Not As Awful As We Like To Believe Pt 2: Triumph TR7
Our sometime series about the cars that we hate but possibly shouldn't sets itself the unenviable task of rehabilitating the automotive world's lost souls. Challenging perceived wisdom cemented over decades is no small challenge, but at Great Driving Days we never shirk from a challenge. After all, we ran a Jensen as a hire car for many years.
This time out we're considering the automotive equivalent of a bad rock band reunion. Think Sex Pistols rather than Fleetwood Mac. Yes, it's the Triumph TR7, a car that brought the combined might of British Leyland's MG and Triumph sports car-building minds together to create... well, a car that didn't exactly reboot the British sports car franchise.
Here we go now...
A Bit of History
In the 1950s and 60s Britain was an increasingly spent force on the world stage. But there was one arena in which it truly dominated: cheap, inexpensive sports car production. Plucky companies from over here, like MG and Triumph, churned out simple, stylish little cars that did rather well over there, in America. College kids and young professionals eschewed the country's home-grown land yachts in favour of nippy, inexpensive, fun cars that would appeal to Gals, like the Triumph Spitfire and MG Midget. There were also bigger, faster versions like the Austin Healey 3000 and Triumph TRs, aimed at men with a little more hair on their chests. But even they were cheap and small compared to America's homegrown models.
Although they looked quite good, in truth many of these cars weren't actually much cop. Beyond the crisp lines, the bits you couldn't see weren't very sophisticated. But that did mean they were quite reliable, or at least easy to fix when they did go wrong. These attributes, plus the lack of direct competition, enabled their makers to keep making them long, long after their normal sell-by dates. The Midget, Spitfire and MGB all stayed in production for around 20 years, virtually unchanged.
These cars were simple and popular. And therefore profitable. They also made a positive contribution to Britain's vital export trade. So in 1968, when British Leyland amalgamated the various makers of these little sports cars, securing the future of this market became a priority.
This should have been simple. The cars were selling well and there was little competition. But it wasn't. Even in 1968, the Spitfire, Midget, MGB and TR series were long in the tooth, old designs that shared few parts with other BL products. This made them comparatively expensive to build.
Then there were the politics. MG and Triumph were old competitors. Now under the same umbrella, neither was prepared to give an inch or share anything.
So it is a credit to British Leyland that the firm managed to bring together these old adversaries and launch a brand new sports car in 1974, just six years after the BL merger. The new car, the TR7, was designed to replace the company's confusing and multiple range of sports cars, from the Midget to the TR6, with a fresh, new design for a fresh, new era.
Things didn't quite work out that way.
How The TR7 Got Its Reputation
Everybody loved the little cars from a little island. The Spitfire, the Midget, the B, the TRs. The Austin Healey. They still do. These accessible, stylish cars spelt freedom.
For many buyers, these cars defined a particular time in their life - before commitments, family and responsibility. All reasons why they remain so popular on the contemporary classic car scene.
MG and Triumph's customers were loyal and enthusiastic. They overlooked the cars' shortcomings - the iffy handling, the so-so performance - because they were cheap, rugged and looked good. In fact, those characteristics were often recast as positives - they were difficult to drive, which meant they were Proper Drivers' Cars.
You might expect, therefore, that the TR7 would receive a warm reception. Here was a much more modern car that, on paper, suffered none of the corner cutting of its predecessors. It was comfortable, the heating and ventilation worked. The handling was surefooted and predictable.
The TR7's reception was anything but warm. And that's because the car had a mountain to climb. Instead of replacing one car, it had to replace several - not just cars from the same market sector, like the Spitfire and Midget, but models from at least three - the Midget, MGB and TR cars were all bought by people with slightly different priorities. And budgets.
The design team, made up of Triumph and MG staff, knew this. They made a reasonable stab of designing and engineering a car that would appease buyers across the traditional MG and Triumph spectrum. The TR7 was compact, fairly simple and it was stylish. It was fast without being quick. It was affordable.
The trouble started in a very British Leyland way. To cut costs, BL's top brass insisted on using shared components that compromised the pretty Harris Mann design. Like the Allegro before it, the low, svelte shape became taller and dumpier. The 16v Dolomite Sprint engine, that would have endowed the car with sprightly performance, was shelved because the factory couldn't manufacture it reliably.
This left the TR7 with the standard slant four 2 litre Triumph engine. With just 105 bhp and 0 to 60 in over 11 seconds, this was pretty pitiful stuff compared to the similarly powered, but lighter MGB and even the less powerful but lighter Midget and Spitfire. For hairy chested 150 bhp TR6 buyers, it was distinctly unappealing.
A V8-engined version, the TR8, did belatedly arrive for the US market. But even this only had 135 bhp - in a bigger, heavier car - and proved catastrophically unreliable.
Get up and go wasn't the TR7s only crime. It had been engineered to be comfortable and relaxing to drive over long distances, something the cars it replaced could never claim. But this meant that, combined with the dawdling performance, the TR7 didn't seem very sporty at all. Shorn of the wayward swing-axle handling of, say, the Spitfire, or the meaty, bone-rattling drama of the TR6, the TR7 seemed boring and, worst of all, grown up.
Then there's the elephant in the room: reliability. The TR7 looked alright. It went alright. It drove alright. But it broke down very, very well. For a simple car built from proven mechanicals, the TR7's ability to let buyers down on twilight hard shoulders was legendary. Tow truck drivers quickly began to identify a stricken TR7 from the one winking pop-up headlight appearing through the gloom.
The TR7's failure, its detractors argue, is demonstrated by the fact that it didn't actually replace the cars it was designed to replace. The Midget, B and Spitfire all stayed in production alongside the new car. To some that's a damning indictment.
In 1974 BL had shouted loudly about the TR7's arrival. Here was one of the first fruits of a daring merger, a brand new, stylish sports car that would take the fight to America. That just made the reality all the more unpalatable. For a country suffering strikes, three-day-weeks and power cuts, here was yet more proof that when we tried to get it right, we simply got it wrong. Very wrong.
Like the Allegro and Marina, the TR7 has come to exemplify everything that was wrong about Britain in the 1970s. It embodies the idea of self-inflicted mistakes, of half-hearted effort, of the sick man of Europe. Over time that impression has solidified into fact: the TR7 was - and is - rubbish.
But is it?
Should We Reconsider?
The TR7, perhaps more than any British Leyland car of its era, has been unfairly maligned. Much of that is due to the car's perceived lack of success, its unreliability and its unsporting character. Shorn of those preconceptions, you start to see a car that was - and is - surprisingly good.
Firstly, it wasn't really a failure. 115,000 were sold in 7 years, a figure that holds up well compared to the MGB. Not bad when you consider that for all of its life the B - and most of its other in-house rivals - were still available.
Of course, it was unreliable, not helped by constant strikes at the Speke factory. But things improved markedly when production moved to Solihull in 1977. It was too late, however, to rescue the car's reputation. Around 1% of the total TR7 production run survives in the UK in 2020, compared to 3% of all MGBs, a car that has always been more coveted and desirable and therefore more likely to survive. I think that's quite an achievement for a car so universally reviled.
The TR7 is definitely less exhilarating than a Spitfire or TR6, but the upside is it's much more relaxing. It is a more grown up, more comfortable and generally much nicer place to be than either of those cars, or indeed any of the sports cars it was meant to replace. It's also more practical - it's the only one with a decent sized boot - and, unlike the older cars, there's room for anyone possessed of a pair of elbows. Instead of applauding the TR7 for banishing horrible old swing axles and separate chassis to history, we criticise it for lacking the excitement and drama of those earlier cars. Give me the safe and surefooted any day.
Perhaps the hardest criticism to dislodge about the TR7 is its performance. It was a comparatively heavy car beset with an underwhelming engine. For new car buyers in 1974 it was surely a big disappointment. For classic car buyers, more than 40 years on, should that really matter? It's certainly a better engine than the heavy, asthmatic 1800 in the MGB, a motor that rarely comes in for much criticism despite having all the performance attributes - at least in standard form - of a sack of mouldy potatoes. A V8 is obviously the way to go, but the standard car is perfectly good if you want to gently pootle around the Cotswolds on a lovely sunny day.
The TR7 has always suffered by comparison with the cars that went before it. Slow, unreliable and unexciting. But take a closer look and it is exactly the same comparison that shows just how good the TR7 really is. It avoids the distinctive qualities of its stablemates, like wayward handling and cramped interiors; qualities that in reality are actually tiring and annoying. That doesn't make it bland, it just makes it better.
If we ever get back to assembling classic cars in fields up and down the land you'll find them full of Spitfires, Midgets and Bs. They're good choices - perhaps even great (we've had them all on our classic car hire fleet) - but they're obvious ones. The TR7, by comparison, is rarer with looks that are much more arresting, even now. And it's cheaper. You can pick up a TR7 for a third of the price of a MGB.
If you're in the market for a British sports car, I really think you should.
Graham Eason, Great Driving Days. 01527 893733