Drive Story : Triumph TR8 across America

Carole Nash Classic Insurance Specialists

Florida red eye

Richard Truett

The TR8 meets its older brother, a 1974 TR6. You still see all manner of classic sports car in Florida. The hospitable climate makes them usable all year round.
The TR8 meets its older brother, a 1974 TR6. You still see all manner of classic sports car in Florida. The hospitable climate makes them usable all year round.

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.

Fuel injected Rover 4.0-litre with Bosch hotwire system fits snugly in a TR8 with modifications.
Fuel injected Rover 4.0-litre with Bosch hotwire system fits snugly in a TR8 with modifications.

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.

 Navi system plugged in and the TR8 is good to go
Navi system plugged in and the TR8 is good to go

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.

Roadside dinner. We stop in Macon, Georgia at petrol station, fill the car first, then the driver.
Roadside dinner. We stop in Macon, Georgia at petrol station, fill the car first, then the driver.

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.

The TR8 resting after a fill-up
The TR8 resting after a fill-up

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.

Richard's journey

Keith Adams

Keith Adams

Editor and creator AROnline at AROnline
Created www.austin-rover.co.uk in 2001 and built it up 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 Classics 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 unfeasible adventures all across Europe.
Keith Adams

30 Comments

  1. Great Job….

    Its a real shame that the factory couldnt ship them to work that well….otherwise we would all still be tooling around in cars with character 🙂

    Cars these days are a bit like hoovers!

  2. Been a regular on the website for a few years, this is the first time I’ve felt moved to leave a comment.

    A beautiful and beautifully written article, thank you Richard

  3. Here here , an awesome article richard.I think we have all been there at some stage or another, and to spend some time on a road trip in a machine that you feel integrated with can be life changing.Your car is spectacular and shows just how close British Leyland was to great things, All the best from New Zealand Richard and yes everything will be alright, oh and hey keep us informed.

  4. I seem to remember a US mag (Car and Driver?) declaring the TR8 to be ‘Nothing less than the re-invention of the sports-car’ back in 1979 or 1980.

    Great trip, great write up, great car…hope all the life stuff pans out ok!

  5. I have tried to warm to the TR7/8, but I can’t. I know it outsold all the other TRs, that the TR6 would try to cook the driver and was dated by comparison.

    However the TR6 was a good looking car, and the TR7/8 isn’t. It is better as a convertable, but that big black plastic bumper is simply hideous. A cheap crude nasty solution to new crash regs by a company that had lost its way.

    The interior is a sea of nasty plastic and the earlier cars were far better. If it has been remarkable to drive or very fast that all wouldn’t have mattered. It wasn’t, by all accounts it wasn’t bad, but nothing special.

    Still I’m glad you enjoyed your trip and I hope everything works out for you.

  6. bartelbe, above

    I think the TR7/8 is quite a good looking car. In it’s day it was probably just a bit too radical, not ugly. I’m no fan of US bumpers tacked on to European cars but think they ‘fit’ the TR7/8 fairly well. As a young lad I remember being rather impressed by the dash.

  7. THe TR& was a good looking car, although the door line shape was a it dubious. The TR6 was a typically bland Italian designed, under-detailled and shapeless bodge-job that most people (who have not real artistic eye) fall for.

  8. TR7/8 in DHC form is a certain angle stunner, and in the bottom photo this car looks stunning. Even the swage line looks kind of right in this shot.
    The silver paint helps, as do the arch-filling wheels and the level ride height. Excellent development work Richard!

  9. I had a TR8 for about 3 years in the 1980s and it was a lovely car . I enjoyed especially wiping the grins off the faces of 911 drivers , because in the gears rather than in a traffic lights GP ( remember those ? ) it left a 911 or indeed a Ferrari 328 for dead . There’s no substitute for torque !

  10. Very good article Richard. I’m sorry for your recent troubles. I think getting married in your fifties would be enough to make any man go AWOL…

    If there is one thing we lack in the UK its a sense of physical scale- a country which is much less than a thousand miles from tip to tip does not make for the stuff of epic road movies- even though much of our island is spectacular, varied, and soaked in history. Reading your article I had James Brown’s ‘Night Train’ playing in my head.

    The TR7/TR8 convertible did a lot to address what was wrong with Harris Mann’s original design. Wedge shapes tend to look good on saloons and hatchbacks (Princess and the mostly forgotten yet stunning 1970’s Alfa Guilietta being excellent examples), yet don’t seem to scale down well into what would be logically their best utilisation, ie sports cars- the TVR wedges and the Reliant Scimitar SS1 (Sabre). I think the only ‘sports car’ that looked good as a wedge was the wonderful, weird, and decidedly wacky Bond Bug!

    Shame they never officially lauched the TR8 here- I think it would have sold well.

  11. Thanks for a really honest article Richard. Good luck with resolving the issues that you are facing. I know from experience that having the love of a good woman alongside you will help you through your difficulties. Best wishes.

    P.S. the car looks fantastic and I envy the long drive. I drove in Florida last year and it was awesome!

  12. A great tale Richard and I really find that “playing” with my classic cars is a great distraction from life’s more weighty issues! Sometimes I’d welcome a cheaper distraction though! Road trips in UK require a great amount of planning to avoid the crowds.

  13. You’re getting married – well done. But don’t neglect the dog. Hope the job front works out.

    Keith, I’m sure you’ll have heard the story about Guigiaro seeing the TR7 buck. He looked at the swage line up the side rather dubiously, then walked around the other side, knowing that some bucks have different detail on each side. “Oh my word”, he said, “they’ve done the other side too!”

  14. Speaking of road trips – a friend who lived near Edinburgh and owned a number of character cars, including a pre-war Austin and a Fiat 130 coupe, needed to go to Devon. So he borrowed his lodger’s nearly new Capri 2.8 injection, and maxed it on the M90 (he made the trip overnight).
    Suddenly the sky was full of blue light – they’d been spotted by a copper parked on a slip road. But the jam sandwich didn’t move. The gist of it was “I’ve seen you boy, now stop that!” That was 1980…

  15. @17, krs,

    They generally have that attitude here in Gloucestershire- they tend not to pull you for minor speeding and if they do, usually let you off with a telling off (that is, if you aren’t behaving like a complete donkey).

  16. Great stuff Richard! And fear not, I got the gift of redundancy 3 weeks before my wedding, hell I’m still here!

  17. In silver with those Minilite Alloys the TR7 manages to look very contemporary. Unless you knew you wouldnt take it for a near 40 year old design.

  18. Cadburys — sadly — are not commonly available at most roadside U.S. junque food emporiums. But you bring a good point, Antonio…I could pack a supply of Cadburys and bring them with me in the future.

  19. Brilliant article and great looking car. I would love to do a long road trip in an old car but I’m too much of a coward!

  20. Oh, come on Duncan. Old cars, properly maintained and driven sensibly, can do just fine on long trips. But always be sure you have recovery service, a decent supply of Cadburys, an empty credit card and a sympathetic significant other…

  21. I’m with Richard here (nice trip, btw!) – the journey we did last summer in our 44 year old Vanden Plas Princess 1300 was roughly the same distance. The major difference was that I had my complete family with me. Quite different from doing a ‘lonely’ road trip, yet still very refreshing and fun! The choice of car is a major point for enjoying such a journey.

  22. TR6 – Leather jacket and leather gloves
    TR7 – Hairy chest, medallion and open shirt

    Either way you look at it, both are butch looking men’s motors.

    Perhaps the slightly brutalist (but in my view attractive) styling was at odds with Marcello Gandani’s opinion of the need for styling elegance in cars…

    I’d have both these cars if I had the cash….

  23. Richard,
    Great stuff! I’m full of admiration for somebody who will take an elderly (but well sorted) British Leyland car for 2600 miles without worrying – they are after all there to be driven and you have done this magnificently.
    Sounds like the TR has also helped sort your mind out too, so thats a double.
    Best wishes for the future, David

  24. A tragedy that Sir Michael Edwardes didn’t as for the 7/8′ production tooling to be laid up for a bit after the hasty retreat from the US market in 1980.

    All that was caused by geopolitical nonsense in the wake of the Iranian Revolution, but when things has settled down a few years later Jaguar made big bucks from hawking its wares over the pond. A little later on in 1987 the Range Rover was sold in the US for the first time (only 17 years late, guys), and of course there was the magnificent effort that was the Sterling – an enterprise that might not have foundered so badly had there been, let’s say, a wedge-shaped V8 roadster in the model mix.

    I never found the 7/8’s styling so hateful – it’s really quite neat compared to some of the garbage pumped out these days – but I do hope Harris Mann got his revenge by saying something cutting about Giugiaro’s work when in 1998 ItalDesign unleashed the abysmal, cluttered Aztec to an undeserving world.

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