Florida red eye
I’m on the verge of being sacked at work. It’s just days from my 52nd birthday and I’m getting married in less than three months. There’s really only one thing that will help me sort all this: a solo road trip in my 1981 Triumph TR8.
Long, lonely hours behind the wheel will be the perfect venue for me to think about planning a way forward while I confront some my biggest fears: to be in my 50s, to be in Detroit, to be a writer, to be without a job and to be a domesticated man — for the first time — at this stage in life.
I have always wanted to drive one of my classic British sports cars on the streets where I grew up, so it’ll be a trip to Orlando, roughly 1200 miles each way in the TR.
Some would say only an industrial strength fool would court potential danger and near-certain, dead-on-the-side-of-the-road-in-the-middle-of-nowhere trouble, by taking a 32-year-old British Leyland car on a such a trip at so late a date.
Despite the fact that there are still tens of thousands of classic Triumphs in regular use in the USA, there are almost no spares in most auto parts stores and service stations. You’ll find the odd light bulb, wiper blade, or filter but that’s about it. Factory-trained hands have long moved on to new businesses or have gone motionless altogether. But I am not worried about problems. My TR is much modified from when it left Solihull.
The TR’s original 2.0-litre fuel-injected OHC four-cylinder gave way to a rebuilt 4.0-litre Rover V8 plucked from a wrecked 2002 Land Rover Discovery. During the rebuild all known weaknesses were addressed and a mild performance cam was added.
One of the few great things about Detroit is that you meet all sorts of cool and creative engineers who can do all sorts of cool and creative things – if you can dream it and pay for it, you can get it done here. My dream was simple: to explore how the TR8 might have evolved technically had it lived.
The TR landed in the workshop of Mark Bradshaw, a General Motors’ engineer with his own high performance TR8. Adding a modern fuel injection system to the Rover V8 without tearing up the TR’s bodywork piqued Bradshaw’s interest. And with access to GM’s machinery and expertise, Bradshaw could deliver a factory-quality job on my car.
The BMW-developed Bosch Motronic injection system fitted to the Disco engine cannot fit under the TR’s sloping bonnet. But the older Bosch ‘hotwire’ system works — if the plenum is lowered, the air intake is turned right, sensors are relocated and the wiring harness gets reworked. No small job.
Three months and $5000 later, I had my TR8 back. Looking at the fuel-injected Rover engine, you would never know that it wasn’t put there by Triumph and Rover engineers.
A rebuilt LT77 gearbox, PAS rack, a 3.08 rear axle, SD1 four-pot front brakes, thicker anti-roll bars, lowered springs, gas-charged shocks, tubular exhaust, TVR Chimera ECU and a few other modifications brought the TR well up to mid-’90s levels of performance, handling and reliability.
Roughly 7500 trouble-free miles around Detroit proved the car reliable. You instinctively know when a car feels right. So, really, I wasn’t taking much of a chance with the TR.
At 5.00am on the first Monday morning in April, I toss some clothes into a soft bag and put it in the boot alongside random spares, tools and vital fluids. My lady gets a peck on the cheek. I plug in the Garmin navi system and ease quietly out of the driveway.
My goal is to reach Atlanta, Georgia, about 650 miles straight down Interstate 75. The only stops will be for petrol, food and personal relief. By the time the sun rises two hours later, I’m deep into Ohio cruising at 70mph and all is going well.
The radio stays off. I want to be alone with my thoughts and the soothing burble of a classic fuel-injected British V8. I know this is the right thing for me to do. I have been here once before.
Late last century, another TR, a Sienna brown 1971 TR6, helped me through a life crisis. A bad breakup derailed my interest in people and things and left me listless, restless and edgy. That needy TR6 diverted my attention away from personal problems. Working with my hands set my mind free and bumped my mental needle out of the static-y groove in which it was stuck. I had a goal where progress could be measured. Time started moving again. I discovered that sometimes cars can restore people. Now I needed time in the TR8 to help me focus on my future.
Interior ergonomics are often overlooked in retrospectives of the TR7/TR8. Triumph made real progress here from the TR6. The TR7/TR8 seals out most wind and road noise and the damn thing is waterproof with the hood up. I’ve owned a dozen TR6s. Not one stayed dry inside in the rain.
At highway speeds with the top up, the wind leaks in a TR6 are very annoying. And sitting in a TR6 for a dozen hours wears a body out. Not so in the TR7/TR8. The seats are comfortable and supportive. And that dead pedal for your left foot is a really thoughtful touch.
Still, it took some fidgeting to find the TR’s most comfortable configuration for high-speed, long-distance driving. Hood and windows up, rear window unzipped, and footwell and dash vents open works best. This makes the TR’s interior comfortable and quiet.
With bags of torque available at all speeds and in all gears the 4.0-litre TR8 is wonderful. The Rover engine isn’t breaking a sweat at 2800rpm in fifth gear at 75mph. No downshifts are necessary when overtaking in tight stretches. The Rover V8’s 280-plus horsepower and the TR’s 2300lb (1043kg) are a delightful combination. The smoothness of the powertrain makes long hours behind the wheel tolerable and the soundtrack from the twin exhaust pipes cancels any need for music.
I stop every three hours when the tank is half-empty. This keeps me fresh and alert as the hours pile up. The terrain becomes interesting by mid-afternoon when I reach the curving mountain roads of Tennessee and North Georgia. Now the TR is in its element.
Modern sports cars may be safer, faster, more efficient, etc. but they remove you from the driving experience with their computerized nannies looking over wheels, brakes, temperatures, lights, etc. In the TR8, you are in complete control — the captain of your ship.
The long sweeping bends and sudden changes of elevation in Georgia show how well Triumph engineers nailed the TR8‘s chassis, suspension and brakes. There is not a millimeter of slop in the rack-and-pinion steering. The upgraded Rover SD1 brakes — a simple bolt-on addition — bite hard. It’s been a long day, but I am having so much fun it’s hard to stop.
By 7.00pm I am well past Atlanta in the small town of Macon and it’s time to quit. After dinner, I check into a hotel and let the TR rest. All vital fluids are still full and everything is spot on.
I roll into Orlando Tuesday afternoon, on time and feeling great. In the next three days, I visit old places and old faces, adding another 375 miles to the TR’s Smiths speedometer.
Florida’s heat exposes an issue with the TR: high temperatures under the bonnet affect the injection system, making for rough idling at hot start-ups. However, once running with cool fuel coursing through its veins, the Rover engine smooths out.
My visit coincides with a long-running annual classic British car show held in Winter Park, just north of Orlando. The show always features an eclectic array of historic vehicles. This year’s show, on Saturday, April 6, has a 1928 Austin Chummy, a Reliant Robin, several diesel-powered, right-hand drive Land Rovers, including an ex-British Army truck, and several old Jaguar saloons.
At noon, it’s time to go home. I check the TRs fluids, add 3/4s of a quart of Castrol GTX, say goodbye to several friends and then point the TR’s wheels northward.
By 7.00pm, the TR is again cruising through Atlanta. By midnight, I am nearing Tennessee and it is time to stop. The TR8 chews up pavement, effortlessly digesting hundreds of miles and many hours non-stop. The gearing is just right for long American road trips.
At 5.00pm Sunday, I roll into my garage, turn off the engine and close the door. I stand there for a minute or two looking at my classic Triumph with pride. It has done everything it was designed to do and all I asked of it.
In all, 2623 miles passed under the TR8s Panasport wheels in seven days. I’ve always found Triumphs can provide more than transportation and this trip was no different. The TR helped clear the clutter out of my head and get me focused on the future. Despite big life changes, I now know everything will be okay.