The Triumph TR8 was described as nothing less than the reinvention of the sports car when it was launched in the USA in 1980. When the Ford Capri Injection arrived in Europe just one year later, it certainly reinvigorated Uncle Henry’s coupe lineup.
Yet, they didn’t go head-to-head until our man in the USA, Richard Truett, put an example of each in his garage and tested them on Detroit’s mean streets. Read on to find our what was the king of the 1980s sports cars.
Best 1980s sports cars: introduction
One, caught up in corporate financial turmoil and never developed to its full potential, died prematurely in October 1981. It is only now being appreciated for its advanced styling, excellent handling, sensible cockpit and other good qualities. The other lived out its natural life and remained in production until 1987. Then it received a classy send-off with the stunning Brooklands Green 280i edition.
Yes, the Ford Capri coasted into retirement with honours and then immediately took its place among the classics. Meanwhile, the TR7/8 struggled for years unloved and unwanted by sports car cognoscenti. Okay, so this means the Capri is the better sports car than the Triumph TR8, right?
Not necessarily… The top-spec Capri, the 2.8 Injection Special, and the range-topping TR, the TR8 should have had a long and healthy rivalry, but the race was over not long after it started. The TR8 was never launched in Britain and the 2.8 Capri never came to the USA, so rarely have the two cars been compared. Until I managed to bag an example of each and get them side-by-side into one of the most interesting two-car garages in Detroit.
Ford Capri in the US! What gives?
I always liked the style of the mid-1980s Capri 2.8 Injection and so, with a little help from my English boss – a veteran Ford employee who drove Capris as company cars in the UK back in the day – one was located, purchased and shipped to Detroit. It lived in the garage next to a 1981 TR8 with a 4.0-litre fuel-injected Land Rover Discovery engine.
I didn’t quite know what to expect of the Capri. The final European Capri was sold here in 1977. It was leaden with heavy, overgrown bumpers and strangled with emissions equipment. Us Yanks never got the hotted up revamped Mk3 Capri. My Capri, a grey 1986 2.8 Injection Special with just 36,000 original miles, sported a Recaro interior and five-speed gearbox. It is in unmodified condition and has had only three previous keepers. It’s had some rot fixed, but the repairs were to a high standard.
Not long after the Capri arrived and winter began to fade, I started taking the TR8 and the Capri on back-to-back high speed runs over the same roads. Here’s how the cars compare…
Best 1980s sports cars: styling
The Capri is much-loved classic the world over and there is no controversy about swage lines and styling themes. Its proportions are perfect and the looks like a fast, fun car standing still. Much like the TR6, the Capri is a car you love to be seen in. You tolerate the ancient suspension and adequate brakes because you like the attention the car attracts because of its looks. However, the TR8 is the car you prefer to drive, the one that more often brings smiles to your face because of the way it delivers its delightful performance.
The TR8 – somehow – still does not look like a car that was laid down nearly four decades ago. It was a real leap forward. Not long ago, I took a 30-something friend of mine for a ride in the car. The first thing she noticed was the TR8’s dash and instruments. ‘Wow, that’s really back to the future,’ she said.
Too bad BL’s dire financial situation prevented the Triumph from exploiting the interior’s great design with high quality materials. Based on the Lynx at Gaydon, we know Triumph was exploring ways to upgrade the interior. I recently purchased on eBay UK a wood applique kit that came from the Canley Design Studios circa. 1980-81. The letter of authenticity that came with the pieces stated that Triumph were considering interior upgrades when the end came.
The wood trim pieces are a fascia panel for the instrument case, a cover for the console lid and a new facing for the center section of the dash that has cutouts for what appear to be power window switches. Such improvements would have added a touch of class and kept the TR fresh. Imagine the TR with a leather-trimmed interior, for instance, along with the wood trim.
Best 1980s sports cars: performance
The Capri’s 160bhp Cologne V6 outfitted with Bosch K-Jetronic mechanical fuel injection is a sweet little motor. My car is fitted with a sports exhaust. The deep, guttural, bass sounds it makes are surprisingly throaty – it sounds like a much larger engine. The Capri’s gearing is nearly perfect and is well matched to the engine’s torque. The clutch pedal is light and the five-speed gearbox snicks through the gears smoothly. You could drive the Capri all day easily without it beating you up. The Capri’s performance can be summed up as quick, capable and civilised.
The TR8 is in another league.
When you twist the key in the TR8 after stepping out of the Capri, your senses are attacked with a series of sights and sounds that let you know you are in something a bit more special. There is the subconscious knowledge of the TR8’s rarity, which amplifies its feeling of uniqueness.
Triumph and Rover Engineers got the TR’s mechanical sounds just right. Not only do you hear that famous Rover burble from twin exhaust pipes in the rear, but the engine itself sounds terrific and, at around 4500rpm, you hear a turbine-like whoosh. When looking over the TR’s still futuristic dash and down the dramatically sloping bonnet, this engine makes the perfect soundtrack for the TR8.
More than that, the Rover engine is completely unstressed in the TR8. It moves the 2600 pound car effortlessly. Even though the clutch is a bit heavier and the gearchange is not so precise as the Capri, the TR8 is more entertaining, more involving to drive. With bags of torque available, the engine’s ample thrust pulls the TR8 away cleanly no matter the gear. The TR8 is a real British muscle car and feels like it.
Best 1980s sports cars: handling and ride
Not much needs to be said here. Yes, both Capri and TR8 use a live rear axle. However, it is the way the axles are attached that tells the story. The Capri’s axle, with its leaf springs, is not much more evolved than what you’d find on a wagon from the horse and buggy era. The TR’s four-link rear axle was such a smart design that the basic layout was used under Ford Mustang until 2004.
The Capri’s rear suspension is busy and you can feel it struggling when the going gets rough. The car is fine on flat roads and on gentle sweeping curves, but it loses composure quickly when the surface becomes uneven while, in the wet, the Capri is famous for its rear end coming around.
The Capri’s brakes are also disappointingly poor. The pedal requires a lot of effort and there is not a confidence-inspiring amount of bite unless you press hard on the middle pedal. Mind you, to be fair, the TR8’s brakes aren’t much better. The TR does have more initial bite, but fades fast under hard braking. My own TR8 uses Rover four-pot calipers and an SD1 brake booster and master cylinder, so braking is addressed in my car.
Steering is another strong point for the TR8. The PAS is nicely weighted and provides good feedback. I especially appreciate the TR’s tight turning circle, aided no doubt by the short wheelbase. The Capri’s PAS is numb. It gets the job done, but it doesn’t impress. The TR wins on over bumpy surfaces, too. The suspension isolates the commotion from surface inconsistencies very well compared with the Capri.
Best 1980s sports cars: cabin and controls
This is a toss-up. To my eyes, the TR8’s dash is one of the best matched to a car’s overall design that I’ve ever seen – that dash is a big reason why the TR has such character. I love the wire mesh in the air vents at the base of the windscreen, the way the needles on Smiths tacho and speedo taper at the ends and the switchgear for the lights.
Everything is easy to reach and operate but the TR8’s seats are subpar. Ford was smarter with the Capri’s interior furnishings, using frequent udpates and upgrades to keep the car fresh. The half-leather Recaros lend the Capri’s cabin a touch of class. Similar seats would have really raised the TR8’s game. The Capri’s clocks are nicely styled, but the steering wheel blocks the view of the temperature and fuel gauges. No such issues in the TR.
Best 1980s sports cars: verdict
I will tell you right now that, even though the Capri was the more successful car in terms of sales and production, the TR8 has it pipped in nearly every area. Even if my TR8 were not modified with its bigger engine and stronger brakes, it would still be better on the road in every way than the Capri. I can say this with some degree of certainty because I have owned an unmodified, fuel-injected TR8.
Okay, so which car do I find myself driving most, the TR8 or the Capri? Right now, it is the Capri. Much like the Dolomite Sprint, the 1980s Ford Capri has a reputation in the USA. Everyone who is into cars know what it is and, for many who fondly remember the Mk2 and Mk2 which were sold here, seeing my car is like seeing an old friend.
That said, if I ever must reduce my car collection to one, there is no doubt which car stays and which one goes. For a person on a modest budget who wants a true classic British sports car, you could not ask for better value for money, better performance, cooler looks and a more fun experience than what the Triumph TR8 offers. Despite not having a lot of money to develop the TR8, Triumph once again made a car that, decades on, people are still fascinated with.