The Last Waltz

Consider Triumph’s much-maligned wedge. The car’s controversial shape—critics called it a flying doorstop, a wacky wedge and worse—ignited a firestorm. The TR7 suffered some serious burns at the hands of the factory, the press and consumers, and the TR8 emerged from the ashes of this wildfire. To fully appreciate the TR8, it’s important to empathize with its predecessor’s plight.

During the TR7’s debut, Italian master designer Giorgetto Giugiaro, after walking around the car and seeing the peculiar body sculpting with the deep, curved swage line on its flank, reportedly said, “My God! They’ve done it on this side as well.”

Years later, the editors of Time included the 1975 TR7 in its list of the 50 worst cars of all time, describing the design as “fit to chop wood.” They called it “horribly made,” citing the car’s many electrical problems (“The thing had more short-circuits than a mixing board with a bong spilled on it…and headlights that refused to open their peepers”), not to mention equally irritating and destructive mechanical issues (“Timing chains snapped. Oil and water pumps refused to pump, only suck”).

In his book “Triumph TR7 & TR8 1975-1981,” Triumph expert James Taylor says that “a rough early TR7 is likely to be a constant source of trouble and disappointment.”

Even today—more than 30 years after the shape was introduced—some Triumph purists refuse to consider any wedge a true Triumph.

A very bad rap indeed. But if the car was that bad, how did the humble TR7 manage to become Triumph’s all-time best selling TR, surpassing even the beloved TR6? Does this car actually deserve to be ranked—as Time did—right alongside the lamentable Trabant? And how did its muscular and seldom seen sibling, the TR8, motor on to become a cult car of sorts, a latter-day Sunbeam Tiger? Are those who own these last-of-the-line British sports cars actually having the last laugh?

Was It Really That Bad?

When the first TR7 rolled out of the Speke plant in Liverpool in late 1974, constant and bitter labor strife—strikes, shutdown lines and even sabotage—ruled the scene.

Aside from the TR7’s radical look, Triumph engineers actually came up with a pretty solid idea. They were aiming for a modern, affordable sports car to replace the TR6 that would appeal to the U.S. market. Their new package featured many of the right elements: relative simplicity, a front engine in a sturdy monocoque, a roomy cockpit, rear-wheel drive, a solid rear axle and proven corporate components.

Despite these advantages, designers launching a sporty new model for American roads in the early 1970s were shooting at a moving target. Stylists were forced to comply with ever-changing federal standards, including 5-mph bumpers, ride height requirements and engine emission controls. Even worse, because Triumph’s designers were afraid the Feds were going to enact legislation banning convertibles, they initially offered only a fixed head coupe. This drew howls from the open-air crowd, not to mention Triumph’s U.S. dealer network.

To make matters worse, the TR7 had fewer cylinders than the model it replaced. One tester lamented, “It has virtually nothing in common with its immediate predecessor. Gone are the smooth but punchy six-cylinder engine, the overdrive, and the independent rear suspension.”

Even with all those challenges, the car might have still had a fighting chance. But unfortunately for British Leyland, they launched the TR7 into a perfect storm of financial woes, labor crises and management shuffles. In 1975, the British government rescued the tottering giant from a financial bog when it purchased the majority of the BL shares, effectively putting the company on life support.

Despite the infusion of cash, BL still faced major problems with its workforce. When the first TR7 (code named Bullet) rolled out of the Speke plant in Liverpool in late 1974, constant and bitter labor strife—strikes, shut down lines and even sabotage—ruled the scene. The result? Cars that were called some of the shoddiest the U.S. and Britain had ever seen.

Serious quality issues soon started bedeviling owners. Most notable were the head gasket problems, which caused engine overheating and often escalated into claims for replacement engines. Add in the electrical quirks, poor fit and finish, and loose parts (in one case, a rear axle fell off), and the car’s reputation dropped like a wedge-shaped stone.

In a survey of owners of 1975-’78 TR7s, Road & Track reported that 43 percent of respondents—more than double the usual response—said that their cars had been out of service awaiting parts. Forty percent of owners said that poor overall quality was the worst feature of their TR7s, and nearly a third rated dealer service as poor.

In this survey, the TR7 had the dubious distinction of generating the least brand loyalty of any of the cars R&T had surveyed to date. Thirty-five percent of owners declared they would not buy another TR7—twice the average percentage.

Triumph engineers, in addition to fighting bean counters and dodging labor delays, were working hard to solve these problems. In May 1978, in an effort to improve quality, Triumph’s executives closed the troublesome Speke plant and moved TR7 production to Canley, Coventry, losing months of production in the process.

By July of the next year, Triumph introduced a new convertible version of the car. Most felt this move dramatically transformed the TR7’s appearance (“The car they should have built all along,” said one reviewer). These new cars also featured five-speed transmissions from Rover’s SD1, which greatly improved drivability. Together, these changes helped spark buyer interest and gave sales a needed boost. And despite Triumph’s continuing labor and cash problems, quality control did improve. By 1980, the TR7 production line had made its final move, to Solihull, and there is no doubt that later cars offered significantly improved build quality and a multitude of design improvements.

The Shape of Things to Come?

Aside from continuing digs at its style (“It has the profile of half a pound of cheddar,” said the London Times), the TR7 coupe received reasonably good ink from the motoring press. Reviewers cited its comfortable ride, responsive handling, quiet and roomy cabin (six inches wider than the MG), sturdy unit construction and reasonable $5100 base price.

As for dislikes, reviewers criticized the cranky four-speed, the sloping windshield that made judging distances difficult, and the rear pillars that created blind quarters.. Inside, some complained about the “acres of plastic” that made up the massive dash and panned the tartan seat inserts and door trim (remember, this was the ’70s).

The smog-regulated, OHC four-cylinder 1998cc engine was considered a bit wheezy. In Federal 49-state trim it put out only 90 horsepower and 105 lb.-ft. of torque. Road & Track recorded a zero-to-60 mph time of 11.3 seconds and an 18.5-second quarter mile at 76.5 mph.

In general, most reviewers agreed that the TR7 represented a bold new approach for BL, and some wrote that the wedge could usher in a new era: that of the “modern” sports car.

The stubby coupe sat on an 85-inch wheelbase and weighed 2355 pounds. It featured coil springs on all four corners, MacPherson struts in front and tube shocks in back. It even came with front and rear anti-roll bars. The live rear axle was securely located by upper angled arms and lower trailing arms. This suspension setup provided a decent ride and solid handling.

The disc front and drum rear brakes were adequate unless pushed hard. Two people could sit comfortably in the cockpit while experiencing good heating and ventilation (a/c was optional for $425). The instruments were visible and easy to read, and the controls were completely accessible. Overall, the TR7 offered a comfortable and pleasant, if not exhilarating, driving experience.

Early sales showed promise, but throughout its seven years of production the TR7 struggled to find its niche. While the basics remained unchanged, the car underwent many updates and trim changes.

To boost interest, BL built a handful of special editions featuring cosmetic changes and/or no-cost extras. The 1976 Victory Edition, the later 30th Anniversary Edition and the Spider are a few examples. The Southern Skies, which offered a sliding sunroof, was sold only in the southeastern U.S., and the Jubilee and the Premium were offered only in the U.K.

Ron Cobb, who is now retired in Central Florida, managed Imported Cars Inc., a BL dealership in Indianapolis. He recalls that dealers had high hopes for the TR7, but cars arrived more than a year later than they were promised. He attributes early sales interest to the clever, wedge-based national ad campaign: The Shape of Things to Come.

“When they started running those ads, they got people’s attention,” he recalls. “At first, the cars were selling so well, I couldn’t even keep one for a demo. I had customers following the transport trucks to our dealership to see the cars. But because of all the production problems, I just couldn’t get the [number of] cars I needed.”

In his view, when things started to go south, problems in the Triumph dealership network contributed to the car’s quality and service issues. “By then,” he says, “dealerships were starting to slip, in part because British Leyland was nickel and diming us to death, and they just wouldn’t listen to us.”

For the 1981 model year, in an effort to boost power and economy and reduce emissions, the North American market TR7 was given Bosch fuel injection and a taller fifth gear ratio, the last production changes the car would see.

By this time, the car was becoming more of a financial failure—adding to BL’s mounting woes—and in October 1981 the last TR7 rolled off the assembly line in Solihull, England. Sources differ over final production numbers, but most place the number at more than 112,000, making the humble TR7 the highest-selling TR worldwide. An estimated 65,000 of those cars were sold in the U.S.

TR8: Right Car, Wrong Time?

The easiest way to tell if it’s a TR8 is to open the hood and look for the big V8 engine. Keep in mind that many TR7 owners have upgraded, however.

If all had gone according to plan, BL would have introduced the V8-powered TR8 in 1977. In fact, they built about a hundred prototypes (coupes without badges, most with automatic transmissions) in the Speke plant and sent them to the U.S. for testing. Then production ground to a halt during the strike and was never able to catch up.

The TR8 solved many of the problems plaguing the TR7. It was the same basic car, but a more powerful engine and a higher build quality redeemed the successor. Unfortunately, when BL finally managed to launch the TR8, new car buyers faced surging gas prices and new choices. (In July 1980, an AutoWeek cover headline read, “Japanese Imports: Small Car Fever Sweeps the U.S.”) And then there was the TR8’s “guilt by association” factor, fed by the TR7’s well-publicized quality and dependability woes. The TR8’s $12,000 list price probably didn’t help matters, either.

Still, the car enjoyed a lot of good press. Road Test magazine named the TR8 its Best New Sports Car of 1980, saying the V8 “transforms the car.”

Car and Driver put the TR8 on its cover, calling it “nothing less than the reinvention of the sports car.” The review went on to brag about the car’s torque: “80 percent more than the TR7, 71 percent more than the RX-7, 25 percent more than the Datsun 280Z and 22 percent more than the Porsche 924 Turbo.”

Road & Track said, “You aren’t going to trace down a Sunbeam Tiger or older Corvette after all, because you can now buy a brand new V8 roadster, one that will outrun most every other sports sedan and sports car this side of $15,000.”

The car’s smooth and flexible 3.5-liter aluminum V8, which was a descendent of the engine GM introduced in its 1961 Buick Special, Olds F85 and Pontiac Tempest, weighed little more than a cast-iron four. With federally mandated smog equipment (including twin catalytic converters), the twin-carbed Zenith-Stromberg version put out 133 horsepower and 174 lb.-ft. of torque; the Lucas-injected California version put out 137 horsepower along with 168 lb.-ft. of torque.

During a Road & Track test, the car recorded a zero-to-60 mph time of 8.4 seconds (Car and Driver clocked 8.1 seconds) and a quarter-mile time of 16.3 seconds at 85.5 mph. Other than the engine, substantial changes from the TR7 included power steering, bigger brakes and taller final drive (3.08:1 vs. 3.45:1). The battery was moved to the trunk, and in addition to the standard five-speed manual transmission, a BorgWarner three-speed was an option—few were sold that way, however.

The car’s combination of power, comfort, decent handling and open-air fun seemed to offer promise. But the sales the company had hoped for never materialized, and the end was in sight: BL pulled the plug on TR8 production part-way through 1981, although new ones were sold into 1982.

Some sources place total TR8 production numbers as high as 2800, making this the rarest TR of them all. When the last wedge rolled off the line, it represented the end of a long line of sporty Triumphs dating back to the 1920s. It was also the end of the mass-market British sports car.

Today’s Wedge World

These days, wedge owners make up an enthusiastic and thriving community. They seem to enjoy their minority role at British meets, while technology, innovation and dogged persistence have corrected most of their cars’ faults.

Time does seem to heal, and wedge-bashing within the Triumph community doesn’t appear to be the sport it once was. In fact, many owners of earlier TRs also admit to a wedge or two in their stables. More than 30 years after its debut, the last Triumph’s styling has also caught up with the shape, and the car looks right at home parked beside today’s models.

Five-speed convertibles offer the most driving fun, especially those equipped with fuel injection. St. Louis wedgehead Terry Merrill owns three ’81 injected TR7s and believes they are a vast improvement over the other models. “The fuel injection makes the engine run remarkably smooth,” he explains. “My friend says it runs like a Toyota. And fuel economy is very good. I average 25 to 30 mpg city and interstate. And for some reason, the engines seem to last longer.”

He, too, calls himself a “champion of the underdog” in explaining his attraction to the wedge. He describes his experience at British meets this way: “It’s always funny to see a grandfather walking through the rows of cars, hearing him tell his young grandson about the various TR6s, TR4s, etc., and then stopping at the TR7s and whispering in the boy’s ear about the TR7 while the boy’s expression tells the story of what gramps is saying.”

And, the price of admission is cheap: Figure the nicest TR7 in the world probably won’t fetch more than $10,000, while rats and project cars can be found for free.

And despite the TR8’s rarity—experts believe only 1500 to 1800 still exist, most of which are in the U.S.—a decent running example can still be purchased for less than $10,000. Projects go for much less, although an original example with less than 2500 miles recently sold for $16,000 on eBay.

While TR8 values are creeping up, the appreciation of these cars will probably never fund many IRAs or handle the kids’ college years. Some owners say they enjoy “running under the radar” and don’t seem to mind if the market undervalues the car.

To them, it’s an investment in fun and driving enjoyment, like the kick they get from putting another LBC owner behind the wheel and seeing his reaction when the car makes V8 noises and pulls like few other British cars. And then there’s the added benefit of surprising the occasional driver at a stoplight and having him lean over and ask, “What’s that thing got in it?”

To hear these owners tell it, the TR8 is today what BL hoped it would be. It’s a fun car that offers plenty of room, decent handling and power to spare. It has air conditioning, a snug-fitting top that doesn’t leak, and to top it off, this rarest TR of them all can still be bought on the cheap. It’s the car that almost brought the classic British roadster up into the age of computer-controlled fuel injection, five-speed transmissions and modern driver ergonomics.

It appears as though these owners are having the last laugh. Maybe it’s time to give the wedge a little love. After all, it’s a milestone in our world.

Driving Wedges

Was the wedge the pinnacle of the British sports car or the final gasp? They say time heals all wounds, so we rounded up four Florida-based cars for a little shakedown at Gainesville Raceway.

We brought a stock TR7, a stock TR8, a modified TR8 and a very modified TR8, this last one owned by car collector, vintage racer, Amelia Island Concours impresario, author/photographer and all-around car guy Bill Warner.

We asked Bill, as one of the authorities on the marque, for his feedback on our little collection. While he showed some deference to age and condition (of the cars, not the owners), he did hustle the wedges around the short road course, displaying some nice driving lines and car control while he was at it.

Stock TR7

This little car needed a friend, and I’ve been very pleased with it. Of all the Brit cars I have now, this is the one I enjoy the most.

Gary and Sylvia Thomas bought their 1976 coupe nine years ago for $900. It’s a rare Victory Edition which, according to a Triumph press release, was created to celebrate Bob Tullius’s five consecutive SCCA wins. Special features included a vinyl top, sporty trim decals and six-spoke wheels (which were later subject to a recall); the suggested list price was $5649.

Amazingly, this TR7 appears to be original except for the usual tune-up items and a repaint. It has covered 90,000 miles and—unlike the majority of TR7s—has never had the head off. Along with the Victory trim, it has the standard four-speed transmission and optional a/c.

Gary added this car to his substantial British car collection because it fits his six-foot-plus frame. Through the years he has driven it on several trips, and it has proved to be quiet and dependable. “It was in great shape when I got it,” he says. “I bought it from the original owner, and he kept every receipt he ever got.”

That the TR7 never got any respect just adds to Gary’s enjoyment. “I’ve always been for the underdog,” he says. “I adopt strays, fix old houses and the like. This little car needed a friend, and I’ve been very pleased with it. Of all the Brit cars I have now, this is the one I enjoy the most.”

So, how does it drive? Bill Warner got in, surveyed all the plastic and plaid, and said, “I see lots of styling cues from the ’70s, but we tend to lose perspective and judge these cars by today’s standards. I’d say back then it was a very acceptable car for the money. Even the design grows on you. Despite all the flat surfaces, it has decent proportions, and the wedge shape doesn’t look as strange as it once did.”

As Bill pushed the car around the track, he added some comments. “It has a fair amount of body roll and the steering is a bit vague. Not a lot of horsepower up there, of course. The brakes start going away when you start to push it. Overall, I’d say it probably handled about as well as most of its competition did 32 years ago. On the plus side, it’s quiet and I don’t hear a lot of rattles. It has lots of room.”

Stock TR8

We pull up to a show with the top up, air on and stereo going, and other owners realize, ‘Hey, this is the way to go to a show.’

Just before Memorial Day in 1980, Bill Sweeting was driving past Phieler Pontiac/Jaguar/Triumph in Rochester, New York, when he impulsively pulled in to check out the TR7 convertibles. He spotted a Midas Gold TR8 and asked the salesman what it was.

“He told me it had a V8 and asked me if I wanted to take a test drive,” Bill recalls. After the drive, Bill told them he’d buy the car if he could keep it over the long weekend. “They told me it hadn’t even been prepped,” he adds, “but they finally agreed to put dealer tags on it for the weekend.”

Twenty-eight years later, he still has the car, making him one of what must be a tiny group of original owners. His TR8 is about as close to stock as you’ll find and has needed only routine maintenance in more than 67,000 miles.

It still sports factory paint, carpet, plaid door panels, AM/FM radio and alloy wheels. He has replaced only the top and seat covers, along with brake pads, hoses and spark plugs.

Bill has always enjoyed V8 power, and this has been his only British car. He also owns a TR8 coupe that’s seen some engine and suspension upgrades plus a pair of 1960s Lincoln convertibles—the huge ones with suicide rear doors.

He has long supported the wedge—he believes they are vastly underrated—and spent years as membership chair for the TR8 Car Club of America. “We’ve always been Triumph’s black sheep,” he says, “but that is changing. We pull up to a show with the top up, air on and stereo going, and other owners realize, ‘Hey, this is the way to go to a show.’”

In his experience, the general car-watching public seems clueless about the car. “These days,” Bill says, “many people don’t know what this car is. And even when they read the lettering on it, they ask, ‘Who makes Triumph?’”

When Bill Warner slipped under the wheel and cranked it up, he also fell under this car’s spell. “I love the sound; the exhaust note alone is worth the price of admission. I’ve always liked this engine, because it has lots of torque and is very flexible.”

After a lap or two, the differences between the TR8 and TR7 quickly became apparent. “The engine transforms the car compared to the Seven,” he explained. “It feels completely different.”

As he pushed the car a bit, Bill became more critical. “It has less body roll than the coupe, but it feels a bit loose all over, and the front seems worse than the rear. It has more brake pedal travel than I like, too. I think this car would really benefit from some heavier sway bars and a little chassis tuning. But even stock, it’s a fun car to throw around a little.”

Those of us who followed the owner on I-75 after our track session can personally testify that this little car is still quite at home in the left lane, zipping by modern cars at 80-plus mph. And from the way those being passed were swiveling their necks, it still has the power to grab attention.

Modified TR8

Not only is the engine bigger, but it has been fitted with lots of good stuff.

Author’s Note: In the interest of full disclosure, I must admit to ownership of this TR8. For about the last 20 years, I’ve had one TR8 or another, and I’ve found them to be fun to drive, if quirky. How one feels about the shape is purely a matter of taste. As far as performance, a stock TR8 is no slouch, but to me a modified one is more fun to drive.

If a small V8 is good, then a bigger one is better, right? This Persian Aqua 1980 TR8 is powered by a 4.0-liter V8 that originally came inside a 1995 Land Rover. The engine was built by Woody Cooper at The Wedge Shop in Taunton, Massachusetts.

Not only is the engine bigger, but it has been fitted with lots of good stuff: Erson cam, lightened flywheel, reworked heads, tubular exhaust headers, an Edelbrock Performer RPM manifold topped with a 500cfm Edelbrock carb and a Mallory ignition system.

Suspension upgrades include stiffer springs all around, harder bushings and KYB shocks. The front brakes have been replaced with Wilwood four-pot calipers and larger vented discs. A shortened Ford 8.8-inch limited-slip rear with 3.55:1 gears and disc brakes replaces the stock rear end. A set of 14x6-inch Panasport wheels and Yokohama tires top it all off.

As Bill Warner swung the car around the track, he immediately noted the benefits of the added hardware. “This car has a lot more composure than the stock version. It’s more predictable, tighter, handles better and comes off the corners a lot stronger. It really pulls well and sounds strong. But even with the bigger brakes, stopping power still isn’t that great; I think the brake bias needs some work.”

Summing up his time in these street cars, Bill said, “Looking back, you can pick up on several things Triumph could have done better. Still, if you look at the other cars available then, I think they offered a pretty good value. Today, I think especially the TR8 offers an opportunity to buy cheap, and with a little work it can be turned into a real fun car. As rare as they are, I’m surprised they haven’t appreciated more in value.”

Racing TR8

they were real crowd favorites —and successful, too. We won a lot of races with these cars.

they were real crowd favorites —and successful, too. We won a lot of races with these cars.

Before it was available for street use, the TR8 had made a name for itself on U.S. tracks, and Virginia-based Group 44 Inc. was BL’s most visible and successful race team. Bill Warner’s coupe is one of a pair of ex-Group 44 racing TR8s that made big waves in Trans-Am and IMSA in 1979 and ’80. It was built from an EPA test car and driven in six GTO events by Bob Tullius, Bill Adam and John McComb, compiling a record of one win, one second, one third, a fifth and two DNFs.

When Group 44 retired the car, John Kelly bought it and raced a few vintage events with it. After John died, Bill purchased it from his estate, making him the third owner of this used-only-on-the-weekends example. According to Lawton “Lanky” Foushee, crew chief of Group 44, the car remains in very much the same condition as when it was built, with the exception of safety updates.

And like all Group 44 cars, it features a high degree of trick engineering and meticulous workmanship. It’s powered by a dry-sumped, 3.9-liter V8 fed by a rare Lucas mechanical fuel injection system. The injection system sits on a cross-ram manifold that features long runners for improved torque.

Other than a high-pressure pump for starting, this belt-driven unit uses no electrics, and Foushee says it has proved to be remarkably effective and dependable. In its current state of tune, this engine puts out about 375 horsepower—gobs of punch for a car that weighs less than 2600 pounds.

Engine power is harnessed through a BorgWarner T10 four-speed transmission and Ford-style rear end built from aluminum with nine-inch internals. Of all the Group 44 cars he’s worked on, Lanky rates the TR8s as his favorites. “Compared to the Jags, it seemed like a breeze working on these cars,” he says. “I loved the sound, and they were real crowd favorites—and successful, too. We won a lot of races with these cars.”

After Bill Warner took a few laps in his example, Hurley Haywood, who has raced almost everything on wheels, strapped in for his first outing in a TR8. “It’s a little tricky to drive,” he said afterward. “I don’t really like short wheelbase cars; but with all that horsepower you can kinda knock it around, and the brakes are good. It was fun to drive; I’m glad I got a chance to drive it.”

Bill also loves the power. “It’s a real rocket,” he says, “My favorite courses are Summit Point and Roebling Road, because it really shines at those tracks. It’s rewarding to have a car that handles and goes so well.” Classic Motorsports Publisher Tim Suddard drove this car awhile back at VIR and also fell in love: “The V8 is a hoot, and the highly modified brakes are more than up to the task. The overall ergonomics are like what one would find on a modern race car—a joyous beast to drive.”

Proving yet again that the wedge’s shape is entirely a matter of preference, Hurley weighed in with his opinion: “I know Bill has exquisite taste in cars,” he laughed, “but to me this car is butt ugly.”

Bill counters: “It isn’t particularly pretty, but it is purposeful-looking.”

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Comments
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TR8owner
TR8owner HalfDork
3/21/11 4:33 p.m.

This was a really great article about the TR7/TR8. I've owned a lot of Brits in the past, but my TR8 is a keeper.

80tr7dhc
80tr7dhc
11/23/12 3:40 p.m.

Great artical, I like to read all I can find on these great , underated cars. I have never driven a tr8 but am looking forward to it,

I have 4 tr7s , 3 dhc, 1 coupe, and a tr8 dhc. I love my little wedges, I am looking forward to building my 8, I have never "raced" my 7s but played alot, they are a blast! My 80 tr7 dhc is well known in MB CAN. as it is most carshows around our area. My 7 was a rough car at best when i got it , now its a gem. My tr8 is a bush parked ,rusty non running lump as of when i got it, But it will be transformed into a gem.It is a AUG 81 built car with injection, and a 5spd. I cant wait to hear it purr and drive it like it was built to do!

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