Car of the Month : January 2008

It still seems hard to believe that the TR7 and TR8 were not more successful; the later cars – especially the fuel injected convertibles – should have been world beaters.

But we find an immaculate example of the ultra-rare Spider Edition, and a walk through its service history is extremely revealing, although not gratifying for enthusiasts. However, there’s a happy ending, and it proves that there’s more to loving your classic than its ability to get you from A-to-B without stopping halfway there…

Words and pictures: Richard Truett

The life and times of a Stateside TR7

THE reasons why the TR7 and TR8 did not fare better become more clouded with the passage of time. The surviving cars have mostly fallen into the hands of people who love them and know how to take care of them. Modern parts, as well as the sheer determination to remedy shortcomings, have made the TR7, and to a lesser extent, the TR8, far better and more dependable now then when they were new.

That’s why when you ride in a well maintained TR7 or TR8 today, it’s hard to understand why the car failed. Wouldn’t it be interesting to wind back the clock to 1980 and trace the history of a new TR7 bought by an average person? We could then get a real flavor for how the car performed new and how well it held together when used as daily transportation by someone, not a Triumph enthusiast, who just wanted a nice convertible sports car.Well, it turns out we can, in a way.

Introducing TR7 Spider, VIN 400612

Recently, a rare 1980 TR7 Spider turned up in Detroit, Michigan and was bought from its original owner by a member of the Detroit Triumph Sports Car Club. With the car came an extraordinary cache of documents that enables one to account for the car every moment of its life and every inch of the 48,000 miles it has travelled since it left Solihull.

Arranged in chronological order, these factory records, sales documents and repair receipts paint a picture of the TR7 that confirms something I have long-believed: The TR7, even when new, was a fragile machine that needed constant attention. And it could be extremely unforgiving when it didn’t get it. Let us look now at the life story of TR7 VIN number 400612, which came into this world in May of 1980.

The black Spider Edition, built only for North America, came with special gray stripe upholstery and gray semi-shag carpet (trim code RAF), special decals and pinstriping in red reflective 3M material, factory fitted air conditioning, TR8 style alloy wheels, AM/FM cassette radio and TR8 steering wheel. It was an attractive car when new and is now the most collectible TR7 model in the USA.

According to the Bill Of Lading, 400612 was picked up from the Solihull factory by James Car Deliveries Ltd. on 20th June, 1980 and deposited at Wainwright Brothers Southampton dock facility on 23rd June. From there the car left England for the port in Halifax, Canada, where it was to be delivered no later than 4th July. The standard procedure at the time would be for British Leyland’s North American personnel to inspect the car and prepare it for sale before delivering to the selling dealer.

The cosmoline would be removed from the paint work. The car would be checked for shipping damage and repairs, if necessary, would be carried out. The fluids would be topped off. The Spider’s stereo would be fitted, as well as optional fog lights and rear luggage rack. Then the car would be road-tested before being shipped by truck to a Triumph dealer.

Assuming that happened — and there’s no indication it didn’t — more than a year passed before 400612 was heard from again.

The Spider is sold

Dr William Gibbs, a dentist in Detroit, bought 400612 from Hodges Imported Cars, a Triumph and Subaru dealer, on 17th June, 1981. The total price of the car, including delivery charges, sales tax and licence fees, came to $10,700.90. However, Jaguar-Rover-Triumph (nee BL) was offering $1000 cash rebates in an effort to clear out leftover 1980 models. So, the true selling price was $9700.

Here’s the first sign of trouble: By July of 1981, any unsold 1980 model year car would have to be considered distressed merchandise. The new car model year starts in America on 1st October. By January, year-end clearance sales have usually moved 99 percent of the previous model year’s cars. By March, virtually all of the previous year’s car are sold. It is very likely that neither the dealer or BL made money on 400612 because of the costs of carrying it in inventory for so many months. This would tend to confirm BL Chairman Michael Edwardes’ claim that the TR was losing money.

[Footnote: The late date of sale for 400612 is apparently not unusual. My own car, a Canadian-market TR7, VIN 408366 was built on Sept. 30th, 1981, but was not sold until February of 1983! I know of a silverleaf TR8, 407479, that was not purchased until late 1982.]

Worse yet, cars deteriorate when they sit unused for long periods. For 400612 to wait 14 months from the factory to the buyer likely affected it negatively as we shall see.In any case, it wasn’t long after Dr. Gibbs took delivery of his TR7 that he became a frequent and well known visitor to the service department at Hodges Imported Cars.

Problems start early

On 17th July, 1981, less than a month after being sold, 400612, made its initial appearance at the dealer for its 1000 mile service and to take care of several niggling trim problems. The service included a change of oil and filter, torquing down the cylinder head and inspections of the brake, electrical, emissions, cooling and exhaust systems. This service also contained a change of oil for the five-speed manual transmission — quite unusual for a new car. However, around that time, a BL service bulletin called for changing the heavy gear oil in the gearbox to automatic transmission fluid to improve cold weather shifting during warm up.

Three entrees on this inaugural repair ticket stand out: The driver’s door refused to close. The driver’s knee pad split. Lastly, a note that is unclear points to further trouble: “Bring car back in July 21st to see Rep about [convertible] top.” Total bill: $17.42.

Five days later, Dr. Gibbs brought his car to Ziebart for $135 worth of rust proofing and fabric protectant. One item was a good investment, the other, a complete waste of money.

Though 400612 did not return to Hodges until 21st September, 1981 when it had 3434 miles on the odometer, it was not smooth sailing. In fact, the car must have been turning into a major disappointment for Dr. Gibbs. Several alarming entrees on the repair ticket show why Japanese sports cars such as the Nissan Z, Mazda RX-7 and others — though not nearly as nicely styled — were crushing the TR in the marketplace.

Mechanically, the car appeared okay, but something was wrong with the paint. Hodges body shop charged Jaguar-Rover-Triumph (JRT) under warranty $119.90 for refinishing the left door, inside and out, refinishing the rear upper body panel behind the boot lid and repainting the right rocker panel. The right door also had fallen out of alignment and had to be fixed. Finally, the windshield molding under the wipers was refinished. If 400612 was stored outside during most of the 14 months before it was sold, the harsh Michigan weather likely would have hurt the finish. During that same service, the troublesome left knee pad was replaced, as well as the right one, which also had split.

The next visit to Hodges came four days before Christmas 1981. The odometer read 4,953, but Dr Gibbs brought 400612 in for the 6000 mile service and to remedy several new problems.

In addition to the standard fluid changes and systems checks, the first signs of troubles that would dog 400612 until today started to appear. A notation on the repair ticket shows the technician checked for a coolant or oil leak. More alarming than that the ticket says: “Rust on left door, inner and outer.” A new mirror was installed on the right door, but no reason is given why. Total charge: $50.02.

The next receipt is for $1.71 is dated April 21, 1982 and simply says ‘fuses.’

Repair bills add up

On 21st July, 1982, 13 months after being sold, 400612 had travelled 9863 miles and was returned to Hodges for its, 9000 mile service. Nothing unusual turns up on this visit. The technician noted that the exhaust manifold bolts were loose. He tightened them for no extra charge. He also adjusted the front wheel bearings. Total: $55.98.

A week later, Dr Gibbs ordered spares from another JRT dealer, Falvey Motors of Troy, Mich., also in the Detroit area. The radio antenna, two snaps and two rivets totalled $12.55.

On 21st November, 1982, the speedometer cable was replaced after just 12,492 miles. Hodges billed Dr. Gibbs $19.42.

Another 6000 miles passed before 400612 needed service. According to a Hodges repair ticket dated July 15, 1983, the air conditioning fans and windshield wipers were inoperative. A new windshield wiper rack was installed. That repair, as well as a regular full service, relieved Dr Gibbs of the burden of carrying $114.68 in his billfold.

For some reason, this was the last time Dr Gibbs brought his car to Hodges. By 1983, many of the old BL dealers had stopped servicing Triumph if they didn’t also sell the one remaining JRT brand, Jaguar.

On 18th August, Falvey Motors aligned the front end and fixed a vibration emanating from the front wheels. The odometer read 19,476. Total: $39.95.

Just 11 days later, 400612 was back at Falvey. This time Dr. Gibbs complained that the car pulled to the left. A note on the repair bill indicated that the steering or struts may be binding, but no problems were found and no money changed hands.

Two years and 12,000 miles passed before 400612 saw further service. And now the repair bills would increase significantly. The 30,000 mile checkup and inspection revealed that there was no air filter in the housing, than an ignition lock bolt needed to be replaced, the brake pads were worn out and the temperature sending unit was faulty. At this service, the cooling system was pressure tested, the compression was checked and the carburetors were cleaned and adjusted. The valve cover gasket also was replaced. Total bill: $298.21.

Trim problems

On 15th November, 1985, Hollywood Trim in Troy, Michigan near Detroit charged Dr. Gibbs $150 for a new convertible top and $175 to replace the Spider’s worn out seat upholstery. The labour charges added another $225 to the bill. After 4½ years and just 30,000 miles the Spider’s original gray striped upholstery wore out. This may explain why so many of the surviving Spiders today have the wrong upholstery. It may have looked snazzy when new, but the quality of the upholstery was apparently very poor. Total bill: $559.

Dr Gibbs’ car, with 31,645 miles under its wheels, passed a state-required smog test on April 30 1986. On July 17, 1987, the air conditioning system was charged for $20. The following month the original Goodyear tyres were replaced with new Michelin tyres at a cost of $256.38.

By 1988, finding a pair of factory trained hands to repair any Triumph was becoming increasingly difficult. By now Triumph’s TR7 was receding quickly in the rearview mirror of most repair shops. Parts were no longer as easy to obtain because the BL/JRT dealer network had almost completely turned over.

In March of that year, Dr Gibbs found a petrol station, Joe’s All Make Auto Service, a Union 76 franchise, willing to work on his car. On the 20th of that month 400612 was towed there — perhaps the first time the car would not move under its own power. It received a new radiator cap and thermostat and gasket. The battery also was charged. Total bill: $67.78.

Less than a month later, 400612 was back at Joe’s for more work. This time it got a new fuel pump, valve cover gasket and fresh anti-freeze. Total bill: $120.93. An ominous note on the repair ticket reds: “Car needs head gasket.”

Another set of brake pads were installed on 21st October, 1988. The rotors were resurfaced and the wheel bearings were repacked. Joe’s charged Dr Gibbs $83.09 for this work. No mileage given.

The next service work was performed at Pontiac Sports Car in Pontiac Michigan, north of Detroit on 19th July, 1990. There’s no indication if Dr Gibbs was able to drive 400612 in for this service. But looking over the repair ticket, it seems doubtful. In fact, it appears as if the engine may have overheated. This time, the mileage is indicated. And we can now see that Dr Gibbs averaged around 3300 miles per year. This indicates a common usage pattern for rear-wheel drive sports cars in the American midwest: They are generally only used during the late spring and summer months. After 39,271 miles, the headgasket and several other parts gave way.

The cylinder head was removed and resurfaced and a valve job was done. The radiator was replaced as was the thermostat, gasket, and radiator hoses. The car was given a full tune up with new spark plugs and wires, air filter, cap and rotor and fan belts. The oil and filter were changed. New wiper blades were fitted. For this Dr Gibbs paid $1065.45 — more than 10 percent of the car’s purchase price.

On 17th June, 1992 — 11 years to the day that Dr Gibbs took delivery of his new TR7 — it was back in the shop. Pontiac Sports Car installed new front struts and rear dampers, another new set of brake pads, the rotors were again turned and a new brake light switch was installed. The odometer read 41,578. It makes no sense that the car would be on its second set of brake pads in 11,000 miles. Total bill: 238.99.

Twelve days later, with 42,000 miles on the clock, another new fuel pump was installed at Pontiac Sport Car. A problem with the hazard warning switch was fixed for no charge. Bill: $90.56. On 12th October, 1992, the rear brakes were apparently binding. Pontiac Sports Car took off the rear drums, cleaned them and “scuffed up the shoes.” Cost: $25.

A 1st July 1993 receipt for an oil change indicates that 400612 had travelled 42,490 since new.

The mileage is not indicated on 2nd August, 1993 when Pontiac Sports Car rebuilt the clutch master and slave cylinders and changed the anti-freeze. A note that a technician drilled, tapped and installed a heli-coil and then a new stud does not mention where on the car this work was done. Another entree reveals that 400612 needs a new power brake servo. Total bill: $259.39.

An oil change receipt from Auto Europe, (nee Pontiac Sports Car) dated 14th September, 1995 shows 44,092 miles since new and notes that the car still needs a brake servo. Air filter also replaced: Cost: $61.29.

Two years later on 17th September, 1997, 400612 saw the business end of a tow truck for at least the second time in its life. Auto Europe examined the car to try to learn why the battery kept going dead. Mileage: 45,558. A test determined the battery and alternator to be working properly. But the transmission drain plug was loose, the idle was poor, the valve cover and front crankshaft seal were leaking. The brake fluid was topped off, and this note appears: ‘Brake booster still needs to be replaced. Checking for parts.” Cost: $147.82.

Dr Gibbs’ final repair bill came a the following June when he spent $83.73 for a new battery. No mileage is given on the repair ticket. But five years later, when Dr Gibbs appeared at a monthly meeting of the Detroit Triumph Sports Car Club and offered the car for any reasonable price, the total mileage was only 48,000.

The Spider today

There may have been other work carried out. The original decals perished somewhere along the way and were replaced by a crudely painted facsimile in silver.

As of today, the car is in good running condition and in the care of an owner in New Jersey.

One drive in the car is all it takes for one to see why Dr Gibbs was so willing to keep spending money on the car instead of selling it off. The engine runs as smooth and quiet as a modern Honda engine. Now that the suspension and brakes are renewed, the handling is tight and the car feels good on the road. Eventually, 400612 will be repainted. The Ziebart rust protection Dr Gibbs purchased in the summer of 1981 did it’s job well, with just a few minor blisters on the doors.

Keith Adams

1 Comment

  1. Great story, well done! Really the car didn’t do too badly, Id say at least some of its troubles were down to the 14 months it spent waiting to be sold and then its relatively low use throughout the 11 yrs before the head gasket needed replacing. Unlike nowadays cars of the ’70s did not like sitting idle
    Anyone who owns a European car of this era will be familiar with this kind of stuff, perhaps American expectations were rather different.Still the good doctor should be congratulated for his diligence!

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