Road test: The Triumph Spitfire Mk. IV

An excellent and enjoyable small sports car from British Leyland

Since Motor Sport’s criticism of British Leyland’s Press-car service and following PRO Keith Hopkins’ letter, which was published in the November 1970 issue, and a most interesting meeting with Lord Stokes, we have been getting a steady stream of Stokesmobiles for test.

The approach thereto needs some clarification. We intend to retain our well-known and long-established fearless and unbiased reporting on any car we write-up, even though by doing so we are open to a charge of petulance by a presumably jealous weekly contemporary (does this imply that the Motoring Press is adopting the “knocking policy” of Fleet Street, Mr. Bowler?—pleasing perhaps for the participants but boring for a paper’s readers who are quite capable of deciding which journals they prefer without prejudiced comment). On the other hand, when a British Leyland car has praise bestowed on it by Motor Sport, there is some danger that, having had a frank but fair discussion with Lord Stokes about our recent anti-BLMC editorials, we may be accused of swinging the opposite way.

All I can say to this is that I genuinely liked the little red Triumph Spitfire Mk. IV which was delivered to the Motor Sport car-park in exchange for a Triumph 1500, the road-test on which had just concluded and about which my (again unbiased!) comment appears on page 54.

The latest restyled and mechanically somewhat revised version of the very popular 1,296-c.c. Spitfire seems to me the logical 1971 equivalent of the equally popular (output for output) small sports cars of the nineteen-twenties, about which I wrote at some length in these pages last summer and the rather time-worn illustrations of which prompted one enthusiast to go out and seek an Amilcar of the appropriate age, which is currently being meticulously restored. The more ordinary modern sports cars are sometimes sneered at by unthinking purists (I expect I have done it myself!) because they are assembled from saloon-car bits and pieces and not specially built up from race-bred components. Yet, if you take the trouble to examine in detail the multitude of little sporting cars which enlivened the 1920s for leather-clad drivers and made Motor Sport of those times such a breath of now-nostalgic fresh air, you will discover that in a great many instances these cars had quite standard running-gear and only mildly-tuned engines to complement their sports bodywork. Leaving out twin-cam Salmsons and Brescia Bugattis, the so-called sports Calthorpes, Clynos, Windsors, Marseals, Marlboroughs, ABCs, Rileys, ACs, Bayliss-Thomases, Citroëns (yes!) and Morris Sports—you name them, I expect I shall remember them—of those times were closely related to standard chassis, but provided enormous fun for those who owned them, nevertheless. This year’s Triumph Spitfire, sired if you like from a family of MG, Wolseley Hornet, Singer and similar small sports models, is the logical successor to those sports cars of past decades—and a hundred times more practical. You must not sneer at the Spitfire for being, in effect, a rebodied twin-carburetter Herald; but I concede that in times gone by a sports car without an oil-gauge might have seemed odd.

So I do not find it detrimental that the Spitfire’s engine is a development stemming back to the Standard Eight or that it shares suspension arrangements with another popular Triumph, the Herald. Nor does it matter that this sports two-seater is less quick than closed cars of the same make, although, in fact, only the 2.5 PI and the Vitesse are faster or more accelerative and these both possess two more cylinders of considerably greater c.c. The Spitfire is adequately fast, with a top speed of rather less than 100 m.p.h., and if 0 to 60 m.p.h. in anything much less than ten seconds is becoming a bit pedestrian and this little car in standard trim takes 12 1/2 sec., it is still enjoyable to drive. The catalogue tells of all-independent suspension which dissolves the shake and shudder of rough roads. This isn’t altogether true, for while the ride remains comfortable, bad surfaces set up some judder and shake. But the important thing is that this is not of much importance in a sports car, nor does a little more noise than in a bread-and-marg. car matter to any great extent. And whether or not the pundits or scientific apparatus can prove that modern closed cars corner as fast as openable ones, a sports car gives the impression of hanging on better, of being less top-heavy, of having less behind the driver, which is what matters where driving pleasure and exhilaration are concerned. So I like this Triumph “toy racer”, which, anyway, develops five more net b.h.p. than a 13/60 Herald, has an 8 1/2 in. shorter wheelbase, and weighs 170 lb. less.

The Mk. IV version of the Spitfire has improved styling which drew many interested glances while I was in possession of it. The changes include new, more tapering, Stag-like hindquarters, a smoother bonnet, flared wheel-arches, recessed door handles and new wheel trims devoid of nave-plates. Weight is up by 54 lb. but performance is claimed not to have deteriorated, as improved manifolding has moderately uprated the power output. Technically, the Mk. IV Spitfire has synchromesh on bottom gear, new instrumentation, and its swing-axle i.r.s. with transverse leaf-spring has been rendered more acceptable by the incorporation of a central pivot for the spring and larger anti-roll bar for the front coil-spring and double-wishbone i.f.s. (This is interesting, for on the front-drive Triumph 1500 a rigid dead axle is preferred to the 1300’s independent rear springing.) The 24-ft. turning circle is retained, useful on rally hairpins and for driving tests, and the Spitfire retains, of course, the separate chassis frame which has been a Herald feature since that advanced small car first appeared.

Our performance-car specialist, J. W., has reported, after trying the latest Spitfire at Silverstone (November issue, page 1220, that the handling is now beyond reproach and that sudden changes of direction can be achieved much more predictably than before, and as he undoubtedly drove far faster round Silverstone than I did on the road, partly on account of the closed circuit and partly due to his intrepid approach to motoring, that is good enough for me. Pursuing this theme, I note that J. W. says Spridgets can still run rings round the Spitfire but for road use I regard the Triumph as more of a motor car, as it has larger dimensions, but fits very nicely between these really small BLMC sports models and the obviously more potent and more purposeful MG-B and Triumph TR6.

The Spitfire is essentially a two-seater, although there is a useful space behind the two bucket seats for bags and shopping (or a toy dog), and the boot with its self-propping lockable lid will take a very generous assortment of luggage in spite of accommodating the covered spare wheel, thus putting most 1920’s sports cars to shame in this respect. Yet the Spitfire is a fully-openable sports job, with a hood which does not drum or unduly cut down vision when it is erect, yet the interior is smart, with a good imitation of real leather upholstery, and moulded pile carpeting on the floors with a rubber heel-mat for the driver.

For the coupé-minded a hard-top is available, and naturally, although in contrast to the original sports-car conception, the Spitfire has an effective heater and the test car had a Smiths Radiomobile radio.

There are also wind-up Triplex toughened-glass side-windows controlled by well-placed, taut winders, whereas once upon a time sports cars made do with celluloid weather breaks, or no weather protection of any kind. The interior arrangements of this Spitfire are very well contrived—if this is how British Leyland intend to go on, it promises well for their new models. There are no door pockets, but there is a stowage shelf on the left side under the facia, in which the radio loudspeaker is fitted. The doors have excellent recessed internal handles, good grips to close them with, and there is under-facia courtesy lighting and anti-dazzle vizors, with vanity mirror.

The instrumentation consists of a well-calibrated m.p.h./k.p.h. British Jaeger speedometer with decimal trip and total mileage recorders and a matching tachometer before the driver, and, to their left, fuel gauge and thermometer (but oil-pressure relies on a warning light). The speedometer and particularly the petrol gauge tend to be masked by the 15-in.-dia. three-spoke steering wheel, which has a smooth rim. The ignition key, which also locks the steering, is “fumbly” to insert, being recessed low down under the facia, and the correct one of three different-size keys has to be selected—not appropriate to a rapid getaway when a Warden is bearing down upon you! The side- or head-lamps are put on from a central press-switch, also somewhat “fumbly” in the dark. Dipping and flashing is done with a l.h. stalk, a r.h. stalk controlling the turn-indicators. The horn-push is in the wheel centre, for the wind-tone horns. There is a lidded ash-tray on the matt-black screen sill, this finish being used also for the facia. The two horizontal heater quadrant levers, recessed in the top of the facia, are clearly labelled, the knob of the l.h. one bringing in the quiet two-speed fan, but the hot/cold lever was very stiff to move.

Parking the Spitfire is easy, especially as the front wings are prominent and the ridges along the tail easily seen, even with the hood up. In action, the little car is great fun. As has been said, it handles well and clings on in the wet on those excellent 13-in. Dunlop SP68 tyres. The rack-and-pinion steering (3.7 turns, lock-to-lock) is taut and smooth, with gentle castor-return action. Some shake is transmitted from rough roads, and the body shakes a bit in sympathy, and rather pronounced thuds sometimes assail the back-end, but this is of small consequence in a sporting car, nor does the Spitfire pretend to be a sophisticated sports model, any more than the Hillman Husky or Aero Minx of the 1930s masqueraded as a 1750 Alfa Romeo or the Triumph TR posed as a ladder- or space-frame, i.r.s., fully-fledged competition car.

Noise doesn’t count, unless excessive, in a sports car, either, but the Spitfire is actually quite subdued and what decibels there are emanate from the engine and not from a raucous exhaust note. Under load there is some final-drive hum. Although it relies on an antiquated three-bearing push-rod o.h.v. power unit of 73.7 x 76 mm. bore and stroke, this smooths out nicely above 2,000 r.p.m. and pulls extremely well the optional overdrive in 3rd and top gears, which is very conveniently selected by a slide on the gear-lever knob. Maximum torque is reached at 3,500 r.p.m. (837 lb. in.) and maximum power at peak-revs of 6,000 r.p.m., when 63 (net) b.h.p. is developed. The orange mark on the tachometer continues to a red warning line at 6,500 r.p.m. but the engine gets a bit frenzied, although not rough, towards maximum in normal 3rd gear, when it is doing over 5,800 r.p.m. But o/d raises the 3.89-to-1 top gear to 3.12 to 1, which provides for effortless 70-m.p.h. top-gear cruising at a mere 3,374 r.p.m.

The hand-brake lever lies accessible to the left hand above the propeller-shaft tunnel and the cranked-back gear-lever rises from the tunnel ahead of it, bringing the knob close to the steering wheel. The short lever masks the notchiness of a Triumph gearbox to some extent but as driving a sports car should be enjoyable, a better change would he an improvement. Reverse, outboard of the 1st/2nd-gear plane, calls for depressing the knob and is a somewhat unusual movement. Two big square knobs on the facia control two-speed wipers/washers and the enrichener for the twin HS2 sidedraught SU carburetters. The screen has Triplex zebra-zone toughened glass but a laminated glass screen is available. The clutch is smooth but its pedal offset to the right which, however, leaves space between it and the transmission tunnel for the left foot. The disc/drum brakes function effectively under firm pedal pressure, but there was a mysterious lag before finally coming to rest. The driving position I found very comfortable, although the right elbow tends to be restricted in movement by the door, which is by no means as inconvenient as it sounds.

The Triumph Spitfire swings effectively through open bends, the suspension is well-damped, and runs very contentedly at the top Peyton-pace.

I would gladly use as a second car a Mk, IV Spitfire, which I understand Lord Stokes’ son drives in S. Africa, where he is studying. British Leyland build sports cars primarily for the American market and it is not difficult to see how such cars must appeal in a country of flabbily-suspended monster automobiles. But they are perfectly practical and just as much fun in Britain. Consumption of 97-octane fuel (9-to-1 c.r.) came out at an excellent 35.9 m.p.g. The tank has a central quick-action filler cap, rather difficult to fill from a can. It holds 8 1/2 gallons, so some 300 miles could be run before replenishment.

The whole bonnet hinges forward after lift-up side catches have been released, as on a Herald, rendering accessible the propulsive machinery and making sump-level checking and other maintenance very easy; after we had driven the Spitfire 625 miles the oil-level had fallen unduly low; the dip-stick should be frequently consulted but, in fact, oil consumption was rather better than 500 m.p.p. Sports cars tend to have less ground clearance than saloons (the Spitfire has five inches) but with care it suffered no harm when negotiating a notoriously rough and rocky 1/3rd-mile Welsh drive. The heater demists the screen effectively, and attention to detail is seen in door “keeps” which are properly effective. The cooling system was topped up with Smiths Bluecol, the battery is a small Lucas Pacemaker (whereas the Triumph 1500 had an equally small Exide Supreme) and the Tudor washers’ bottle is easily replenished. The gear ratios, higher than those of the Mk. 3, are 13.65, 8.41, 5.41 and 3.89 to 1, with a 3.12-to1 top gear and a 4.34-to-1 3rd gear when o/d is in use.

The Triumph Spitfire in its latest form is a fascinating little car, selling for £961 17s. 6d in its basic form, pt. included. Extras available include wire wheels, whitewalls, tonneau cover and the radio and radial-ply Dunlops as on the test car, as well as those already mentioned. Oh, and if you like pictures of girls in shiny black bikinis, be sure to ask for a catalogue!—W. B.