Sports cars under £700: the £641 Triumph Spitfire 4

A 93 m.p.h. British small sports car with all-round independent suspension, disc front brakes and wind-up glass windows, Taxi-beating turning circle and a s.s. quarter-mile in 19.5 seconds

In vintage times, 1,100-c.c. sports cars were decidedly popular among the sportsmen who frequented Brooklands Track and Alms Hill, etc. They were of French origin—Salmson, Amilcar, B.N.C., Rally, Lombard, Senechal, Vernon-Derby—and invariably had pointed tails, centre-lock wire wheels, high gear ratios and sketchy weather protection, with fold-flat windscreen or “aero” or raked vee-screens.

How different is the Triumph Spitfire 4, a very welcome addition to the ranks of the long-neglected “1100” sports cars. In vintage times it would have come just above the 1,100-c.c. class but today, with an F.I.A. classification of 1,000-1,150 c.c., it comes just within it. It has a useful lockable luggage-boot in lieu of a racing tail, it is, if anything, low-geared, and it has extremely good protection from the elements, but the windscreen is fixed.

The attractively-styled Spitfire 4, which attracts a very fair share of admiring glances, is built by Standard-Triumph, of the Leyland Group, from Triumph Herald components. Thus it inherits a fantastically small turning circle at the expense of severe tyre-scrub on the very full lock, transverse leaf-spring swing-axle independent rear suspension, and 9-in. disc front brakes by Girling. The backbone chassis is retained, suitably modified, and the Michelotti-styled body, flat and shapely, is not only amongst the most pleasing of present-day small sports ears but it has the luxury of wind-up glass windows instead of detachable sidescreens and a good, rigid hood, which blends well with the lines of the body.

The Spitfire 4 is purely a 2-seater, for the conventional shelf behind the two bucket seats is too low to be used as a seat and in later models is humped in the centre. But for extra luggage or the dog it is essentially useful. Access to it is by lifting either seat, to do which a catch at the base of the squab has to be released —a bit “fumbly” but an insurance against an empty seat flying forward under heavy braking.

A snag having arisen when I went by appointment to Standard-Triumph’s well-run depot on Western Avenue at Acton to collect the test-car, I completed a considerable mileage in a Spitfire which the makers deemed unsuitable for the “gentlemen of the Press.” This does not imply that they issue specially-prepared vehicles for road-test; merely that this particular Triumph had a slight dent in the tail, its brakes needed adjustment, the tick-over was rather fast, and, after I had got it home, one of the tubeless Dunlop C41 tyres subsided and refused to remain inflated for any length of time after my efficient Dunlop foot-pump had been applied to it—and the spare was flat.

Those items, and a good many rattles, were the only shortcomings of a car that I found most enjoyable to drive, quick and sure through traffic, and comfortable to occupy in the coldest weather, the heater being unobtrusive but entirely adequate and the windows in the doors much appreciated. The doors have effective “keeps” and getting in or out, with the hood up, should present no real difficulty to the reasonably agile.

Although the weather remained abnormally cold all the time I had the two Spitfires for test, their hoods remained up throughout, more on account of laziness than lack of handiness. The weather protection is first-class, the hood providing adequate headroom and having three transparent rear panels that provide equally adequate rearwards visibility. The plated ribs on top of the front wings are excellent for “sighting” the car:

The little 1,147-c.c. Triumph is purely a sports car, lively, fun to drive, making appropriate noises—a travelling motor-race—and sticking well to the road. While accelerating the engine has a quite loud, deep exhaust note but I do not think it would give offence to anyone; at other times the engine is reasonably quiet, save for some exhaust roar and the sucking of the S.U.s. The instrument panel forms the centre of an otherwise very shallow facia, cut away on each side for access to very useful, well-lipped deep shelves, the only disadvantage of which is that warm air is blown over them when the heater is in use, to the detriment of Mr. Cadbury and others of his ilk. Instrumentation consists of small matching Jaeger tachometer and speedometer, the former reading to 6,500 r.p.m, with an orange band from 5,500 to 6,000 r.p.m. and red band from 6,000 to 6,500 r.p.m., the latter to 110 m.p.h., flanked by a slow-recording fuel gauge (which shows no-level for miles before the supply dries up) and a temperature gauge, an oil-gauge being rather surprisingly absent. Both tachometer and speedometer are finely and clearly calibrated, using a combination of large and very small figures, their needles are commendably steady, that of the tachometer even more so than that of the speedometer, and the needles move in the same plane. Large knobs with International symbols look after wipers, lamps, heater, choke and screen-washers, a central flick-switch bringing in the heater-fan. There is a long, angled “struggling bar” in front of the passenger, and provision for a radio below the instrument panel. A lidded ash-tray is provided in the facia sill.

The neat little remote gear-lever emerges from the transmission tunnel, cranked back from a flexible anti-draught muff, and the central fly-off handbrake is man-sized and conventionally located on the tunnel. The single-spoke thin-rimmed steering wheel has a horn-push on its hub and controls Alford and Alder rack-and-pinion gear. A slender stalk on the left of the column selects the full and dimmed headlamp beams after the lamps have been switched on, its positions indicated diagrammatically—it is necessary, however, to go through the full-beam position when selecting sidelamps from dipped beam. The stalk pulls inwards to give full-beam daylight flashing. The horn but not the wipers is independent of the ignition circuit. A r.h. stalk controls the self-cancelling flashers and a good point is that the rear lamps can be seen by glancing behind, even when the hood is up, although their glasses look rather vulnerable.

The doors have no pockets, facia shelves and the space behind the seats giving sufficient stowage. Their interior handles are set low, out of the way, the window-winders call for 3-and-a-third turns to fully open the windows and those who consider it a designer’s duty to make the exterior of a car as smooth as possible in deference to careless pedestrians may frown slightly at the forward-pointing exterior door handles. Safety-belts were fitted to both the Spitfires I drove.

The rear-view mirror is hung sensibly from the screen rail but the rake of the rail cuts off sideways vision rather sharply. The pedals enable “heel-and-toe” gear-changing to be indulged in, there is parking space for the clutch foot, the driver’s seat has a very reasonable range of adjustment and the steering column can be adjusted for length if a spanner is applied.

There are the usual warning lights and the speedometer incorporates a total mileage recorder with decimals as well as a trip recorder. The facia sill is of resilient, non-dazzle material.

The hood sticks are stowed in the luggage boot when the car is used in open form, but although these, the tools and the spare wheel are accommodated therein, luggage accommodation is not unduly impaired. The lid props and releases automatically.

The entire bonnet hinges from the front, after Herald-type side catches have been released, to give complete freedom of access to the 69.3 x 76 mm. (1,147 c.c.) 4-cylinder engine, with its twin S.U. type HS2 carburetters and 9.0-to-1 c.r. The makers claim an output of 63 net b.h.p. at 5,750 r.p.m. and maximum torque at 3,500 r.p.m.

The ignition key starts the engine, which always commenced readily in the recent sub-zero temperatures, and a separate key locks the doors (not much of a precaution in a hooded car) and boot. There is a quick-action fuel filler on the tail.

On the Road

The Triumph Spitfire 4 behaves like a typical small sports car and responds well to enthusiastic driving. The engine can be thrust well “into the red” without evidence of valve-bounce or other discomfort. Unfortunately the lower gears are too low, so that the maxima in 1st and 2nd stop at 25 and 44 m.p.h., respectively. In 3rd gear 70 m.p.h. is possible but the makers prefer a few m.p.h. fewer. These are genuine speeds, after the normal optimism of the speedometer has been corrected.

Given a reasonable run the absolute top speed is 93 m.p.h. but 90 is a more commonplace road speed. The engine is turning over at just over 5,000 r.p.m. at a cruising speed of 80 m.p.h., and it is docile to a degree at low speeds in top cog.

The suspension is fairly hard, so that bad roads produce a good deal of rattle and shake, some of which is transmitted to the steering. However, comfort is not greatly impaired under such conditions and poor surfaces need not call for drastic reduction of speed, while ground clearance is usually ample. The cornering tendency is mild understeer which changes to oversteer as the swing-axle i.r.s. reaches positive wheel camber. Once the driver has become accustomed to this handling characteristic he or she should have no alarms and excursions. Only in very sudden, tight changes of direction does the rear-end feel at all squidgy.

Clutch and brakes work so well they call for no comment, except that the latter need firm pressure; the steering is accurate, absolutely free from sponge or lost motion, light and “quick” without being outstandingly sensitive or smooth; geared 3-and-three-quarter turns, lock-to-lock (which should be read in conjunction with the astonishing 23.5-ft. turning circle) it catches tail slides and oversteer with alacrity.

The fuel range, inclusive of performance testing, was the useful one of 263 miles. The engine likes 100-octane fuel but only pinked mildly on Esso Extra. Because of the uncertainty of when the Standard-Triumph Press Department would be able to let me have the correct test-car my checks of petrol consumption were more curtailed than usual, but came out at 33.7 m.p.g. under adverse conditions. After 700 miles no oil was required. Grease points are confined to two needing lubricant at 6,000 miles and four more requiring attention every 12,000 miles; no starting handle is provided.

For the first time since before the war I was able to take acceleration figures on the peace and security of a banked track “somewhere in Surrey.” Here the following figures were recorded without the engine overheating (the thermometer has no figure calibration, but its needle remained just above “N”) or causing us any anxiety. These times are against an accurate electric speedometer, and are the average of several runs, two-up, dry surface, no wind. The best times arc in brackets, and it should be emphasised that the mileometer showed only just over 1,000 miles:

0-30 m.p.h. – 4.85 sec. (4.8 sec.)
0-40 m.p.h. – 7.55 sec. (7.6 sec.)
0-50 m.p.h. – 11.20 sec. (11.1 sec.)
0-60 m.p.h. – 15.60 sec. (15.4 sec.)
0-70 m.p.h. – 21.70 sec. (21.6 sec.)
S.S. quarter-mile – 19.55 sec. (19.5 sec.)

It is nice to discover that these figures equal or improve on those claimed in the catalogue.

It only remains to add that the gear-change is extremely pleasant, with a “mechanical” as distinct from Porsche feel, the lever moving precisely and with short movements, especially across the gate, the speed of change being limited only by stiffness on the second car I drove, which was comparatively new. The angular rather than straight action is no disadvantage, and reverse is easy to get in, up and right, beyond the 1st-gear location. The lever is not spring-loaded, except to guard against inadvertent reverse gear engagement. There is good synchromesh on the upper three forward speeds; 1st gear is normally as easy to engage as the others, even from rest—a feature few engineers are capable of contriving.

I covered a total of 560 miles in the two Spitfires but as others also drove them, the combined total mileage was somewhat greater. The only trouble experienced was breakage of a weld of the base framework of the passenger’s seat on the second car, causing it to collapse and become unhabitable by animal or human, thus providing me with a single-seater Spitfire. Had this happened to the driving seat the consequences could have been highly inconvenient, even dangerous. These seats are, in any case, nothing special but I found them moderately comfortable and well padded; the pedals are slightly out of line.

The Triumph Spitfire 4, with its handsome styling, advanced specification, good performance and sensible weather equipment and luggage accommodation, if it stands up to hard driving, should soon be a best-seller in the small sports-car class. It has good prospects of doing very well for Standard-Triumph International and British exports, particularly at the reasonable price of £640 19s. 7d., purchase tax paid, or £654 5s, 5d. if your girlfriend makes you buy a heater.—W. B.