Our man in the USA, Richard Truett, recalls his fantastic 2008 car caper to pick up what would become his beloved Triumph TR8.
The drive, which wasn’t without incident, left him asking ‘how could the company let such a great car die?’
Triumph over adversity
It’s those idle moments between projects at work that end up costing me. Not in the form of admonitions from the boss, but money that drains from my bank account and into the hands of whomever has some interesting British car to sell.
When I get a spare moment at work, I check out what British cars are for sale on eBay, Cars.com, Craigslist, Collector Car Trader, Hemmings Motor News, various big American Triumph clubs and elsewhere. This time it was man named Steve Swift in Baltimore, who, after four years of ownership, had decided that he would part with his 1981 Triumph TR8. Asking price: just $6500.
Finding the right Triumph TR8
I’ve always fancied an original 1981 TR8. With its 147bhp fuel-injected Rover 3.5-litre engine, air conditioning and upgraded pleated velour interior, it was a nice to way wind down the TR series. Problem is only 405 were ever built.
Only about 181 of those came to the USA and no one knows how many survive. Finding one today is no easy task. Maybe two or three a year come up for sale but many of those have been shorn of their fuel injection or have been tinkered with in some way that makes them unappealing to me.
Not Mr Swift’s car. Bodily and cosmetically, it looked a bit tired in the photos, as any 27-year old car would be. However, the car was complete, original down to every last warning sticker and advertised as being in very good mechanical condition. The e-mails started. Yes, the car was still available. Yes, I could see more pictures.
Yes, the car could be trusted on a 500-plus mile road trip. No, the price wasn’t flexible. One longish phone conversation followed a day or so later and then one final email from me: if Mr. Swift would take $6100, a bank cheque for that amount would be placed in the FedEx the very next day. He would and I did. Six days later, at 7.20am on a Saturday, I was on a plane from Detroit to Baltimore to pick up the car and drive it home.
Meeting our heroes on the flight
The plane trip was interesting. About 150 World War II veterans were flying from Detroit to Washington DC to view the new World War II memorial. Sitting at the gate waiting to board, snippets of about a hundred conversations impinged upon my ears:
– ‘Burp gun. We mowed ’em down.’
– ‘Stormed the beach at Normandy.’
– ‘I said come any closer, and I’ll shoot.’
– ‘They asked me, what’s a Cleveland Indian? And I said, that’s a ballgame they play out of Cleveland, Ohio.’
Once on the plane, I sat next to a veteran named Alvin Ballard. He said, ‘You are riding with a bunch of World War II vets. We’re all in our eighties now.’ I could only reply: ‘You are all heroes. Younger generations in this country, in Great Britain and elsewhere owe you a debt that can never be repaid.’
Said Ballard: ‘We just did what we were told to do.’ Then it occurred to me that, if it were not for the World War II veterans, I would not be able to enjoy the great British cars I love so much.
Love at first sight
Once the plane landed, Mr Swift met me at the airport in his grey Saab and we drove 40 or so miles to his house. The white TR with its tan interior and matching soft-top was parked in the corner of the driveway. It was exactly as advertised cosmetically. There were none of the disappointments that come from Internet photos which ignore such things as rust holes big enough to drop a wallet through.
Nope… The TR8 was as described. The Triumph world is now a small one. Mr. Swift and I had many things in common, including participating in the American version of the British Reliability Run and owning some of the same model cars. We exchanged the paperwork and, after the checking of the car’s vital fluids, I twisted the TR’s ignition key and was on the road to Detroit. It was 10.05am.
Getting over the excitement of the wonderful burble from the twin exhaust pipes and the turbine-like whoosh from the engine took awhile. I didn’t even turn on the radio for at least two hours. Those first few minutes in the TR would define the day for me. If the temperature gauge went sailing past the halfway mark, I would be nervous and concerned. It did not. If there were front-end vibrations and brake troubles and grinding of gears, the drive home would be a drag.
No disappointments… just a speeding ticket
There were none. There were, though, minor problems associated more with the passage of time than anything else. The suspension bushings are soft. After 27 years, they are entitled to be. The steering column bushing has perished, making for some slop at the wheel. Some trim around the shifter had worked loose. That was about it.
Mr Swift told me of one modification that had been made. Somewhere in the car’s 60,000 miles, a TR7 rear axle with a 3:45 ratio was installed but the speedometer drive gear in the LT77 gearbox was not replaced.
That combined with a jumpy Smiths speedometer needle meant I had difficulty knowing how fast the car was going and prompted the appearance of a Pennsylvania State Trooper in my rear-view mirror some 126 miles into the trip home. He pulled me over, told me I was doing 83 in a 65mph zone and issued me a ticket for $133. After that incident, I tucked in behind a Buick driver and stayed in the right lane most of the way home.
Not missing a beat at 26mpg
I saw just on other car with Triumph bloodlines on the long drive back to Detroit: an early 1960s Amphicar, the West German-made amphibious car powered by a Triumph Herald engine. The restored car was riding on the back of a trailer. I have been on these same back roads on the trip to and from Baltimore several times before.
That’s been to go to the docks to collect cars I have imported from Great Britain. Those trips have been driving a truck pulling a trailer. Every time I have done that I wished I was in a TR. The long sweeping curves are the perfect for a TR and the TR8 was not a disappointment here. The tight steering and instant throttle response made the car even more of a joy to drive.
I used exactly 20 gallons (US) of $4.25 premium gasoline on the 547 mile drive home. That’s about 25.2mpg (US) and well in keeping with the car’s original 26mpg rating when new.
Tired but happy, I pulled the TR8 into my driveway behind my Rover Sterling 827 at 7.20pm. I see no wallet-busting mechanical repairs on this car. I will replace the springs, dampers and bushes, bleed the clutch and brakes and do some other minor maintenance. I know where a proper TR8 rear axle is and will get it and put the car back to the original spec. Then, next year, a respray is on the cards along with a tidying up of the interior. As we say in so many of these stories, BL was so close to a world beater with that last TR8.
It seems hard to understand today how the company could let such a great car die.