Road Impressions - The Triumph Spitfire 1500

Improving with age ?

After thirteen years of production it might be assumed that the Triumph Spitfire is growing considerably long in the tooth. Compared with the modern thinking which has evolved mid-engined small sports cars such as the Fiat X1/9 it is indeed. Yet after trying the latest version of the Spitfire, the new 1500, we were surprised how well Triumph engineers have managed to keep pace with the times in terms of driving pleasure and comfort while retaining that sadly rarer facility for fully open-air motoring. The attractive appearance of the European version has not had to suffer from the US-bumper disease afflicting its Abingdon brethren.

Except for the bold “Spitfire 1500” transfers on the bonnet and boot lids and for the front spoiler which sprouted initially on the 1974 Spitfire Mk. IV, which it supersedes, the latest model is little changed externally or in the cockpit from the 1,296-c.c. Spitfire IV which MOTOR SPORT tested in January 1971. That in turn had replaced the shorter-tailed, shorter-nosed, 1,296-c.c. Spitfire Mk. III which owed far more than the latest one to the first 1,147-c.c. Spitfire 4 of 1962. The two-seater body continues to be mounted upon a separate steel chassis frame, like its late ancestor the Herald, the four cylinder engine remains commendably accessible under the front-hinged, one-piece bonnet, and swing-axle rear suspension is retained, albeit very much improved.

The 1,493-c.c., four-in-line, pushrod-valve-operation, cast iron engine, still with recognisable Standard 8 ancestry, has been used in American market emission-controlled Spitfires for some time. Its antiquated long-stroke dimensions are identical to those of the Triumph 1500; the bore of 73.7 mm. remains the same as the 1,296-c.c. unit while the stroke is increased from 76 mm. to 87.5 mm. By this crude method and the fitting of bigger SUs the power output has been increased by 10 b.h.p. DIN to 71 b.h.p. DIN at the same figure of 5,500 r.p.m. Torque has improved from 68 lb. ft. at 2,900 r.p.m. to 82 lb. ft. at 3,000 r.p.m.

Never very quick on its feet previously, this small sports car is now satisfyingly nimble, as is shown by British Leyland’s own fairly conservative figures for the Spitfire Mk. IV and 1500. The 1500 reaches 50 m.p.h. from rest in 8 sec. (10 sec. for the Spitfire IV), 60 m.p.h. in 11.3 sec. (14.5 sec.); 70 m.p.h. in 15.2 sec. (21 sec.). The more meaningful acceleration in direct top gear too is significantly improved by the increase in torque: 30 to 50 m.p.h. takes the 1500 9.7 sec. (12.0 sec.). The now very important 20 m.p.h. increment through that ridiculous 50 m.p.h. limit from 40 to 60 m.p.h. takes only 9.4 sec. (12.5 sec.) as the engine reaches the peak of its torque; and 50 to 70 m.p.h. takes 10.4 sec. (15.5 sec.). With the optional Laycock J-type overdrive engaged on top gear we were able to better Triumph’s claimed 100 m.p.h. for the 1500 by 3 m.p.h., which is 8 m.p.h. better than the claimed top speed of the Spitfire IV. But improved acceleration and top speed aren’t the only benefits, for a higher final drive ratio gives 22.6 m.p.h. per 1,000 r.p.m. in overdrive top compared with 20.8 m.p.h. in overdrive top for the Mk. IV. For a small car the Spitfire thus becomes very long-legged and at speeds in excess of 70 m.p.h. the engine is much less obtrusive than it was before. British Leyland tell us that the 1500 is much more economical, although we would need a back-to-back test to reassure us. Whatever, we would certainly not complain at our overall consumption of 34 m.p.g., inclusive of considerable London traffic driving and the 3-cylinder condition in which it was delivered (a plug lead was off).

Although the ultra-long-stroke engine’s 6,000 r.p.m. recommended maximum is achieved easily, it is rough and harsh at the top end. The cranked lever of the latest single-rail shift gearbox gives a slightly notchy, but pleasant enough change and the overdrive switch in its knob is a boon.

We were surprised how well this latest Spitfire handled; the revised rear suspension of our 1971 road test car performed considerably better than that of the early Marks. Now, since the rear transverse leaf spring and drive shaft lengths were increased in 1973 to give a 2 in. wider rear track, handling and road-holding has been improved considerably yet again. This Spitfire is now very stable and predictable, that inclination for the rear wheels to touch their toes has disappeared completely; there seems to be less roll and the ride is better. The steering is delightful by any standards.

The reclining front seats are more comfortable than those in the staff TR6, as is the driving position over a long distance, but the hood, though easy enough to erect and pull down, didn’t fit nearly so well as that of its big brother. The polished woodwork and tidy carpeting of the Spitfire IV are retained, as are the heater’s stiff temperature control lever, too light throttle action, the lack of and need for a brake servo and the lack of an oil pressure gauge. The centre armrest, inertia reel belts, dipping mirror, driver’s door mirror, head restraints and universally jointed map light of the £39 option pack were welcome extras.

Long in the tooth or not, the Spitfire 1500 remains a welcome alternative in a world of rather boring saloon cars, while its performance/economy ratio makes considerable sense. But the price of £1,681 including the overdrive (£113), option pack and laminated screen of the test car is a long way from the £654 quoted for the first Spitfire we tested in 1963! – C.R.