Growing up in the industrial north of the UK during the 1960s, there weren’t a lot of cars around and most of the adults in my neighbourhood travelled to work on public transport, by bicycle or motorcycle. My father was firmly into motorcyles, only switching to four wheels (a black E494A Anglia) in the early 1960s before moving to a much more modern Mini Countryman – we needed the extra room for our newly-acquired black Labrador, Judy.
Apart from trips squashed into the back of either the Ford or Mini, my only other close involvement with cars was earning threepence for washing the next-door neighbour’s grey Hillman Minx MkV. Automotively speaking it was a dull world, brightened only by a local doctor’s massive US cruiser – a Pontiac if I recall correctly. However, when the summer rolled around we packed up our bags and motored off into a much brighter world for our annual holidays. Along the way it was time for some car-spotting – and in amongst the welter of dull old British saloons, every now and again we’d spot a sports car. An MG Midget or an MGB, or even an E-Type or an Austin-Healey.
On one occasion we were overtaken by a silver Porsche 356, at that time one of those would’ve cost more than a three-bedroom family home. Mind you, pretty cheap when compared to a contemporary Ferrari which cost more than three family homes! When it came to sports cars, the Brits truly ruled the waves during the Swinging Sixties and beyond – entry level cars such as the MG Midget and Austin-Healey Sprite (BMC’s Spridget twins), both cost a shade over £600, while Triumph’s slinky Spitfire was only another £20-30 more. Quite reasonable prices when compared to family saloons of the day but, of course, sports cars were aspirational vehicles – they didn’t always have space for an entire family’s luggage or, indeed, the whole family; and in that I speak from experience having suffered through quite a few road trips perched on the ledge behind the seats of my grandfather’s Sunbeam Alpine GT.
The era of affordable sports cars may have passed, but the sheer number of cars produced during those golden years continues to provide classic car enthusiasts with a motoring experience on a different level to that offered by a mere saloon. Those classic entry-level sports cars may not have been the fastest cars of their time or the best handling, but what they did provide was enjoyment – a thrill that wasn’t so much about arriving but in the actual driving to a destination; and for me it was all about getting in behind the wheel of a mate’s British Racing Green Triumph Spitfire 4 for a truly memorable drive through the Welsh moors. It’s now been 60 years since the Triumph Spitfire first appeared so for me it’s time to remember a time long past and to meet up with a car that provided some of my earliest motoring memories...
In 1959 Standard-Triumph’s initial postwar cars – the Standard 8 and 10 – were well past their prime. The company realised that something more modern was required and work began on what would become the Herald. Although the new car’s up-to-the-minute styling was developed by Italian designer Giovanni Michelotti, Standard-Triumph opted not to go with a more modern unitary body solution for the Herald, instead sticking with a separate chassis.
Although this might have appeared like a retrograde step, it was actually a rather good decision – the Herald’s innovative multi-section body and chassis allowed the company to effectively mix-and match bodies – including a saloon, coupé, convertible, estate car and the Courier van. Realising that a sports car could also be based upon the Herald, a bare chassis was shipped to Italy for Michelotti to put together a two-seater sports car that Triumph could market as a direct rival to BMC’s Spridget twins.
However, even as Triumph readied the new car for production, events happening behind the scenes looked as if they would sink the whole idea. On the verge of total financial collapse in 1961, Standard-Triumph were taken over by British Leyland and that seemed to be it for the new sports car. However, during an inspection tour, Leyland Works Manager Stanley Markland spotted a car hidden under a tarp and decided to investigate.
Peeling back the cover, Markland was greeted with the sight of Michelotti’s prototype sports car. He gave the car a thorough check-over, liked what he saw and made a decision on the spot to put it into production. Tooling for the new car – code-named ‘Bomb’ – was soon underway and in October 1962 the car was launched as the Spitfire.
These first cars – badged as the ‘Spitfire 4’ – were fitted with Triumph’s trusty 1147cc engine and front disc-brakes. The car’s Achilles heel was its independent rear suspension set-up; a transverse leaf spring swing-axle that didn’t exactly promise pin-point handling. Although slightly more powerful than its Spridget rivals, the Spitfire was heavier, while wayward handling meant the BMC cars were quicker point-to-point.
The Mk II appeared in 1965 with a much improved level of trim, a diaphragm spring clutch and an increase in power due to a hotter cam. A new front grille with five rather than eight horizontal bars was introduced but the car’s handling problems remained unsorted. For the MkIII, introduced in 1967, Triumph revised the car’s bumper positioning, raising it higher, adding in a better soft-top and, in order to further combat BMC’s Spridget, a larger and more powerful 1296cc engine and improved brakes.
However, even as the 100,000th Spitfire was produced and, for the first time, sales of the little Triumph exceeded that of the Spridget, the motoring press was still happy to point out the car’s dodgy handling. Finally, with the MkIV, Triumph decided to resolve the car’s handling issues – the solution being a new ‘swing-spring’ system with the transverse leaf spring pivoted on top of the differential, thus reducing camber change.
Wider 4.5-inch wheels also helped. Other changes included a new four-speed all-synchro gearbox (as used in the Triumph Toledo) and a new dashboard. Outwardly, the most noticeable change was Michelotti’s restyle, complete with trendy Kamm rear-end. The USA had always been the Spitfire’s main market – almost 80 per cent of all examples built were sold outside the UK, with a large proportion of those being sold Stateside.
However, ever more stringent USA exhaust emission regulations were slowly strangling many imported cars, including the Spitfire. In order to combat downturns in engine power due to these regulations, Triumph had been fitting a larger 1493cc engine into MkIII cars bound for the USA. This engine would eventually be made available to UK buyers with the introduction of the Spitfire 1500.
Having outlasted the Austin-Healey Sprite (axed in 1971) – as well as the Spitfire-derived GT6 – the MG Midget remained the Spitfire’s only rival as it soldiered on through the 1970s, looking increasingly outdated as the hot-hatch trend took hold. In the end, British Leyland decided that the company’s involvement with traditional sports cars needed to end and pulled the plug on the Spitfire, making it very clear that a more modern replacement for the car had never been under consideration.
Those classic entry-level sports cars may not have been the fastest cars of their time or the best handling, but what they did provide was enjoyment – a thrill that wasn’t so much about arriving but in the actual driving to a destination.
As with many classic cars that were developed through many series, the general rule of thumb is that the older cars are more collectible while the later cars are better equipped, faster and more usable. For the MkIII, the addition of the 1296cc engine with its eight-port head offered a power increase of almost 10kW (12bhp) over the 1147cc unit fitted in the earlier models, allowing for an increased top speed and much-improved acceleration.
While the MkIII featured the ‘high’ front bumper (dictated by USA safety regulations), its body shape remained unchanged. With larger front brake callipers, a wood veneered dashboard and a much-improved soft-top, the MkIII is probably the best compromise for those looking for a Spitfire that offers the charm and collectability of the earlier cars with performance to match that of the final 1500. The only drawback being the car’s unresolved handling issues.
However, it is a relatively easy task to retrofit the later transverse leaf-to-pivot suspension to earlier cars. Additionally, installation of a thicker anti-roll bar can also counter the car’s lack of roll stiffness, while a set of adjustable shock absorbers combined with wider, low-profile tyres also go a long way to curing the Spitfire’s odd handling habits.
While there is little doubt that the restyled shape of the MkIV and 1500 models with their neater cockpits and cut-off tail propelled the Spitfire into a more modern age, I’m still amongst those who still prefer the classic lines of the MkI-MkIII cars. With the above considerations in mind, its time to check out the cars that make up our featured Spitfire squadron.
This Spitfire arrived at Amuri Motors in Christchurch on October, 3 1963 and was first sold in June 1964. The Spitfire then passed through the hands of 17 owners, including three car yards. The second owner, based in Tauranga, sold the car to an Auckland owner in 1966 and it has remained in and around the city since then with Myra taking ownership around 1984.
At that time the car’s indicated mileage was 99,800. Paint was a dull rust red colour and there was no upholstery fitted, the interior just being bare metal. Although she had once owned a Mini 1275GT while they were new, Myra had never before owned what she would regard as a genuine classic car and her Spitfire actually came to her via a barter agreement with her ex-husband. With the interior sorted, Myra used the car as a runaround for a few years – “my children used to sit on the ledge behind the front seats as no seat belts were required at that time,” she recalled.
Several attempts have been made to restore the Spitfire – the first professional restoration company sadly defaulting on the project despite holding the car for several years. Having reclaimed the Triumph, Myra was able to source an overdrive unit and a hardtop prior to commissioning Waikaraka Park Service Centre in Onehunga to finish the engine rebuild, and also arranging rustproofing and painting by Phil Stokes Panel & Paint, also in Onehunga.
Upholstery, soft-top and a new tonneau cover was sorted by Guy at Trotskies Auto Upholstery in Redoubt Road, Flat Bush. The final touch was a set of alloy wheels imported from Australia – Myra gave the original wheels to a fellow Spitfire enthusiast – and the car was returned to the road in August 2018. Since then Myra has displayed her car at the Ellerslie Intermarque Concours, the Brit & Euro Classic Car Show and at the Te Aroha Cruise-In.
She also enjoys club outings with the Auckland Triumph Car Club – “The guys at the car club oversee the mechanics as necessary,” says Myra. “I use 95 petrol but did have problems with kangaroo-ing but since using a fuel booster when filling up, this has stopped. My car dislikes first and second gear and much prefers higher speed. It is very happy when coasting around 80kph with overdrive engaged.
“Overall, this is an older restoration and is my fun car. I enjoy working on it and it is a lot of fun to drive.”
Allan has owned his MkII for around 28 years and also has a GT6 MkII that he has owned for 28 years. A true Triumph enthusiast, Allan’s home garage also houses a Herald convertible – a car that he has owned for 32 years. “After rebuilding the Herald I wanted another project,” explained Allan, “so I purchased the Spitfire in pieces and spent three years putting it all together.
The car has had a 1500 Spitfire swing-spring fitted to make it handle better and is currently running with twin Weber carburettors.” This certainly allows for an impressive engine bay and is a set-up that was once offered as part of a Stage 2 tuning option for the MkI and MkII Spitfire. Allan has also fitted extractors, a tuned exhaust with twin outlets, electronic ignition and an overdrive gearbox.
Electric fans and an oil cooler are also fitted. “Overall, this is an older restoration and is my fun car. I enjoy working on it and it is a lot of fun to drive.” Currently, Allan is in the process of doing a “bit of a tidy up of the car.”
The car had been largely restored when purchased, with only a few minor tasks being required to complete the work on the car.
Suzanne has only owned her overdriveequipped Spitfire for a year, having previously owned a 1976 Mini 1275 in British Racing Green. The car had been largely restored when purchased, with only a few minor tasks being required to complete the work on the car.
“I was introduced to the Spitfire thanks to my ex-partner and had the privilege of helping him get his car restored and back on the road,” said Suzanne. Going through that experience kindled within her a passion for the Triumph sports car. “When we separated, all the amazing people in the Auckland Triumph Club helped me find my own Spitfire.” Suzanne attributes her appreciation of cars to her father – “as a child I grew up watching my dad do up many cars that would be classed as classics now.”
Those cars included an old Jaguar, a Morris Minor, a Triumph 2500, a Ford Capri, a Morris 1100 and a Vauxhall Viva that ended up being Suzanne’s very first car. “Since I have owned my own Spitfire,” said Suzanne, “I have had many fun times driving it and look forward to many more years in it. It is so fun being able to drive a car that brings a smile to people when they see it passing by.”
Paul’s MkIV is mostly original with only 63,000 miles on the clock. The previous owner carried out a bare metal respray about two years ago and the car still looks great. Since then, Paul has been working his way round the car replacing worn items such as rubber bushes, braking components, rebuilding the carburettors, seat foams and covers along with other tasks.
Next on the list is an update of the car’s suspension with some adjustable shocks – a useful modification that further aids the Spitfire’s handling characteristics. Paul has also been carrying out a lot of cosmetic tidy up tasks such as carpeting the boot plus cleaning and painting anything that he takes off before reinstalling. He has also added a few modern touches such as an electric windscreen washer. “Something I particularly like about this car is the black plastic dashboard,” said Paul.
“Spitfires generally had wood veneered dashboards but when the MkIV was introduced they featured this ‘new look’ black dash. It only lasted two years before Triumph reverted to wood veneer. I love the look of the all black interior and the fact that it is a relatively rare configuration.” Paul has now owned the car with his partner, Denise – who also owns a 1962 Ford Falcon – for a year and a half.
“We both love classic cars, and we decided we wanted something fun for summer outings,” said Paul. They first spotted their Spitfire being offered for sale on Trade Me and, after travelling down to Rotorua to check out the car, they knew it was the right car for them. “We did have a nail-biting moment whilst bidding for it as our internet dropped out in the final couple of minutes of the auction and we had just been outbid,” said Paul, “but the connection came back up with less than a minute to go and we were able to win the auction.
Had the outage lasted a few more seconds, we wouldn’t be driving it today!” Paul, who owned a Triumph TR7 back in the ‘90s, has always had a fondness for Triumphs. “When I was at college a lot of the people there had Midgets and Spitfires, they were commonplace back then but I rode motorcycles and didn’t own a car for years. That said, I especially loved the look of the square-tail MkIVs and 1500s from when I first saw them, and owning one was on my bucket-list for 40 years.”
Chris imported this Tahiti Blue Spitfire from the UK almost six years ago. The car had been restored in the early 2000s, with the majority of the external panels replaced as noted in the history file that came with the car. Following restoration, the Triumph had only been used sparingly.
From those history files, Chris was able to ascertain that the car’s 1.5-litre engine had been replaced around ten years before he purchased the car and that it had only covered about 800 miles since then. “I had previously had a few months use of a similarly-aged Spitfire a number of years ago so had always been keen to get my own,” said Chris.
“They are fairly straightforward to work on and great fun to drive.” Since buying the Spitfire, Chris has also added a brace of Heralds, one of which is an ongoing project car. Previously owned cars include a Wolseley 1100 and a Reliant Scimitar GTE.
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