These cars took their occupants to many a (bumpy) victory on circuit and stage. And, unsurprisingly, the humble Triumph is still a popular choice for today’s club racers
By Richard Heseltine
Somehow plans for a competition programme seemed so unlikely, as though it was exceeding the marque’s status in life. How could Triumph – or rather post-war Standard-Triumph – even contemplate going racing when it earned its profits building such exotica as the Standard Vanguard? And the, shudder, Triumph Mayflower. Oh, and not forgetting Ferguson tractors. Pedigree? What pedigree?
Without the TR2 it likely would never have happened although much of the credit for its success trackside and on rally stages was down to former BRM man Ken Richardson. On being asked to drive the prototype sports car (variously codenamed 20TS and TR1) in 1952, he reputedly labelled it a ‘death trap’ and was accordingly invited to join Triumph and discipline its problem child. And, having done so, our never knowingly under-publicised hero then drove a development car to 124.889mph on the Jabbeke motorway in Belgium. The newly re-minted TR2 went on sale late in ’53 and that decade became every bit as ubiquitous in rallying as the Ford Escort did in the ’70s. And that’s before you factor in Le Mans bids. The ‘Richardson era’ was rarely dull.
Speaking to Motor in 1973, he said: “The first competition appearance of the TR2 was on the 1954 RAC Rally in March, in which Johnny Wallwork [and John Cooper] won outright and Mary Walker took the ladies’ prize. This success made everyone at the works very competition-minded and they decided to start a competitions department – much to my horror, for I’d had 18 years in motoring sport and really wanted to get out of it.”
That same year, TRs clocked up numerous successes at national level, with Bobbie Dickson coming close to claiming the Circuit of Ireland only to make a costly error on a driving test. Autosport editor Gregor Grant, meanwhile, borrowed a factory car and took sixth place on the Lyon-Charonnieres rally, while Richardson himself teamed up with Maurice Gatsonides to finish 27th on the Mille Miglia after averaging 73mph in appalling conditions. Just to confirm the car’s sporting credentials, privateers Edgar Wadsworth and Bobbie Dickson splashed their way to 15th place in the Le Mans 24 Hours. Throw in the factory squad’s Team Prize at the Dundrod TT and the TR’s durability was proven beyond all doubt.
But then this never was a peaky, highly-strung piece of precision engineering. With all due respect – and more than a little affection – the TR2 always was a mite agricultural. There was nothing remotely exotic to the car’s make-up and the works cars were near-as-dammit standard. Initially operating out of a corner of the firm’s experimental department in Banner Lane, Coventry, the Richardson-helmed equipe was undeniably well drilled. The factory cars were immaculately built, too, but preparation tended to amount to little more than adding ‘competition suspension’ which comprised even stiffer springs and tougher shock-absorbers. And this in a car that wasn’t exactly cosseting to begin with. The TR’s 2-litre wet-liner four-banger was never modified internally for competition, either. Indeed, drivers were under strict instructions not to exceed 5000rpm for fear of overstressing crankshafts…
Richardson himself commented in Motor: “The cars themselves were never very special. This led to a terrible argument with a character who had asked us to prepare his car to works team standard. He said: ‘I bet it’s not like your cars.’ So I told him to choose any one of the works cars which were also new, and we’d take his instead, which more or less convinced him.”
In 1956, the TR2 was superseded by the TR3 which was outwardly identifiable by its glitzy grille. Power was increased marginally to 95bhp although performance was blunted slightly thanks to additional heft. It also eked out its own slice of largely forgotten automotive lore by becoming the first mass-produced car to be fitted with front disc brakes. The model made way for the TR3A two years later which gave 100bhp but with a corresponding 60lb weight gain, the US-only TR3B receiving the 2138cc unit earmarked for the forthcoming TR4 allied to an all-synchro ’box. And so it continued until 1962 when the TR4 replaced both iterations.
From 1955 to 1959, the factory TRs racked up a formidable array of victories, albeit of the class variety.
The works car claimed category wins on the Alpine and Liège-Rome-Liège rallies in 1956, while the following season saw Triumph take class scalps in the Sebring 12 Hours and Monte Carlo classics.
Le Mans had been a works constant ever since a trio of experimental TR2s were entered for the 1955 running. They finished a commendable 14th, 15th and 19th although this was the year in which Pierre Levegh’s Mercedes-Benz was cannoned into the crowd, so Triumph’s achievement naturally garnered little media attention. Nonetheless, it was enough to convince the firm’s managing director Allick Dick to initiate the construction of more overtly competition-inspired cars. Future entries would appear standard, or at least a close approximation, but with twin-cam power, the proposed all-new engine having possible spin-off applications in future production models.
Fast-forward to 1959 and the new TR3S did indeed appear outwardly stock, if only from a distance. With a wheelbase stretched by six inches and a glassfibre body, the big news was the fresh 1985cc iron block/alloy headed ‘Sabrina’ engine, so-called because of the dome-shaped cam drivers that resembled the 41in, er, lady bits of 1950s blonde bombshell Sabrina (Norma Sykes). Unfortunately, while the car was more powerful than the standard item by some 50bhp, it was also farcically heavy at 2125lb and no more aerodynamic. Three cars were entered for that year’s 24 Hours in which two threw fan blades and punctured radiator hoses, while the remaining car suffered a broken oil pump drive late in the race.
A year later, all semblance to production cars went out of the window as the ‘silhouette’ TR3 bodies were discarded and new ones that aped the ultimately stillborn ‘Zoom’ roadster were substituted. Similarly constructed out of glassfibre, they managed the unlikely feat of being even heavier than the outgoing items. Oh, and less streamlined. The newly redubbed TRS nonetheless looked the part and all three cars entered in the 1960 24 Hours completed the distance even if their best lap time was some 10 seconds slower than the year before…
And trouble was brewing at home. By 1961 Standard-Triumph was in turmoil as its finances took a tumble. The company was rescued that same year by Leyland Motors, a move that would impact greatly on motor sport activities. Nonetheless, the TRS trio emerged at the Circuit de la Sarthe once again in pretty much the same guise as the previous season, but ’61 was to be Triumph’s year. All three cars made the flag in ninth, 11th and 15th places to claim the coveted Team Prize.
Triumph’s glory proved short-lived, however. In what amounted to a bloodletting, the competition department was canned within weeks of the Le Mans bid, Richardson being among those made redundant. Though Triumph would return to factory-backed motor sport, much of the expertise was gone and with it died plans for a daring (and lighter) new coupé variation of the TRS which was slated to run at Le Mans in 1962. One car was built and developed by Italian tuning deity Virgilio Conrero with a shapely body penned by Giovanni Michelotti. Sadly this beautiful – and unraced – machine will be remembered as one of the marque’s more tantalising what-might-have-been projects.
Though subsequent TRs would feature strongly throughout the ’60s, it was never with the same level of conviction – or success – as in the previous decade. And of course TR2/3s have never really gone away, remaining a club racing staple to the present day, be it Reg Woodcock dominating the Thoroughbred Sports Cars category in the ’70s to the model’s renaissance in historic rallying. It remains a great club-level jumping off point that is also eligible for highbrow stand-alone events such as the Mille Miglia and Le Mans Classic retrospectives.
“From my own experience, the TR2 and 3/3A are extremely simple to modify and can be made to go very, very quickly,” says marque specialist Neil Revington, who’s campaigned sporting Triumphs in everything from regional hillclimbs to the Targa Tasmania. “I bought my first one for £70 when I was 17 years old and I’ve spent the last 35 years having fun in them. They’re very easy to work on, a lot of fun to drive and in the right hands are real giant-killers. A great all-rounder.
“And parts availability isn’t a problem. I think you’d have more trouble getting hold of bits for a four-year-old BMW. TRs are very robust anyway, but we’ve made it our business to offer most parts necessary to build a completely new motor car. That’s everything from bodyshells to new cylinders, rods, pistons, chain gears and so on. And with what I’d call a fast road-spec car, you could be out there competing for around £15-20,000.”
Which is about the price of an engine rebuild for some of its more exalted trackside rivals. There’s nothing particularly special about a TR but the shortcomings are outnumbered by the positives. Backache is never far away thanks to the unyielding suspension, while the outer visuals are either clumsy or endearing depending on whose opinion you canvas. But these cars are both practical and durable with the ability to cope with all roads in all weathers, becoming exponentially more engaging the faster you drive.
Just be sure to bring along a cushion…
One to buy
Triumph TR3A – £25,995
From: Classic Carriage Company 01708 375982
A one owner from new car until 2006, this ’58 TR3A has more recently been repatriated from the US and restored at a cost in excess of £36,000. Prepared for fast road/rallying use, upgrades include a Moss rack and pinion steering set-up, adjustable dampers, stiffer anti-roll bars and a balanced and overbored engine with high-lift camshaft. It also comes with a rollcage plus full harnesses and racing seats. It rides on Minilite alloys and Toyo road/race tyres and has been converted to right-hand drive. Since the work was completed in April 2007, the car has covered less than 2000 miles.
Others to consider
Pretty Abingdon sports car offered in open and closed forms. Decent competition pedigree and keenly priced, too.
Caddish roadster was the TR’s nemesis in period, and similarly had success in rallying and endurance racing.
Alfa Romeo Giulietta
750 and 101-series Alfas were offered in umpteen configurations and remain eligible for
Revington TR 01823 698437 www.revingtontr.com
Moss Europe 020 8867 2103 www.moss-europe.co.uk
TR Enterprises 01623 793807 www.trenterprises.com
TR Bitz 01925 861861 www.trbitz.com
Racetorations 01427 616565 www.racetorations.co.uk