road test: 1981 Triumph TR7

TR7It was billed as ‘the shape of things to come’, and for once the marketing men weren’t wrong. Triumph’s TR7 (codenamed ‘Bullet’) was a daring attempt by British Leyland Cars to catapult its ageing, nostalgia-fuelled sportscar brand into the thrusting new nineteen eighties. Launched in early 1975 in the United States, we Brits didn’t get it for another year, by which time it had already become a political hot potato and the scourge of this country’s conservative sportscar buyers…

While the new styling was certainly a head turner, the roots of the TR7 lay underneath in its conventional mechanicals. Many called it a Dolomite in drag, but this simply wasn’t true. Although it used a Dolly Sprint block with conventional eight valve 1998cc head and assorted BL parts bin bits, the TR7 owes its origins to two very different people – Austin Drawing Office designer Harris Mann, and Rover/ Triumph engineering supremo Charles Spencer King.

Mann was an up-and-coming stylist who’d more than once suffered the ignominy of having his radical designs ‘diluted’ to meet the needs of cost-cut mass production. (His original sketches of the Allegro are bold and handsome, the production car is not!). ‘Spen’ King was Rover’s award-winning engineering chief, responsible for (among others) the P5B, P6, Range Rover and latterly the SD1), and arguably one of the best car engineers Britain has ever produced. Much more than a tarted up Dolomite, the new Leyland wedge shared large amounts of engineering philosophy and practice with the Rover 3500 that was to follow a year later.

The genius of the TR7 was in its packaging – the combination of a radical body shape with conventional but cleverly implemented chassis engineering would keep costs down while giving the experience of an exotic sportscar. Most important though, was the need to tailor the car to the North American market – this was a prescient move by Triumph’s BL parents, which the Japanese picked up on and exploited to the maximum in subsequent years. Spen King was despatched to the States in the early seventies on a fact-finding mission. The information he gathered directly informed the look, size and power of the new TR. Gone was the chic of the ‘5 or machismo of the ‘6, in favour of a far stronger and safer fixed head coupe whose specification included a cigar lighter and sumptuous seats. You can imagine the shrieks of righteous indignation even now.

Then there was the hard top. Due to expected US legislation banning convertible cars on safety grounds, British Leyland opted to produce a sports coupe rather than a traditional drop-top. Further US safety legislation demanded bumpers that could withstand a low speed crash – you would have to be able to drive your car into a post at 5mph, not damage the car’s body, and have the bumper able to regain its original shape. American spec TR7s were duly thus equipped.

The result was an intelligently designed car that was acutely focused on the needs of 1970s US sportscar buyers. Sleek, spacious, safe, efficient and economical, it was ready for post-oil crisis motoring. Sadly though, its critics were not. Look through the road tests of the day and an interesting pattern emerges – most US magazines embraced the car with open arms, celebrating its space and pace, and even that ‘modern new shape’.

By contrast, many British motoring hacks took it upon themselves to assassinate the car in print. Oblivious to the changed world of seventies motoring, it was slated for its lack of the TR6’s 2500cc fuel injected straight six, independent rear suspension and soft top. The car’s refinement, comfort and superb handling were largely ignored. Despite its modest four pot, 1998cc, twin carb, 8 valve overhead cam engine (down a whopping 45BHP on the TR6’s fuel injected in line six), it was actually a far more effective – and no less fun – way of getting from A to B.

From the outset, the TR7 proved very popular with US buyers, and by 1978 was catching on with Britons too. Quality control on the ‘series one’ Speke-built cars had improved, and then production was transferred to the old Triumph factory in Canley, where over 100 detail refinements were made. Most significant was the standardisation of the superb LT77 five speed gearbox, and a modified cooling system to cure overheating problems.

In 1979 came the Drop Head Coupe. Triumph returned to Michelotti’s Italian design studio – from where many earlier TRs and the beautiful Stag had come – to do the restyling, which proved successful. The roadster first reached the States in July, 1979 and finally Britain in March, 1980. At the same time, Triumph announced the new TR8 for the US market – the long awaited 3,528cc V8 Rover engined TR7 derivative. It proved a sensation, winning a host of awards and being described by one US magazine as ‘nothing less than the reinvention of the sportscar’…

By the end of 1980, production was being transferred to the Rover factory in Solihull, which saw further small quality control improvements and a few timely extras like alloy wheels and intermittent wipe being fitted as standard. By now the car was well sorted, and the shape was looking less outrageous as the world’s car designers moved to wedges for their sportscars. Six years after its introduction, the ugly duckling had become a swan, and even the UK applauded its unusual combination of superb handling and eager, sporty nature with comfort and practicality.

On October 5th, 1981, all production of the TR7 and TR8 ceased. BL top brass had decided that thanks to the strength of the pound in the car’s main (US) market, it just wasn’t viable anymore. It seemed that the mass produced British sportscar had died. That day’s entry in the Solihull factory despatch book famously contains the words, “THE END” written between two red lines. Underneath – so the story goes – someone has written, “OR IS IT?” Now, only BMW – owner of the Triumph brand – has the answer.

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