The Triumph TR7 was the last of a great sports car line – although few would have believed it to be, when designing this important car back in the optimistic days of the early 1970s.
The TR7 looked like nothing else on the road, but couldn’t match the show with enough go… but despite that, it went on to outlive the MGB, while becoming the best-selling TR of them all…
Triumph TR7: Last throw of the dice
Sports cars were something that both BMC and Leyland Motors as separate companies had proved to be rather good at. In the USA, the MG Midget and MGB had enjoyed immense popularity, outselling their rivals, the Triumph Spitfire and TR6 by a considerable margin.
But when BMC merged with Leyland Motors to form BLMC, new dilemmas began to rear their heads. It was fairly obvious that the MGB and TR6 were reaching the end of their useful lives; despite healthy sales in the USA and that being the case, the question of how to replace them would need to be answered before development of any new sports cars could commence.
The root of this dilemma was that although MG and Triumph belonged to the same company following the merger of 1968, up to that point, they were rivals and subsequently, there was considerable overlap in BLMC’s sports car range.
The MG Midget and Triumph Spitfire were aimed at the same customers and the Triumph TR6, GT6 and MGB were not too far apart, either. The result was that there were five models competing in pretty much the same sector – and all selling in comparatively small numbers in comparison with the other sub-two litre cars being produced by BLMC at the time.
MG and Triumph proposals
At the time of the merger, both MG at Abingdon and Triumph at Canley were already working on their own interpretations of how their new sports cars would appear and be engineered – and the contrast between both companies would prove to be highly interesting.
In Abingdon, MG had been working on a promising sports car, codenamed the ADO21, which was a shark-nosed two-seater sports car, which unusually for its time, sported a mid-engined configuration. Of the other interesting technical aspects of this car, was the fact that the only major carry-overs from the BMH saloon car range was its engine and Hydrolastic suspension; it has been said by MG enthusiasts that this car was essentially an MGF, some 25 years ahead of its time.
Over at Triumph, initial work had also started on its own sports car, codenamed, ‘Bullet‘ and unlike the MG ADO21; this was a conventional front-engined car, using saloon car running gear. The cars may have conceptually been diametrically opposed, but elements of both cars would end up being incorporated in the final product.
BLMC management knew that it had to carefully pitch any new sports cars at an increasingly sophisticated clientele – and the cars they were currently selling were, to put it politely, getting over the hill. In the USA, buyers were turning to the offerings Datsun (the 240Z) and Porsche (the VW-Porsche 914) in increasingly large numbers.
Pragmatism or sophistication?
Whatever BLMC would serve up would need to be quick and reliable (to match the Datsun) and technically interesting (to match the mid-engined Porsche). Also new crash legislation was being introduced in the USA, which many informed people in the motor industry assumed would prove to be the death-knell of open topped sports cars. Because of these pressures on BLMC and the fact that there was a massive need to develop a viable range of family cars, money and resources would only be released to develop one ‘corporate’ sports car.
Of course, the marketing issue would need to be finalised first and because of this, in late 1970, Mike Carver, then a manager in Central Product Planning and Spen King travelled to the USA in order to sound out the dealers and try and understand what it was that would be required.
The fact that Spen King (at the time, the Chief Engineer at Triumph) would be so intimately involved in the early stages of the new car’s development ensured that Triumph as a marque would get the inside track in terms of development. This would be in spite of the fact that of the Corporation’s sports cars, it was the offerings from MG that were most in demand. Carver stated subsequently, that this was in no way intended to be a full market research programme, but a series of, ‘extended conversations with relevant parties.’
Triumph TR7: What the Americans wanted
The result of these findings would prove surprising because they indicated that what the Americans really wanted was a conventionally-engineered front engine, rear wheel drive car. The reasoning behind this was that the Americans wanted reliability and the ability for a ‘quick fix’ should the car fail.
Once back in the UK, the Product Planners reasoned that this format also had advantages in terms of development – and the fact that it would be less costly for the company both in terms of time and finances. Donald Stokes wanted the company to have a product ready to sell by the mid-’70s and this tight deadline would be easier to meet if the product the company was developing a car that shared componentry with mass-produced stable mates.
Because the dealers wanted a car that occupied a similar place in the market to that of the biggest seller, the MGB, the advantages of the mid-engined layout were lessened significantly. Performance would not be great enough to exploit the handling advantages brought about by even weight distribution that comes with a mid-mounted engine and because the new car would be a two-seater, there was no advantage to be found in either configuration. In the end, it would come down budget: front engine, rear wheel drive it would be.
Triumph engineering wins out
Out of the MG and Triumph models in development, it was obvious that the Triumph Bullet would be the model to be honed into a production reality. Work on the Bullet had been ongoing since 1969; Triumph envisaging it as a combined GT6/TR6 replacement and prototypes were soon running with Triumph four and six-cylinder power units.
Once the green light had been given to the Bullet project by the BL Board, the full weight of the company’s resources were put behind the development of the new Triumph at the beginning of 1971.
Donald Stokes made it clear that it should be ready for introduction in 1975. The Bullet was being developed as a cheaper front-engined version of the VW-Porsche 914 and as such, was not a full convertible, but a targa-top, rather like the Fiat X1/9 – this left a gap in the range for a full convertible and the MGB would be left to remain in production for as long as regulations allowed the company to sell rag-tops.
No convertibles needed – so they thought
Product planning decided that even though the new car was conceived as a straight replacement for the MGB, it should be priced above the older car so there was no clash between old and new. Already, the Bullet was being moved away from its intended market, by the product planners… something that would happen again and again in the Corporation.
The conception of the car was finalised; the finer details needed to be decided. Spen King was placed in charge of the development of the new car – and in a theme common with the subsequent Rover SD1 and Austin Maestro; the package would offer no technical surprises.
Familiar technology underpins corporate sports car
The engine would be a development of the slant-four Dolomite engine (above), initially coming with a four-speed gearbox (developed from the Morris Marina) and live rear axle. Now that the ethos was for the production of a BLMC sports car (as opposed to a Triumph sports car), the option of a Triumph straight-six powered version was dropped in favour of the use of the Rover V8 engine, which at the time, was being used in the Rover P6B, P5B and Range Rover.
King was an expert of honing conventional components into something comparable with more exotic rivals – and even though the rear suspension was not independent, with careful development and thoughtful axle location, it proved possible to make the car ride and handle at least as well as its foreign rivals – and certainly better than the aged MGB and TR6.
At this point in time, it became obvious to everyone that the Bullet should be marketed as a Triumph; MG still had the MGB to sell, but the Triumph range would be cut at the expense of the GT6 and TR6.
Harris Mann enters the equation
During the early stages of development at Longbridge, there were TR7 shaped clay models produced wearing the ‘MG Magna’ nameplate, but it was a half-hearted effort, really. The name of MG was synonymous with open topped sports cars in the USA, and this meant that while the MGB remained in production, it would not make sense to develop an MG-badged TR7.
Now it was settled that the new Triumph TR7 would not directly replace the MGB, but would also fight competitors higher up the price scale, its simplicity could prove to be a hurdle to sales. Even with the extra equipment added to the car in order to become a price replacement for the TR6 or GT6, the mechanical layout as chosen by Spen King did lead to the impression that the car was giving something away in terms of sophistication to its foreign rivals.
With this in mind, the Longbridge studios were asked to re-style the car, in order to increase its appeal; and following his work on Project Condor, the ADO71 and the impressive Zanda design concept, Harris Mann was handed the task…
Adding a premium feel into the mix
Harris Mann honed the styling in order to give the TR7 a more expensive look – also incorporating the 5mph impact absorbing bumpers that the car would require in order to meet upcoming US regulations. The most startling aspect of the styling though, was reserved for the belt-line, which to emphasize the low nose/high tail stance of the TR7 was slashed down the side of the car starting high at the rear end-and and tapering towards the front, ending just before the front wheel.
It certainly gave the TR7 a degree of character and identity that the Bullet lacked. Elements of the ADO21 design were also included, especially around the area of its pointed nose and pop-up headlights. It was at this point in time that the targa top arrangement of the Bullet was dropped because the spectre of a complete ban on convertibles in the USA was still hanging over the car industry.
It was still was not known whether this arrangement would meet such regulations. Happily for the management (but perhaps less so for the dealers), the Triumph TR7 would feature a ‘family’ look shared with its Austin-Morris stable mates, dropping all stylistic links with Triumphs of the past.
Triumph TR7 design progresses rapidly
As development progressed, by 1972, it became clear that the TR7 should be the starting point for a modest range of sports cars – and the TR7 in the form it was launched would be the base model in this range. Because it was obvious that the torquey Rover V8 engine would suit the car perfectly, this would head the range.
Below that, the 16-Valve version of the slant-four Dolomite engine, at the time under development by Spen King and being readied for the Dolomite Sprint was also earmarked to form the basis of the TR7 Sprint. Beyond this extending of the range of engines, at the point that the TR7 was nearing announcement, development of a 2+2 version commenced, with a view to widening the appeal of the corporate sports car.
The thinking behind this car, called the Triumph Lynx was that with its extended accommodation, it could be an effective competitor to the Ford Capri; a car which was proving to be a runaway hit for Ford and in the process, was re-inventing the sports car market in the UK and Europe. The V8 engined Triumph Lynx would be pressed into service as a replacement for the troubled Triumph Stag, which at the time, was costing the company a packet in warranty costs.
The TR7 is go… but for the US only
Speke was the factory chosen to build the TR7 from the time of its launch to the world’s press in the USA at the start of 1975 – and because the US market was so important to British Leyland, the usual process of final testing and honing was dropped in order to get the car on sale as early as possible.
The decision was also taken to launch the Triumph TR7 in the USA only, European and British cars coming on stream later, once production could be ramped-up in order to meet demand. The onus was now very much on the Speke workforce in order to produce the car at an acceptable level of quality – reputations were built on first impressions and if the car was built well, the positive image would remain with the car throughout its life.
Sadly, it was inevitable that they did not.
Safety and comfort take pole position
Technically, the car may not have been exactly ground breaking, but there were a few points worth lauding the car for at the time of its launch. Safety was big news and the TR7 was designed very much with this in mind; the monocoque had been designed to meet all upcoming US crash regulations and intelligent detailing in the structure meant that the car would prove to score well in passive safety terms.
Although it appeared that the car incorporated an integral roll-hoop, it did not – but rear three quarter pillar was immensely strong, thanks to the box sections incorporated within, all the way up to the roofline and a cant rail over the windows.
One interesting aspect of the crash structure, (and one that marked the car as being ahead of the game in this respect) was that the front section of the body shell did not contribute much in the event of a head-on collision, but merely acted as a crumple zone; the major energy in such a collision was in fact absorbed by the wheels against the bulkhead and the engine against the scuttle.
It may seem bizarre now, that the movement of the engine in the event of a collision was a desirable state of affairs, but because the scuttle are affected intruded very little into the seating area of the passenger compartment, it was not considered to be an undesirable trait. The strength at the front of the car was also aided by its X-shaped front subframe and its less-than-pretty 5mph bumpers which were made from box-section steel and covered by self-skinning methane foam.
Controversial styling raises awareness
Bodyshell strength was also above average for the time (but not in the class of the ADO17 saloon) at 7500lb ft per degree, but it was not the safety or strength of the Triumph TR7’s body that drew comment, but its style. In an amusing tale that has now entered into the folklore of motoring history, it was Giorgetto Giugiaro that summed up the feelings of many people.
On his first viewing of the car at the Geneva motor show in 1975, he is said to have paused to take a long look at the TR7. Pondering its styling, he is said to have looked at it in a puzzled way and then walked around the car, only to say, ‘Oh my God! They’ve done it to the other side as well.’
This was no doubt a reference to the fact that in the development of new model styling, often different styling solutions are tried out on both sides of a clay model of the car – and Giugiaro obviously thought that the TR7 looked so bizarre that it could in no way be a production car!
It is easy to take cheap shots at the styling of the Triumph TR7, but alongside the Leyland Princess, it certainly showed that BLMC were keen on producing interestingly styled – bold – designs. It is just a shame that other factors conspired to play against the success of these cars before they had a chance to establish themselves on the market.
Production begins, quality stories follow
Early quality niggles were not evident at the time of the launch of the Triumph TR7 and because it was an export-only car, the US journalists were reporting on the car a full year ahead of their counterparts on the domestic market. The launch passed off without hitch and generally the US press were impressed with the car, if a little unimpressed with the ‘challenging’ styling.
There were certainly no complaints regarding the handling and ride of the TR7, but what impressed even more than the chassis was the comfort and habitability of the passenger compartment: it was certainly viewed as a much more civilised car than its predecessors.
Anti-emissions equipment hampers Triumph TR7
Because of the strict emission laws that were in force in the USA by 1975, extensive anti-smog equipment was installed in the TR7 and the eight-valve 2.0-litre engine, which was not exactly the most powerful engine to start with, suffered badly from the resultant power loss.
In the USA, the TR7 was offered in two states of tune in order to meet the varying emission regulations within the country: 90bhp from twin-Stromberg carburettors in 49-State tune and a paltry 76bhp in single-carburettor California tune. In reality, this fact demonstrated that British Leyland had no suitable ‘federal’ engine in their line-up and they were suffering as a result of this.
The result of this was that the American press called for a hike in power, something that British Leyland knew was in the pipeline.
UK debut goes without (too many) problems
The UK had to wait until 19 May 1976 for the TR7 to go on sale and the press generally treated this date as the time to treat it as a new model launch. Various detail changes were made to the TR7 in order to be more suited to European buying tastes – not least the use of smaller rear bumpers and an engine that was not strangulated by USA anti-emissions equipment: the higher compression, twin-SU version of the engine was used, producing a more realistic 105bhp.
This gave the car more class-competitive performance with a (Triumph-claimed) 0-60mph time of 9.4 seconds and top speed of 110mph, as opposed to 11.0 seconds and 107mph of its Federal cousin. Of course this was easy meat for the 3.0-litre Ford Capri.
But British Leyland had thoughtfully decided to launch the TR7 at a competitive price of £2999, which was some £696 (or in these pre-inflationary times, over 20% less).
Triumph TR7: what the papers said
Autocar magazine reported on the car at the time of the UK launch and came away impressed with the car as a whole, but as always there were certain reservations. ‘Performance-wise, the TR7 is no sluggard. It tries hard, a little too obviously, and is great fun in the tighter country road that is its favourite going. On motorways and wide, gently curving roads, its sporting pretensions are not backed up with quite enough power’.
Again, the chassis was praised for being greater than the sum of its parts and overall, they came away pleased: ‘… it will find a wider public when they hack off the lid and give it a soft top’. ‘When the TR5 appeared, a monthly fringe-contemporary described it as ‘an engine in search of a chassis’. The TR7 is sort of revenge for that remark, or at any rate, a reverse – a chassis in search of an engine.’
Inevitably, because of the passing resemblance between the two cars, the Triumph TR7 and Fiat X1/9 would end up being compared – and a year after the launch of the TR7 in this country, Autocar magazine did just that. What interestingly came from this article were not so much the relative merits of both cars, but what the public at large thought of them.
An acid test from the public
‘…The acid test, we took the Fiat and the TR7 to the Red Lion in Mayfair. A lunchtime hangout for advertising executives and director’s secretaries, we realised that its verdict would be the final one. Which one would he/she rather go home/be taken home in? That white TR7 or the green X1/9?
‘The green one,’ said the willowy blonde who was obviously good at more than shorthand or typing. ‘Because my boyfriend’s got a green car. I think they’re great.’
Whereupon a pair of skin-tight white jeans slinks in, sits down on the stool by the bar and looks demurely across at both cars. The long lashes caress first the TR7, then the Fiat.
‘Well?’ I ask, putting on my road tester’s voice. ‘Well, what do you think of those cars? Which would you rather be driven home tonight in?’ She glares at me at first, then shuffles in her seat when she realizes that it is just a questionnaire.
‘What’s the prize for getting it right?’ she asks.
‘One of these cars,’ I joke.
‘Oh well, in that case, the green one. I think it’s a very feminine car. I wouldn’t like to drive it home, mind. Just sit alongside some Italian-looking guy. It looks much faster and more expensive than the other one. It looks too fast for a woman.’ ‘
Was the TR7 lacking in sex appeal?
And that was the problem. The Triumph did not have the immediate sex appeal of the Italian car and Peter Windsor’s findings in that London pub certainly very potently demonstrated the fact. Inexpensive modifications to the TR7 could have easily reversed this situation, firstly the utilization of more appealing colours and paint schemes, for a start: the TR7 V8 rally car was regarded by all that saw it as a fantastic looking car with its blue and white paint scheme and wider Minilite-style wheels, but the colour scheme was sadly not carried over to the production car.
In October of that year, Speke workers went on strike – and the end result of this was that any modifications that the company did try and incorporate into the TR7 could not be added. No one was building the cars. Those that were coming off the production line at Speke were proving to be suffering from indifferent build quality – and as a result were afflicted by the same, depressing reliability issues that also affected the products of Longbridge and Cowley.
As we have seen, the net result of all this strife was the closure of the Speke factory and the moving of the TR7 production line to Canley, near Coventry – this disruption to production cost the company dearly and as a result, people who would have bought the TR7 in 1977 and 1978 were sadly forced to look elsewhere. It took time to transfer the production line and then further time to get the Canley line up to speed.
The ramifications of Speke’s closure
Apart from the death of the Lynx and the TR7 Sprint, the Speke closure also marked the end of any further serious development of the car. Michael Edwardes was concentrating the company’s efforts on ensuring that what little money was being given to the company by the Government was channelled into the development of the LC8 and LC10 hatchbacks.
Luckily, the V8 version of the car was nearing completion at this time – and because the US market demanded this model, its future was assured. Also in 1976 and as a result of the fact that the impending ban on convertible cars in the USA proved to amount to nothing more than a scare story, work began on producing a drop head version of the TR7 ‘coupé’.
Again because of pressure from the dealers in the USA and the fact that development of this car was nearing completion and proved to be relatively inexpensive, its future was also assured.
Triumph TR7’s Canley improvements
Once Canley did get up to speed, the improvement in the Triumph TR7 became immediately apparent: the quality of final assembly was of a higher order and a small round of changes was made to the car.
These included the fitment of the 77mm five-speed gearbox from the Rover SD1 and cosmetic improvements, such as the widening of the range of colours, a smartening of interior trim and the addition of a bonnet power bulge – in anticipation of the upcoming TR8.
The opportunity was also taken to incorporate running changes to the car, with the upgrading of the electrics, instrumentation and cooling – all part of the standard running changes that would come part and parcel during the production run of any car, but in the case of the TR7 and all the strife at Speke, the company were unable to implement.
Opening up to the elements
The convertible version appeared soon after in May 1979 – but again, disappointingly for customers in the UK and Europe, its sales were limited to the USA. It was immediately apparent to all, that in this form, the styling was everything that the TR7 should have been right from launch – so right were its lines. No longer was the ‘turret top’ an awkward looking car, but it has gone through the transition to become a pretty and striking open-topped car.
At the same time, the TR8 also entered pre-production at Canley and a few of these models were in the hard-topped bodyshell, but sensibly, when the pre-production run became series production, the TR8 was offered only in the convertible body style.
The structure of the bodyshell was strengthened in order to compensate for the lack of roof – an additional strengthening box section being installed behind the seats, which linked the B-posts together. Extra strengthening was also added to the quarter panels and, curiously, BL engineers also incorporated an end-weighted front bumper, which was an expedient to lessen the effects of scuttle shake. Because of thoughtful design and against subsequent trends, the drop head version was slightly lighter than the fixed head version.
Convertible and TR8 boost appeal…
The USA market recovered as a result of the launch of the convertible model, but it could not have come at a worse time, as the World slipped into global recession following the Iranian crisis in 1979. This factor alone did not affect the sales of the Triumph in the USA, but when the exchange rates moved in favour of a strong pound, it certainly affected the profitability of the company’s sports cars in the USA.
When the TR8 went on general sale in the USA in May 1980, it was met with unanimous praise, being hailed as nothing less than the, ‘Re-invention of the Sports Car’, by Car & Driver magazine.
When the convertible was launched in the UK in March 1980, it was also greeted with enthusiasm by the motoring press. Motor magazine might have been more reserved than their American counterparts, but they concluded in its road test that, ‘BL’s long-awaited TR7 drophead represents a significant development over the fixed head version. Lively performance with plenty of mid-range torque with long legged fifth gear.’
V8 denied to the UK
In their hands, it had also proven to be slightly quicker and more economical than the hard-topped version. What the British were denied though, was the TR8 version, of which the Americans received the lion’s share of the 2715-unit production run.
35 were produced in UK specification, but unfortunately, events overtook the TR7 family of cars and if this glowing report from CAR magazine in December 1980 is anything to go by, we were short changed:
‘I asked myself more than once the deadly serious question: ‘would I spend my own hard-earned money on a TR8?’ This is not a fantasy. This car is expensive by American standards, and yet no more than a Mazda RX7 or a Datsun 280Z, and a lot cheaper than comparably equipped Chevrolet Corvette. And all round it will outperform them all. ‘Decidedly yes’, I answer each time.’
In conclusion, ‘When the TR8 is launched in Britain next year there will be nothing in its class to touch it, save perhaps the Porsche 924. But don’t expect to be able to buy it for what the Americans pay, even though the British model (without the emission control equipment) will be considerably cheaper to make…’
Triumph TR7 and TR8: the end…
Late in 1980, production of the TR7 and TR8 was moved, yet again, to the relatively new Solihull factory, South of Birmingham to be produced alongside the Rover SD1. In reality, this move, which had spelled the death-knell for car production at Canley also proved to be the death knell for the Triumph TR7 and TR8 itself, because Michael Edwardes had plans on the cards to put this massive factory on ice.
In May 1981, BL made public their plans to kill the TR7, but Ray Horrocks made it clear that production could be continued if demand for the car improved ‘significantly’. Needless to say, it did not – stockpiles of unsold TR7s mounted up and as a result, the closure of Solihull went ahead, a further 3000 jobs at BL were lost, as well as resultant losses at the Speke and Swindon body pressing plants and the closure of the Wellingborough foundry in Northamptonshire.
Sports cars no longer figured in the plans of the company and even though the Abingdon factory was being wound-up at the same time and demand in the USA for the MG sports cars was still reasonably buoyant, (although down by almost fifty per cent since 1977) the agreeable option of moving TR production to Abingdon and introducing the MG Boxer was not taken.
What might have been…
Would the MG-badged, O-Series powered Boxer or the Broadside family have sold any better? Evidence would suggest that it may have sold enough to buoy the company enough to make it to the good years of the late-’80s: at the time of the MG closure in 1980, American dealers pleaded directly to Michael Edwardes to save the marque – and produced an order book full of unfulfilled orders for MGs.
Certainly, using the O-Series engine would have trimmed costs; rationalisation always does – as would the fact that without question the Abingdon factory was unique in the company during the ‘dark’ years.
Its workforce did not resort to industrial action and enjoyed a good relationship with their management – thus, there would not have been anywhere near the same level of lost production due to strike action.
Production History: A car without a place to call home
|Sep 1974||Production starts at Speke|
|Jan 1975||TR7 Launched in the USA|
|May 1976||TR7 Launched in the UK and Europe|
|May 1978||Speke closes, production line moved to Canley|
|Oct 1978||Production starts at Canley|
|Jul 1979||Convertible launched in the USA|
|Mar 1980||Convertible launched in the UK|
|Jun 1980||TR8 launched in the USA|
|Aug 1980||Production ceases at Canley|
|Aug 1980||Production starts at Solihull|
|Oct 1981||Production ends.|