Triumph Spitfire Mk1: Alpine adventure

| 28 Feb 2024
Classic & Sports Car – Triumph Spitfire Mk1: Alpine adventure

When you consider how many Triumph Spitfires are still running around on British roads, Geneva is a long way to go to drive one, but there is a good reason for making the effort.

More than 314,000 of these sports cars were produced between 1962 and 1980, but the Spitfire you see here is the very first production model.

Raising the one-piece bonnet reveals its chassis plate, on to which is stamped ‘FC/1’.

Classic & Sports Car – Triumph Spitfire Mk1: Alpine adventure

The Triumph Spitfire’s top-down charm remains as tempting today as it has ever been

A Heritage Certificate confirms its lineage: ‘Date built – 11 September 1962’; ‘Destination – International Motor Show’.

This is where it all began for one of British motoring’s most enduring success stories, the exact car that Triumph used to trumpet its new arrival at both Earls Court and the Geneva Salon.

The Spitfire had a somewhat protracted birth, however.

The 1950s was a successful decade for British sports cars.

Following the government’s ‘Export or die’ edict, manufacturers such as Jaguar and MG had firmly established themselves overseas, and particularly in America.

Triumph had got in on the action, too, courtesy of its TR line.

Classic & Sports Car – Triumph Spitfire Mk1: Alpine adventure

The ‘4’ was dropped from the badge when the Triumph Spitfire Mk2 came along

With the top end and mid-range therefore being well served, Austin-Healey stole something of a march on its competitors when it launched the Sprite in 1958.

Employing a new monocoque bodyshell and running gear derived from lowly BMC models, the ‘Frogeye’ was modern and, at £678, affordable.

When it was radically facelifted in 1961, an MG version – the Midget – became available.

Triumph already had one eye on a budget sports car of its own, but by then the need to respond had become more pressing.

Unfortunately, the company’s overall UK sales were not as buoyant as hoped and the firm was short of cash.

Nonetheless, Michelotti started work on a prototype that was codenamed ‘Bomb’, coming up with a shape that survived into the production car remarkably unchanged.

Classic & Sports Car – Triumph Spitfire Mk1: Alpine adventure

This restored Triumph Spitfire’s Vynide trim is in the original shade of blue

Work came to a stop while Leyland Motors took over the ailing Standard-Triumph concern.

The story goes that the new owners found Michelotti’s prototype under a dust sheet at the Canley plant and were immediately smitten.

Whatever the truth of the matter, progress on Project Bomb began anew once the buyout had been finalised.

Out of financial necessity, the Spitfire was based on the Herald, and used a much-modified version of the saloon’s chassis.

The frame was shorter and, so that the occupants were able to sit lower down, it was shorn of many of its outriggers.

Classic & Sports Car – Triumph Spitfire Mk1: Alpine adventure

This Triumph Spitfire, chassis FC/1, was the very first example built

Extra stiffening was built into the sills of the separate body in order to claw back some of the structural rigidity.

Even when it was new, the Spitfire’s construction was something of an anachronism when its Austin-Healey and MG rivals had already switched to monocoques, but Triumph persisted with it until the model’s demise in 1980.

In fact, even the firm’s more upmarket TR range didn’t feature unitary construction until the TR7 of 1974.

It certainly didn’t hinder sales of Triumph’s new sports car when it was launched in 1962.

The Spitfire shifted more units than its Spridget rival from BMC – a rival that would, of course, later become a stablemate under British Leyland.

In 1962, however, the pair went toe-to-toe.

The Spitfire offered slightly more room than the Midget and a touch more refinement, but then again it was more expensive.

Chassis number FC/1 was built as a left-hand-drive export model, with extras including 5.20 whitewall tyres, Vitesse wheel rims and (luxury of luxuries) a heater.

Classic & Sports Car – Triumph Spitfire Mk1: Alpine adventure

The Triumph Spitfire’s whitewall tyres were a factory option

It was showcased on a revolving platform at Earls Court in October ’62, where it was joined by a red UK-market version.

The two attracted plenty of attention in London, despite there being a number of high-profile launches that year, such as the Lotus Elan and BMC’s 1100/1300 range.

After playing a starring role there, FC/1 was shipped out to Switzerland in early 1963 to be displayed at the Geneva Salon.

Triumph’s Swiss importer, Blanc et Paiche, had the Spitfire registered in September ’63.

It subsequently stayed in the country, remaining with the importers through the 1960s until it passed to a private collector.

Owner Ralf Huber has tried to piece together the car’s history through the 1970s and ’80s, but little information has been forthcoming.

What is clear is that the Spitfire slowly deteriorated through lack of use; indeed, Huber reckons that our drive is the first time it has been used on public roads since 1969.

Classic & Sports Car – Triumph Spitfire Mk1: Alpine adventure

The Triumph’s willing 1147cc motor makes just 63bhp, but it’s a flexible unit that’s fun to use

When the previous owner died, his family began the process of selling off his stash of cars, most of which were Mazdas.

They were advertised in small batches and Huber, who was aware of the Spitfire’s significance, also had to buy five Mazdas just to get hold of it.

The Triumph was in a bad way by that point but, crucially, it was all there.

Huber took it to a specialist in France so that it could be restored, a process that ended up taking four years.

As much of the Spitfire as possible was saved, and wherever a part was too far gone, Huber insisted on replacing it with a New Old Stock item.

He took a fastidious approach to the project.

Look inside, for example, and you will notice that the passenger-side floor mat is missing.

Early Spitfires had these in place of carpets and Huber, unable to source a replacement, preferred to leave the floor bare rather than fit something incorrect.

Classic & Sports Car – Triumph Spitfire Mk1: Alpine adventure

Standard-Triumph was taken over by Leyland in 1961

It’s often said that a post-restoration car is ‘better than new’ but, when you compare the panel gaps to those on many separate-chassis Triumphs, it’s difficult to come to any other conclusion.

The Spitfire’s condition is due in no small part to the fact that it has had little use since being rebuilt.

It’s been well maintained but not driven any sort of distance, which makes our jaunt into the foothills of the Alps extra special.

Many Triumphs, be they sports cars or saloons, are hindered by an offset driving position, and the Spitfire is counted among their number.

On this Mk1 left-hooker, the seat and pedals line up nicely enough, but the steering wheel is way over to the right, as if you’re passing it across to your passenger. It’s a big wheel, too.

Otherwise, the interior is basic but comfortable and, to be honest, you forget about the driving position once you’re on the move.

As you might expect, the 1172cc pushrod engine is no ball of fire, but it is remarkably flexible.

Classic & Sports Car – Triumph Spitfire Mk1: Alpine adventure

The Triumph Spitfire is a joy to drive, despite its swing-axle rear suspension and body-on-frame construction

Roundabouts can be negotiated in third gear, with the Triumph pulling away from them smoothly and confidently.

The gearchange features a narrow gate – with first and reverse being particularly close – but the movement itself is pleasant enough once everything’s warm.

The lever is also relatively high and close to the wheel so, combined with the low seating position, the whole thing feels suitably sporting.

FC/1 is, of course, particularly well sorted, and lacks the shakes and rattles that you might expect from a Spitfire.

Instead, it’s impressively taut and composed, even when we turn off the main roads and start to climb into the surrounding countryside in search of some more challenging routes.

In its day, the swing-axle rear suspension came in for plenty of criticism, whether on the Herald, the Spitfire or the GT6.

The problems occurred when the driver lifted off the throttle mid-corner; if too much weight shifted forward, the rear wheels could ‘tuck under’ and cause armfuls of oversteer.

Classic & Sports Car – Triumph Spitfire Mk1: Alpine adventure

The Triumph Spitfire’s driving position is compromised by the huge, offset steering wheel

You did have to be pressing-on somewhat for the problem to raise its head, and it’s unlikely that too many owners drive their Spitfires like that today.

What is still noticeable is that the narrow front crossplies do not offer the last word in grip.

Even at low speeds, such as tackling a junction, you can feel them scrubbing across the road surface if you’re a touch too aggressive with your inputs.

The steering is light and direct, though, and, although this is an odd thing for which to praise a sports car, the turning circle is as compact as that of the Herald.

The Spitfire also shares the saloon’s ‘get in there with it’ access to the engine bay.

You could carry out a lot of work while perched comfortably on a front wheel.

We’re probably straying from the point, though.

Classic & Sports Car – Triumph Spitfire Mk1: Alpine adventure

Triumph Spitfire FC/1 was built in September 1962; it was displayed at Earls Court in October and then shipped to Switzerland for the ’63 Geneva Salon

Turning circles and engine-bay access are all very well, but they won’t feature too highly on anyone’s list of reasons to buy a car.

You might also look with envy at a Spridget’s monocoque body and lack of swing-axles, but the Spitfire still has an awful lot in its armoury with which to fight back.

For a start, Michelotti provided a clean, pretty shape.

The ‘low bumper’ Mk1 and Mk2 cars are the best-looking, with a distinctive split grille and scooped-out headlamp recesses at the front, plus curvaceous rear quarters with delicate rear fins housing the tail-lights.

Also, there’s a particular type of satisfaction in driving a car that isn’t overburdened with power or grip.

You need to maintain your momentum and be gentle with your inputs; keep a Spitfire balanced in this way and you can make good progress.

In the countryside above Geneva lies a mixture of roads, some smooth and fast, others bumpy and twisty.

Classic & Sports Car – Triumph Spitfire Mk1: Alpine adventure

The first Triumph Spitfire, FC/1, has been registered in Switzerland since it was only a year old

The Triumph rides the worst surfaces sweetly, and performs well on the open sections when being driven at what Denis Jenkinson would have referred to as ‘seven-tenths’.

That is, swiftly but well short of the limit.

Besides, it may be a sports car, but to hop into it and go in search of its limits is to misunderstand the Spitfire’s appeal.

With the roof off (and, on this Mk1, it is ‘off’ rather than ‘down’), it’s exactly how a sports car should be: fun and rewarding.

Throw in a touch of sunshine and, as generations of enthusiasts have discovered, it won’t matter if you’re motoring enthusiastically in the Alps or simply on your daily commute, you will still have a smile on your face.

That is what this little Triumph is all about, and it is the reason why, for the following 18 years, hundreds of thousands of other Spitfires followed FC/1 off the production line.

Images: James Mann

Thanks to: Virginie and Ralf Huber

This was first in our August 2012 magazine; all information was correct at the date of original publication

Triumph Spitfires at Le Mans

In late 1963, it was decided that the Spitfire could be developed into a realistic contender for class honours at Le Mans.

Four racers were produced – with registration numbers running from ADU 1B to 4B – and entering them as prototypes meant that Triumph could deviate considerably from the standard road car.

The streamlined bodywork was therefore constructed from aluminium, and a glassfibre hardtop was grafted on.

The chassis was lightened, and the 1147cc engine received twin Weber carburettors, a gas-flowed eight-port cylinder head and a hot camshaft. The result was 102bhp.

On the team’s first outing at Le Mans in 1964, ADU 2B finished third in its class, driven by David Hobbs and Rob Slotemaker – and achieved the bonus of appearing on the cover of that week’s Autosport.

By the following year, Triumph had further developed the Spitfires, shaving 110lb off their weight and slightly increasing horsepower.

This time, all four cars started. ADU 3B and 4B scored a one-two in the up-to-1150cc GT class, finishing an impressive 13th and 14th overall.

With its objective achieved, Triumph called time on the Spitfire’s circuit-racing activities, preferring instead to concentrate on rallying.


Classic & Sports Car – Triumph Spitfire Mk1: Alpine adventure

Triumph Spitfire Mk1

  • Sold/number built 1962-’64/45,753
  • Construction steel chassis, steel body
  • Engine all-iron, pushrod 1147cc ‘four’, twin 1¼in SU carburettors
  • Max power 63bhp @ 5750rpm
  • Max torque 67lb ft @ 3500rpm
  • Transmission four-speed manual, RWD
  • Suspension independent, at front by double wishbones, coil springs, anti-roll bar rear transverse leaf spring, fixed-length driveshafts, radius arms; telescopics f/r
  • Steering rack and pinion
  • Brakes discs/drums
  • Length 12ft 1in (3680mm)
  • Width 4ft 9in (1450mm)
  • Height 3ft 11½in (1205mm)
  • Wheelbase 6ft 11in (2108mm)
  • Weight 1568lb (711kg)
  • 0-60mph 15.5 secs
  • Top speed 92mph
  • Price new £730

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