TTAC Throwback: 1980 Triumph TR8


Today’s TTAC Throwback is a British treat.

Everybody thinks a Texan chicken farmer was the first to shove a grunty American 8-cylinder engine into a lithe Britsh chassis, but really Caroll Shelby was just one in a long line of builders to riff on that formula. Before WWII, Jensen built cars with Ford V8 power, and Railton used various Hudson chassis along with their superb inline-eight (and six) cylinder engines to build square-rigged hot rods that milord might use to travel quickly to those country house Saturday-through-Monday affairs in which the upper classes indulged.

From the 1950s onward, more British cars would be built with beefy American powertrains. Jensen would continue, Allard got into its stride, and there were also Bristol, Gordon-Keeble, and others. 

Most of the cars I’ve mentioned are high-priced machines built in limited quantities. But mass-market manufacturers weren’t immune to the idea of hotting up their more prosaic models with a big injection of Yankee V8. Sunbeam had their Ford-engined Tiger, then in 1965 staid old Rover, favored mount of conservative bank managers and well-to-do suburban aunties bought the rights to produce an all-aluminum 3.5-liter (that’s 215 cubic freedom units) V8 that Buick no longer had use for. 

That ex-Buick V8 would live on to become a quintessentially British powerplant. After buying the rights to produce it, Rover made a few improvements like sand-casting the block and heads and installing a pair of SU carburetors that didn’t suffer from fuel starvation at high cornering speeds. So fettled, it would eventually power vehicles of every category: Off-roaders, luxury sedans, and sports cars like the MGB-GT V8 and TR8.

The TR8 was, of course, developed from the TR7. That car was really Triumph’s first modern sports car. Its predecessors all used a separate chassis and some form of pushrod engine; they really were children of the 50s and 60s (this is not to denigrate them, all the TRs were great sports cars for their time and are still engaging as classic cars). 

The TR7, on the other hand, featured unitary construction and a modern OHC inline four-cylinder engine. However, the TR7 reverted to live axle rear suspension in lieu of the TR6’s independent system. The TR6’s double wishbones gave way to an up-to-date MacPherson strut system with rack and pinion steering. Contemporary testers praised the new sports car’s supple ride, handling, and brakes.

Despite the fractious mood at British Leyland, Triumph had created a well-conceived sports car with interior comfort and ergonomics that made driving much less punishing than the cars it superseded. The TR7’s wide build made the cockpit less claustrophobic, its seats offered plenty of adjustment, pedals were placed just so for heel-toe shifting, and the dashboard was laid out so ergonomically and controls fell so easily to hand it could’ve been from a car 10 years newer. Ventilation and HVAC systems were well developed, too, for the TR7 was initially offered as a coupe only. It was feared that American legislation would kill open cars, and BL was keen to retain one of its most lucrative export markets. 

Of course, the TR7’s styling is, ahem, an acquired taste. A Road & Track writer described it as looking like “An X1/9 with a case of the mumps.” Hardly a glowing assessment. But, the styling grows on you, tumor-like, until you learn to accept that it’s part of you, even if it may be fatal.

The TR7 was good for a 0-to-60 sprint in the mid-15 second range in U.S. trim (European-spec cars were quicker). This wasn’t as horrible as it sounds and was on par with its competition. However, even in the days when diminished performance was taken for granted, there was the desire to inject a little of the old-time religion of driving for driving’s sake – hallelujah! 

It became understood that open cars would not, in fact, be banned in the U.S., and in 1979 the TR7 had its head duly chopped off to become a roadster. Oddly, without the roof and massive sail panel B-pillars, the TR7’s wedge shape became rather more handsome, like an aging man who realizes his hair is thinning, buzzes it off, and finds out he looks like Bruce Willis. 

To go with the newfound good looks and swashbuckling open-air attitude, the old Rover (nee Buick) V8 was nestled between the TR7’s strut towers, creating the TR8. A car with a mellifluous V8 soundtrack, sub-8-second 0-to-60 acceleration, and excellent passenger comfort (for a sports car). A handful of TR8 coupes were built by the factory, roadsters made up the lion’s share of production, and most of them were destined to be sold in the U.S. The TR7 would continue alongside its V8-powered sibling. Less than 3,000 TR8s were built, making them quite a rarity today. 

It’s a pity; the TR7 and TR8 would be the last Triumph sports cars ever. The reasons for this are too complex to delve into here. It’s best to savor the last of the vintage from the Triumph cellars and leave the whys and wherefores for another day.  

Why This Car

First, the TR8 is a great drive. The steering is gratifyingly meaty, the brakes pull it up smartly, and the V8 rumble is very, very addictive. Amazingly for a car not originally conceived as a roadster, the chassis rigidity is impressive; it’s much more solid-feeling than, say, a 1980s Ford Mustang convertible. I can also vouch for the cabin’s comfort. At 6’1” and weighing slightly north of 200 pounds, I’m not a small man, and I could easily undertake a long journey in a TR8 without undue misery. 

This particular example shows just over 20,000 miles and has passed California’s tough emissions test, which indicates that the engine is in good shape and the twin Stromberg carbs are working as they should. Further, the seller claims there’s no rust, and it has a history of being owned by knowledgeable Triumph enthusiasts; in fact, you can see a Triumph Stag in the background of one of the photos, lending authenticity to the seller’s status as a Triumph addict. 

Perhaps most importantly, this car looks very original; its gold paint isn’t overly oxidized, and the interior presents well with its correct tartan seat inserts and door panels. The seller states that the air conditioning is functional and has been converted to R134a refrigerant. 

Besides the car itself, there are intangible things like the enthusiastic club scene for most classic British sports cars. Members get the chance to swap information and participate in shows, tours, and other events, which can greatly add to the pleasure of ownership. If you’re put off by the notion of a trad “car club,” don’t be. The groups fetishizing little British cars are (generally) populated with charming, welcoming eccentrics; crying bumper dolls are nowhere to be found. 

Things To Watch Out For When Buying a 1980 TR8

Regarding TR7s and TR8s, build quality can vary wildly; generally speaking, the latter cars are the best built, and TR8s fall into that category. Being a unit-body car, there are lots of places corrosion can take hold and wreak havoc. The sills are structural; check them for rust and be wary of any aftermarket trim applied over them, which could be hiding serious problems. Also, check around the windshield base, wheel arches, front subframe, and rear trailing link mounts. If possible, get underneath the car with a good flashlight and check everywhere. The headlight housings are aluminum, so don’t be surprised if the paint doesn’t stick to them.

Engines and gearboxes are tough but check for signs of overheating. The aluminum V8 is more susceptible to damage from excessive heat than an iron engine. Most TR8s have a pair of side-draft Stromberg carbs, and getting them in synch can be tricky, especially if the carb bodies have warped. Some later cars had fuel injection. If you’re utterly terrified by the Strombergs or fuel-injection systems, there are four-barrel carbs that can be easily retrofitted. If you do modify an original car, take plenty of photos and carefully label and store factory-fit parts. As the owner of a classic car, you are also a custodian of a piece of history.  

It’s true; 1970s British Leyland cars can be possessed of a certain frailty born of indifferent build quality. Don’t be put off. There are superb aftermarket suppliers like Moss Motors and Rimmer Bros. who stock almost any part an owner might require and dispense valuable technical advice, all of which soothes the pain caused when Lucas, The Prince of Darkness, strikes. 

To Sum It Up

The TR8 is a legitimate member of the illustrious lineage of British sports and grand touring cars powered by American (or American-derived) engines, but it’s orders of magnitude less expensive than most of them. The controversy around Harris Mann’s styling has mellowed with time like a fine port. So much so that I’ve heard the uneducated at car shows ask if a TR7 was a Ferrari. Thus, it’s worth braving the risks of BL build quality to have a beautiful example of the last, and arguably one of the best, Triumph sports cars. However, the seller isn’t giving away this car; it might be worth reaching out to see if there’s room to negotiate a better price – being rare doesn’t always equate to being valuable. 

TTAC Throwback

TTAC Throwback is a new series devoted to cars we think deserve to be owned by someone who really loves them. Just imagine Sarah McLachlan crooning In the Arms of an Angel as the camera pans past a deserving car up for adoption, hoping desperately that it doesn’t get recycled into a Nissan Versa (I’ve, I’ve got something in my eye). Now go ahead, put in your bid; there now, don’t you feel better? You’re doing the right thing!

[Images courtesy of the seller]

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