road test: 1981 Triumph TR8

TR8-9One of the common pub put-downs that people who drive dull cars use to annoy Triumph TR7 owners, is that they’re “Dolomites in disguise”. Anyone who’s ever owned a factory Triumph TR8 will know that this is palpably not the case. More accurately, they’re a short wheelbase Rover SD1 – a sort of Triumph SD0.75! How so? Well if you’ve ever driven a factory ‘8, it feels remarkably like the SD1 in some ways, aside from the lower stance and the less sophisticated, non-self levelling rear suspension. And take a look in the engine bay – that ex-Buick ‘small block V8’ sits inside it hand in glove, just like the Triumph was always made for it…

Even the air intakes for the twin Stromberg carbs on the earlier TR8s have their own special piece of metal sculpted out of the front inner wings; on the ‘7 and later EFi ‘8 they’re not needed and filled with plastic blanking plates, but it’s clear they were designed in to the TR7 from the word go. Further detective work reveals that – guess what – the chassis designer of the TR7/8 is one Charles Spencer King, the man behind the Rover P5B, Rover P6, Range Rover and indeed the SD1. The TR7 was very much the immediate precursor to the SD1, sans self-levelling Boge Nivomat assisted rear suspension and Watts linkage, but in many other ways very mechanically similar.

On the road, the factory TR8 feels very much a Spen King car. The power steering is a super-sharp 2.2 turns lock-to-lock; the great man was a fan of this gearing and the SD1 V8 gets similarly quick power steering too. Its front McPherson struts, allied to an SD1-alike live rear axle, gives a fussy ride on some surfaces but it is profoundly better than it has a right to be; it’s very long travel and supple, and gives fine ride allied to very good handling – up to a limit, when the back end starts to tramp and bounce in a way you’d never get from a deDion P6 or double wishbone XJ!

The star attraction is of course that V8, which is one of the most charismatic engines of all time in its way, and the TR8 becomes a ‘delivery system’ for the engine’s stonking torque and turbine-smooth growl. Press the accelerator and the car takes off, almost missile-like, accompanied by squealing, squirm and smoke from the stupidly small 185/70 HR13 back tyres – and a soundtrack as good as any Bond movie. On the move. the ‘8 is immensely assured and a car that just wants to have fun. The extra weight in the nose, allied to the V8 being lower and further back towards the driver than the 1998cc four in the TR7, gives the whole car a sense of composure that the factory TR7 lacks; once again it’s as if it was designed this way, then someone came along and fiddled with perfection to make the 7.

A high top gear makes the TR8 an effortless high speed cruiser in the way that the ‘7 will never be, although you’ll watch the fuel gauge plummet a lot faster – 27MPG if you’re lucky, compared to 35MPG from the four cylinder car on a run. Trouble is, the ‘8’s power is so effortlessly delivered, and with such panache, that you just want to keep using it. Every roundabout feeding on to a motorway is an excuse for punching the back end out, chirping the tyres and rocketing past lesser, modern cars. And what a sound! For most of my ownership of this car the radio didn’t work, but I was never without the most rousing of music!

Bags of grin-inducing mindless fun, yet surprisingly well built – especially compared to the car it inspired, the TVR 350i – and really rather refined, it is no wonder Road and Track magazine awarded the Triumph TR8 ‘Sportscar of the Year’ in 1980, calling it “nothing less than the reinvention of the sportscar”. It was, and proved to be the missing link between the Sunbeam Alpines of the nineteen sixties and the new wave of big bore, front engined rear wheel drive bruisers that followed the sad end of the TR8 in October 1981.

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