As Triumph TR prices lag behind Austin-Healeys, determined, well-advised collectors can find bargains
The big news in British cars over the past ten years has been the rapid rise in prices for Austin-Healeys-from $25,000 to $75,000 for very nice cars, with a few magnificent ones bringing $100,000 plus.
By contrast, Triumphs-which offer much the same highway performance and creature comforts-couldn't break out of the $7,500 to $15,000 range. Until this year.
In the past twelve months, most of the Triumph sales at auction have been in the $20,000 to $35,000 range.
Could it be, now that Austin-Healeys are no longer "affordable collector cars," that Triumph prices are going to be sucked up by the vacuum created in the $25,000 to $50,000 range? Maybe it's time to take a fresh look at the marque.
To start with, we'll narrow our focus. The Triumph marque can be divided conveniently into four groups, three of which are not yet newsworthy.
First, there were the various models produced before 1952, as well as the sedan versions that also carried the Triumph badge, none of which are ever likely to be considered particularly collectible. For convenience, we can include the Triumph Stag in this grouping, since indifferent quality and maintenance issues have placed it in a niche all its own.
Within the sports car range, there are the 361,000 Spitfires and GT6s, produced from 1962 through 1980, but rarely selling for more than $10,000. There are also 112,000 wedge-shaped TR7s that are selling today at near-throwaway prices, which some people say is about right. Their look-alike TR8 siblings, with Rover V8 engines, may be the best hidden bargain in the Triumph lineup. But with only 2,500 produced, they're an insignificant factor in the market.
Earlier TRs show healthy price increases
So we'll focus on the TR2 through TR6, which were made in significant numbers and have shown recent healthy price increases.
Produced between 1953 and 1976, nearly 250,000 of these slab-sided roadsters left the Triumph factory near Coventry. To put this number into perspective, only about 75,000 big Healeys were ever produced, starting at the same time but ending in 1968.
Nevertheless, there's a valid comparison with the Austin-Healey. First, both the Triumph TR and the Healey 100 were introduced at London's Earls Court Motor Show in October 1952. Second, like the Healeys, the Triumph engines, brakes, and suspensions make them perfectly practical for use in modern traffic, so they can actually be driven-by someone with a modicum of mechanic skills, of course.
So if the Triumphs come from the same place and period, and offer road-going performance comparable to the Healeys, why were their prices stagnant while the Healey prices were going up?
There are probably some who would argue that the Healey is better looking than the TR; I'm a Healey owner because I personally feel that way, but it's certainly a matter of personal preference.
Quality of materials, engineering not as good
More likely is the point made by a friend of mine who has restored examples of both marques. In his view, the quality of the materials used was not as good on the Triumphs as on the Healeys. For example, he offered, the grilles on the "wide-mouth" Triumphs were a very light metal stamping, compared to the multi-part aluminum and stainless grilles of the Healeys.
There were also more instances of cost-cutting in Triumph's engineering, which makes the marque more vulnerable to poor maintenance. An example is the use of a single retaining pin holding the clutch throw-out fork in position on its pivoting shaft, which can break easily, making the clutch inoperative, not to mention very expensive to replace.
However, on the positive side, with so many more cars produced, it is reasonably easy to find a good example to buy. There is a deep range of quality replacement parts available, up to and including complete body panels and chassis, so keeping a Triumph on the road or doing a complete restoration isn't difficult.
Equally important to the hobbyist, so many cars produced translates into two active national clubs and a broad network of local clubs in North America, with comparable clubs in other parts of the world. Prospective owners of Triumphs won't lack for companionship, advice, and an active social calendar built around Triumph events.
Three groups of TRs to choose from
In considering which TR to own, we can divide the TRs into three groups, based on body style and creature comforts.
First, there are the TR2, TR3, and TR3A, produced between 1953 and 1961, which are all 4-cylinder roadsters with sweeping front fenders and cut-down doors, offering all the joys and sorrows of classic British motoring at its rorty best and cold, wet worst.
Second, there are the TR4, TR4A, and TR250/TR5, which are all straight-sided convertibles with real roll-up windows and reasonably good soft and hard tops, produced between 1961 and 1964. The TR4 and independent-suspension TR4A used the same four-cylinder engine as the TR3s, while the TR250 was a feeble 6-cylinder model produced for North American markets that didn't get the fuel-injected TR5.
Finally, there is the TR6, which has the TR5's 6-cylinder engine offering more power, wrapped in an evolutionary and attractive version of the TR4 body.
Choosing among the three model groupings is largely a matter of personal preference, at least for the time being, since the condition of the individual car largely outweighs any value differences among models.
Longer-term, we can guess that the low-door TR2s and 3s will show the greatest appreciation, due primarily to their relative rarity and distinctive styling. These differences in value are already showing up in the standard appraisal guides.
The TR6s are probably the most practical, since they can be improved to be fast, comfortable, long-distance touring cars. Karmann's quickie TR4 redesign (nose and tail only, with doors the same) has already proven to have long-term appeal. But since there were nearly 100,000 TR6s produced, they aren't likely to appreciate as quickly as the early TRs.
In the middle are the TR4 through TR250, solid, practical performers with slightly quirky styling that are fun to own and drive, but neither fast enough nor rare enough to increase in value as quickly as their younger or older siblings.
Regardless of the model that speaks to you, keep in mind that all TRs have many places where rust can rot the car to pieces. With so many built, there isn't enough money in the market to pay for a first-class restoration without going underwater on the project.
Consequently, for someone poking his toe in the Triumph market for the first time, the best advice is to get good advice. Find an expert in one of the Triumph clubs to help you sort out the good from the bad.
It's best to find a car restored a few years ago to high standards that no longer fits a family's circumstances. Choose that over an unrestored original that's been tucked away in a garage for many years waiting for the day "when it would be worth real money."
If your candidate simply needs some cosmetic upgrades and a good detailing to regain its pride of place at the club show, that's fine. However, if the example for sale has never been repainted and is desperately in need of it-the surfaces are too far gone for it to be a survivor, or, just as bad, it sports a recent coat of paint with no evidence of down-to-metal body work-walk away. The potential cost of body work can bankrupt you or reduce you to suicidal thoughts, due to rust damage inside fender wells or behind the outer skin of the rocker panels. In extreme cases, the car can be unrestorable.
Mechanical work, on the other hand, is straightforward and within the range of any capable mechanic with garage space and tools.
Bottom line, if you're lucky enough already to own a good example of this marque, make sure the agreed-value of your insurance is up to date, keep your car in good working order, and seriously consider doing that rust repair job or interior replacement you've been putting off.
If you're just coming into the classic car hobby or are looking for an addition to your collection and are interested in a car that can be used and enjoyed now while still having the potential for price appreciation, now is the time to be looking at a Triumph TR2 to TR6. If you buy carefully, you'll be very happy with your choice for years.