Seven of the best
The Triumph TR7 was misunderstood when new and lacked a certain something, but has since emerged as one of the classic car industry’s most enduring starter cars.
But Keith Adams wonders if cheap parts and simple mechanics are enough to make the TR7 a better bet than the vivacious Italian opposition…
It’s funny how how when we talk about Great British sports cars, few of us remember to mention the Triumph TR7. With almost 115,000 examples built during its all-too brief production run of six years and three factories, it was hardly a commercial failure – and today, there’s great specialist and parts supplier support. So why then, is the TR7 so overshadowed by the likes of the MGB and Triumph Spitfire?
It’s an interesting question, and one that’s going to take a lot of answering. And that’s probably not a story for this page. The life and times of the TR7 was pretty traumatic, as you’ll read in the car’s development story, they were overshadowed by political and industrial strife. Which is a shame – because if things had panned out, the TR7 would have ended up replacing all previous Triumph and MG sports cars, and gone on to enjoy lucrative times being the UK’s only viable sports car throughout the 1980s. But it never happened, and what’s left is mere conjecture.
But what of the car itself? Like all of Harris Mann’s creations at his time in the Longbridge hot-house, it certainly looked bold and interesting. But unlike the mainstream Allegro and Princess, the TR7 was underpinned by sensible Spen King engineering, so it could be reasonably argued that the package the TR7 presented to customers should have been the best of both worlds. The TR7’s faintly exotic looks didn’t come at a price – and the car had a wide selection of rivals to go up against. most notably from the Italians.
If you think the British manufacturing scene was a hotbed of industrial action and class struggles, consider life in Italy during the 1970s. It was a decade of extremist left/right political fighting, which more often than not, ended in terrorism and death. We may jovially look back on these dark time in the UK as being being ‘the decade that taste forgot’, but Italians will remember the ’70s far more seriously – as the ‘anni di piombo‘, or years of lead. And the country so nearly fell to martial law as all-out war between the neo-fascists and the Communists sabotaged all walks of life.
That the country managed to create some of the world’s most desirable car while all this was going on is an absolute miracle. Even in the relatively affluent north of the country, striking factories were killing manufacture – Lamborghini nearly died because of it, and a very sound reason the giant Fiat Group remained on course, was because of its strong government backing, the controlling Agnelli family’s huge political influence, and of course, the patriotic buying habits of the Italians. The selection of TR7 rivals here shows that you should desirability to that list, also.
The Fiat X1/9, launched in 1972 was a clear demonstrator that you couldn’t knock the Italian car industry’s creativity. As a replacement for the delectable 850 Spider, the X1/9 was bang on message. With its sharp Bertone-penned styling (by Marcello Gandini) and all-new platform underneath which allowed for the mid-mounting of its powertrain (taken straight from the front-wheel drive 128), it was a true sports car of its time. For one, it was open, but still had hefty roll-over protection (that chimed well with the post-Nader mood of the time in the USA), and was light, economical and fun to drive. The X1/9 was the truly ethical Dino Ferrari for the masses.
Harking from the same year, the Lancia Beta, was also another advanced product of the Fiat Group. But Lancia had only been part of the ‘family’ since 1969, so the arrival of the all-new new mid-liner to replace the Fulvia within the space of just three years was remarkable indeed. More so when you consider that Lancia was without a technical director at all, and it wasn’t until Sergio Camuffo’s appointment in the role in 1970, that the Beta’s development began in earnest. There remained more than enough legacy engineers to ensure that the new front-wheel drive car followed in the footsteps of its innovative predecessors.
Lancia man Romanini worked on the chassis design; Zaccone Mina honed Lampredi’s brilliant twin-cam, and Gilio and Bencini in tested the new car. Many people wrongly assume the Beta was a re-purposed Fiat, but other than its engine (which received a number of changes for use in the Lancia), there was little shared across the marques. In fact, Fiat’s move to larger front-wheel drive cars wouldn’t come until the 1980s. And another little-known fact about the Beta is that it shares its SMAE gearbox with the Citroen CX – a hangover from the PARDEVI project of the early 1970s…
The Beta initially appeared in two-box saloon form (like the Princess, it looked like a hatchback but it wasn’t) at the Turin motor show in 1972, but the coupe appeared a year later. The coupe was certainly attractive, styled by Aldo Castagno and Pietro Castagnero, and proved that the front-wheel drive platform was nothing if not adaptable. Further versions followed – the Scimitar GTE-like HPE, Zagato-styled Spider, and Trevi ‘three-box’ saloon. Lest we forget the Beta badge was also screwed to the mid-engined Montecarlo, but that was going to be the Fiat X1/9’s big brother, and only became a Lancia at the last moment.
As for the Alfa Romeo Sprint, it’s an extension of one of Italy’s biggest engineering triumphs (and production disasters), the Alfasud. You can read the full story of this amazing front-wheel drive pioneer at your leisure, but here are a few bullet points – it set the dynamic benchmark for well over a decade, looked amazing, was an act of packaging genius, and apart from its lack of a hatchback (for the best part of decade) and slap-shod build, it was as close to motoring perfection as you were ever likely to experience during these torrid times.
In 1976, Giorgetto Giugiaro’s sporting Sprint derivative was unveiled, offering Alfasud buyers the opportunity to own something a little racier. The Sprint had a tough role in life – to replace the smaller-engined 105-Series Giulia coupes, but thanks to the brilliance of its saloon underpinnings, and sheer desirability of its styling, most commentators at the time considered that Alfa Romeo had pulled it off.
These four cars, all from 1979 represented the sweet-spot of their respective production development cycles, and are probably the best you’re going to find of each today. The question is, could the five-speed 2.0-litre slant-four TR7 deliver a knock-out blow to the 1.5-litre X1/9 or Alfasud Sprint, or the 1.6-litre Lancia back then? And does it today?
When the TR7’s styling and packaging were honed, the two benchmark sports cars in the USA were the Datsun 240Z and Porsche 914. Compared with the beauty of the first of these two cars, the Triumph’s styling must be seen as a failure – but then, compared with the Porsche, the TR7 did look rather good. The problem with its styling is a reflection of the shifting moods of the legislators at the time – as a targa or convertible, the TR7 looked quite good, but BL simply didn’t have the confidence to take a risk, and produce anything other than a closed car.
And by the time the first US dealers caught their first glimpse of the car in late 1974, it was clear that the threat to the open-topped car as a breed had already passed. But this notwithstanding, the TR7’s looks weren’t all that bad, and they certainly remain interesting to this day. Yes, it was dominated by those impact-bumpers (which were better resolved than some of the opposition, most notably the Fiat X1/9), and that gave it extra length, which then led to a gawky short-wheelbased, high-riding stance, that wasn’t truly fixed until sometime later with the arrival of the convertible.
Under the skin, it was a conservative affair, but also a bit of a delight for BL fans, thanks to its shared DNA with the ill-fated Triumph SD2 and Rover SD1. So, that meant MacPherson struts up front and a well-located live axle at the rear. The engine was effectively an eight-valve version of the Dolomite Sprint, pushing out a relatively modest 105bhp, and the emphasis was on easy drivability and a roomy, usable cabin. All of these objectives were met. Despite meaning that a standard TR7 is hardly sporting to drive. But on today’s roads, a well-presented and cared-for TR7 turns heads – because it’s visually interesting, and for men of a certain age, it reminds them of Purdey from the New Avengers. Mmmm Purdey.
In comparison, the Italians are from a different planet. Visually similar to the TR7 the X1/9 might be, but with a targa roof for its turret top, and an engine mounted midships, it’s a far more advanced package. It also gives away half a litre of engine capacity to the British car, but then the Italian has an interesting and rorty soundtrack that encourages the driver to make full use of those 85 horses. As we’ll see later, that’s not always a good thing – especially in the wet.
The Lancia’s 1.6-litre twin-cam puts out almost as much power as the Triumph, and like all Lampredi powered cars, simply adores being revved. Being front-wheel drive was seen as a technical advantage back then (oh, so different to today’s drift-obsessed culture), but there’s no denying the Lancia was a more advanced car than the Triumph – especially with those four-big disc brakes to keep it in check. As Lancia’s been out of the UK since 1994, and most younger people have no real idea what the marque’s about, beyond the rallying exploits of the Integrale, it’s fair to say that most people will greet a Beta Coupe with a sense of curiosity – but they’ll be sucked in by its great styling.
It’s much the same situation with the Sprint, but Alfa Romeo as a marque has such a following in the UK, there’s no doubt that enthusiasts will know exactly what you’re driving. Like the Beta, it’s a great looking car, all dainty and beautifully detailed, and on today’s road, an outstanding looking sports coupe. With its flat-four up-front and fizzing exhaust note, there’s no doubt that Sprint absolutely loves to be driven hard – and with an X1/9-matching 85bhp, you can drive it almost flat-out everywhere without being anti-social. And we like that a lot – so much that out of the four, it’s the ‘Sud that gets the award for being the most characterful.
It’s interesting that in such a disparate bunch of cars, the on-paper performance figures are so closely matched. Ultimately, the Triumph TR7 is the quickest of the three, but we’re talking in terms of fractions. And the difference – today – between having your carbs set-up correctly or not. For those who like the figures, here’s what the testers at What Car? magazine came up with, when they originally pitched these cars together for the May 1979 issue: 0-60mph, 10.4secs (Triumph and Lancia), 10.5secs (Fiat) and 11.5secs (Alfa Romeo). Maximum speeds, 112mph (Triumph), 110mph (Lancia), and 105mph (Fiat and Alfa Romeo).
So what it comes down to is how the cars feel when you want to crack on in them. The TR7 might well be the quickest, but it’s the most relaxing, and that’s down to the extra torque delivered by its larger engine. As you might expect, it’s smooth enough, but hardly thrives on high revs, delivering more than plenty of acceleration on part throttle and early-ish upchanges. On today’s mean streets, it keeps up with the flow, but that requires work – and that means going beyond the 4000rpm smoothness threshold. On the motorway, and in long-striding fifth, the TR7 cruises very calmly indeed.
Interestingly, the Alfasud Sprint comes out as the slowest of the quartet, but it’s also the one that’s the most enjoyable to take to the red line. A lot of people describe the ‘Sud as a screamer, but in 1.5-litre form, it actually pulls really well from low revs, and has a wide power band and an agreeable long-stroke feel endlessly revvable feel in the intermediate ratios. The off-beat engine note feels quite subdued in this installation, and although it runs quite short gear ratios, at its 4000rpm 70mph cruise, the Sprint never feels fussy or stressed. That’s a good thing, because the ‘Sud has a rubbish gearchange – indirect, rubbery, and all very disappointing considering the excellence of the drivetrain.
The Lancia, on the other hand, is a screamer. Its twin-cam loves revs, and needs lots of them to really punch onwards. Where you’ll see the best performance is above 4500rpm, and once you really learn to appreciate this, you’ll not be driving the Beta at all sedately again. Would that wear in the long term? Probably. But for a high-days classic car, it’s probably perfect.
Finally, we come to the Fiat. With its upgrade to 1.5-litres in 1977, it certainly felt more of a grown-up car than the 1.3-litre that preceded it. And had a little more power that its brilliant chassis deserved. We have to say that the Fiat feels so much quicker than it is – and that’s probably a function of the proximity of the free-revving overhead cam located about nine inches behind your ears. You feel every beat and pulse of the sweet little engine – and this is a good thing, because it’s a lovely little thing, even if it’s the noisiest of these cars.
It’s a rev-happy car, like the Lancia. But unlike its larger cousin, the X1/9 is also sweet and docile at low revs, and actually potters around town far better than the two other Italians, despite being outwardly the most sporting. Only the TR7 is more at home, playing babysitter in town.
Overall, though, we’ll give this one to the Fiat.
Handling and ride
Predictably, these cars are all fun and full of feel compared with their modern counterparts. Okay, they have laughably low limits of adhesion by today’s standards, but you could argue that this is central to their classic appeal. The most conventional to drive of the four is – predictably – the Triumph. Like the SD1 and (presumably) the SD2, it’s an accurate handler with relatively compliant ride quality (compared with the other three) and is probably greater than the sum of its parts. In standard form (and there’s so few like this left), the TR7’s handling balance is geared towards understeer, but there’s enough torque and throttle response to drive through this – if this is your bag.
Given its all-independent suspension (by Macpherson struts) the Lancia should be the best all-rounder here, and in terms of ultimate handling and behaviour it does win out. It’s just as competent as the TR7 in the bends and on less-than-perfect roads, but what lets it down is the cumbersome and weighty steering – which just makes driving (and hustling) the Lancia a whole lot less appealing than it should be. We’ll live with a later (preferably supercharged) example with power assisted steering, which is almost sublime… but here, the Beta is seriously.
Then we come to the Fiat. Clearly it’s the most sporting of the four. It’s infectiously responsive and agile, and you’ll absolutely love the feel of stringing together a series of tight bends in this car. The steering is also direct, light and uncorrupted for a true racer’s feel. But push as hard as you’re encouraged to, and you could come to a sticky end, unless you’re gifted with the smoothness and car control of Jenson Button – the rear can break away a might too suddenly, especially if you’re tempted to fit lower-profile tyres. It’s always interesting asking an X1/9 owner how many times they’ve spun…
The Alfa Romeo, finally, has wonderful steering, both in terms of feeling and weight. It’s a great foil for the neutral handling set-up too. If you’re one of those people who assume just because a car is driven by its front wheels, it’s going to understeer, may we recommend an extended drive in a ‘Sud. In short, it goes where you point it, and delivers its best in a completely safe way – you really feel the low centre of gravity its flat-four brings to the party, as well as the supremely well-resolved dead-beam rear suspension that makes the most of its Watt’s Linkage and Panhard Rod set-up. It’s so easy to understand why so many manufacturers used the ‘Sud as its benchmark – and it’s the best here.
Cabin and controls
It’s an easy win for the TR7 here, assuming you’re after a two-seater. The driving position is excellent, the seats are comfortable, there’s plenty of oddments space, and the controls and dashboard are the most effective of the lot (for instance, it has heating and ventilation that just works). We’ll go further – as long as you like the tartan seats (and we’ll assume you do, because you’re here), then the TR7’s interior also looks the best, and is certainly the classiest.
This later Beta benefits from having the improved post-1978 dashboard, which compares with the original item, groups its controls quite logically. However, the driving position just isn’t right, there isn’t enough headroom in the front (and barely any in the rear), the stalk controls are rubbish, and the instrument graphics are messy. A real disappointment compared with the timeless elegance of that wonderful exterior.
The X1/9’s visually appealing inside, and it’s easy for the driver to fantasize that he’s sat in a supercar of the ’70s, especially with that reclined driving position, small steering wheel and interesting instrument layout. In use, it’s almost as effective as the TR7, although the useless glovebox and pathetic night-time illumination are both more than mere irritations. But you don’t mind these problems so much when the car has such an endearing personality.
The Sprint is easily the most practical car, with decently-sized rear seats and a full-sized tailgate. But look more closely and it does start to fall apart. The rear seats don’t fold in order to maximise that hatchback, while the driving position is difficult to get on with, and takes some getting used to. But it’s nicely trimmed inside, and the dashboard looks conventionally handsome, even if in terms of material quality, it’s not good enough. Then there’s the actual control layout – whoever it was who came up with the idea of controlling the blower fan by a column stalk need their bumps feeling.
When new in early 1979, all four fell between £4500 and £4800, which helps understand why What Car? came up with such an interesting grouping. Today, things are a little different – buying any one of these cars won’t leave you needing to remortgage your house, and for those who like a bargain, you’re best looking in the direction of the X1/9 or TR7 – both of which can be found in good working order for well under £2000. The Alfa and Lancia’s rarity mean they’re more expensive, with the best ‘Sud Sprints pushing £6000 now.
Just because they’re all modestly powered and not particularly heavy, don’t expect to blown away by these cars’ fuel consumption figures, unless you’re the sort who drives their sports car in an unsporting way. At the pumps, only one of these cars will easily better that psychologically-important 30mpg that separates acceptable from oh-dear. As you’d imagine, it’s the Fiat that’s wins this one, easily averaging 35mpg – with the Alfa next up, delivering around 30mpg in real-world driving conditions. The Lancia and TR7 are nearer 25mpg – again if you’re a spirited driver. On a run, the TR7 closes the gap, but not enough to best the little Fiat.
When it comes to parts and servicing costs, the TR7 has to win out. Availability is almost total, while very few garages will turn away a TR7 due to its simplicity. The Fiat’s parts availability isn’t bad, whereas the Alfa is a bit more of a struggle, with the Lancia proving a far more tough gig. But it has to be said that all three Italians have enthusiastic club back-up, and that counts for a lot. But overall, the TR7’s a winner here, by dint of being the most painless to keep on the road and the cheapest to buy.
All four cars have oodles of appeal, and will keep their owner more than busy over the winter months following a hard summer’s driving. None of these cars would be bought on logical grounds either – the Triumph represents one of those cars that’s good at what it does, but can be improved significantly by its owner. One only needs to see the number of Sprint- and V8-engined conversions still in regular use to see that.
The Lancia, on the other hand, is the thinking man’s choice, and one that rewards an owner who likes to drive hard, and appreciates the engineering strength in depth that went into its creation. It’s overshadowed by that heavy steering and odd driving position to such a degree that it’s not a car for the casual classic car enthusiast, but someone who really gets Lancias. And that’s not too many people in the UK.
The Fiat is a lovely thing, and still criminally undervalued for a car that delivers that budget supercar experience that so few classics are capable of. As a weekend tearaway it’s the purest of the four, and certainly wakes-up even the sleepiest of car enthusiasts. You can’t really enjoy and X1/9 if you’re over 5’10”, nor can you if you don’t like being looked at by other drivers, but get by that, and it’s a near irresistible proposition. And all for the price of a boring MG Midget.
Then there’s the Alfasud Sprint. Ah, the Alfa. Before you drill down into what makes this car great, even the name resonates the most within this grouping. But add up its principal charms – its wonderful roadholding, endearing engine note and fabulous styling, and there’s more to this car’s appeal than the evocative grille badge.
Back in 1979 when What Car? tested them, it declared the TR7 the winner on practical grounds. We wouldn’t disagree with that – but then, this isn’t a practical decision. This comes from the heart. And the Alfa wins.
[Original photo, thanks to What Car? magazine]