Triumph Spitfire

Triumph Spitfire – The British Export Success Story

When you mention Spitfire, most people would envision the powerful World War II fighter aircraft taking to the skies such as during the Battle of Britain. But another Spitfire comes to the hearts and minds of Triumph lovers, a two-seater British sports car. The Triumph Spitfire was a huge export success story for Triumph with a production life running over the course of 18 years. During this time over 317,000 Spitfires were sold — 75% exported to the world market and 45% sold to the US market alone.

How to drive a Spitfire. Source: Petersen Museum

The ‘Bomb’ — Prototype to Triumph Spitfire

The Triumph Spitfire story began when the Standard Motor Company that owned Triumph were looking at producing a sports car that could compete against the Austin Healey Sprite — a cheap and fun two-seater that the everyday person could afford and drive.

Although Triumph already produced sports cars at the time, they were produced to compete with more upmarket makes like the MGs. The company needed to produce a sports car to fill their manufacturing void- a car more competitive in the lower end of the sports car market but superior to the Austin Healey Sprite.

Austin Healey Sprite
Austin Healey Sprite Mk I

In 1960 the Italian designer Giovanni Michelotti was appointed to draw an attractive design for a sports car. They had already utilized Michelotti for the Triumph Herald so was the logical choice for this new project. Michelotti creation featured a beautiful swooping body. The prototype of the Spitfire was named “Bomb”.

It would be superior to the Sprite by having a larger and more powerful Herald 1.1L engine, along with more spacious and comfortable interior space for the driver.

The prototype was heavily based on the Triumph Herald, Michelotti’s other Triumph design. The Spitfire borrowed its steering and the suspension. The frame however was newly developed and is characterized by its high level of robustness. Since its predecessors had a lack of rigidity in the body, the ‘Bomb’ was no longer riveted but welded. To give the car even more stability, stronger side skirts were installed and the wall behind the seats was reinforced so that the spring arms could be mounted there.

Unfortunately before the ‘Bomb’ was able to begin production, the financial situation at Triumph became dire and the project was put on hold, and slowly forgotten. Triumph got a lifeline in 1961, with British Leyland (BL) taking over the ailing Standard Triumph factory.

The ‘Bomb’ prototype may have been lost forever if it had not been for a curious Leyland manager who, while walking around the trim factory, looked under a dust sheet to find the ‘bomb’ prototype hiding there.

British Leyland loved the idea of an entry level sports car and investment funds were released in July 1961 to relaunch the project. It took only a total of 15 months to bring the ‘bomb’ to market under the name ‘Spitfire 4’ where it was presented to the public at the London Motor Show of 1962. The car differed from the Sprite as it had wind up windows, rubber floor mats and locking doors.

1962 London Motor Show- Triumph Spitfire Displayed / Source: YouTube

The background to the reason behind calling the car the ‘Spitfire 4’ is not known. Although it was clearly a name paying tribute to the second world war plane, there is no record of Triumph licensing the brand. Perhaps it relates to the fact that Triumph produced Spitfire parts in its Coventry factory during the war.

Triumph Spitfire 4 ‘Mark I’

The first version of the Spitfire, released in 1962 was called the ‘4’ which was a reference to the number of cylinders under the hood. Although it was slightly more expensive than its competitors, the Spitfire was outselling them, especially in the USA. A main factor was that it was better equipped by offering wind-up side windows, exterior door locks, an aircraft-inspired instrument panel, an optional hard-top, and later on even an overdrive transmission with wire wheels.

Mk I
1964 Triumph Spitfire Mk I, owned by Barry Connally

Beneath the surface were efficient disc brakes which stopped the light Spitfire effectively and independent suspension originating from the Triumph Herald. The front suspension featured wishbones with coil springs and the rear suspension combined swing axles with transverse leaf springs bolted to the top of the differential. The Triumph was simple, but it worked brilliantly for what you paid.

The engine was modest, being a 1.1 L, 63 horsepower 4-cylinder engine. It allowed the Spitfire 4 to reach 60mph in 16.4 seconds with a top speed of 92mph. This might not sound quick, but those figures were completely acceptable for a small sports car in 1962.

Engine of Spitfire Mk I

With its low and deep sitting position, the Spitfire 4 still delivered the feelings of thrills which the buyers were seeking.

Not long after the car was released Triumph and its dealers started offering tuning kits and upgrades. Anything from high-compression cylinder heads, new exhaust manifolds, and twin-choke Weber carburetors were offered. This made the Spitfire 4 faster, unique and a lot more exciting. In total over 45,000 Spitfire 4 were sold during its production between 1962-1964.

Mark I

Spitfire ‘Mark II’

The second version of the Spitfire was made from 1965-1967. It was a minor upgrade from the Mark I. Triumph updated the coil spring clutch to a diaphragm spring clutch. This update was only applied to British models, not North American market models. The North American market models also received ACDelco distributors as opposed to the British models that stayed with Lucas.

Triumph Spitfire Mk II
Triumph Spitfire MkII / Source: Triumph Sports Owners Association

Other updates included redesigned seats, covers for exposed metal panels, and carpets that replaced the original rubber mats. To differentiate the Mark II from the Mark I, Triumph fitted new emblems and a new front grille. We almost forgot, the Spitfire Mark II also gained 4 new horsepowers (67 bhp).

In the United States, the Spitfires were entered into the motor racing scenes and heavily advertised by promoting their wins. This was to be a great marketing tool as the saying ‘win on Sunday, sell on Monday’ played a great part in selling the Triumph Spitfires. In total over 37,000 of the Mark II were produced during a two-year period.

Spitfire Mark III

The 1967 Mark III Spitfire brought along some major and much-needed changes. In order to stay competitive Triumph updated the engine to a 1.3L capacity, giving it the ability to produce 75 bhp. The increased power meant the Spitfire Mark III could reach 60mph in 13.4 seconds now.

Triumph Spitfire Mk III
Triumph Spitfire Mk III

This was not all that changed, the most obvious change was the updated front bumper which was modified to comply with new US federal laws. Triumph also fitted bigger front brake calipers, a bigger steering wheel from the  TR4 model, different seats and even a wood-veneer dashboard. Last but not least, Triumph also fitted a new and improved soft top that did not need storing in the boot.

In 1968, the 100,000th Spitfire rolled off the production line, providing a great celebration for Triumph. The Mark III was the most successful update to the Spitfire range producing over 65,000 in three years.

Spitfire ‘Mark IV’

The amount of changes that the 1970 Mark 4 Spitfire introduced makes you wonder why Triumph did not also change the name of the Spitfire. However, the Mark IV Spitfire was more mature stylish version of .its predecessors. Its form was more comparable to the original Michelotti’s design.

Triumph Spitfire Mk IV
Triumph Spitfire Mk IV

Gone were the trim strips on the top of the hood and the chrome headlamp rings. Triumph fitted a black plastic grille and black plastic bumper.

To achieve a more clean and stylish look, Triumph fitted flush, modern door handles, and slightly flared wheel arches. The rear bumper now came in one piece as well as the whole rear. This increased the boot space and placed the Spitfire in line with other Triumph models like the Stag and 2000 saloon.

Mark IV received a new hardtop version which was more practically designed. There was additional headroom for the passengers and included plastic moldings for head protection.

All Mark IV models were fitted with the black cockpit-wide plastic dashboard which had the main instruments in front of the driver instead of the middle. Later on, Triumph also offered wood veneered dashboards. Seat belts, a heater and black padded sun visors were now fitted as standard.
Even though the official data stated the new Spitfire had less power (63 hp) it was actually an almost identical engine to the one in the Mark III Spitfire. The only change was the power measuring system, which was now done according to the German DIN system.

Triumph finally addressed the rear suspension issue during the Mark IV production. Corner handling in the previous models was let’s say, a lot more ‘interesting’. This was not something many people appreciated. This was due to the rear transverse leaf spring assembly being bolted solidly to the top of the differential casing. What Triumph did was simple, cheap, and effective. They only bolted down the bottom leaf of the assembly, while others were free to move around the central axis. This meant that the Mark IV Spitfire was much more predictable to drive, while still retaining a fun character. An ideal solution if you ask us. In all, 70,000 Mark IV were produced between 1970-1974.

Triumph Spitfire 1500

The last, but in our opinion, the best, was the Spitfire 1500. A new 1.5 L engine produced 71 hp (again, according to the DIN measurement standard) and was paired with a Morris Marina gearbox. The combination of both meant that the Spitfire finally passed the 100 mp/h (161 km/h) top speed mark. However, due to new laws in the US, the US exported Spitfire 1500 were given a smaller engine compression ratio (so it could run on unleaded gasoline), a single Zenith Stromberg carburetor, and an exhaust system with a recirculation system and a catalytic converter.

Triumph Spitfire 1500

This meant that the new US market Spitfire only produced 53 hp (DIN) and reached the 60mph mark in 16.3 seconds. This was far from impressive. European and British Spitfires kept the twin HS4 carburetors and a 9:1 compression ratio which allowed for better performance.

The 1500 came with longer rear swing axles which resulted in a wider rear track. Combined with a lowered rear suspension this improved the car’s stability considerably. Other changes include the significant upgrade of the interior trim with the later models (1977 and onwards) also receiving more modern updates like electric windscreen washers and hazard warning lights.

After 18 years of production the British Leyland felt the Spitfire was no longer competitive in the sports car market due to many factors including constraints of American safety and emissions legislation. The last Spitfire 1500 rolled off the assembly line in August 1980 and is on full display at the British Motor Heritage Museuem in Gaydon, Warwick.

Racing the Spitfire

It’s hard to find a good starting point to describe the rich and colorful racing history of the Spitfire. The Triumph Spitfire was present in all major US racing events such as the  SCCA Regionals, Divisional, and Nationals.

Leigh Derby, 68 Triumph Spitfire

The Spitfire works racing and rally cars appeared for only two seasons, being 1964-65. There were four race cars (ADU 1B-4B) and four rally cars (ADU 5B-8B).

In the 1964 24 hours of Le Mans, three Spitfires entered (ADU 1B- 3B) with only ADU 2B finishing in 21st overall with the two others crashing.  The rally team won its class in the 1964 Tour de France rally, as well as winning the Geneva Rally.

In 1965, the Spitfires competed in Sebring and Le Mans with great success. They won their class at Le Mans with a 1-2 finish. Later in the year a Spitfire won its class in the Alpine Rally.

racing the car
Triumph Spitfire of Peter Bolton and Mike Rothschild. (photo: Bill Stowe)

From 1962-1973 Spitfires entered a total of 458 races and ended them with an 84% finishing ratio. Out of the 458 races, Spitfires achieved 52 wins, 49-second places, and 52 third-place finishes.

The Spitfire came to market with a clear intention; to offer a fun, top-less, and inexpensive driving experience. It didn’t deliver crazy performance like the AC Shelby Cobra, but it was still good fun throwing the little Spitfire around tight corners on the local back road. Because Triumph offered a number of performance upgrades, the car was and still is loved by many motoring enthusiasts who treated their Spitfire as a DIY project. Finding and buying performance upgrades was like playing with Legos, but for adults. With each add-on, the Spitfire became a tiny bit more exciting and the owner was never bored.
This is the reason why Triumph is still a popular choice for vintage racing events and novice classic car lovers.

Show Comments (3)

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  1. In my youth-a 1967 Spitfire. Now ,at 74, rebuilding a 1979 Spitfire from ground up. Putting all the updated goodies for suspention to engine upgrades I couldn,t afford as a youngster. Come spring,after the virus, we,ll be flying down the highway ,hair in the air,giggling all the way, yahoo,from sunny Alberta, Canada

  2. Just found this and relived my crazy summer of ’70. My parents left for a cross-country road trip, leaving me unsupervised. (Ha!) I was a feshman in college and looking for fun. The day after they left I bought a ’64 Spitfire- now a legend in my family. Yellow. Funky first gear. Top hard to raise, but who cared about that. Replaced the muffler and tail pipe (a little over an inch in diameter)and I was good to go. Had a blast of a summer with my little yellow chick magnet. When the parents returned 2 monthe later, they asked who owned the yellow sports car in the driveway. After I owned up, my father said two words: “sell it”. To say he equated fun with danger is understatement. A summer to remember. Maybe there’s one in my future? Thanks.