The smalll sports car used to be an item peculiar to British manufacturers, surprising enough when you think that the Europeans have the best of the summer weather, but now that Fiat and Honda have weighed in with cars in the 800-850-c.c. category, both B.M.C. and Triumph have moved up a class to under-1,300 c.c. The choice of a new “Spridget” or Mark III Spitfire was clear enough for a Spring trip to the Monaco Grand Prix, and Coventry took the “ayes” when we formed other plans for the Sprite.
Development of the Spitfire’s 1,296-c.c. engine has been rigorous, including outings at Le Mans and the Alpine Rally, and since it is Very similar to the power unit in the front-drive Triumph 1300 there were no worries about it giving a trouble-free run. Fitted with the Mark II camshaft and a pair of S.U. HS2 carburetters, the engine develops 75 b.h.p. (rather a gross figure) at 6,000 r.p.m., compared with 67 b.h.p. of the 1,147-c.c. Herald-based engine. First gear still does not have synchromesh but an overdrive is fitted optionally. A diaphragm-spring clutch reduces the pedal pressure, and the brakes are improved with bigger front calipers similar to the system on the 1300 saloon.
Apart from raising the height of the bumper bars front and rear to give more protection, the lines of the car remained unaltered, and it would indeed be hard to improve the “pretty” appearance that has always, made the Spitfire seem a “ladies’ car.” The optional detachable steel hard-top adds to the appearance, and while this can be removed easily by unscrewing six bolts, replacement proved very tricky indeed, first in replacing the rubber seal around the trailing edge and then lining up the bolt-holes, but this is presumably done but once a year with the advent of winter.
The suspension is not altered, featuring double wishbones and coilsprings at the front, totally exposed by lifting the one-piece forward-hinged bonnet, and swing axles at the rear suspended by a transverse leaf spring, radius rods and telescopic dampers. To make the most of the boot space for two people, the largest and heaviest suitcase was stowed behind the seats where, we reasoned correctly, it would be within the wheelbase and remove tendencies to bottom on undulating roads.
The 25-foot turning circle was used to good effect inside the British Railways ferry (even the hardened crew looked surprised), and once clear of Mrs. Castle’s “sick-seventies” the Spitfire settled down at a comfortable 85 m.p.h. in overdrive top, feeling if anything overgeared as little more than 4,000 r.p.m. were indicated. Even with its extra power the Triumph felt somewhat heavy and lacking in sparkle, but it would hold high cruising speeds without tiring. The schedule involved a detour to Milan, so starting from Boulogne at tea-time, dinner was taken at Soissons and Geneva was reached after 12 hours of Continental motoring. As dawn broke, approaching the Mont Blanc tunnel, low cloud and a heavy snowstorm gave the driver more to think about in the mountainous region, but nine miles and 24 francs later the Italian frontier was bathed in chilly sunshine. Poor but scenic roads in the Aosta valley gave way to autostrada, and Milan was reached 18 hours after disembarkation.
If two people can travel 680 miles in a single journey in a small sports car (save only two meal stops), and arrive without being unduly tired, then the car can be rated seriously as a means of transport, not just as a debs’-delight. The seats are more comfortable than they seem at first acquaintance, except that, as those in the TRs have done for years, the back-rests yield when the car is cornered hard. Wind noise in the hard-top form is quite acceptably low, and there are no draughts. Although the engine buzzes rather when the rev.-counter is past 5,000, overdrive is quite relaxing on long journeys.
There used to be a very strong “all-independent” faction in the British Press, but it is debatable whether the swing-axle form of independent is better than a good live-axle. Well-laden as it was the suspension was quite harsh on bumpy French roads, though satisfactory on long waves and undulations. Sometimes though, when really bad surfaces were struck unexpectedly at speed, the rear wheels steered the car badly, almost to the point of taking control.
As discovered on the Cuneo-Monte Carlo section of the route from Milan, the Spitfire handles very well on true mountain roads, responding well to road-holding demands and impressing us by the amazing lock on hairpin bends. Again, however, road irregularities affect the transmission of power badly out of slow corners, and one can imagine the potential of the car should it be economically feasible for the next Mark 4 version to have the more sophisticated trailing-link suspension used on the 2000 saloon. A close-ratio gearbox would also be a boon in these conditions, in conjunction with a lower axle ratio.
After the race, the all-night 770-mile journey back to Boulogne was completed in a tedious 13-hour journey, performed faultlessly by the Spitfire though something of a strain on the occupants. The journey can be completed very quickly by using all the new motorways covering large parts of the north-south route. Including the new one from Avallon to the outskirts of Paris one may spend 24 francs in tolls, hardly justified unless at peak traffic periods or unless one is working on a very tight time schedule.
In the course of 1,960 miles from London and back the Spitfire used 208 litres and 12 gallons of premium fuel (not liking the best Continental grades generally), an overall consumption of 33.8 m.p.g. It also used 2 litres of oil, therefore returning a little less than 500 m.p.p.
On the return journey the car was driven harder, and was consequently rather more tiring. It was possible to establish the top speed at 97 m.p.h. in overdrive top, still with 1,500 r.p.m. in hand, and a good stretch of motorway with favourable gradient will see the speedometer top 100 m.p.h. – M. L. C.
A kit to help the home-tuner select the best carburetter setting has been put on the market by Colortune. Costing 75s., it is suitable for variable jet carburetters of the S.U. or Stromberg type. It consists of an insert which screws into the plug recess, pre-igniting the spark in a clear chamber within which the quality of the mixture can be studied. A strong mixture burns with a white flame, a weak mixture burns blue.
We tested the device on an 848-c.c. Mini, which has a single S.U. carburetter, finding that while it clearly indicated strong mixture it was not obvious when the mixture was too weak, and the instructions should have made it clear that the setting is correct when the flame just loses the white content. As it is, equally good results can be obtained by following instructions in the handbook for tuning by ear. It is probable, however, that the device would be more useful when tuning a pair of carburetters, especially Strombergs like those fitted on TR sports cars.
Pre-1949 sports car club
This Club has been founded in the North by three young men to preserve and restore older sports cars which, they maintain, lost their character after that time. Social and sporting events are planned. The chairman is Mr. Michael Hamby, “The Hollies,” Rawson Avenue, Skircoat Green, Halifax.