THE SHAPE OF THINGS THAT NEVER CAME

By Sivan Goren with images thanks to Mike Schmucker

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If I said ‘seventies’, you’d probably visualise Farrah Fawcett’s iconic feathered hair in the hit show Charlie’s Angels, bell bottoms, mirror balls and roller skates. The somewhat whimsical times were reflected in contemporary fashion, music and even cars but while it might have been a decade of fun and frivolity, it was also a period of turbulence and upheaval worldwide – and Britain was no exception. While 1972 had been a banner year for British motor manufacture, with car production peaking at 1.92 million vehicles following the launch of legends such as the Ford Cortina Mk3, the tide was about to turn. And so it was into choppy waters that the Triumph TR7 was unveiled. But before I get ahead of myself, let’s go back a bit further, to 1968 to be exact – the year the British Motor Corporation (BMC) merged with Leyland Motors to form British Leyland (BLMC).

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BMC and Leyland Motors were both known for their sporty offerings. BMC had the MG Midget and MGB selling well over in the US, and MG’s previous sworn rival, Triumph, had the Spitfire and TR6. But now the two direct competitors, used to being on opposite sides of the battlefield, were forced to share a stable – and sales; suddenly there was huge overlap in the new entity’s sports car range. And with the MGB and TR6 growing long in the tooth, and the American market’s roving gaze now firmly glued to the exciting Datsun 240Z and Porsche 914, a new dilemma reared its head: should the replacement sports car aimed at the States be a Triumph or an MG?

In fact, at the time of the merger, both MG and Triumph were already working on their own versions of a new sports car. MG’s offering, codenamed ‘ADO21’, was a two-seater, mid-engined example, while Triumph’s design, codenamed ‘Bullet’, was a conventional front-engined one. While both had positive aspects, the ultimate decision would have to come down to what would suit the needs of the US market best. And in order to get a better idea of what those were, two people travelled stateside: Mike Carver, a manager in central product planning, and Spen King, chief engineer at Triumph. At this point you might be asking, did Spen King wangle things in Triumph’s favour – after all, this article is not about the MG TR7, is it? And you wouldn’t be wrong. In fact, story goes that afterwards Carver was said to have divulged that the trip was never intended to be a fact-finding expedition – rather a series of “extended conversations with relevant parties.”

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In any case, the intel that came back from the States backed Triumph’s design. Turns out that what Americans wanted was a simple, front-engined, rear-wheel-drive set-up that was both sporty and reliable. Mechanical simplicity was essential; a mid-engined layout would simply be too difficult to repair. The fact that such a car would be less costly and time-consuming to develop sealed the deal and Triumph got the go-ahead, with the plan being to launch the new model in 1975.

Spen King was placed in charge of the development of the new car. In place of the TR6’s 2.5-litre straight-six good for 150bhp, the TR7 received a four-cylinder, 2-litre lump producing just 105bhp. Although it came with a live rear axle and not independent suspension, King was a master of tweaking the ordinary and giving it that something extra, ensuring that the car’s handling was pretty good in comparison with contemporary rivals – and certainly better than that of the MGB or TR6. Safety was also a big issue at the time and the new car’s monocoque had been designed to meet all upcoming US crash regulations.

With the technical stuff decided on, the only thing left was the design. Triumph proposed a model based on earlier work by Italian designer Giovanni Michelotti, who had designed several very successful models for the company, including the Herald, Spitfire, GT6 and TR4. But designer Harris Mann had other ideas – radical ones. After having been to the US and gathering inspiration, he created a rather dramatic design that he felt would appeal to Americans. Certain aspects were included exclusively for American drivers, such as the angle of the car’s windscreen that would allow the driver to see the overhanging traffic lights found in the US.

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American requirements were responsible for another two major design choices: the hard top and the 5mph impact bumpers. Initially the idea was to go with a targa-top similar to that of the Fiat X1/9, but this did not work. Then there was talk that the US government would impose a ban on open-top cars due to safety concerns, so a convertible set-up was also not an option and the TR7 was designed as a hard-top coupé. The 5mph bumpers, required by US legislation, were made from box-section steel and covered with self-skinning methane foam. Maybe not the prettiest when compared with the chrome bumpers of its predecessors, but at least Mann made sure that they were pretty well integrated. Pop-up headlights were incorporated in a shovel-fronted body, with lines rising towards the rear to form a Melrose cheese-like wedge shape. The slant-four engine, developed from Triumph’s existing Dolomite, allowed the TR’s distinctive steeply-sloped bonnet.

With this outlandish design, it is perhaps somewhat surprising that in a management vote, only a handful voted for Triumph’s more traditional design and Mann’s design emerged the victor. But the unusual styling was to prove to be the least of the TR7’s woes… quality and production issues would plague it for most of its lifespan.

In September 1974, production began. The Speke factory in Liverpool was chosen to build the TR7 and because it was felt that sales to the US market should get going as soon as possible, the usual process of final testing and tweaking was dropped. It was decided to initially launch the Triumph TR7 in the USA only – Britain and Europe would only be serviced once production was sufficient to meet demand. Pressure was on the Speke workforce not only to produce the numbers but to produce them at an acceptable level of quality.

Alas, this was not the case.

At a time of political and economic turmoil, many industries paid the price of industrial action – and the motor industry was a big casualty. Factories would shut down for days on end and hours of down-time and losses in revenue ensued. The Speke factory was just such an example. It had a reputation for a troublesome workforce that would strike at the drop of a hat. Unsurprisingly, the production of the TR7 took a massive knock. When production did take place, build quality was poor – and not always because of assembly issues. Inaccurate body tooling meant that doors and panels were too big and wheel arches too small. Quality of components was also questionable, with rain often causing the headlights to stop functioning or the windscreen to pop out when the car came to a sudden stop.

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Despite all this, the US launch in 1975 was a relative success. There were a few minor criticisms, and reception of the styling was decidedly mixed, but on the whole the US seemed to welcome the fact that it was, if nothing else, a breath of fresh air and praised the comfort and design of its interior. It was also pretty well priced, fuel-efficient and had decent handling compared with most other British sports cars of the time.  Even the fact that it was a coupé rather than a convertible didn’t seem to trouble the drop-top-loving Americans much – possibly they had already got used to the idea of a different sporty look with the new Japanese kid on the block.

The car was unveiled at Boca Raton, Florida on 15 January 1975 with showroom sales commencing on 2 April. Advertising material proclaimed that the TR7 was “The Shape of Things to Come”. Clearly not everybody agreed, though. At the Geneva Motor Show held in March 1975, designer Giorgetto Giugiaro, upon viewing the car for the first time, is said to have paused to take a long look at the TR7, walked around the car, and said, “My God! They’ve done it to the other side as well.”

The following year, in May 1976, the TR7 finally came to the UK and Europe. A few changes were made for the European market, such as smaller rear bumpers and an engine that was not throttled, as its American counterpart had been, by US anti-emissions equipment. (Because of the strict emission laws that were in force in the USA by 1975, extensive anti-smog equipment was installed in the TR7 and the already-not-exactly-the-most-powerful engine suffered from the power loss that resulted.) This gave the car a slightly more competitive performance: 0-60mph time of 9.4 seconds and top speed of 110mph (177km/h), as opposed to the 11 seconds and 107mph (172km/h) of its American cousin. Autocar magazine said at the time of launch: “Performance-wise, the TR7 is no sluggard. It tries hard, a little too obviously, and is great fun in the tighter country road that is its favourite going. On motorways and wide, gently curving roads, its sporting pretensions are not backed up with quite enough power.”

So far so (sort of) good. But then it all went horribly wrong.

In October 1977, workers at the Speke factory went on strike. The factory did reopen again in March 1978 but not for long: in May the same year, Speke closed its doors for the last time. Production of the TR7 moved to Canley, Coventry and resumed in October 1978, but by then almost an entire year of production had been missed, with the result that few 1978 TR7s were produced.

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For a while it looked like Canley would be the answer to the TR7’s prayers. The build quality improved and some changes could finally be made to the car, including a five-speed gearbox and some cosmetic improvements. Once it became clear that the anti-convertible laws proposed for the US would not materialise, the turret-like roof was lobbed off and a convertible version appeared in May 1979. The TR8 with 135bhp 3.5-litre Rover V8 engine appeared shortly after, also aimed at the US market.

But then, more upheaval… in late 1980, the TR7 moved house again, leaving the Canley plant and moving to Rover’s Solihull factory in Birmingham. But by now the TR7’s sales had floundered, with unsold stock piling up, and on 5 October 1981 the last ever TR7 – and indeed the last Triumph – was produced. The Solihull factory closed and thousands of jobs were lost.

For a car with a somewhat dubious reputation, it is in fact the best-selling Triumph TR model of all time. But despite this, it remains probably the least desirable one. Nowadays, though, because they were not in high demand, the number of well-kept examples is relatively low. The TR7 may well be shaping up to become a desirable classic… and this would surely be its ultimate triumph.

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TIMELINE OF THE TR7

Sep 1974         Production starts at Speke

Jan 1975         TR7 launched in the States

May 1976        TR7 launched in the UK and Europe

May 1978        Speke factory closes, production moved to Canley

Oct 1978         Production starts at Canley

Jul 1979          Convertible launched in the States

Mar 1980         Convertible launched in the UK

Jun 1980         TR8 launched in the USA

Aug 1980         Production ceases at Canley

Aug 1980         Production starts at Solihull

Oct 1981         Production ends

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