Classic car chronicles: Triumph TR7 and TR8
Triumph's TR7 (not pictured) was intended as the successor to its popular TR6 line, like these 1970s examples. (Photo courtesy of James Rader)
By the time the Triumph TR6 debuted in 1969, work had already begun on its eventual successors. Initial plans called for two all-new sports cars, slated to arrive in 1972-73: a two-seat roadster, codenamed Bullet, and a hatchback 2+2, codenamed Lynx.
However, those plans were soon complicated by larger corporate developments. In 1968, Triumph had become part of the massive new British Leyland Motor Corporation, which encompassed nearly every British automaker, including Triumph's longtime rival, MG.
British Leyland management thought it could reduce costs by rationalizing the separate (and ferociously competitive) Triumph and MG sports car lines, replacing the TR6 and MGB with a single model that could be sold by both marques with only minor changes.
To design such a car, British Leyland launched a competition between Les Moore's Triumph studio and Harris Mann's Austin design center in Longbridge. In July 1971, Chairman Donald Stokes selected Mann's proposal, a wedge-shaped coupe with a notchback roofline and bold body-side sweep lines.
Although it was intended as an MG, Stokes decided that the Longbridge car should be developed and sold only as a Triumph, christened TR7. Mann's proposed Triumph version was discarded, as was Triumph's own proposal, a revised Bullet with a Targa-style roof.
British Leyland hoped to introduce the TR7 by 1973, but development was delayed by the corporation's mounting financial problems. U.S. market TR7s didn't arrive until spring 1975, with U.K. and European cars following in 1976. The TR7 was a significant departure from the TR6, and many fans saw it as a step backward.
The TR6 was a traditional body-on-frame roadster with a 2,498 cc (152 cu. in.) six and fully independent suspension. The TR7 was a fixed-head coupe with monocoque construction, a live axle, and a 1,998 cc (122 cu. in.) slant four. In European cars, it made a modest 105 hp DIN, dropping to 90 hp in federalized models and a meager 76 hp in California.
The TR7's handling won praise, but its brakes and performance were unspectacular (federalized cars needed about 11 seconds to reach 60 mph, with a top speed of around 107 mph) and its styling was extremely controversial. Aside from its polarizing shape, the TR7 suffered badly from the lack of an open body style. When it was conceived, new U.S. safety standards had threatened to outlaw convertibles, but those regulations had already been rescinded, and the TR7 was hard pressed to outsell the aging MGB roadster.
Even so, early sales were relatively strong, but production problems at the Liverpool plant where the TR7 was built led to widespread complaints about poor reliability and build quality, culminating in a 1978 class-action lawsuit. Many of the problems were eventually rectified, but it did little to restore buyer confidence. Warranty costs were very high.
Despite their shortcomings, TR7s did well in competition. In 1976, Bob Tullius drove one to five consecutive SCCA D-Production victories, while Lee Mueller used another to claim the 1979 D-Production championship. Factory-backed TR7s were also successful in rally competition, with driver John Buffum taking four SCCA Pro Rally Championships.
Hoping to expand production, British Leyland planned a whole family of TR7 derivatives, including a Sprint version with the 16-valve four from the Dolomite Sprint; a V8 version with the 3,528 cc (215 cu. in.) Buick/Rover engine; a long-wheelbase 2+2 (again codenamed Lynx); and, belatedly, a convertible.
Unfortunately, the corporation remained desperately short of development capital, and sports cars were a low priority. After a strike shut down production for four months in 1977-78, British Leyland decided to close the Liverpool plant entirely and transfer the TR7 to the Canley Triumph Works. The Sprint and Lynx were canceled, while the convertible and V8 were delayed another year.
The TR7 convertible finally arrived in mid-1979. Restyled by Michelotti, it required extensive structural modifications to maintain its rigidity, but it was widely considered better looking than the coupe. It soon accounted for the lion's share of production, despite its higher price.
About 200 V8 cars were built in 1978 for racing and dealer evaluation, but the production TR8 didn't arrive until late 1979. Federalized cars had 133 hp, raised to 137 hp in California with Bosch fuel injection (which became standard on all North American cars for 1981).
Despite its extra weight, the TR8 was capable of 0-60 mph in 8.5 seconds and a top speed of 125 mph, quick for the era. The press declared that it was what the TR7 should have been from the start. Sadly, the TR8 was expensive, and it arrived as oil prices were soaring. Sales were slow, and the planned European version was aborted.
British Leyland's financial outlook remained gloomy, and the Canley factory was closed in 1980, with TR7 production shifting to the Rover plant in Solihull. Still hoping to increase volume, product planners developed a hastily contrived MG version, along with a restyled, long-wheelbase TR7/TR8, codenamed Broadside.
Neither got very far. The TR7 had never been profitable, and British Leyland was reluctant to invest more money in it. The TR7 and TR8 finally died when passenger car production at Solihull was terminated in 1981, the last examples rolling off the line in October. The Triumph marque itself expired in 1984, and it's now owned by BMW.
The TR7's passing marked the end of an era for mass-market British sports cars, but few mourned the demise of the car itself. Later examples were better built, but the TR7 never lived down its early reputation, and it still regularly appears on lists of the worst cars of all time.
Nonetheless, it actually outsold the TR6, accounting for more than 112,000 units (plus about 2,700 TR8s), and it has gradually become collectible. If nothing else, it remains a unique artifact of its time and the last real Triumph to date.
About the author:
Aaron Severson graduated from college with a women's studies degree and a box of old car magazines, pilfered from his father. Since then, he has worked extensively as a professional writer and editor, but in 2008, his ongoing fascination with the auto industry led him to found his own automotive website, ateupwithmotor.com, where you can read the full version of this article.
The views expressed by this author do not necessarily reflect those of Angie’s List.
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