A Survivor Worth Exploring

Muscle cars dominated my Southern California high-school parking lot at the end of the 1960s.

There were Mustangs, Camaros and even the odd Road Runner. Then there were my friends, tweed caps and all, with our Sprites, TR3s and MGAs. There was even a Mini. We were too young for briar pipes, but we could dream, couldn’t we?

But for some reason there were no Triumph Spitfires. So I never sat in one in period, and only saw a few. Then, later, I often saw them at the races.

Flash forward almost 50 years, and there are still survivors out there, which would make them a classic by definition — and currently at a price point worth exploring.

Like most of the sports cars of the era, the Triumph Spitfire started as a parts-bin raid and design exercise sometime in the 1950s. Post-war Europe was beset with shortages of materials, money and markets, and the first beast that had to be fed was the family transportation segment — at the lowest possible cost for a country digging out from the rubble.

Humble beginnings and a great designer

So Triumph made a whole range of sedans in the 1950s, including the Triumph Herald, which was introduced in 1959. Because of factory issues, the Herald wasn’t a unibody car. Instead, it had a steel chassis with a bolted-on structure. After he designed the Herald, Giovanni Michelotti was asked to create a small sports car, using the same chassis, slightly modified.

Design limitations included an 83-inch wheelbase, the 1,147-cc 4-cylinder engine in a strengthened backbone version of the Herald chassis — and the same front and rear suspension bits from the Herald.

Michelotti’s handsome response to the quirky Austin-Healey Sprite and lovely Alfa Romeo Giulietta Spider was delivered in late 1960. This prototype featured upgrades to the market competitor Sprite, with front disc brakes, roll-up windows, locking outside door handles and a locking trunk. Imagine the luxury!

After being delivered to England, the only prototype was shoved in a corner and covered with a tarp, as cash flow woes swamped Triumph, stopping innovation and new models.

A new boss and a big hit

Leyland’s just-in-time takeover meant a new boss, and that new boss discovered the Spitfire under the tarp. Like a dream, he green-lighted it for production.

The motoring press gave the new Spitfire good reviews, and it turned out that Triumph had more orders than cars, especially in the U.S. market (which ultimately took almost half of the cars).

From October 1962 through January of 1967, Triumph produced more than 80,000 copies of the Mark I and II. They moved on to sell 135,000 of the Mark III and IV models, sporting revised bodywork and the 1,296-cc 4-banger.

The biggest gripe in period was the handling, thanks to that swing-arm rear suspension (which wasn’t replaced until the Mark IV). It could give a Spitfire driven with aggression a surprising mid-corner shift from understeer to hope-to-hell-I-can-catch-this as the rear axles tucked under. Cars with that swing-arm suspension actually handle better with two people aboard, since the weight helps keep the rear suspension where it should be.

Not that you are going to go that fast in an early Spitfire. It took around 17 seconds to get from a dead stop to 60 mph with the 63-horsepower motor, and took a long time to get to the top speed of 92 mph. On the other hand, it got 30-plus miles per gallon.

The Spitfire market

As you look for your own Spitfire, you will quickly learn that the earlier cars are much more rare — and more valuable. Spitfires coming to live auctions are not that common, which at the price point makes sense. More often you find them in the online world, from Bring a Trailer to eBay.

They tend to go from the $7,000 range for nice drivers to the $12,000 range for cars that are winning their local show-and-shine events.

Rust, rust and more rust

So what do you look for in a Spitfire? Considering they were pretty bare-bones when new, with rubber mats and a top you had to build yourself every time you wanted to put it up, there isn’t a wide range of options.

Oddly, heaters were optional, and went for an extra 13 pounds sterling.

The three keys to a bad Spitfire are rust, rust and rust.

The design decision to build the car off a modified Triumph Herald frame meant the car was bolted to the frame in modules. While this allowed the Herald to be built in factories around the world at a cheaper cost, it also meant the body sills were beefed up and strong enough to support the structure.

The Spitfire followed this idea. But given the state of metallurgy midway through the last century, rust was a constant companion, and I’ve never seen an argument made that rusty metal adds to torsional rigidity.

Then there are all the things that typically fail on a British car of this vintage (go ahead, I’ll wait while you make your oil-spill and electrical-system-failure jokes), but given the barely post-Industrial Age lack of complexity on the cars, most are easy to fix.

Pay particular attention to rear axle outer bearings. Replacement bumpers are about as easy to find as a unicorn, but for the most part, the rest of the parts are easy to source.

However, as Neil Young warbled, rust never sleeps, and it can become systemic and too easy to hide behind paint. Floor pans are especially prone to go, as are the inner and outer door sills.

So take your time, bring your magnet and screwdriver — and test everything.

Plenty of fun as well

That said, there are a lot of things to like about the Spitfire. It’s a handsome design, and the pre-1968 cars are even nicer, as they don’t have the bigger bumpers and raised ride height. These safety changes made later cars look much less elegant.

So on balance, the Spitfire news is good: Parts are plentiful, and most of the cars coming up are already done. And in the great scheme of things in the collector-car world, they are dirt cheap. ♦

Mark Wigginton

Mark Wigginton - SCM Contributor - %%page%%

Mark knows his way around a keyboard as well as a road course. He traded a 25-year career in newspaper journalism, with senior editor positions in Los Angeles, San Jose and Portland, OR, for the chance to manage Portland International Raceway in 2000. It was a case of moving from one love affair to another, driven by his love of racing nurtured as a teen turned loose at Riverside Raceway. He went into newspapers out of college as a way to get involved in racing, deciding a press pass was the fastest way to the front of the grid. He regularly reviews motorsports books for SCM, and he’s always in search of the elusive pony in the pile.

Posted in Affordable Classics