Classic test

A veteran of the Mille Miglia and the Liège rally, this ex-work TR2 opened a chapter of success for Triumph in the Fiftes. LM falls for its rugged appeal

After the War when Triumph was taken over by Standard, managing director Sir John Black made it perfectly clear that he wanted a production sportscar that would give MG and Morgan something to think about. The TRX prototypes, of which three were built during 1950, relied on a pre-war Standard Nine chassis, with aluminium-alloy touring body, electro-hydraulically operated seats, headlamp covers and hood, and the Vanguard power unit. Aesthetically, the end result was most elegant, but surprisingly the car was too heavy and suffered from poor handling; wisely, the company's designers quickly returned to their drawing boards.

By 1952, plans for the TRX's successor, the TR2, were finalised and the car, a pretty, simple and honest two-seater went into production the following year. It was almost an overnight success. With a bore and stroke of 83 x 92mm, the rugged all-iron Vanguard engine had to be sleeved down to 1991cc to allow the car to compete in the under-2-litre class in international motorsport. Fitted with twin SU carburettors, it gave a reliable 90bhp, and endowed the TR2 with 110mph performance potential. Naturally, the modified gearbox and rear axle also originated with the Vanguard.

The somewhat flexible pressed-steel chassis frame was proof enough that British motor engineering lagged a little way behind our European counterparts, whose unitary construction bodyshells were becoming the norm, but the suspension — by coil springs, wishbones and telescopic shock-absorbers at the front, and semi-elliptic leafs and lever-type shocks behind — kept the vagaries of the frame in check well enough, even if traction was poor on loose surfaces.

Typically, the four-speed gearbox was without synchromesh on bottom gear, but a Laycock overdrive unit was available as an extra-cost option and was soon extended to operate on second, third and fourth gears.

The TR2 was replaced by the TR3 in 1955; a hardtop and a GT version were available from 1956, front disc brakes were fitted as standard in 1957, and in 1958 there was the option of a 2.2-litre 100bhp engine. Before production of the TR3A ended in 1961, some 83,500 had found homes on both sides of the Atlantic, quite an amazing number considering the hardships and austerity of a world still recovering from a long and devastating war.

After the TR3A came the TR4 — in effect a rebodied TR3 with an improved chassis — which was followed in 1966 by the TR4A, basically a TR4 with independent rear suspension borrowed from the Triumph 2000 saloon. In 1967 the TR5 was introduced, boasting the 6-cylinder fuel-injected engine that also found its way into the 2.5 PI saloon.

The last of the classic TRs, in the guise of the Karmann-bodied TR6, made its debut in 1969 and finally bowed out in 1976, having remained virtually unchanged in a relatively long production run of seven years.

Now, clips, zips, hinges, poppers, fasteners and wiry widgets of every description have all been used by manufacturers to avoid fitting winding windows to 'proper' sportscars, but when the crunch came and this extravagant self-indulgence arrived with the TR4 in 1961, the TR brethrenship divided into two distinct camps. On the one hand there were purists who became affectionately known as the 'sidescreen mob' (pre-1961), and on the other there were the post-1961 (TR4 and on) drivers who were referred to as 'window winders'. And it remains like that to this day.

But to return to the original sidescreen TR2, which sporting enthusiasts correctly regard at the most important Triumph in the company's turbulent history. Its rugged construction and reasonable turn of speed made for an ideal race/rally car, and Triumph therefore wasted little time in setting up a competition shop under the guidance of its manager, Ken Richardson.

With a view to entering the Mille Miglia in May 1954, Richardson's first task was to walk to the production line and select a car for preparation; he picked an ice-blue left-hand-drive TR2 originally destined for export to North America. It was subsequently registered OVC 276, repainted in one of the darker shades of racing greens, fitted with Al-fin competition alloy brake drums, and three-speed overdrive, while the original 15 in wire wheels were replaced with 16in items.

This was just about the extent of the competition modifications, except one. Ken Richardson's co-driver for the Mille Miglia, Maurice Gatsonides, fathomed out quite logically that a good deal of time would be saved during the great road race if calls of nature could be answered without stopping the car. His 'demon tweak' was to pass a rubber tube down through a hole in the floorpan — a good idea in theory, but one which didn't work in practice. 'Gatso' hadn't bargained for a build up of back pressure in his 'pee-shooter' and suffered the consequences — but not more than once!

From a large entry of 475 cars, Richardson and Gatsonides finished an impressive 27th overall in OVC on the 1954 Mille Miglia, which gave impetus for further entries of works-prepared TRs in subsequent high-profile international events, including Le Mans.

A team of three cars was entered for the Alpine Rally in July 1954, and their performance was nothing short of astonishing: all three left with pots, for the first team prize, best non-French performance and the best performance on the timed speed and climbed sections. In the 2-litre class, the cars finished second, third and fourth with 'Gatso' winning a Coupe in the first of the trio. On that occasion, Richardson was paired with Kit Heathcote in OVC 276, which finished behind the other two cars.

From a journalist's point of view, both the Mille Miglia and Alpine outings were rather dull affairs where the TRs are concerned. Which is how it should be, of course. There were no incidents, no hairy moments, no nasty encounters — just a good old-fashioned blast for mile after mile, the trusty Vanguard engines slogging away and refusing to miss a beat all the way to the chequered flag.

Richardson went out again in OVC on the Tulip Rally in May the following year, again with Kit Heathcote as co-driver, in a team of five TRs. They finished second in class, 17th overall, and there was also the coveted team prize. In August, Richardson went on to score a fine first in class and fifth overall on the gruelling Liège-Rome-Liège Rally, but this was to be Richardson's and OVC 276's last run: the car was pensioned off and it was left to others to fly the TR banner for the next four years.

Paddy Hopkirk scored an outright win on the circuit of Ireland in a TR3A in 1958, while Gatsonides managed sixth place on the Monte and fifth on the Liège; even towards the end of the decade, these little cars remained tremendously competitive in international rallies and road races.

Keith Ballisat drove to a most creditable second place on the 1959 Tulip Rally, but by 1960 it was suddenly all over. On the Tulip Rally of that year, the works cars were embarrassingly defeated by David Seigle-Morris in his privately entered TR3A, This resulted in Seigle-Morris being invited to drive a works car on the Alpine Rally later in the year, when he made sure that he finished with a well deserved class win — the last of the factory's 'sidescreen victories.

Driving impressions

After retiring from active duty, Richardson's famous TR was sold for private use until eventually it came to rest in a sleepy Bedfordshire village. There it sat, unused but protected from the elements for the best part of 20 years. Its then owner Paul Howell had restored the bodywork — very successfully too — but when he received an offer for the car from an American, the news that a genuine, historic rallycar could be sold and exported from Britain spread like wildfire and set alarm bells ringing.

In a neighbouring village just three miles away, Eddie Holden, the well known TR proponent, was one of the first to hear that OVC was up for grabs. Understandably, he was in two minds about whether to rescue it: here was an important car, certainly, but one in need of a lengthy restoration, with the hundreds of hours of meticulous care and attention, the frustration and irritation that goes with that; but when Eddie's wife removed the thumbscrews from her equivocating husband, he rushed off and wrote out a cheque.

With his prize installed in the garage next to his delectable TRS, he eventually sailed through the pain and frustration stage, and, after a long haul, OVC's rejuvenation was completed — to a commendably high standard too. And he allowed me to drive it. A great privilege and a truly memorable occasion, for all the right reasons.

And let's get one thing quite straight: unlike the proverbial Viking axe that's had seven new handles and eight new heads, this is a truly authentic and original car which has been preserved as it was when Ken Richardson ran it. It goes without saying that some 'perishables', such as the hood, tonneau and the correct geranium-coloured (not red) seat covers are all new, and modern indicators and radial tyres have been fitted for safety reasons, but other than these items, the car's a pukka 1954 works TR2. It is most definitely not a lookalike, copy, replica, facsimile or cleverly conceived mock-up.

Frankly, the car drives almost, but not quite, like a standard TR2, and like a brand new TR2 at that. Originally the car was a left-hooker, and it was in this form that Ken Richardson used it; but at some point during the midI 950s (exactly when isn't recorded) OVC was converted by the factory to right-hand drive, and it is in this form that it survives today.

Nicknamed `Richardson's Panama' because of its white hood and tonneau cover, this TR, which was never fitted with bumpers, is arguably one of the prettiest and most purposeful of all two-seaters to have emerged from British factories during the entire course of the 1950s. Beauty is, of course, an arbitrary opinion in the mind of the recipient, and I'm sure that Austin-Healey fans have their own views of what a proper sportscar should look like, but that aside this car, from its curvaceous front wings to the neat sloping tail and clean-cut doors, is just about bang-on.

The doors are operated by cables from inside (nothing so crude as aerodynamically unsound exterior handles here), and once installed behind the typically large steering wheel, the cockpit proves to be considerably more spacious that at first appears.

The small bucket seats, which are adjustable fore and aft, are as comfortable as any, and dispel to an extent the widely held belief that the computer-aided anatomically-designed monstrosities which characterise the interiors of many modern cars are indispensable.

Crystal clear with white characters on black and finished with narrow chromed bezels, the array of Jaeger instruments is beautiful to behold — real classics which have never been bettered. I immediately felt at home here. lust sitting, gently gripping the elegant thin-rimmed steering wheel and feeling my way slowly around the controls was something of a treat.

Almost the perfect tourer for two, everything is more or less where it should be. The short gear lever is quite far forward on the transmission tunnel, but it does ensure that you make a positive effort to stir the gate properly when working the throttle hard.

Ignition on, press the starter button and those magnificent SUs start sucking and gulping without hesitation, The engine is a real 'throbber'; it sounds a touch agricultural by modern standards, naturally, but then until Mitsubishi and Porsche tackled vibration by the use of engine balancer shafts, two litres was about the refinement limit with four pots.

During the 1950s there were few manufacturers who could afford the luxury of expensive, complex engineering; what you got from Triumph was precisely what Sir John Black demanded — a simple, production-based sporting car that would slog away reliably and fuss-free for mile after mile. And I could have slogged this quite magnificent old girl for ever, especially around the back lanes of Bedfordshire, where the twists and turns and undulating nature of the autumn landscape were well suited to the eminently chuckable TR chassis.

Up through the familiar H-pattern four-speed gearbox, it pays to rev hard and long between each cog and slot the lever home as quickly as possible. In brief, the TR is a car which needs to be picked up by the scruff of the neck and treated like a stubborn schoolboy who knows exactly how to do his homework but just won't. You've really got to drive the thing to get the best out of it, because to tickle it along in top gear at 50mph, which it will do quite happily, is to totally miss the point. Start exploring its outer limits, give it a good hefty rap across the knuckles now and again, and it performs well just like that stubborn schoolboy. .

In low-speed corners, the heavy cast-iron lump under the bonnet has two effects, their importance varying according to your driving style and motoring expectations. On the one hand the steering is heavy and lumpy, and on the other there is an inevitable tendency towards understeer. With radial tyres, the latter is never so severe as to put you in that rather intimidating 'left-hand-bend, right-hand-ditch' frame of mind, but it's as well to be ready to dial in a trifle more steering lock and a lot less throttle if the front end develops ideas beyond its station.

During fast corners it's a different story altogether, because both the front and tail ends just hang on in there — solid as a rock — at almost any speed, although it isn't difficult to imagine that a certain amount of delicate steering input (or a lot for those who prefer their motoring sideways) would be needed in the wet. And there's bonus: because the suspension is on the soft side of firm, ride quality is perfectly acceptable. And, surprisingly, scuttle-shake was completely absent, even over a stretch of road which had been so badly damaged by frost that I was beginning to wonder if I'd strayed onto an MoD tank course.

There was the odd hard thud or two crossing potholes. but the suspension deals with them in characteristic TR style — evenly and without the car jumping from one to the next. But surely there was something about this 41-year-old that I didn't like, something that is at least worthy of constructive criticism? Let's see. . . What about those Al-fin brake drums? Bang the pedal and. .. the car slows down, smoothly and safely, without drama. Bang the pedal again, only harder. . . and they merely slow the car down more quickly. Of course, they were a bit warmer the second time. And again, and again. . . same thing.

The clutch? Perfect; it's light and so smooth that you hardly notice it, and the gearchange — a typically British 'snick-snick' affair — is equally brilliant. The overdrive unit, operated by a small pull-push switch on the dashboard, is useful for touring, even if it kicks in and out with all the subtlety of a couple of sparring Sumo wrestlers, but it's not really worthy of criticism.

There isn't an ashtray in the cockpit, but since such an item in a drophead is about as useful as a one-legged man at a backside-kicking contest, and I don't smoke anyway, this line of attack is also something of a non-starter. Aha, got it at last! The bonnet badge: not exactly imaginative is it? Alright in its place, but they haven't dug it yet. So there we have it — a great car ruined by an unimaginative bonnet badge.

In all seriousness, OVC has been restored to such a high standard (pun not intended) that it is virtually vice-free. The paintwork isn't flawless, but then it wasn't after it's first respray in 1954 in preparation for that Mille Miglia either, so that's pretty authentic, too. On reflection it's tempting to imagine that Ken Richardson gave up competing in OVC because the TR made everything a little too easy. If that was the case I can see his point. My thanks to Eddie Holden for allowing me to drive his wonderful car and to Andrew Brinkley for allowing us to use Meppershall airfield for photographs. LM