Car of the Month : April 2003

April’s car of the month features the optimum version of BL’s “Corporate sports car”, the Triumph TR7. In this case, I refer to the more attractive convertible version, sporting the V8 option: Triumph TR8 – an unfulfilled classic car.

The Triumph TR8 was launched in the US in 1980, with the sole intention of increasing sales of the Triumph “wedge”. The ingredients were all there – and rather like Cinderella becoming sexy after she donned her glass slippers, the ungainingly Triumph only really became an object of desire once the roof had been chopped off. The American journalists loved it, but unfortunately, the TR-line was killed by the double whammy of a poor reputation for build quality and high prices… Indeed – an unfulfilled classic

The example featured this month belongs to journalist and Specialist Division fan, David Price, and he tells the story of the car below:



Triumph’s TR8 has the dubious honour of being the least well known of the Coventry company’s long and illustrious roadster series. This is mainly on account of its rarity – nee obscurity. Thanks to an unsustainable pound-dollar exchange rate, a mere 2,715 examples were ever made, with only a handful slipping out of the BL Cars back door in full power, right hand drive form.

The tragedy is that in US-spec, Rover V8 aspirated, drop head coupe form, Harris Mann’s controversial shape found its happiest expression. Upon its introduction to the US in April 1980, it sent shock waves around the American sportscar fraternity. Normally sensible, worldly-wise magazines lavished it with countless inches of purple prose, Road & Track even going so far as to call it, “nothing less than the reinvention of the sportscar”.

The ‘Eight, you see, was a car that America really felt it deserved. The TR7 had been unashamedly designed for the US market, but still had a few annoying vices. Although it was greeted with far more relish than it received back home, the US market still wanted a drop top and something more than the arthritic de-smogged Dolomite two litre four. The ‘Eight was Triumph’s answer, and proved beyond all possible doubt that they’d been listening.


Few of the basics were changed, with just the new 137BHP motor (133BHP on early non-fuel injected variants), plus the drop top and sensibly weighted power steering obvious to the unenlightened. Underneath the skin, the new car also got revised spring rates, thicker front discs and bigger callipers, a lower, beefier front subframe, revised rear axle ratio and twin exhausts – but it was hardly major surgery. The result was a car four seconds quicker to 60MPH, and a top speed 20 MPH faster at 125MPH. At a stroke, Triumph had plucked the bugs from the TR7 and given the Yanks just what they’d always wanted.

It’s hard to underestimate the difference the new motor made. The US sportscar boys had always liked compact ‘Buick’ all-alley V8, and seeing it in the relatively exotic environs of a Triumph sportscar was more than many could resist. It also imbued the car with a dramatically different character, far better suited to America’s long, lazy highways and byways. From a quirky, thrashy and fun little sportscar, the TR7 had suddenly evolved into a broad shouldered, barrel chested bruiser – ready to challenge the poorer handling yet more muscular US competition, and win.


Although not as elegantly proportioned as the cars that preceded it, the wacky wedge was as of its time as the TR4 had been of its. The shape (of things to come, as Triumph had cheekily claimed) had been cunningly sharpened courtesy of a subtle workover from Triumph’s long-time stylist, Michelloti. This, combined with the new powerplant produced a car that feels so right it’s almost as if it had been conceived that way in the first place. Indeed, the more you drive a factory ‘Eight, the more you begin to suspect this was actually the case.

This car is a rare, late, EFi version, all the more unusual because it’s not fitted with aircon. More interesting still is that it is one of just a handful of ‘PED’ (personal export) cars supplied direct from the factory to customers for export. In this case, the car was purchased by a US Army Major stationed in the UK and registered as LOC 611X. Upon his return to the States, the car was sold to Ken Harpenau of San Diego, California. His wife drove it until 2000, amassing a total of 34,000 miles until she traded it in for a new Jaguar XJ-S. Completely rust free and still sporting its original exhaust system stamped with the BL imprimatur, it returned home to join the collection of Ken Chisholm, partnering one of just 16 original RHD factory TR8s.


In 2001, David Price acquired it. The original dampers were replaced with Spax items, and the discs and pads renewed with EBC replacements. The ECU was renewed, a full service given, and the restrictive airbox substituted for a K&N filter. It now drives superbly – very fast and responsive with power everywhere and an intoxicating exhaust note from the factory twin pipes, it’s a sad reminder that – had BL not pulled the plug – the TR7/8 could finally have achieved real critical recognition as a great British sportscar.


Feedback:

Believe it or not, I just happened to see your article on the Internet.

A car club friend told me about it a couple of days ago. I was the owner of this awesome car and to this day I still miss it. The pictures bring back lots of great memories – it was truly the nicest TR8 in Southern California when I sold it. The original owner was a US Navy captain stationed in the UK and he bought it for his wife who was living in the States.

The TR8 arrived at the docks in Long Beach where the owners received it – the wife didn’t like the TR8 and wanted a Jaguar XJ-S. I responded to an ad in the newspaper since I was looking for a TR8. There was only 230 miles on the clock. I bought it and enjoyed eight years of ownership. I also owned a ’53 TR2, ’56 TR3, ’58 TR3A, ’62 TR3B, so when it was time to start raising a family, the TR8 was expendable. That’s when Kenneth Chisholm came into the story when he heard about my TR8, and we both made the sale…

KEN HARPENAU


Keith Adams

About the Author:

Created www.austin-rover.co.uk in 2001 and built it to become the world's foremost reference source for all things BMC, Leyland and Rover Group, before renaming it AROnline in 2007. Is the Editor of the Parkers website and price guide, formerly editor of Classic Car Weekly, and launch editor/creator of Modern Clsssics magazine. Has contributed to various motoring titles including Octane, Practical Classics, Evo, Honest John, CAR magazine, Autocar, Pistonheads, Diesel Car, Practical Performance Car, Performance French Car, Car Mechanics, Jaguar World Monthly, MG Enthusiast, Modern MINI, Practical Classics, Fifth Gear Website, Radio 4, and the the Motoring Independent... Likes 'conditionally challenged' motors and taking them on unfeasable adventures all across Europe.

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