Veteran to Classic - Triumph TR

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“It is a sports car pure and simple, not a GT machine and it is intended to instil fun into your motoring rather than provide effortless long distance travel across Europe. The very nature of this Triumph’s performance renders it a splendid car for long journeys but the niceties of quietness, spaciousness and scientific roadholding have been passed by, leaving a rugged, fast, typically British sports car, ideal for fun-and-games and rallying.” Thus wrote WB in January 1963 in his road test report of the TR4. A report as valid then as it is today.

Triumph TRs, though, have never had quite the mass appeal of the ubiquitous MGB, and yet the TR owner is every bit as fanatical as any other marque enthusiast. To me, a TR represented the best in British sports cars, but that was a view held from the outside, not from experience. My first on-hand experience with a TR came in June this year when co-driving Evan Mackenzie’s works replica TR4 in the Pirelli Classic Marathon

The car was so superbly turned out, giving such an aura of invulnerability that I never had any doubt that it would only be human error that would see us fail to reach the end of the event. As it turned out we did finish and would have been in the top 20 had I not made a mistake.

Wonderful though the event was, the only regret I had was the fact that I had not had a spell of driving. Nine days in the life of a motoring journalist without the feel of a steering wheel in his hands is a long time. Another thing was that although I had lived in the car for this length of time, had seen parts of her no other gentleman but her owner had seen, and had heard all about her life story, I had never had the time to inspect her closely and scrutinise all the work Evan Mackenzie had undertaken.

It was thus that I quickly accepted an invitation from Mackenzie to go to Cadwell Parkon a damp Autumn afternoon not only to test drive his beloved car, but also a TR4A and TR5 for comparison purposes.

In fact comparison is the wrong word, for all three cars were in completely different states of tune. Whilst Evans’car was set up as a tarmac event rally car, Phillip Hunter’s TR4A was a largely unmodified car which he had owned for years and with which he competed in an HSCC Championship whilst Chris Carter’s TR5 had already won two championships this year and had been set up from the beginning of the rebuild with track racing in mind.

Although all three cars had been in dilapidated condition before their rebuild, it was Phillip Hunter’s which needed least attention at the time, but which, of the three had been the least modified.

Bought in 1975 for £395, it was Hunter’s sole means of transportation and was not to see track action apart from the occasional sprint for at least another four years, but even then, lumbered with house and mortgage, his activities were confined to the occasional outing.

“By the early Eighties,”he recalls, “The car was really in a sorry state. I had been averaging over 25,000 miles a year in it for a number of years until I got a job with a company car, so that by 1981, with over 150,000 miles on the clock, the car need a complete overhaul.”Eventually he got round to having it rebuilt, “But it was a disaster. The original restorers had completely cocked it up.”It was then that old friend Chris Carter came tot he rescue.

A Triumph TR owner and enthusiast, Carter had established Chestnut House Sports Cars as a TR restoration business and it was to this new venture that Phillip entrusted his car. It entailed a great deal of unpicking the bad work and although the end result was a car he felt justifiably proud of, it was not until 1988 that he felt that he had the spare fund necessary for a pukka rebuild.

Unfortunately his revived pride and joy was to last just six weeks. A misadventure in a race at Donington saw Phillip virtually total the car in a crash from which he was lucky to escape unhurt.

It was back to Chestnut House again, braving the curses of those who had worked on the car, especially from the painter, who had spent hours perfecting the coat of paint, for another rebuild. Again finances dictated the length and time of the rebuild, but the car has now been back on the road for a full season’s racing and seems none the worse for its previous abuse.

It’s not particullary quick, though, as Phillip himself is the first to admit. “I rebuilt the engine myself five years ago and it has not been taken apart since despite having endured five seasons of racing.”It still has a healthy oil pressure and goes like a rocket for a TR4A, all steel car, but in the Class B of the HSCC Improved Road Sports Championship, it is being outclassed by the 195 bhp Datsun 240Z’s.

Phillip’s was the first of the TRs I tried around Cadwell Park and its handling was predictable and precise, but as the car was not particularly quick, there was more times to get the lines right all the way round. The brakes required a certain amount of stamping on to operate efficiently, but having got used to their operation, the effectiveness was never in doubt. The 205/16 Yokohama A001s on 6J Minilite lookalike wheels never lost traction with the surface, a combination of the driver not trying hard enough combined with the fact that you really need to throw the car around to get it to misbehave. It was tame, it was safe, but it was nevertheless charming to drive. After all, where else are you going to get an everyday sports car which takes you to a race meeting, is partially stripped, according to the strict HSCC regulations, and then is your means of transportation home again for less that £1000 for a season’s racing?

Chris Carter’s TR5, a racer through and through, was in complete contrast. This 1967 car was one he had purchased in 1984 as an abandoned rebuild and had intended to build as a road car, but that was before he had been bitten by the racing bug. He soon changed his mind and started to build it into a racing car. This was the period that he had just started Chestnut House Sports Cars and it struck him that it might be a useful promotional vehicle for his new enterprise as well as a test bed for any go-faster goodies he was developing.

The car took to the circuits like a duck to water and was immediately successful. Race victories led to championship wins and a series of three TR Register 6-cylinder championships, the latest being this year, was matched when Carter took the car to victory in the 1990 A1 Motor Stores Championship.

So what has Carter done to make the car so competitive? “It’s a straight six Triumph engine out to maximum rebore plus 60 thou with a nitrided crankshaft, standard stock bearing shells and piston rings, standard Hepolite pistons, a Chestnut designed camshaft, an extractor manifold and a new head. It’s the last three items in particular which probably make all the difference.” states Carter.

The camshaft itself is one that has been developed over the last two seasons and is one of four different designs offered by Chestnut House. “They are primarily for performance, but not for racing. Chestnut House is after all mainly a restoration company and most of our customers want to make their cars go faster on the road. We do support motor racing, though, supporting four cars motor racingwise, and it is these cars which we use in a certain sense as test beds.”

“we strip down the engine on my car as little as possible. Last season there was a mid-season bearing shell change followed by a stripdown at the end of the season. This season we haven’t even undertaken the mid-season change.”

The gearbox is revised and has a mixed bag of ratios ranging from early TRs to late TR6s. The rear axle ratio is 3.7 to 1, non overdrive, so one can happily pull 6250 rpm on a long straight.

Front brake pads are Ferodo DS11s operating on standard new Leyland discs while Ferodo VG95 linings at the back are on standard Leyland drums with Aeroquip brake hoses and Dot 5 brake fluid.

It did not even take a lap to appreciate that this car was on an altogether different plane from that of the TR4A. Carter’s car was a utilitarian beast, one built for the track. From the curious shrill whine of the fuel pump “when it stops, it means you’ve run out of petrol,” to the rasp of the exhaust note, it was a machine which meant business.

Safely strapped in and ready to take to the track, the car just vibrated on tickover, massaging the legs and the backside until tje all-clear signal was given. First gear, push hard down on the accelerator, and the car screams up the hill, second gear, clean and quick, the acceleration resumes. By now the wind can be felt above the small windscreen, but it becomes an absolute roar as third and then fourth are snatched. Even at 6200 rpm, it seems that the engine will rev endlessly higher, but I am mindful of the fact that in two days time, the car will be out on its last outing hopefully clinching yet another championship.

Oversteer is the inherent characteristic, but the 205/60 x 15 Formula R Dunlops, favoured by many in the TR Register championship, cling on for all they can. A Formula Forward looms into my mirrors and slips by on my left, but by now, my confidence is in full flow. I give chase and the car is noticably slippier through all the corners, but particullarly the hairpin at the enterance of the circuit. I have been advised by Carter to change down to first for this one, and having tried it once, I realise that despite the wheelspin as you scrabble out of the corner, it saves precious tenths of a second and on each lap I hold the Formula Forwardster in my sights. It’s an exhilarating feeling that you can hold onto a purpose-built single-seater ina car nearly 25 years old. No wonder this thing is winning championships!

I wondered, though, whether the sheer excitement of driving this car was going to be met by Evan’s machine. It was, after all. a completely different animal and not really geared up for circuit use. WPK

(To be continued next month)

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