Triumph TR8: promise unfulfilled

| 4 Jun 2021
Classic & Sports Car – Triumph TR8: promise unfulfilled

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A quick dab of the brakes, haul the long gearlever back in a sweeping arc from third to fourth – carefully rather than quickly, they’re all like that sir – and bury the throttle again.

Onwards through the woods along the sun-dappled road ahead, the familiar sound of that bombastic Buick-derived engine reverberating around the trees.

Back on the brakes, hard this time, and ease through a tight right-hander before planting it again and trimming the wheel straight ahead.

Out here, with the wind whipping about the cabin and the eager eight-pot growl urging you forward, it’s difficult to imagine how such a wonderful sports car signalled the end not only of the TR, but the death knell for Triumph as a manufacturer.

Classic & Sports Car – Triumph TR8: promise unfulfilled

Looking back at the life of the British sports car, and British Leyland in particular, there’s something of the immovable object and the not so unstoppable force.

It’s akin to watching an ageing, rusting oil tanker ploughing slowly on to the rocks; a captain shouting different orders at 10 different deck hands, each running in a different direction.

Maybe, just maybe, it needn’t have been that way.

While the MGB and Spitfire had clearly run their race, the modern and stylish TR7 and its superb TR8 stablemate had all the ingredients of a last-gasp saviour.

Classic & Sports Car – Triumph TR8: promise unfulfilled

In the post-war years the British car industry had everything its own way, with economic policies that sheltered it from expensive foreign competition and an export market that couldn’t get enough of UK-built sports cars.

At home things began to change, and from the mid-1950s to the mid-’60s Britain had slipped from being the second-largest global producer of automobiles to ranking just fourth.

It was a painful fall from grace that continued despite a near monopoly on cheap, simple sports cars crowned by the introduction of the MGB and Triumph Spitfire.

Classic & Sports Car – Triumph TR8: promise unfulfilled
Classic & Sports Car – Triumph TR8: promise unfulfilled

Both cars enjoyed a great deal of success Stateside, where local buyers had developed something of a love/hate relationship with open-topped British tin that stretched back to enamoured GIs returning home with their MG Midgets, all the while cursing Lucas, the Prince of Darkness.

As time went on, though, the stars of the ’60s began to lose their edge in the face of foreign competition from the likes of the Datsun 240Z and ever-increasing safety and emissions regulations that shrank power outputs, while a strong pound and a weak dollar stretched profit margins to breaking point.

Despite continued appetite abroad, it was the rationalisation of marque sunder the Leyland banner that dictated the new direction of the British sports car.

Classic & Sports Car – Triumph TR8: promise unfulfilled

All worlds collided in 1968 with the creation of British Leyland, turning bitter rivals MG and Triumph into in-house competitors with similar models fighting in similar markets at home and abroad.

Standard-Triumph, having been acquired by Leyland in ’61, had the advantage of having already worked its way into boss Lord Stokes’ affections.

Though there were no immediate changes to precipitate the widespread job losses that were feared, Abingdon would play second fiddle to Canley.

The MGB, with the exception of the BGT V8, was left to wither on the vine, while in 1974 the MG Midget’s 1275cc A-series was replaced by the Spitfire’s1500 – the ultimate humiliation for fans of the Octagon and a sign of the favour its rival enjoyed.

Classic & Sports Car – Triumph TR8: promise unfulfilled

Unsurprisingly, with their flagship models coming to the end of their usable lives, both firms had their own ideas about the future of the sports car.

MG favoured a mid-engined design with Hydrolastic suspension, the ADO21, while Canley proposed a more conventional front-engined, rear-wheel drive machine, dubbed the Bullet.

It was written in the stars that the replacement for all that had come before – the Sprite, Midget, B, C, Spitfire, GT6 and the six TRs – would be a Triumph.

Classic & Sports Car – Triumph TR8: promise unfulfilled

Work on the Bullet came together smoothly – at least in terms of its mechanical components.

After trialling the firm’s own lusty yet heavy straight-six, it was decided that power would come via the compact and clever Dolomite slant-four that was developed with Saab and slated for introduction in 1971, with Rover’s 3.5-litre V8 touted from the outset for the most sporting variant.

Early cars were equipped with a four-speed ’box, with later TR7s and the TR8 getting a brand-new 77mm five-speed manual, hardy enough to service both engines.

Given the increasing complexity of the later TRs, with their cantankerous fuel-injected engines and fiddly independent suspension systems, the TR7 was designed to be simpler from the outset.

Engineer Spen King favoured a rigid rear axle, a ploy that not only had cost benefits but would also appeal to buyers in America.

Classic & Sports Car – Triumph TR8: promise unfulfilled

Styling the TR7 was an altogether trickier process, made more challenging still by the over-regulated US market, which had stringent rules for fuel tank and rollover protection, plus expectations for front and side impact safety that eclipsed those in the home market.

Most visually compromising were the required front and rear 5mph bumpers that had savaged so many European designs, and which were only integrated into the shape once Austin-Morris stylist Harris Mann got involved.

Mann’s vision for a wedge-shaped sports car was heavily influenced by the latest concepts to emerge from the carrozzerie of Italy, and brought a flash of Bertone Carabo-inspired glamour to the West Midlands that galvanised BL management.

Classic & Sports Car – Triumph TR8: promise unfulfilled

Walking around the TR8, which remained identical to the early TR7 save a new bonnet with a power bulge to accommodate the larger engine, it’s hard not to think that something of Mann’s striking, dart-like design study was lost somewhere along the road to production.

The more concessions were made to engineers and bean-counters, the further from the rakish styling study the car became.

The result was polarising in the extreme, but there can be no denying that the TR7 projected an image of modernity that belied its conventional underpinnings, especially when compared with the likes of the MGB and TR6, both of which continued in production alongside the new car.

Classic & Sports Car – Triumph TR8: promise unfulfilled
Classic & Sports Car – Triumph TR8: promise unfulfilled
Classic & Sports Car – Triumph TR8: promise unfulfilled
Classic & Sports Car – Triumph TR8: promise unfulfilled

‘Our’ TR8 is an incredible timewarp example, repatriated to the UK from Illinois by a client of dealer Robert Hughes, having covered scarcely more than 4000 miles throughout its life.

The condition is truly remarkable: everywhere you look for the telltale signs of regular use – the balding seat squabs, faded cloth and worn pedals that often betray a car’s history – you find none.

It’s as if it left the factory only a few years ago, a hugely original time capsule of a car that offers a unique opportunity to judge the model on its merits, without fear of worn components or aftermarket upgrades skewing the experience.

Even the doors close with a hefty thud, giving a feeling of solidity that was sadly lacking from earlier cars.

Classic & Sports Car – Triumph TR8: promise unfulfilled

The majority of TR7s were built at Speke, a facility in Merseyside that was racked with industrial strife throughout production and where bitter disputes with workers eventually led to the factory’s closure and a shift of manufacturing to Canley.

Unsurprisingly, cars built by people who hadn’t already received their marching orders were better, including the TR8s.

It’s a difference that is plain to see in this cared-for car, which becomes even clearer once the muscular V8 is coaxed into life.

Classic & Sports Car – Triumph TR8: promise unfulfilled

Out on the road the venerable 137bhp 3.5-litre Rover unit feels like a perfect fit for the TR, torquier and more powerful than the slant-four, cutting more than a second from the 0-60mph dash.

Despite its somewhat antiquated suspension system, the TR7 was always a better-handling machine than the outgoing TR6, and the same holds true for the TR8.

Largely unchanged from the four-cylinder model, there were still concessions made in light of the V8’s extra performance, including firmer springs and dampers, and the relocation of the battery from the engine bay to the boot.

Even so, there’s no hiding those eight cylinders and under hard braking the nose has a tendency to dive.

It makes its presence felt in the corners, too, a constant push towards understeer marking the experience when you’re pressing on.

Classic & Sports Car – Triumph TR8: promise unfulfilled

None of that is to the detriment of the drive, though, and even when being hustled along the TR8 remains benign and trustworthy – no wonder the model had such success in the world of rallying.

Flat-out, the TR8 will comfortably trouble 135mph thanks to its long-legged 3.08:1 axle ratio, yet the real joy comes not from pushing the envelope but revelling in that V8 soundtrack on a twisty country road.

For all the TR8’s virtues – and there are many – the sad truth is that the damage had already been done by the time it came on stream at the turn of the decade.

The promised range-topper only arrived in 1981, and in the intervening six years even TR7s were slow to arrive: an entire year was lost to infighting with workers as Speke was eventually shuttered, during which orders remained unfulfilled.

Classic & Sports Car – Triumph TR8: promise unfulfilled

Just two years after the TR8’s glowing introduction by Road & Track in 1980, the magazine announced the model’s withdrawal.

Anyone who wanted to buy one was faced with a scramble, and many more never even got the chance to part with their money.

Triumph’s reputation had already been irrevocably damaged by the TR7 fiasco: poor quality control, poor reliability and a convertible that only arrived in 1979 had taken their toll.

One survey found that 43% of US owners said their car had been laid up while waiting for parts. Just 42% said they would buy another, aware they were gluttons for punishment. “Probably would,” said one, “but would consider myself crazy – love the car but not the lack of reliability.”

Classic & Sports Car – Triumph TR8: promise unfulfilled

For all the hopes of greater economies of scale and rationalisation of models, British Leyland was like an octopus whose arms couldn’t even agree on what day of the week it was, each working for its own ends to the detriment of the whole.

In many ways it was remarkable that the TR8 made it to production at all, given the economic strife of the 1970s and the chronic mismanagement that seemed to mark the company.

So many of its problems were of its own making that it is easy to ignore the ones that weren’t, but it’s those external factors that had the most damaging effect on the TR7 and TR8.

When the Conservative government swept to power in 1979 it began a chain of events that resulted in the pound ballooning in value from $1.80 to $2.40 by mid-1980, wiping out any profitability there might have been in its target market of America. Rival MG was losing £900 on each car it sold in the USA in 1979.

Classic & Sports Car – Triumph TR8: promise unfulfilled

Even if Triumph had got its act together sooner and brought the TR8 and the convertible to market years before it did, or pressed ahead with the16-valve TR7 Sprint, it’s likely the economic asteroid of global exchange rates would still have wiped out all the dinosaurs.

It’s hard to think of a model that carries more baggage than the Triumph TR8, but the further from those troubled times we get and the more the memories fade, the easier it becomes to appreciate the car for what it is: the last of the hairy-chested, brawny mainstream sports cars.

And a damned good one at that.

Images: John Bradshaw

Thanks to Robert Hughes Automobiles


Factfile

Classic & Sports Car – Triumph TR8: promise unfulfilled

Triumph TR8

  • Sold/number built 1980-’81/2715
  • Construction steel monocoque
  • Engine all-iron, ohv 3528cc V8, twin Zenith-Stromberg carburettors or Lucas/Bosch L-Jetronic injection
  • Max power 137-148bhp @ 5000rpm
  • Max torque 168-180lb ft @ 3200rpm
  • Transmission five-speed manual, RWD
  • Suspension: front independent, by MacPherson struts, lower wishbones rear live axle, coil springs, semi-trailing arms, telescopic dampers; anti-roll bar f/r
  • Steering rack and pinion
  • Brakes discs front, drums rear
  • Length 13ft 9½in (4200mm)
  • Width 5ft 6¼in (1684mm)
  • Height 4ft 2in (1267mm)
  • Wheelbase 7ft 1in (2160mm)
  • Weight 2654lb (1203kg)
  • 0-60mph 7.5 secs
  • Top speed 138mph
  • Mpg 17-27
  • Price new £12,995
  • Price now £20,000*

*Price correct at date of original publication


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