Filling the Void

The Triumph Spitfire

By Wiley Davis

The Triumph Spitfire shares a name with the legendary defender of Great Britain, the Supermarine Spitfire fighter aircraft. The connection, however, is in name only, and there is no real evidence that suggests this was intentional. There are legends that claim otherwise. One such story hints that Triumph was granted permission to adopt the Spitfire name after Vickers, the company that owned Supermarine, produced the Vickers Vanguard, a name already in use with the Triumph Vanguard automobile. It is also claimed that Triumph’s involvement with the manufacture of Spitfire aircraft parts was responsible for their ability to use the name. No record exists of any contention between the two companies regarding this situation. Perhaps it was simply a matter of no one really caring to complain. 

Spitfire Mk I (1962-1964)

What do you do if you own a car manufacturing company and the owners of other car companies have unveiled small, affordable sports cars that become very successful from a sales standpoint? Well, simple really. You construct a small, affordable sports car of your own and you make it better than the competition. This is exactly what Triumph did in response to the Austin-Healey Sprite and the MG Midget.

Introduced in 1962 as the Spitfire Mk I, the car was based on Triumph’s Herald sedan, sharing the running gear and independent rear suspension. The Spitfire engine, however, was tuned for an extra 12 horsepower over the Herald mill and the chassis was a backbone design that allowed the seats to be placed outside the chassis rails in a low position for an improved center of gravity.

Unlike the Herald body, which was bolted together, the Spitfire sported a fully welded unit that was less prone to flex and vibration. The styling was penned by Giovanni Michelotti, Triumph’s preferred contract designer at the time. The lines were a slight throwback to the original TR styling with sloping doors and pronounced rear fender humps. The front fenders and bonnet consist of a single piece that hinges forward, providing ample engine bay access.

One problematic design element was the rear suspension. The swing-axle design lent itself to serous jacking in the corners, which led to a sudden oversteering condition when the throttle was lifted. This alarming characteristic did nothing to keep enthusiasts from competing with Spitfires, however. Factory engine tuning kits ensured that Spitfires were plentiful on the racetrack.

Mk I Specs

  • Production: (1962-1964) 45,573
  • Length: 145.0 in.
  • Wheelbase: 83.0 in.
  • Weight: 1,570 lbs.
  • Price: (new) $1,800-2,250
  • Engine: 1147cc inline 4
  • Horsepower: 63

Spitfire Mk II (1964-1967)

mk ii

In 1964 Triumph responded to the improvements made to the Austin-Healey Sprite by releasing the Mk II Spitfire. An evolution of the original, the Mk II boasted an additional four horsepower thanks to a revised manifold and valvetrain components. Interior amenities were upgraded with carpeting and trimmed door panels. Heaters, wire wheels, and hardtops, however, were still options.

Mk II Specs

  • Production: (1964-1967) 37,409
  • Length: 145.0 in.
  • Wheelbase: 83.0 in.
  • Weight: 1,570 lbs.
  • Price: (new) $1,800-2,250
  • Engine: 1147cc inline 4
  • Horsepower: 67

Spitfire Mk III (1967-1970)

When the Mk III was unveiled in 1967, there were more than cosmetic improvements. Not only did the new model receive, at long last, a proper soft top that did not have to be stowed in the boot, it also found more power as well. The original 1147cc engine was bored out to 73.7 mm (originally 69.3 mm) to give the engine a final displacement of 1296cc and a much-improved 75 horsepower.

The rear suspension, however, continued to display the jacking characteristic that could be a handful to drive. “Excitable,” “dynamic,” and even “festive” were all terms used to describe the Spitfire’s tendencies to snap into an oversteering condition. This would not be rectified until the debut of the Mk IV in 1970.

Mk III Specs

  • Production: (1967-1970) 65,320
  • Length: 145.0 in.
  • Wheelbase: 83.0 in.
  • Weight: 1,570 lbs.
  • Price: (new) $2,295
  • Engine: 1296cc inline 4
  • Horsepower: 75

Spitfire Mk IV (1970-1980)

mk iv

The original designer, Michelotti, was brought in to do a re-skin of the Spitfire, resulting in the Mk IV series cars. The requisite ugly bumper overriders were tacked on, door handles were made flush, and the wheel arches were flared subtly. These visual improvements were married with improvements to the tricky rear suspension geometry. The transverse leaf spring, previously bolted solidly to the top of the differential housing, was modified to allow the spring to pivot atop the differential. This was a visually similar setup but effectively eliminated the snap-oversteer that made performance driving in the Spitfire such a harrowing proposition.

In 1974 Triumph released the Spitfire 1500. This model featured the 1493cc engine which was a stroked variant of the original 1300 engine. It is interesting to note that this same engine was used in the MG Midget in an effort to simplify the emissions certification for British Leyland, which now owned both marques. The 1500 engine produced 71 DIN horsepower and, when mated with the simpler and more efficient “Marina” manual transmission, made the Spitfire a true 100-mph car.

bonnet hinge mk iv

Universal woes across the British automotive industry did not look kindly upon the little Spitfire. At this stage in its life, the model no longer had any other cars to help support its tooling costs. Effectively an orphan, the Spitfire was deemed unaffordable by British Leyland brass and in 1980 production was terminated. The scrappy little niche-fighter had an 18-year stint in the affordable sports car arena. Though it wasn’t the savior of Britain, it did introduce the pleasures of the sports car to many who would not have been able to afford it otherwise. Perhaps this was the reason Vickers never complained about the appropriation of the name.

Mk IV Specs

  • Production: (1970-1980) 70,021
  • Length: 149.0 in.
  • Wheelbase: 83.0 in.
  • Weight: 1,750 lbs.
  • Price: (new) $7,365
  • Engine: 1296cc inline 4
  • Horsepower: 63
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