The Triumph TR7

Road impressions
As expected • • •

One of the few records the Triumph TR7 has set to date is that it has taken longer to obtain an example for a MOTOR SPORT road test than any British vehicle I can recall. This fixed-head Leyland sports car was launched into the home market in May 1976, by when the Americans had enjoyed (or otherwise) its company for 14 months. We were fobbed off so many times with requests for a road test car that in the end we gave up bothering. A chance remark to JRT’s conscientious Public Affairs man Richard Foster when W.B. and I visited JRT’s headquarters in the Jaguar plant at Allesley a couple of months ago happened to coincide with the arrival of one of the first Coventry-built TR7s on the Press Fleet. And so, as they say, here we are.

By now the controversial TR7 must be old hat to most readers, hence these brief impressions rather than a full road test. In any case there are some more interesting derivatives on the way, the first of which, the long-awaited convertible, was launched at Los Angeles Auto Expo last month (see page 818). I described the original American version of the TR7 in the February 1975 issue of MOTOR SPORT and published unenthusiastic driving impressions from the Press Launch in the June 1976 issue — re-reading them gives me some idea of why Leyland were in no hurry to provide a test car!

TR7 production ceased for the whole of last summer because of the prolonged strike at the Speke, Liverpool plant and its subsequent closure. Production recommenced at Triumph’s Canley, Coventry, plant at Motor Show time last year. A letter from Jeff Herbert, Managing Director of Rover Triumph Cars, informs me that this production shift enabled over 200 manufacturing and product improvements to be incorporated. Externally, the Canley cars are distinguished by gross TR7 badges on the nose and boot lid, the former surrounded by a hideous laurel wreath. The body styling is otherwise unchanged. Much more consequential, the Canley cars incorporate JRT’s single-rail shift five-speed box as standard, this being identical, even in ratios, to the Rover SD1 unit. In five-speed guise the TR7 incorporates a version of the SD1 axle, fitted with 9′ x 1¾” drum brakes. Cars with the Borg Warner Model 65 automatic gearbox option (£219) use the old Triumph axle fitted with 8″ x 1.5″ drums. Both models have 9.75″ front disc brakes. Five-speed models run a 3.9:1 final drive, automatics 3.27: I , and while the former is fitted with 185/70SR13 tyres (Michelin XVS on the test car) the automatic retains the old four-speed car’s 175/70SR13 tyres.

Other obvious improvements incorporated in the Canley cars include a revised cooling system, a hot air flap valve in the carburetter air intake, sealing of the headlamp lift motor against water and dirt, extra padding in the seats, anti-chip coating on the sills and in the wheel arches and a re-organised fuse-box.

In other major respects the TR7 is unchanged since I described it in 1976. The in-line, slant-four engine is a variation on the Dolomite theme, using the 1,998 c.c., 90.3 mm. X 78 mm. Dolomite Sprint block topped by the single-overhead camshaft, eight valve cylinder head from the 1,854 c.c. Dolomite. Fitted with twin SU HS6 carburetters and with a 9.25:1 compression ratio it develops a reasonable 105 b.h.p. at 5,500 r.p.m. and 119 lb. ft. torque at 3,500 r.p.m. The projected Dolomite Sprint engined car, which we saw rallying before the exciting Rover V8-engined versions appeared, may be launched instead of a V8 model in Europe.

Front suspension is by McPherson strut with coil springs and an anti-roll bar, and the live rear axle is located by a four-link system comprising lower longitudinal trailing arms, upper semi-trailing radius rods, coil springs, telescopic dampers and an anti-roll bar.

Appearance? That’s very much a matter of opinion. I’ve yet to meet anybody who likes the very heavy treatment at the tail end of Harris Mann’s wedge design, though most people like the nose, with its commendably quick acting pop-up headlights. Some of the detail sheet steel work is pretty abysmal, but the interior is neat and well-appointed, save for crude gauze demister vents. The attractive, plaid-trimmed seats are most comfortable, with adequate fore and aft and back rest adjustment and though the steering column, with its small, padded-rim wheel, is fixed the driving position is good. Leg and shoulder room is plentiful. The pedals are widely spaced and the throttle pedal flimsy, but on this particular car I was at least able to heel-and-toe — well, toe-and-side-of-foot. The clutch foot has a neat rest. Most major functions are controlled by those familiar and always excellent Triumph column stalks, that on the left taking care of two-speed plus single stroke wipers and washers, that on the right headlamp dip, flash, winkers and horn: Slide-switches high on the big centre console look after lights, rear window demister, foglamps if fitted and hazard warning. The recessed, black-faced Smiths instruments, including a tachometer red-lined at 6,500 r.p.m., 140 m.p.h. speedometer, water temperature, volts and fuel guages and a small clock are of commendable clarity. The air-mix heating and ventilation system is the best I have found on any sports car. The concept of a strict two-seater with the rear bulkhead immediately behind the scats perforcedly restricts stowage space, though Triumph’s designers have made the best of a bad job, accommodating oddments trays and a deep trough for cigarette packets and so on in the great expanse of facia top, wells in the rear window shelf, a fair-sized, lockable glovebox and a lidded locker between the seats. The boot, reasonable in size for a sports car, is restricted front to rear by the 12-gallon tank and in depth by the underfloor spare wheel. Both the boot lid and bonnet are self-propping. Most things under-bonnet are readily accessible, though the heater air duct has to be unclipped to minister to the distributor at the rear of the engine, which sits well back into the bulkhead area. In general appointments and comfort the TR7 comes much nearer to saloon car quality than most sports cars and in that respect is easy to live with. Unfortunately its general performance and behaviour is more akin to a soft saloon car than the generally accepted idea of a sports car; it lacks the crisp sparkle, the joie de vivre so essential to add character. True, it accelerates from 0-60 m.p.h. in a little over 10 sec. and will push 110 m.p.h., but its manner of doing so is not very inspiring. It’s a very buzzy, fussy sounding car when coerced into working hard, the flat-sounding underbonnet orchestra accompanied by transmission whine, especially in second gear.

Sympathetic body boom periods occur from about 4,000 r.p.m. upwards and mild vibration at high speed suggests that the propshaft balance problem which afflicted early TR7s has not been entirely solved. A worse aspect of this vibration is that the rear view mirror vibrates sympathetically to the extent that a motorway patrol car would have “gonged” you before its jam-sandwich paintwork was recognised. This is one good reason for regulating cruising speed to 70 m.p.h. or less: another reason is that the TR7 is quieter below that . . . The engine feels as soft and lifeless as it sounds, lacking the sharp edge to encourage the driver’s enthusiasm. On the credit side, the 5-speed gearbox is a big improvement over the old 4-speed, at least as far as I can remember from that Press Launch. The old manual car had gearing too “tall” for the engine’s power, illustrated by speeds in the lower gears at 6,000 r.p.m. of 44, 66 and 93 m.p.h. The three lower gears of the low-axle-ratio five-speed car are more advantageously stacked at 34, 54 and 80 m.p.h. A nice, light and precise gearchange was one of the test car’s more commendable characteristics.

Memories of a very exciting afternoon’s motoring round the lanes on the Press Launch led me to expect at least a satisfactory standard of handling from this 1979 test car. Either my memory is at fault or something — maybe the larger section tyres — has adversely affected the handling, which left me quite unimpressed. Our sister journal MOTORING NEWS described the TR7’s imprecise cornering characteristics beautifully: “Like trying to aim a long-barrelled shot-gun — it keeps waving about.” Roadholding is good and the TR7 can be thrown into a corner quite fast, but once in there it gets quite flustered, wallowing and pitching and difficult to “place” accurately. This is not helped by lack of feel through the rack and pinion steering, which is otherwise nicely geared and has a remarkable lock. The general feeling is of underdamping. Bumps upset the TR7 quite badly, whether in a straight line or in mid-corner. Suspension bump-thump is pronounced, especially from the rear axle, which bottoms all too easily; indeed at times it and the car felt to be trying to take their separate ways, surprising from what in theory appears to be a well-located axle. I suspect that one of the test car’s rear dampers was below par, which cannot have helped.

Part of the excitement of the Press Launch cars, or at least the two I drove, was an unbelievable lack of brakes, the crowning glory of which was when we rolled into Henley High Street with them on fire! On the day a Triumph engineer denied that there was anything wrong with them, but I understand that subsequently they were discovered to be using the wrong pad material. Brakes, or the lack of them, have been a major problem on the TR7s run in prodsports racing. I’m thankful to report that this Achilles heel is not so apparent on the road in this latest car with larger rear drums, although strangely I found them more efficient at high speed than at lower speeds. The front discs occasionally launched into a grating chorus and the nose — which can’t be seen from the driver’s seat — dipped heavily under braking. I still don’t know quite what to make of this strange motor car. It is neither a saloon car nor a sports car in behaviour, yet it has only two seats in a very attractive and comfortable interior. It is an easy enough car to drive when pottering around and reasonably quiet when so driven, but drive the TR7 like the sports car Leyland proclaim it to be and it becomes fussily unpleasant. For £4,995.90 the enthusiastic driver would be far better off with an RS 2000 or a Mirafiori Sport, plus a bit of change. “Posers” might choose the TR7. — C.R.