By Ryno Verster
The South African tale of Triumph’s coolest nameplate but oft forgotten sportscar – the Spitfire.
Attend any show in South Africa and there will invariably be several breathtakingly-restored Triumph sportscars displayed. From an outsider’s view the TR series seemed to have established itself as the ‘darling’ for South African Triumph collectors and restorers, an elevated status that is still firmly entrenched years after production ceased in February 1963. It is not surprising when learning that Triumph TRs were all assembled by Motor Assemblies in Durban over an interrupted span of 8 years. From October 1955 through to December 1956 354 TR 2s left the plant before the TR 3 took over in January 1957. By the end of production in October ‘58 624 TR 3s had hit the local roads. A 27-month drought followed before the TR 3A got the ball rolling in February 1961. Two years later when the 72nd and last TR3A rolled off the floor, only South Africans saw the new Spitfire take over as the sporting Triumph.
By comparison, the Triumph Spitfire models seem to be in lesser numbers at shows, hence the wallflower label, but those in the know can gloss over this as the drop-top car has a charm of its own and deserves to be asked for more than one dance.
Let’s look at our dance partner’s background. The Triumph Spitfire in 4-cylinder configuration was manufactured in Coventry in the UK from 1962 to 1980 as the Mk1 (Sports 4), Mk2, Mk3, Mk4 and the 1500. There was also a Triumph GT6 with 6-cylinder engine and Spitfire body but as in the case of the Spitfire Mk4 and 1500, it was never assembled and sold in South Africa.
Introduced at the 1962 Earls Court motor show the Spitfire was said to feature ‘handsome and curvaceous styling’ from the Italian stylist Giovanni Michelotti.
Michelotti was the obvious choice, having already penned a two-seater sportscar in 1957 for the Standard-Triumph company (code name was ‘Bomb’) but moth-balled with the company experiencing financial problems at the time. With Leyland Motor Corporation acquiring Standard-Triumph in 1960 though, the required funds became available to proceed.
To a large extent the Spitfire and Triumph Herald shared the same platform with the two using a steel-girder chassis. In the Spitfire’s case the outer rails and rear outriggers were removed resulting in a shorter chassis. Wheelbase on the Spitfire was also shorter than the Herald by 21.6cm (Spitfire 211cm and Herald 232cm). To compensate and stiffen the body the Spitfire featured structural outer sills to stiffen its body shell. Suspension was carried over from the Herald so it had an independent front with wishbone, coil spring and anti-roll bar setup while the rear featured a swing axle with transverse leaf springs and radius rods. The rear suspension and its influence on the violent oversteer and comical rear wheel camber change when pushed hard was well-recorded but only addressed and improved on with the arrival of the Mk 4 version overseas.
Stopping came via disc brakes at front and drums at the rear while the go came from the diminutive Herald engine in various stages of tune and capacity. Perhaps because of the performance-sapping altitude on the Highveld and the realization that a large number of cars would reside there, all local units had twin 1¼ inch SU carburettors and 4-speed gearboxes to eat up the large expanses.
If you’ve spotted one of the few that do make it to shows you’ll probably have noted the much-praised nosepiece that sees the combined bonnet and front wing assembly tip forward, giving unimpeded access to engine and front suspension. By small British sportscar standards the Spitfire was described as ‘surprisingly sophisticated and well-equipped’ with luxuries such as wind-up windows which the counterpart MG and Austin Healey Sprite were lacking.
But back to the SA cars. First up was the Triumph Spitfire Mk1 (also called 4 Sport),introduced here in August 1963. The ‘4’ referred to 4 cylinders. Although never badged or promoted as a Mk1 this name stuck as the later models arrived. Production started at Motor Assemblies in July 1963 and it appeared in motoring magazines’ price lists in August 1963 at a moderate R1 530. At the time an Auto Union 1000 S Coupé sold at
R1 675, an Alfa Romeo TI R1 996, and a GSM Flamingo GT Coupé R3 000. The last price for a Triumph TR 3A earlier in that year was R1 850.
Mk1 production continued locally until December 1965. Unfortunately Motor Assemblies’ production records only show combined production figures for the Mk1 and Mk2 variants so an exact number takes a lot of homework. Fortunately CAR magazine’s New Car Price List’s last price on Spitfires was published in December 1965. After a four-month break in the price lists where no Spitfire price was reported, the Spitfire resurfaced in May 1966 with a launching price similar to that published in the New Model announcement on the Spitfire Mk2 in July 1966. In applying the cutoff date for the Spitfire Mk1 as end of 1965 to the NAAMSA sales figures, it would appear that roughly 626 Spitfire Mk1 units were assembled and sold over the period.
In this period the Mk1price increased twice to bring it to a total of R1 560 representing a R30 hike over almost 2½ years. Just to reiterate how good the ‘good old days’ were, the annual licensing fees amounted to R16 per year.
Not many local Mk1 road tests were carried out but where it does get a mention the write-ups were quite positive. CAR said: “The Spitfire 4 is a little beauty, solid and driveable and with many attractive features. It has moderate performance by sports car standards, but makes up for this by its reasonable cost, safety and enjoyable handling, and outstanding fuel economy. The Spitfire is deservedly popular in South Africa, and it is a pity that its production volume is limited here. It is our only imported sports car at this stage, and it’s a good one.” I suppose the reference to limited production volume refers to constraints imposed by the South African Local Content Programme. This programme specified tariff protection for car parts made in South Africa, progressive rebates of excise duty on cars according to their South African content and bonus import permits at a time of strict import control for CKD (completely knocked down) kits. This possibly also explains why the South African Standard Triumph Motor Company never saw a need for placing a single advertisement in any leading South African motoring magazine trying to increase Spitfire sales.
With its mildly-tweaked 1147cc engine the Mk1 had a top speed of 145km/h, slightly off what most thought sportscars should do, so bringing the performance more in line with sportcar standards must have been uppermost in the minds when introducing the Spitfire Mk2.
The announcement of this was made in the motoring press in July 1966. The Mk2 was still moderately priced at R1 650 in a market where an Austin Cooper ‘S’ cost R1 765, a Renault Caravelle R2 300, a GSM Flamingo 1500 GT R2 596 and a Sunbeam Alpine 260 cost R3 350.
Mechanical changes on the 1147cc engine included revised camshaft design and a fabricated 4-branch exhaust manifold. The output of the Mk2 was improved by 3kW to 50kW and top speed increased to 155km/h. A water-heated inlet manifold ensured quicker warming up and a no-loss cooling system was introduced. A diaphragm-type clutch was introduced which required less pedal effort.
On the outside the look was updated with a new-look front grille and Mk2 insignia on the boot lid. Several interior improvements were introduced such as extra trim where there was previously bare metal – the fascia (except for the central instrument panel), passenger’s grab handle, parcel rail, fascia support and windscreen surround were trimmed in black vynide. New seats provided more comfort and moulded carpets were added.
The Spitfire Mk2’s price increased in 18 months by R64 (from R1 650 to R1 714) representing a 3.9% increase. Production of the Mk2 continued at Motor Assemblies until September 1967. Their records show that 257 units were assembled but according to NAAMSA records 223 were sold in 1966 and 42 in 1967 for a total of 265 units. This discrepancy of 8 units can probably be attributed to direct imports.
Between October 1967 and September ‘68 there was no Spitfire production in South Africa. It seemed to kick off again in September 1968 with Leykor Distributors announcing that South African assembly of the Triumph Spitfire Mk3 in South Africa had commenced. NAAMSA sales figures confirm that 89 Spitfires were sold in 1968 but for the first time recorded these sales under the newly-formed Leyland Motor Corporation of S.A. Limited banner.
The question is, however, at which plant was the Triumph Spitfire Mk3 assembled? Some speculate that initial production was at the old Rover plant in Port Elizabeth. There is merit in this assumption since the other newcomer in the Triumph range, the Triumph 1500 was initially assembled at this plant. In October 1968 the S.A. Garage and Motor Engineer reported that “the first trial runs of Triumph cars will be undertaken at Blackheath during November. Triumphs are expected to be in full production at the BMC plant by early 1969.” This was confirmed in the Motoring Mirror of April 1970 reporting that Leykor Manufacturing’s car assembly was finally centralised at the Blackheath plant near Cape Town. During February 1969 assembly of the Triumph 2000 was transferred from Motor Assemblies in Durban to Blackheath, as well as the production of Land Rover and the Triumph 1500 previously assembled in Port Elizabeth.
In all of this, no mention was specifically made of where the Spitfire Mk3 was initially assembled. It is possible that it was first assembled from September 1968 to February 1969 at the Rover plant in Port Elizabeth or perhaps Spitfire production went straight to a Blackheath assembly line. No written proof of either of these theories could be found.
Whatever the case the launch price of R1 795 was still moderately priced against the likes of a R2 595 Alfa Romeo Giulia Sprint GT 1300, a Fiat 124 Sports Coupé at R2 980, Lancia Fulvia Rallye Coupé 1.3 R2 790 and a Renault 8 Gordini at R2 230. After three price increases the last price quoted for the Triumph Spitfire Mk3 was R2 115 in January 1972.
Mk3 versions featured several significant improvements. Engine capacity was increased to 1296cc and engine performance improved significantly with output up to 56kW and torque at 102Nm – a huge 12% for both. This is claimed to give the magical ‘ton’ of 100mph/161km/h maximum but most road tests overseas cautiously claimed a lower top speed. Acceleration to 100km/h improved by 1.5 seconds to 12.9 while a stronger clutch was installed to handle the extra torque. Brakes were improved by fitting a larger master cylinder, brake lining material was changed and larger front calipers gave greater pad area.
Several stylish changes refreshed the Mk3 with the most obvious at the front where the bumper was raised to cut across the centre of a new single-piece air intake – referred to in the media as the ‘bone-in-the-teeth’ bumper. This change was necessitated by American safety legislation. Single front indicator and parking lamps were fitted under the front bumper and new over-riders with rubber inserts on the front bumper were also introduced. Rear bumper was also raised, over-riders discarded and a pair of reverse lamps introduced. A most significant change was the inclusion of a permanently attached soft top, which could be erected single-handedly in seconds. The top was folded away behind the seats while a vynide cover snapped over it. The instrument panel was now also veneered.
No official Leykor production figures for Spitfire Mk3 are available. NAAMSA shows that sales of Spitfire Mk3 under the Leykor banner ceased at the end of 1971 with a total of 632. Added to the totals above it would appear that, across all models, 1 523 Spitfires were sold in SA between July 1963 and early 1972.
Whatever the model choice the Spitfire is a true classic with a strong South African link and the time has come to elevate them in the collector ranks. Before signing off though, I leave you with the following thought: Could we have had a more triumphant Triumph locally? It appears it came close…
Before the acquisition of BMC and Jaguar by Leyland South Africa in 1968 the company had strong views to build a plant for the production of fibreglass bodies. The July 1968 Motorgids reported that Leyland budgeted R3.5 million for the erection of a plant to produce fibreglass bodies for Triumph and later Rover cars as well as cabs for Leyland commercial vehicles. At the time it had not yet been decided whether a new plant would be built in Rosslyn or whether the Rover plant in Port Elizabeth would be expanded.
Already as far back as December 1966 the S.A. Garage and Motor Engineer wrote in a News Flash: “Leyland has announced that Triumph will have three ‘manufactured’ models by late 1967 – the 2000, a 1500c.c. saloon and a sportscar. To achieve ‘manufactured’ status the cars will have fibreglass bodies – said to be cheaper than metal on short runs. While fibreglass bodies have found little favour overseas, South Africa has produced the two fibreglass sports cars – the Dart and the Flamingo. With no manufacturing competition in the sportscar field, the Triumph sportscar at least is likely to prove a proposition.”
One wonders if these plans materialised 50 years ago would have contributed to moving the Triumph Spitfire away from ‘wallflower’ closer to ‘Belle of the ball’ status among South African collectors and restorers.