look familiar to the owners of Ferguson tractors.

The car ’s Latin styling flatters its rudimentary mechanicals, yet armed with further Italian ingenuity, in the form of twin Webers, the performance – both actual and perceived – is radically improved.

That’s certainly the overriding impression on driving this innocent-looking pale-blue example for the first time.

Classic & Sports Car – TR4: Triumph’s rally underdog

Engine mods included a high-lift cam, new cylinder head and twin-choke Webers

Apart from the lack of bumpers and the addition of side grilles and spotlights, 3 VC, the first in a quartet of rally-prepared TR4s, looks every bit like the showroom version first presented to the public at the end of 1961.

Yet fire it up from cold and the spitting and gurgling from the right-hand side of the engine bay announce that this rendition of the little Triumph is something special.

Indeed, in this guise it probably represents the ultimate incarnation of the model – not that the specification is the result of huge, unlimited-budget factory development. Far from it.

Classic & Sports Car – TR4: Triumph’s rally underdog

This Triumph TR4 carries its competition history with pride

Almost immediately after the trio of similar-looking but very different TRSs had crossed the finishing line at the 1961 24 Hours of Le Mans, the firm’s new owner, Leyland, took the decision to unceremoniously shut down Standard-Triumph’s competition department, despite eight years of relative success under the stewardship of Ken Richardson.

But within six months a young development engineer with a penchant for rallying was called to the office of technical director Harry Webster, who announced that he was going to relaunch the motorsport team and that the rally enthusiast would be charged with running it for him.

For 1962, the new department was headed by Graham Robson. The pair had met back in the summer when Robson, a keen competitor with local rival Rootes, was asked by Webster what, if any, product of Triumph’s could be suitable for the sporting discipline.

He concluded that only a properly developed version of the soon-to-be announced TR4 might be competitive.

Classic & Sports Car – TR4: Triumph’s rally underdog

Six months after Triumph’s motorsport division was closed, rallying was back on the agenda with the TR4

Armed with a diminutive budget, that was apparently nearly always exceeded, Robson set about recruiting a small team of mechanics along with sorting out the car’s homologation and drawing up a list of events for the season: the Tulip, Alpine, Liège-Sofia-Liège and RAC rallies.

The spannermen were headed by the former chief mechanic of the TRS project, Ray Henderson, supported by Roger Sykes, Mick Moore and David Shepherd, but time wasn’t on their side.

The move into workshops at Fletchamstead North, near Coventry, and the announcement of the revived team wasn’t made until the February, just three months before the model’s rally debut.

Classic & Sports Car – TR4: Triumph’s rally underdog

The team of TR4s pictured in 1962, under Robson’s watch © Graham Robson

With production aimed squarely at the US export market, they couldn’t just rob the line of the four cars they wanted.

Having placed an order, the works equipe had to wait its turn for the four right-hand-drive, pale-blue TR4s.

The distinctive choice of colour was down to Robson: “We rejected red because this would clash with the ‘works’ Austin-Healey 3000s; green because our advertising agency said that it would not photograph well; and white because it would get too dirty too quickly.

“A few factory die-hards thought that powder blue was too ‘feminine’ a colour, but we decided to ignore them.”

Classic & Sports Car – TR4: Triumph’s rally underdog

Post restoration, this car has put in the miles

On compiling the homologation papers – most of the time a fanciful shopping list of ‘optional’ parts that a manufacturer would like to fit to the competition version of its car – Robson found that his predecessors hadn’t been quite as diligent as they might have been, particularly in the development of the wet-liner engine.

Using essentially the same unit, the TR3 had been very successful in rallying during the 1950s and, in the spirit of the times, was surprisingly stock.

But, with the dawning of the ’60s, a new level of professionalism had entered the sport. Suddenly a variety of axle ratios were deemed a basic necessity and limited-slip differentials no longer an exotic fantasy.

Slated to have the original 1991cc engine over-bored to 2138cc, there was still precious little in the way of tuning goodies available for either of the TR’s powerplants.

Classic & Sports Car – TR4: Triumph’s rally underdog

Vic Elford tackles the 1963 Coupe des Alpes, only to later crash out of the event © Graham Robson

The smaller unit was supposedly offered as a no-cost option for sporting enthusiasts who had an eye on competing in the popular under-2-litre categories – no doubt the reality being delays in uprating the blocks to the bigger size.

It would certainly explain why the four cars delivered to Robson in mid-February were equipped with the smaller motor, and why they would contest their first rally with them.

Although all four had been disassembled on delivery and meticulously put back together by the team, the only uprated parts they were able to introduce before May were lightweight aluminium panels and Perspex windows.

Registered 3 VC, 4 VC, 5 VC and 6 VC, the latter of the quartet was intended to be the recce and reserve car, the other three the actual team.

Classic & Sports Car – TR4: Triumph’s rally underdog

3 VC passes the Vredestein tyre service area on the Tulip Rally in 1963, the final year of European competition for the quartet of TR4s © Graham Robson

“Since I had co-driven with John Sprinzel on several events in the UK during 1961, I was happy to appoint him as ‘Team Captain’ for the new operation,” Robson recalls. “At his advice we signed up Mike Sutcliffe and Jean-Jacques Thuner to make up a three-driver operation.”

Sprinzel was an inspired choice to lead the team, the German-born Brit having acquired a wealth of experience in barely half a dozen years of continuous racing and rallying.

In 1960 alone he won his class in the 12 Hours of Sebring and finished second overall in both the Liège-Rome-Liège and RAC rallies.

His advice was invaluable, from negotiating the FIA regulations to dealing with European roads and hazards. By all accounts his knowledge of Continental cuisine wasn’t too shabby, either.

Classic & Sports Car – TR4: Triumph’s rally underdog

This TR4 was also campaigned on the other side of the Atlantic

Money was so tight that crew members weren’t paid, but each received a per diem of £7 to cover food and accommodation.

They were also given a ration of petrol vouchers by BP, one of the team’s sponsors, which was fine so long as the drivers could find its sites. Otherwise they had to pay for fuel themselves.

The TR4 pictured here, 3 VC, was allocated to Sprinzel who, along with the team, used the car to develop ideas and modifications for the other three.

“When he came to collect 3 VC to compete in its first event, the Tulip, he nearly caused heart failure among the technicians by turfing out things such as carpets, spare parts, and the ability to carry one’s own luggage, all to save weight,” recounts Robson, who acted as navigator.

Classic & Sports Car – TR4: Triumph’s rally underdog

Classic & Sports Car – TR4: Triumph’s rally underdog
Classic & Sports Car – TR4: Triumph’s rally underdog

The busy competition cabin added a compass (bottom left) Halda Twinmaster (bottom right) to the standard gauges, but the bucket seats are bespoke

Always up against it where both time and money were concerned, the team pitched up in Noordwijk, The Netherlands, with desperately underdeveloped cars.

None of the homologated mechanical items were ready and the engines made about 100bhp – though thankfully, in running the smaller incarnation, they weren’t in direct competition with the Big Healeys.

But they did find themselves up against Rauno Aaltonen’s works MGA 1600 Deluxe, a model that, according to Robson: “Had been progressively homologated for the previous three years, complete with Weber carburettor and four-wheel disc brakes. With a 1622cc engine it was thought to be more powerful than the TR4s.”

Despite the unfavourable odds, all three cars finished the four-day event without major issue, in second, third and fourth in class.

Classic & Sports Car – TR4: Triumph’s rally underdog

The works TR4 team was run on a shoestring budget

During the month before the cars’ next outing on the Alpine, more parts came on stream.

By then with their engines re-linered to the larger 2.1-litre capacity they were augmented with gas-flowed heads, higher-lift camshafts and tubular exhaust manifolds all supplied by SAH Accessories, the combination of which showed a 22% improvement in power output.

Although the engines of all four cars were stripped, inspected and rebuilt after each event, they retained the same unit throughout their works careers, such was the shoestring budget.

There was no stock of spare engines or even trick parts, as Robson is keen to point out.

“In 1962 we were having to run in strictly inspected homologation classes, which banned the use of things such as steel crankshafts, lightweight pistons, or cam profiles that could not be produced using the original forgings. We were also obliged to run on roadside fuel supplies, which were only in octane ratings of the low to mid-90s.”

Classic & Sports Car – TR4: Triumph’s rally underdog

“A few factory die-hards thought that powder blue was too ‘feminine’ a colour, but we decided to ignore them”

With 6 VC in the hands of Tommy Wisdom and Jeff Uren added to the team for the assault on the Alpine Rally’s different and more favourable up-to-2500cc class, spirits were high.

Sadly for ‘our’ car, this time navigated by Willy Cave, it would only last 24 hours before being rammed by another competitor in thick fog on a bendy French back-road.

The front suspension was deemed too badly damaged and it retired on the spot. Not all was lost, because the survivors swept the class led by Mike Sutcliffe, who won a Coupe des Alpes and finished fourth overall.

If these events had been a gentle, primarily Tarmac-based introduction to rallying, the remaining two would really put the TR4 to the test: the gruelling Liège-Sofia-Liège and the RAC, 38 stages of which were run through Forestry Commission land.

Classic & Sports Car – TR4: Triumph’s rally underdog

‘They were given a ration of petrol vouchers for BP sites – if they could find them. Otherwise they had to pay for fuel themselves’

Sprinzel proved his worth yet again on the European marathon, says Robson.

“He recommended that we fitted a stiff, full-length protective under-shield below the engine and the transmission, and that we should carry a second spare wheel, which could be (and was) mounted on the outside of the bootlid.

“Which meant that for this event 3 VC and its sisters reverted to using steel bootlids instead of the lightweight aluminium lids that had previously been fitted.

“To raise the nose of the cars a little, and minimise possible front-end chassis damage, the cars were fitted with aluminium spacers on top of the front suspension coil springs. Amazingly, this did nothing to disturb the handling.”

Classic & Sports Car – TR4: Triumph’s rally underdog

Today the TR4 is a much-loved touring companion, as much as anything else

Robson continues: “In addition, John persuaded Ray Henderson that he should take along 6 VC as a ‘high-speed chase car’ – or ‘spares on the hoof’ – for which his driver was none other than Vic Elford, who was just coming to the fore as a budding rally superstar.”

3 VC would lose its radiator, 4 VC crashed and 5 VC limped home with a damaged chassis… With 10 weeks before the RAC and with Swiss team member Thuner keen to contest his home rally, he was given 5 VC, refreshed and at last fuelled by twin-choke Weber carburettors, for the Geneva rally.

In the engine’s ultimate state of tune, peak power output was almost 135bhp and it was able to run to 6000rpm. “Considering all the limitations imposed by homologation regulations, fuel standards and operating budgets,” Robson says, “this was considered to be as competitive as could be hoped for.”

Classic & Sports Car – TR4: Triumph’s rally underdog

Brought back to the UK, this TR has been lovingly restored

These days, with enough of a budget, nominally the same set-up can produce in excess of 200bhp.

Thuner and the TR fared well, coming home second in class behind Hans Walter’s Porsche 356 1600 Carrera.

Although outclassed on the loose of the British event, the pale-blue sports cars from Canley did finish and placed second in the Manufacturer’s Team Prize.

It was to be Sprinzel’s final outing in 3 VC: the following month he announced his withdrawal from driving for ‘works’ teams, but he continued to compete as a privateer for many years until 1973.

His replacement at Triumph was rising star Elford, who would contest three rallies in 3 VC with varying degrees of success.

Classic & Sports Car – TR4: Triumph’s rally underdog

Though not its speciality, 3 VC is at home on the loose

His first outing on the 1963 Tulip Rally was with the car built to its ultimate specification, the last piece of the jigsaw being the limited-slip differential installed in the rear.

“Because this event was always run with regulations of the ‘let’s make it equally difficult for an outstandingly fast car to win’ mould,” recalls Robson, “the TR4s were always likely to struggle.

“However, in an event with many high-speed hillclimbs, they proved to be astonishingly fast, the ‘scratch time’ table showing that Elford’s 3 VC had been third overall, behind the Austin-Healey 3000 of the Morley twins and Henri Greder’s 4.7-litre Ford Falcon Sprint. The official handicap results put 3 VC fourth overall in the GT category.”

With Thuner and new recruit Roy Fidler, the team also won the GT Category Team Prize.

Classic & Sports Car – TR4: Triumph’s rally underdog

At one point, this ex-works TR was a student’s daily driver

The other two outings for Elford and 3 VC weren’t so successful. On the French Alpine Rally he and navigator David Stone, no doubt confident that they were competitive against the Big Healeys, left the road while chasing the Morley brothers.

Robson arrived on the scene fearing the worst, only to find that the two bodies stretched out on the roadside were merely soaking up the sun.

The car escaped damage and was pressed into service a month later on the Liège-Sofia-Liège with Don Grimshaw at the wheel – again it retired, after falling off its jack in the dark.

Quick Vic’s last outing was in November on the RAC, which was intended to be 3 VC’s final event. “On the second night the engine blew a cylinder-head gasket and would go no further,” says Robson. “This was depressing for me and the entire team because such a failing had never let us down in two hard seasons.”

Classic & Sports Car – TR4: Triumph’s rally underdog

The TR4’s elegant Giovanni Michelotti lines

With a move to Spifires and 2000s for the 1964 events, the four works TRs were on the verge of being mothballed when the US importer, with the aid of West Coast guru ‘Kas’ Kastner, asked to enter the team in that spring’s Canadian Shell 4000 rally.

Robson takes up the story: “Each of the [three] chosen cars, including 3VC, was completely stripped out, the aluminium-panelled bodyshell retained along with all the special running gear, powertrain, suspension, large fuel tank, electric wiring and cockpit equipment, and built around brand-new rally-specification left-hand-drive chassis frames.

“Before they were then trucked all the way up the coast to Vancouver, Kas’ shop treated them to new sets of magnesium-alloy road wheels of a type not then known in the UK [American Racing Equipment Silverstone IIs], and they were road-registered in the state of Oregon, where there were no administrative costs. 3 VC therefore became CAG 408.”

Classic & Sports Car – TR4: Triumph’s rally underdog

The addition of a rollbar is a subtle modern safety concession

“The Shell 4000 was a ‘time-speed-distance’ type of event, where accurate timekeeping and navigation were required of the co-driver,” continues Robson.

“None of the chosen crews in the TR4s appeared to be supreme at this craft. The pilot of 3 VC/CAG 408, Bert Rasmussen, was an enthusiastic and competent Canadian rally competitor and technician with the local Triumph importer, but he was by no means a world-class driver.

“Even so, the TR4s proved themselves to be the fastest sports cars in what was a very ‘rough-road’ event, and all three of them made it to the finish in Montreal.

“3VC had survived well and Rasmussen was proud to be a member of the Triumph ‘works’ team, which had taken home the GT Team Prize.”

Classic & Sports Car – TR4: Triumph’s rally underdog

In its ultimate state of tune, the TR4 had almost 135bhp

Following the new-world adventure the three TR4s were sold off through the US Triumph dealership network.

3 VC ended up with a student at the University of Rochester, who ran it every day and dabbled in amateur motorsport events before eventually parking the car up.

Neil Revington, an acknowledged marque expert, had already restored 4 VC, the lone works TR4 to have remained in the UK and which had been bought by enthusiast Ian Cornish.

The restoration had drawn a lot of attention in the TR community and in 1994 he received a callfrom Wisconsin, USA, offering him the former recce car, 6 VC. Within a year he was running the TR4 in historic rallies.

Classic & Sports Car – TR4: Triumph’s rally underdog

This Lucas lamp provides illumination when reversing

Further accolades followed and again the phone rang, this time from upstate New York. The caller said he had 5 VC, so again Revington was lured across the Atlantic.

What he found was a partially ‘restored’ but disassembled ex-works TR4. Yet on putting all the parts together prior to shipping, Revington discovered that it was not 5 but 3 VC.

As is so often the case, more damage had been done to the car by well-meaning restorers than by any Balkan dirt track, but crucially all of the original components were there.

The vendor had obviously invested a lot of money in a car that, in the eyes of an expert, needed to be re-done, so to raise the money to meet the inflated asking price Revington set up a trust to buy the car with two other partners. Once finished the trio would share the TR.

Classic & Sports Car – TR4: Triumph’s rally underdog
Classic & Sports Car – TR4: Triumph’s rally underdog

Wire wheels and bespoke side grilles on the works rally cars

Back in his Somerset workshops Revington was able to undo all the mistakes and, apart from the front wings, managed to revive all of the original parts including the aluminium bonnet that had been over-zealously shot-blasted before being filled with a tin of plod.

All four team cars survive, but 3 VC is arguably the most original.

Today, 25 years later and with a wealth of historic events under its belt, the car is superbly patinated and oozes period charm.

Slipping into the intimate and cosy cockpit, the first thing the driver sees is the upright Les Leston steering wheel in front of the regular TR dashboard, which is augmented by extra switches situated below.

It continues to be just as busy on the navigator’s side, with added Halda Twinmaster, clock, map light and further switches.

Classic & Sports Car – TR4: Triumph’s rally underdog

There is even a decent boot…

Although Revington used his own design of bucket seats, the upholstered bargeboard that sits between them is totally original.

Unlike in its prime, 3 VC does possess a rollbar, but with full carpeting it feels as much a car for touring as for charging up Alpine passes.

Still armed with its original drivetrain and engine, it is noticeably quicker than a regular TR4 yet isn’t a cammy, ill-tempered handful in traffic, as part-owner Gareth Firth confirms.

Classic & Sports Car – TR4: Triumph’s rally underdog

A phone call led to the rediscovery and repatriation of this important TR4

“It is more than happy to potter to the shops,” he says. “For its 50th birthday we took it on a European tour to the Alps and the Dolomites and back. It didn’t miss a beat.”

In fact, 3 VC is as comfortable and relaxing as any historic competition car could be.

The ride is relatively soft with very few rattles and the exhaust note isn’t too intrusive. All of which makes listening to the induction roar from those Weber carburettors that much easier.

Images: Luc Lacey

Thanks to Pendine


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