Why you’d want a Triumph Spitfire
There was a feel of ‘enthusiastic amateurs’ about Triumph in the 1950s, as keen young men such as Harry Webster and Giovanni Michelotti followed the ‘make do and mend’ wartime philosophy to save the beleaguered firm.
All except bespoke car builders had moved to monocoques, yet Standard-Triumph made a virtue out of the separate chassis, basing numerous variants on the same design and trumpeting benefits such as strength, safety and turning circle.
The Spitfire used a shortened Herald chassis, with many outriggers cut off and stiffening built into the sills instead to give it a low floor. Michelotti made the prototype in 1960; two years later Triumph found the funds to produce it.
The car was an instant hit and outsold BMC’s Spridget rivals, ultimately sharing its 1500 engine with the last Midgets. Always slightly dearer than the MG, the Spitfire offered more space and refinement, even a wood-veneer dash on some models.
It was progressively improved from the charming 1147cc Spitfire 4 and MkII to the livelier 1296cc MkIII. Michelotti’s clever MkIV restyle for the ’70s helped the car last to late 1980 with the long-stroke 1493cc unit, kept in production like the Midget due to BL’s inability to replace it. Optional overdrive was a big plus over Spridgets.
It was possible to buy a Spitfire as a Hardtop, with bolt-on roof and no soft-top. Second-hand hoods and frames are readily available, so don’t reject a car if it doesn’t have a hood – the chances are that such cars will have been better looked after and stayed drier inside.
Hardtops rust, so check around the front lip and side/rear windows. Rot is the main problem with these cars, but the body is largely single-skin and the chassis is easy to inspect on a ramp. Assess sills, bulkhead and rear radius-arm mounts with care. These are among the easiest cars to rebuild at home, but buying a restored one is more cost-effective.
Far more Spitfires were sold in the US than the UK (80%), though few have come back; emissions equipment took the MkIV 1300 down to 48bhp and US cars used a detuned 1500 from ’73.
Later American-spec models are even more hampered, with 5mph bumpers, extra rear outriggers and a single carb; the speedo only goes up to 80mph.
Beware 2-litre conversions unless based entirely on a GT6 chassis – Spitfire running gear can’t handle the weight and power.
Triumph Spitfire: what to look for
See above for trouble spots
Four-cylinder engine is simple, reliable and incredibly easy to work on. Inspect for signs of careful maintenance, listen for unwanted rumbling or tinkling, look for oil leaks, water in oil or vice versa and check that the oil light doesn’t flicker at tickover – showing a worn engine, or a faulty sender. A rebuilt engine costs £1340.
Swing-axle rear suspension works better than most think, especially in swing-spring form. Longer-ratio diffs are desirable for non-overdrive cars.
Lower trunnions need regular lubrication with heavy oil – they will seize and snap the kingpin if neglected or if grease dries and goes hard inside.
Front valance rots fast on MkIV/1500. GRP is a good remedy but it is hard to fit the top lip seals that help to support bonnet; they’re often omitted, as here.
Hoods are simple and cheap (£181 for a PVC 1500), but getting them to fit properly and not let in too much water is a skill and requires a good-quality top.
Check for weak synchros and dip the clutch in neutral to listen for layshaft noise. Overdrive is a highly desirable extra; if not fitted, budget to convert.
Simple and reasonably comfortable, especially in reclining form (from ’73), Spitfire seats get scruffy but are not that costly to restore and re-cover.
Triumph Spitfire: on the road
Always raise the top before your test drive – it will help you to hear noises from the drivetrain (especially the differential) and to assess the fit of the hood. Draughts are inevitable, but many soft-tops could be better fitted.
The four-cylinder engine originates from the Standard Eight of the early 1950s, but is lively enough and can be tuned for more performance. It’ll do around 100,000 miles between rebuilds if well maintained, but is likely to need hardened valve seats after about 20k miles on unleaded.
Crankshaft thrust washers are prone to wear – get someone to press the clutch while you watch the front pulley to see if it moves; the block gets damaged if movement is excessive. Look for signs of overheating: recore the radiator every 10 years and you’ll have no problems. Distributor and camshaft wear take the edge off performance.
Assess the ’box for worn synchros and a noisy layshaft, heard at tickover in neutral; dip the clutch to see if the noise stops. A sloppy gear-change is easily cured with new bushes. Overdrive is desirable – check it doesn’t slip or jump out. Drivetrain vibration or knocking may just be worn universal joints in the prop or driveshafts, or soggy mountings: fairly cheap to repair.
The diff should be quiet and relatively clonk-free; it is prone to leak – especially if the breather is blocked – so topping up may help. If it needs replacing, consider upgrading to a higher ratio.
All Spitfires should have adequate braking for modern traffic; if not, allow for a rebuild. Check the steering for knocks – rack wear is common but usually just a nylon button at one end.
Triumph Spitfire price guide
- Concours: £12,000
- Average: £2850,000
- Restoration: £1000
- Concours: £9000
- Average: £2350
- Restoration: £750
Triumph Spitfire history
1962 Oct Spitfire 4 launched (45,753 made)
1963 Oct overdrive optional
1964 Feb optional wires and Hardtop added, also tuning kits giving 70-90bhp, with eight-port cylinder head and twin Weber carbs
1964 Mar Spitfire MkII (37,408 made) replaces 4; carpets, vinyl-trimmed dash, 67bhp, tubular exhaust manifold; 0-60mph 14 secs, 94mph
1967 Mar Spitfire MkIII (65,320 made); 9in higher front bumper, one-piece hood, wood centre dash panel, bigger brake calipers, 1296cc eight-port ‘four’
1969 Alloy-spoke steering wheel, black plastic grille, 41/2in wheels replace 31/2in, new rear lights
1970 Oct Spitfire MkIV (70,021 made); all-synchro gearbox, alternator, higher final-drive ratio
1974 Dec 1500 (95,829 made); stronger, single-rail gearbox, diff ratio raised again
1977 Mar houndstooth-check seat panels
1979 Jan dual-circuit brakes, 5in wheel rims
1980 Aug production ends
The owner’s view
“I was looking for a Midget 12 years ago,” admits owner Graham Spall, “but I couldn’t find a good one, so I looked at a Spitfire and liked what I saw. My friend went for a Midget, but I’m so glad that I bought the Spitfire – it’s that little bit better for general use and wins hands down on comfort.
“The MkIV had been rebuilt; I’ve done 45,000 miles in it over the years – it’s my general hack in the summer – and it has been extremely reliable. We did the Liège-Brescia-Liège rally in it last year. It overheated when I bought it, but a new oversized radiator cured that. I’ve had the diff and driveshafts rebuilt, but otherwise it’s only needed normal service items. I have no intention of parting with it, but I am planning to fit an overdrive gearbox.”
Boosted to 903cc for ’70, the rear-engined, Bertone-styled soft-top was only built in LHD. It sold well in the US, where it was cheaper than a Midget; some have been imported to the UK. Beware rampant rust and poor parts supply.
Sold 1965-’73 • No. built 124,660 • Mpg 33-43 • 0-60mph 15.6 secs • Top speed 96mph • Price new c£1070 (1971) • Price now £6-8500+
A super little machine that fits like a glove and feels remarkably sporting for its limited pace. It’s great fun, but less practical overall than the more spacious and comfortable Spitfire; rot is also a bit more difficult to repair.
Sold 1961-’79 • No. built 226,526 • Mpg 30-42 • 0-60mph 12.3 secs • Top speed 101mph • Price new £928 (1971) • Price now £3-5000+
Triumph Spitfire: the Classic & Sports Car verdict
Stylish, reliable, simple and cheap to maintain, the Spitfire has a lot to offer if no-frills classic sports car motoring is what you seek and you’re happy to live with its separate-chassis character.
Panelfit is a good guide to the quality of restoration and likelihood of problems: don’t be taken in by shiny paint alone. Buy wisely and you should enjoy many years together.
- Inexpensive to buy and run
- Relatively straightforward to restore
- All parts are available and cheap
- Great fun open-top motoring
- Corrosion can penetrate almost everywhere, so thoroughly inspect the chassis and body
- Tired examples are very rattly/shaky
- Non-overdrive cars are undergeared
Triumph Spitfire specifications
Sold/number built 1962-’80/314,331
Construction steel chassis, steel body
Engine all-iron, ohv 1147/1296/1493cc ‘four’, with twin 11/4/11/2in SU/Stromberg (late US cars) carbs; 63bhp @ 5750rpm-71bhp @ 5500rpm; 67lb ft @ 3500rpm-82lb ft @ 3000rpm
Transmission four-speed manual, with optional overdrive on third/fourth, driving rear wheels
Suspension: front double wishbones, coils, anti-roll bar rear transverse leaf spring, fixed-length driveshafts, radius arms, swing-spring from 1970; telescopic dampers f/r
Steering rack and pinion
Brakes 9in discs front, 7in drums rear
Length 12ft 1-5in (3680-3785mm)
Width 4ft 9-101/2in (1450-1486mm)
Height 3ft 111/2in (1205mm)
Wheelbase 6ft 11in (2108mm)
Weight 1568-1750lb (711-794kg)
0-60mph 15.5-11.3 secs
Top speed 92-101mph
Price new £982 (1971)
BUY A CLASSIC TRIUMPH SPITFIRE