January 10, 2011

Great Automotive Failures: Triumph TR7 & TR8

The classic British roadster conjures many stereotyped thoughts in the minds of automotive aficionados. Think for a moment of a cool Clint Eastwood motoring around Carmel in his Jaguar XK-150 in "Play Misty For Me." On the other hand, there are those who would point out that you probably would never see Clint bent under the open hood of an MGB trying to determine why the headlights didn't work or where all the crankcase oil went.
That aside, these cars have a significant following. Affordability, classical styling, simplicity, and sheer fun propelled the market for literally millions of units from the likes of MG, Austin-Healey, and Triumph.
Of the less-expensive brands of British cars, Triumph certainly made some of the greats. The Spitfire, and TR series were serious competition for the UK's own brands (prior to industry unification, of course), Fiat, Alfa-Romeo, etc.
Looking back, the TR2 and TR3 really got the Triumph name to stand out in the all-important US / North American market. Michelotti-designed TR4, TR6, and Spitfire gave the brand an nice Italian flair, while the Triumph straight-six engine gave the "bigger" models a lot of power for the price.
Naturally, the curse of British-Leyland and poor build quality mounted throughout the 1970s. The Spitfire and TR6 were decidedly "old-school" in production methods and amidst a rapidly developing industry were quite dated by the later part of the '70s. The Spitfire was the cheaper and smaller model, and continued to sell well enough to remain in production for 18 years until 1980. The "range-topper" TR-6 was to be replaced, however.

The all-new Triumph TR7, introduced in 1975 was advertised as "the shape of things to come" with distinctly '70s wedge-shaped styling and pop-up headlights. It even featured (gasp!) unibody construction. This was to be the Golden Boy - the savior of the marque that would bring Triumph back to its former glory. That was the idea anyway...
Until the TR7's debut, the TR series was always made up of convertibles. Many manufacturers were fearful that United States legislation would ban convertibles from its highways. While Triumph's own Stag, for example, maintained a rag-top, it incorporated a roll-bar structure to get around this potential problem. Porsche, meanwhile, went so far as to introduce the famous Targa cars. The TR7, unfortunately, rolled off the production line for the first four years of its life as a coupe only.

Whereas the TR7's predecessor was driven by Triumph's straight 6, a rather bland 2.0L inline four powered the new car (the same one found in early Saab 99s). Performance was lacking at best. The reasons for this engine choice, of course, being emissions and fuel economy. Furthermore, as many cars were being fitted with 5-speed gearboxes by this time, Triumph stuck with a 4-speed initially. Eventually a 5-speed would be offered, along with a 3-speed automatic. Acceleration from 0-60 could eventually achieved in a little over 10 seconds and top speed short of 110mph.

Quality control was a bit of a mythological thing to British Leyland by this point, and the TR7 was down-right devoid of it. Particularly horrid examples were built in the infamous Speke factory before it was shut down. If the TR7's "modern" shape failed to bring the Triumph name back to notoriety, the appalling lack of reliability did its best.
To boost appeal, particularly to Americans, the venerable Rover V8 was fitted to the chassis, thus producing the TR8 in 1978. The Buick designed 3.5 L engine significantly improved performance and was probably the most reliable part of the revised car. Naturally weight increased with the larger powerplant, and as a result, the underwhelming brakes of the TR7 were upgraded.

The fear of anti-convertible laws subsided enough (and sales suffered enough) that Triumph finally released a roadster version of the TR7 & TR8. Most of the (relatively few 2,800 or-so) TR8s were of the "drophead coupe" convertible variety. Most TR7s were coupes, though about 28,800 roadsters were built - roughly a quarter of total production.

By 1981, the "shape of things to come" was the shape of things gone awry and away.  Production of the TR7 and TR8 ended after the money-hemorrhaging company could no longer viably produce the car. Even Leyland's typical "pretty girl" advertising couldn't save it. It was the last roadster to carry the Triumph name, and the last car the company would design themselves. The brand's long history of building cars since 1923 was over when the re-badged Honda known as the Triumph Acclaim halted sales in 1984.

*RWP takes no credit for images.

No comments: