Rivals at Speed: MG vs. Triumph

MG and Triumph are both examples of an English sporty-car tradition that started as little more than a struggling, small volume, back-alley garage business between the wars.

From there, they both blossomed brilliantly thanks to the desperate need to export in the shattered postwar British economy, flourished to the point of near market domination in the ‘60s and early ‘70s, and then faded back to a small volume, back-alley garage business thanks to arrogant, shortsighted management, spotty quality, selfish unions and an attempt to replace hard work, straight thinking and clever ideas with an out-of-touch/cover-your-ass corporate mentality.

It’s a sad story, but at least it left behind some wonderful machines to preserve and play with and a generation of memories that will last forever.

MG: One of the Originals

The MG bloodline is unbroken since tinkerer/entrepreneur/garagiste Cecil Kimber assembled the first one out of redundant Morris parts back in 1924. His tiny, supercharged MGs—the name stood for Morris Garages—scored some impressive class wins in international competition during the 1930s.

Morris took over the operation in 1935, later becoming part of the Nuffield Group, but it wasn’t long before sports cars were phased out and war materiel was phased in thanks to Herr Hitler and his gang of thugs.

As legend has it, American GIs were first exposed to—and fell in love with—MGs during the war years, and the old, upright MG TC from 1945 through 1949 is generally credited with getting the whole sports car boom rolling over here in the States. The TC was jaunty, whippy, eager and fun to drive, even if it took more than 20 seconds to reach 60 and was out of breath at 75. Still, it captured a lot of American hearts.

MG followed up with the not-quite-so-upright TD for 1950—standard equipment included 15-inch perforated disc “baby buggy” wheels and an independent front suspension. Soon after in 1952, the Nuffield Group—MG, Morris, Riley and Wolseley—joined forces with Austin and Austin-Healey to form BMC, the British Motor Corporation. MG’s final T-Series, the comparatively rakish TF (slanted-back grille, headlamps faired into the fenders, 1500cc engine) arrived in 1953.

Triumph: Two, Three and Finally Four Wheels

Triumph’s background is a bit more convoluted. Originally Triumph built mostly bicycles and motorcycles (dating back to the turn of the century!), but added a three-wheeled “car” in 1903.

They offered their first four-wheeler in 1923, and the automotive portion of the company was split off from the motorcycle firm in 1936, went into receivership in 1939, and was absorbed into the Standard Motorcar Company during the war.

In the desperate, export-starved postwar economy, Standard-Triumph started off with some solid but uninspiring sedans and a few haughty “roadsters” with no real sporting pretensions. But they were well aware of the success MG was having with its T-Series cars—particularly here in the States—and showed a bulbous, Buck Rogers-style TRX sports prototype around the auto show circuit in 1950.

The real payoff came in 1953, when the sporty and inexpensive TR2 was introduced and (along with Donald Healey’s handsome 100/4) started making MG’s T-series look old hat indeed. The TR2 was simple, basic and rugged, and the advertising of the day promised “more performance per dollar than any other car in the world.” It did so with some justification after a factory entry TR2 won the prestigious British R.A.C. Rallye outright in 1954.

The slightly upgraded TR3 followed in 1955, and despite its tractor-engine genes and a narrow track that made for sometimes overly entertaining handling, it was colossally successful. More than 83,000 copies of the TR2, TR3, TR3A and TR3B were sold through the end of the model run in 1962.

MG countered with a modern, envelope-bodied sports car of their own in 1955, the much beloved MGA. It had a smaller engine than the TR2 and 3 (1489cc vs. 1991cc) and wasn’t quite as fast, but it was probably a wee bit better constructed.

MG followed with a rare and special (and occasionally oil-pumping) Twin Cam variant in 1958, plus an upgraded 1600 version with a slightly larger 1588cc pushrod engine in 1959. Another upgrade came in 1962 with the 1600 Mk II, fitted with a still larger 1622cc pushrod engine and improved cylinder heads. More than 101,000 MGAs in all their permutations were sold between 1955 and 1962, making them, by a scant margin, more popular than Triumph’s TR2s and 3s. But, like I said, TRs were generally faster.

Competition Improves the Breed

Naturally you can’t have a sports car without some racing to prove (and improve) the breed, but both Triumph and MG were bedeviled by international rules that made no distinction between true, mass-market sports cars that John Q. Public and Fred Average could afford and the rare, exotic and dearly expensive all-out racing machines of similar engine size built by specialist manufacturers like Ferrari, Aston Martin, Jaguar and Maserati.

As an example, a squadron of six TR2s finished fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth, ninth and 10th in class in the Tourist Trophy at the daunting and dangerous Dundrod road circuit in Ireland in the fall of 1954, while the class winners were in a Maserati and second went to a Ferrari—hardly “everyman” sports cars. And yet all the Triumphs finished, which was more than you could say for all of the Italian machines.

Triumph followed with an impressive 14th and 15th overall (fifth and sixth in class) at the blackest Le Mans ever in 1955, but they split two experimental “EX182” MGs that were really prototypes for the new, envelope-bodied MGA.

A Grand Touring category (read: “real cars”) was finally added in 1957, and MGAs scored a very strong first and second in the GT 1600 class at Sebring that year. A TR3 took second in the GT 2000 class and 20th overall at Sebring in 1958, and a pair of MGAs came back to take second and third in class at the same track in 1959. At the same time, a sleek MG streamliner set a fistful of speed records at Bonneville.

While all this sounds like good news, the world of international motorsports was moving away from both MG and Triumph. Classes were still according to displacement, and lighter, more expensive and sophisticated cars like Porsche’s 356 started to rule the 1600cc class, while the handsome AC Bristols took charge of the 2-liter class; these two machines made life difficult for the MGA and TR3.

But who cared anyway, since the vast majority of cars were being sold here in the States—not over in lah-dee-dah Europe—and it was in grassroots SCCA club racing that TR3s and MGAs really proved their mettle and gained their following.

Legends Begin

A whole generation of future pros and champions-to-be got its start in those cars, and legions of fans and marque loyalists cheered them on from the hillsides. Prep gurus and driving stars began to emerge as well, as Bob Tullius and his Group 44 Inc. on the East Coast and Kas Kastner (and, later, Huffaker Engineering) on the West Coast were building and fielding the cars to beat.

When Standard-Triumph became part of the Leyland family in 1961, the TR3 gave way to the wider, more powerful TR4. The MGA was succeeded by the unibody MGB a year later. Ironically, the two longtime rivals became siblings in 1968 when MG parent British Motor Holdings (formerly BMC) and Leyland Motors merged to form the British Leyland Motor Corporation.

Both were faster, better handling and offered more creature comforts than their predecessors (roll-up windows, imagine that!) and sold in vast numbers. Little brothers were added to the lines in the form of the MG Midget in 1961 and the Triumph Spitfire in 1962, and both sides got more powerful six-cylinder iterations: the MGC in 1967 and the TR6 in 1969. There were even V8 models on the horizon in the form of the MGB GT V8 in 1973 and Triumph’s TR8 in 1980, both cars powered by Rover’s ex-Buick/Olds/Pontiac aluminum V8.

Meanwhile, the SCCA had what they thought was a fair and equitable notion and proceeded to open the biggest can of worms in racing history by switching from pure displacement to so-called “performance potential” production car classes. It was a noble idea on paper: For example, let the nimble, lightweight and expensive 1600cc Porsche 356s mix it up with the 2-liter Triumph TR3s in E Production, and boot the rare and fast 2-liter AC Bristol up to D Production to let the little kids play. What could be fairer?

Unfortunately, as prep levels escalated into the stratosphere and manufacturer whining and lobbying increased to deafening proportions, where you ran, how much you had to weigh, what you could do to the car and whom you had to run against all became terrifyingly negotiable. A case in point was the Triumph TR6, which, even with Group 44’s clever and capable preparation, just couldn’t cut it against the sleeker and more powerful 240Z Datsuns in the C Production class. Particularly at the Runoffs, where that loooong Road Atlanta back straight really favored the Z-cars.

So the Triumph guys lobbied to have the Lucas slide-type fuel injection from the never-imported TR5 made legal. And the SCCA complied.

It still wasn’t enough, so the TR types lobbied again to go back to the unloved, smog-issue Stromberg carburetors and drop down a class to D Production. That happened as well, and the TR6 won two national championships. One title came in 1975 as John McComb drove a green and white Group 44 car to the win, while the same car—now repainted black and silver—repeated the following year with none other than Paul Newman behind the wheel.

To be fair, the SCCA did their best to keep the playing field level in the face of tremendous pressure from all sorts of Self-Interested Parties With Personal Agendas, and you could tell they were doing a pretty good job of it because everybody was complaining.

Looking Back

But the key here is that sometime between the innocent, tape-up-the-headlights-and-let’s-go-racing days of the MG TC back in the late-‘40s and early-‘50s and the raucous, razor-tuned, bulge-fendered, steroid-injected, so-low-you-can’t-see-under-the-damn-thing MGs and Triumphs still running SCCA Nationals today, a huge change has taken place. What model car you start with is far less important than how you engineer and develop it and what you can get the rule makers to allow.

A case in point was the factory-backed, Huffaker-prepared TR7 Lee Mueller drove to the D Prod National Championship in 1979. Nothing against TR7s, but no way was a TR7 a match for a Porsche 924, Lotus 7 or Lotus Elan the way it rolled off the assembly line.

It Started With a TR3….

Having personally thrown together (I dare not say “race prepared”) a virtual plague of ratty TR3s back in the early days of my so-called driving career, I know precisely how clunky, uncoordinated and cantankerous they can be when driven in anger. And anger was often the operative mode, since I was continually pissed off about all the things that failed, fell off, fractured, burst into flame or fell deathly silent in a cloud of hissing steam.

Yet more aggravating was this disgustingly clean-cut bunch from Milwaukee who ran a neat, clean and sanitary yellow TR3 that looked great, went like stink and never seemed to break down.

It burned my butt how their car was so simple, straightforward and tidy while mine bristled with trick parts and radical engineering and looked like it’d been kicked down a flight of stairs. Or make that several flights of stairs.

But as happens so often in this game, the Milwaukee racers and I eventually became great friends and they taught me a lot about building a car that works. (I was sadly honored to give the eulogy at team leader/TR wizard/all-around great guy Mike Belfer’s funeral many years later.)

In my naïve, headstrong quest to build the ultimate TR3, I had missed the basic truth that great race cars are the result of millions of properly thought-out and executed details rather than one or two demon tweak ideas. So while my cars were going faster and faster for shorter and shorter periods of time, theirs just buzzed on and on and on. Usually in first place.

There’s a message here: You can make a winning race car out of just about anything if you throw enough brains, budget and experience at it—witness the Huffaker-prepared, championship-winning Triumph TR7 mentioned previously—and there was plenty of good information on tap about setting up fast TR3s if I’d just taken the trouble to look for it. Much of it was in West Coast TR guru Kas Kastner’s original, factory-sponsored prep book, which is still the bible for TR racers some 40 years on.

And that’s why it was such a treat to have Kas himself on hand at Road Atlanta, acting as more or less the grand marshal/patron saint of all the TR types in the Mitty paddock. Kas is a fun guy with an unbelievable motorsports résumé and a mischievous twinkle in his eye (his new book is a must read for all TR addicts and racing fans), and he was everywhere at the Road Atlanta paddock, offering advice, lending a hand, telling stories and picking out his favorite Triumph racer for the coveted Kastner Cup.

Deceptively Simple: Jeff Snook’s TR3

This all brings us to Jeff Snook’s pristine white TR3A, which was built by the book and with wonderful care and craftsmanship by TR ace Glen Efinger, the man who also spins wrenches on Mike Jackson’s notoriously fast and reliable TR3 out of Florida. Just like the yellow TR3 I remember so well from my early days, Jeff’s car is deceptively simple.

It all starts with a good, solid frame and roll bar structure, which Jeff has already tested as racing TR3s have a somewhat deserved reputation for turning turtle. Glen adds a little reinforcing here and there to give the car that solid, “all of a piece” feel so many Triumphs lack.

It’s been lowered and there are a few TR4 bits in the front suspension to improve strength and geometry plus later, larger, TR6-issue front brakes. Glen uses a 1-inch front anti-roll bar along with the original, left-wound “factory competition” springs TR racers could buy off the shelf as far back as the late-‘50s. The front end has been carefully bump-steered (done by bending the steering arms to get the proper tie rod angles) and Glen likes a healthy 1 degree of static negative camber.

The back end starts with a welded-up diff and the custom-made, one-piece competition rear axle shaft/hub assemblies that are an absolute must on TR3 and TR4 race cars. (Trust me: Every TR racer on earth has broken one of the stock axles.)

Glen likes to use soft, de-arched rear springs and no lateral location link of any kind. “Most people strap these things down way too tight in back,” he explains. “I want to let the car work.”

The driveline is likewise straightforward, conventional and conservative. Jeff’s car runs a Moldex billet crankshaft and Carrillo connecting rods to strengthen the TR’s notoriously brittle bottom end, with 87mm liners for a legit 2188ccs, aluminum pistons from JE and one of the later, “small port” TR heads to improve flow velocity and torque in the midrange. Porting and headwork are done by a local shop that’s been taking care of Glen’s race work for years, and he prefers the “long runner” manifold and early SUs on the intake side plus a custom header for the exhaust.

The cam comes from Morgan guru Greg Solow’s The Engine Room shop in Santa Cruz, Calif., and it’s far from the most radical grind available. “These are basically tractor engines and they’re built to make torque rather than high-end horsepower,” Glen says, “and so that’s what we try to do with them. Give it a nice, fat mid-range and a 6200 to 6500 redline. Nothing fancy. Most of it’s right out of Kas’s old prep manual, right down to the stock rocker arms. We just try to make sure everything works right.”

And work it does. Out on the track, Jeff’s car feels stable, secure and solidly planted. The engine has a lot of grunt coming out of the corners, but never gets wild or crazy as it arcs toward the redline. There’s a close-ratio gear set so you can actually use second through Road Atlanta’s tight Corner 7 and the fiddly chicane that sits where the hallowed Dip used to be. There’s also overdrive available in third and fourth so you actually have six ratios to fool with—although third overdrive and fourth normal are too close to be much use.

But the real key is how nicely Jeff’s TR takes a set and how well balanced it is. TR3s were never exactly known as great handlers, and most of that was down to the terribly narrow, 45-inch front and rear track. Jeff’s car has been widened as much as the rules allow, and the lowered center of gravity, suspension geometry, spring rates and shock damping make it a very nice car to drive. More importantly, it’s predictable and everything works in harmony.

Like I said, a million little details.

Racing for Fun: Mark Brandow’s MGA

Minnesota racer pal Mark Brandow runs The Carriage Works of Mound, Minn., a sports and classic car shop, and has been addicted to MGs for as long as he can remember.

He started racing in his beloved old TC that he still runs from time to time and he added a faithful gray MGA to his stable some 20 years ago. But his approach is quite a bit different—and, in some ways, purer—than the guys who race every other weekend and are always on the hunt for that last little fraction of a second.

I do about three events every year, and I do it for fun,” Mark explains. “I do one up at Brainerd, one at Elkhart Lake and I try to do a new one every year. Someplace I’ve never been before.”

That approach has taken Mark to Watkins Glen, Monterey, Mosport and many other great tracks, and he enjoys the adventure of it. “I like seeing my friends and meeting new ones, learning new tracks, seeing new parts of the world and socializing with MG people and fellow racers.” His car is prepared accordingly. “I work on other people’s cars all day long, so the last thing I want on a race weekend is to be under the car or trying to scrounge up parts. This is my time to get away from all that.”

Mark bought this particular MGA as an engineless hulk back in the ‘80s and restored and race prepared it himself. “I welded in a roll bar, did a little suspension work and breathed on the engine, but I didn’t want anything too fussy or radical and always kept the option open of turning it back into a street car if I wanted to.”

Mark’s been racing the car and having great fun with it—with stunning reliability—ever since. Along the way he’s added a somewhat hotter engine from famous MGA racer and multiple SCCA national champ Kent Prather, but the car is still anything but razor-edged or temperamental.

That said, Mark is really fast in the car, and consistently runs at or near the front of the MGA bunch. I found the car more difficult to drive than some of the others in this test, but that’s simply because it’s closer to honest stock and not nearly so lowered, stiffened and snubbed-down as the rest.

I don’t mean for this to sound insulting, but compared to Dave Headley’s tricked-to-the-max MGB (following page), Mark’s car felt like a U-Haul full of bowling balls. You’d bend it into a corner and feel all the weight shifting and settling to the outside in painful but deliberate slow motion, and that’s just the difference between what all Production-class race cars felt like back in the old days and what a bunch of entirely too clever engineers have turned them into through the years.

Mark’s car was by far the most original and period-authentic in the bunch, and that was both its charm and its handicap. And it’s pretty amazing what Mark can do with it as a driver. He ran among the top five MGAs all weekend, and I’m pained to admit I was further off his best times than I was in any other car in the test. There’s a message in there about fondness, comfort levels and familiarity, and knowing just how to stroke and tickle the old girl to keep her smiling.

Clever Engineering: Dave Headley’s MGB

Call it “Yellow Peril.” Dave Headley’s a retired GM engineer, a longtime racer, an SCCA national champ and one clever, clever guy. But he’s clever by way of simplicity, practicality and original thinking rather than ornate complexity and theoretical B.S.

He works on and makes trick parts for racing MGBs as kind of a retirement business/hobby these days (just Google his name or Fast-MG.com on the Web and you’ll find him) and his B—which, by the way, is for sale—is a stellar example of what you can turn a car into if you’re sharp and savvy enough.

Although he doesn’t run it that often, Dave’s B has been the fastest one around for several years now—to the point where people were clucking their tongues and questioning its legality. But it’s been looked over and over by everybody and his brother, and the only upshot was to make him bolt some lead to the passenger-side floor after it came out a wee bit light when it was weighed at Watkins Glen.

And it’s still the fastest MGB around. Part of that is Dave’s driving (he’s good), but a lot of it is the work he’s done back home in the garage. The thing that drives you nuts about Dave’s MGB is how incredibly simple it is. Dave likes his cars light and basic, and you don’t see all the extra gauges, doodads and cage tubing you notice on other cars. The dash, for example, is pretty much just a tach and a switch and a starter button.

Then look down the valve cover: Instead of the fancy roller rockers a lot of guys run, Dave’s got—check this—stock Chevy Cavalier rocker arms. But, geez, they’re really nice pieces.

Then you look under the back end, and all you see are a couple of dinky track bars with the Heim joints running parallel to the ground rather than vertical like most folks run them. No bracket, get it? Less weight. Less complexity. Simple. There’s no lateral locator, either; just springs mounted in stock rubber bushings with washers to keep them captive side-to-side.

Dave runs his cars with soft springs and pretty hefty anti-roll bars and he’s fooled around plenty with the roll centers and ride height and alignment and such to get the car where he wants it. And it sure helps that he knows where that is.

The first thing you notice when you fire it up is that this car has a lot of power as well as light weight. It’s right there in the sound of the engine: A hollow, harsh, guttural exhaust note unlike any other four-banger in the test.

And you can feel the snap of it as soon as you head out onto the track. This is a real race engine, with lots of punch from the midrange all the way to 7000-plus, and the close-ratio gears are perfectly matched to keep it on the boil. But the real secret here is the way the chassis works. It was a revelation, and it sure didn’t feel like any other MGB I’ve ever driven. And I’ve driven quite a few.

Dave’s car brakes straight and true but with hardly any nosedive and then trims instantly into a comfortable set as soon as you bend it into a corner. Nothing harsh or snappish, mind you; just immediate. There’s a constant, reassuring edge of understeer as you push it through the corner, and everything feels so surefooted and evenly balanced that you’re sure you could have come in hotter.

But if you do come in too hot—and here’s the amazing part—you can pedal out of it without getting the tail all light and loosey-goosey. Wow! I asked Dave about it and he said something about suspension geometry and roll understeer at the back end, but the bottom line is that it makes a driver feel safe, confident and in control. And that, more than anything else, is what allows you to go fast.

It was easy to see why Dave’s MGB habitually runs at the front of the pack. He’s a hell of a driver, but it’s also one hell of a car—even if it doesn’t feel much like a standard MGB anymore. He’ll sell you that one or build you another one like it if you want.

Clean and Sanitary: George Wright’s TR4

The technical changes between the TR3B and TR4 didn’t look like much on paper, but they amounted to a genuinely massive performance improvement. Most of that was due to the 5-inch wider track, superior suspension geometry and rack-and-pinion steering. It’s interesting to note that the SCCA bumped the TR4 up a class to D Production, where it quickly won back-to-back national championships: Group 44’s Bob Tullius at Riverside in 1964 and West Coast hotshoe Steve Froines at Daytona in 1965.

Longtime racing buddy George Wright’s eye-gouge yellow TR4 is one of the very best around. There are a lot of TR4s running in vintage these days, and George’s car is one of the few that can run pretty much even-up against the faster MGBs and Porsches, which is good news for Triumph fans. Part of that is due to the excellent prep help he’s had from some very savvy, good-ole-boy ‘roundy-round guys in his home state of Virginia.

The car is built and maintained to a very high standard, starting with a really neat and sturdy roll cage structure—George tested it pretty severely when an axle broke at Mid Ohio a few years back, and it worked just fine—and the car feels solid as a rock.

However, the suspension’s just cushy enough to allow everything to work, and I’ve got to say that it was not only very fast, but more sheer fun to drive than anything else in the test. (Although part of the fun was the swell dice I got into with the well-driven MGB of Tennessee’s R.T. Whitfield during my so-called “test” session. Sure, you’re not really supposed to race during practice, but, hey, when it’s your only shot in the car….)

What fun we had! There was plenty of traffic to work through and around while we were out there and the two cars were really evenly matched, and it was a great chance to observe the differences between a TR4 and an MGB firsthand.

Not that I was paying all that much attention, since I was either busy trying to keep that MG in my mirrors or trying to get around him again. You could see the MGB has a little bit wider footprint, seems slightly more supple through the corners and seems to trim out a little nicer in fast sweepers. Wouldn’t be surprised if it was a wee bit lighter, too.

But the TR4 is just so much fun! It’s got great grunt and you can poke the back end out to get the car rotated and almost dirt-track it out of Turn 7—grinning all the way—and it really takes a nice set through that steep, daunting sweeper of Turn 1.

The brakes and steering are excellent—think it and you’re there—and the car’s just so willing, eager and friendly you can’t believe it. About the only complaint was a sometimes edgy shifter that caught me out once when I was trying to grab second. I buzzed the engine because of it, but fortunately with no apparent damage—keep that in mind any time you feel like lending me a car.

Picking Winners

I picked out four cars for this test, and I think I can gloat a little about how well they all did in the MG/TR Challenge Races at the Mitty. Maybe I should go into handicapping?

Mark Brandow’s faithful-to-its-era MGA ran well toward the front of the MGA bunch all weekend, never skipped a beat or required attention and headed back home just as he brought it. He drove the living crap out of it, too, finishing ninth overall out of 36 cars in the “A” Challenge Race with a best race lap of 1:58:4.

George Wright’s TR4 survived my dumb over-rev and enthusiastic play session with that MGB to finish ninth overall in the “B” Challenge Race and first among the 10 TR4s entered with a best race lap of 1:48:6. Like Mark, he did a fantastic job. Had a good time, too, if the wide grin on his face afterward was anything to go by.

Dave Headley’s stealth weapon MGB ran right up there in the top four overall in the “B” race, staying right with the battling MGB GT V8s of Jerry Richards and my great friend Les Gonda and the Trans-Am-spec Triumph Vitesse of Mark Thomas. He only lost third overall to the more powerful and bigger-tired Vitesse on the very last lap, and he was never more than a heartbeat or two behind the V8s at the front. He was the first MGB home by a wide margin and cut an eye-popping 1:45:4 in the process. Wow!

And then there’s my fellow TR3 addict, Jeff Snook. He and another TR3 pilot, Randy Williams, had been swapping fast times at the front of the “A” Challenge Race pack all weekend, and it even got a bit too competitive at the start of their qualifying race on Saturday when they both jumped the start and, according to reliable accounts, passed the pace car before the green flag even quivered in the starter’s hand!

As a result, they both got a finger-shake and a wrist-slap from Mitty MG/TR Competition Director Jack Whoerle and were sent to bed without dinner. Not to mention being bumped down to mid-grid for Sunday’s feature. And what a sight it was as Jeff and Randy threaded and thrashed their way through the field to get back to the front where they belonged.

It all came down to breaks in traffic—Jeff got one that Randy didn’t—and by the time Jeff broke through the clutter of MGAs to take the lead, Randy was several seconds back. So Jeff was actually able to ease off a little and cruise to a solid and satisfying win. Jeff cut his fastest time earlier in the weekend (a 1:52:4) but during the chase (he ultimately finished second, 4.5 seconds back) Randy Williams turned a pretty amazing 1:51:3. That’s hauling in a vintage-legal TR3.

But that wasn’t the end of it. As part of his duties as honored guest, famous guru and spiritual leader of the Triumph bunch, Kas Kastner had to pick one car/driver combination to receive the coveted Kastner Cup. Part of it comes down to car, part of it comes down to how you run in competition, and part of it comes down to, well, let’s call it character.

And despite the character requirement, I’m proud to say Kas awarded the cup it to my good friend Jeff Snook and his immaculate, Glen Efinger-prepared TR3. Makes it almost worth putting up with the guy, you know?

The Full Card: How the Rest of the MG and Triumph Lineup Compares

The Bantamweights: MG Midgets and Triumph Spitfires

The cuddly little 948cc Austin-Healey Bugeye Sprite was first introduced in 1958, and quickly established itself as everybody’s favorite starter race car—even though there are precious few legit 948 Bugeyes running around in vintage these days. It became the ubiquitous weapon of choice for SCCA H Production racing.

A slightly less charming and lovable, but no less fun to drive “square car” Mk II version followed in 1961 and was upgraded with a whopping 1098cc engine a year later. By then, Austin-Healey and MG had been merged into BMC, and so a slightly tarted-up, badge-engineered MG Midget version was introduced along with the Mk II Sprite.

Triumph countered with a slightly larger and somewhat more sophisticated down-market model, the 1147cc Spitfire. It had a backbone frame, flip-up front end for easy maintenance and swing-axle independent rear suspension. To be honest, the original, factory-spec Spitfire IRS could be something of a nightmare (can you say “wheel jacking?”) but with lowering and other modifications it could be turned into a sweet-handling race car.

A larger, 1296cc engine was introduced on the more refined Spitfire Mk III in 1967, and Spits and Midgets competed fiercely on the showroom floor and in SCCA production class racing. In fact, the battle between the light, tiny, simple and whippy little Sprites/Midgets and the larger, but more stable and supple, Spitfires continues to this very day. Ironically, both cars wound up sharing the same, smog-choked 1493cc four-banger toward the end of their model runs when they found themselves huddled together under the slowly collapsing British Leyland umbrella.

Today, Spits and Midgets can run against each other in several different classes depending on engine size, weight and carburetors, and they’re still the cars to beat weekend in and weekend out at SCCA club races. On the vintage side (where rules are a little more laissez-faire), Spits and Midgets can be built into truly marvelous race cars thanks to the huge backlog of amassed engineering knowledge and a mouthwatering catalog of available hardware and trick parts.

Fact is, you can build yourself a real Porsche-eater Spit or Midget if you have a mind to, but the resulting car is going to have a very short fuse and can cost a lot of money—up to $40,000-plus, and not much of it recoverable.

The Middleweight Orphans: Triumph GT6 and GT6+

In 1966, Triumph created a slick and compact little bullet of a sports coupe by shoehorning the 2-liter six from their Vitesse sedan into the lightweight Spitfire chassis.

The resulting GT6 and its variants were unusual in that there was no corresponding model offered by MG, but Triumph’s attempt to build a “workingman’s E-type” out of available hardware suffered from a cramped interior (GT6 enthusiasts say “cozy”), limited head room, spotty quality, some marginal components and truly wonky handling.

An upgraded version with revised IRS featuring double-jointed halfshafts and additional locating arms was quickly brought out as the Mk II just two years later, and the car was much improved. But a bad reputation is hard to leave behind, and the cars never sold particularly well.

Some were raced with great success, including John Kelley’s DP Runoffs win in the Group 44 example in 1968, but that was more due to an excellent power-to-weight ratio, painstaking development and slick aerodynamics than brilliant track manners.

Although light, the cars were nose-heavy and routing the steering linkages under the longer, six-cylinder engine block resulted in some serious bumpsteer problems—especially after the cars were lowered. But GT6s can be very fast, and devotees like longtime GT6 flogger John Reed wouldn’t think of racing anything else.

The Cruiserweights: MGC and TR6

The six-cylinder, 2.5-liter TR250 was first introduced in 1967 (as a 1968 model) along with the home market, fuel-injected TR5; it featured the IRS rear end and most other construction details from the latest TR4A.

Two years later, America got the handsomely restyled (if somewhat smog-strangled) TR6, which was a huge success on this side of the pond, even if the leaned-out Strombergs wheezed in the upper rpm ranges and the soft rear spring/shock combination had a habit of turning to cheese and allowing the characteristic TR6 back-end bob on crisp upshifts. Even so, the TR6 could be turned into a fast and effective track weapon (as Group 44 proved so conclusively), but there were never more than a handful of really well-developed and set-up examples around.

MG of course needed a counter-model (especially following BMC’s phase-out of the wooly old Healey 3000) and to that end shoved their industrial-strength, boat anchor of a six-cylinder engine under the MGB’s hood and called it an MGC. This was more than a simple engine swap, as the length and heft of the engine forced changes to the front crossmember and a switch to torsion bar front suspension and 15-inch wheels among other modifications.

Although respectably powerful and fast in a straight line, the resulting car was terribly nose heavy and handling could best be described as “deliberate.” A factory-backed “prototype” MGC (with the engine shoved back a couple inches plus other mods) scored an amazing 10th overall at Sebring in 1968, but not many were ever sold here in America.

Still, they can be effective vintage weapons when properly prepared and driven, as Steve Plater proved when he won the Collier Cup race with his much-raced example at Watkins Glen a few years back. Some genuinely quick MGCs also compete regularly in English vintage racing.

The Gorilla Cars: MGB GT V8 and TR8

It’s almost cliché that when General Motors finally pulls the plug on something, they’ve usually got it just about right; witness the Corvair, Pontiac Fiero and recent Cadillac Le Mans Prototype project. That’s how the beautiful and neatly engineered little Buick/Olds/Pontiac aluminum V8 of the mid-‘60s wound up the property of Rover in England.

It was a good deal for Rover, as it was by then a very good engine with most of the bugs worked out. Thanks to the sad conglomeration of the British industry under British Leyland and, later, JRT (Jaguar/Rover/Triumph), the little 3.5-liter jewel found its way under the hood of a much-improved TR8 version of the previously unloved TR7.

Meanwhile, backyard and back-alley British swap artists were making a regular thing out of shoving the ex-GM V8 into MGBs and, following in their footsteps, the factory started building MGB GT V8s for the home market as early as 1973.

Why these potentially successful cars were never imported to the States remains a marketing and mismanagement mystery, and only 2500 or so were ever built.

Despite too-small tires, flaccid handling and wimpy brakes, well-driven TR8s did some serious damage for a while in SCCA Showroom Stock racing and Ken Slagle knocked off the CP national championship with a highly Prodified example in 1981.

Meanwhile, Group 44 built an absolute killer TR8 coupe for pro racing—so good, in fact, that the Trans-Am officials threw an additional 400 pounds at it after it won in dominating fashion its very first time out at Watkins Glen. And then it went on to win four of the other five races it entered that season!

Track tested on these pages a few issues back, the Group 44 TR8 is like a pocket-rocket, P.T.-boat version of a NASCAR stock car, what with its bank vault solidity, unbelievably good brakes and handling, and gobs of smooth, effortless torque. Oh, and about two-thirds the weight of a stock car… it’s fast!

Although never officially imported, MGB GT V8s are starting to become popular with MGB racers here in North America; two really excellent examples showed up to duke it out to a photo finish for first overall at Road Atlanta. In the hands of owner/drivers Les Gonda and Jerry Richards, the two V8s battled mightily for the lead and swapped positions and fastest laps repeatedly in the “fast car” MG/Triumph Challenge race at Road Atlanta. Jerry ultimately beat Les to the flag by mere inches after a race that left both of them grinning like idiots. And Les was kind enough to give yrs. trly. a few laps in the car during practice for, umm, evaluation.

The first thing you need to understand is that the ex-GM aluminum V8 engine block actually weighs less than the cast-iron four- banger it replaces, but what with more rods and pistons and the beefed-up hardware required to handle the increased torque and power, the overall car is slightly heavier than a standard MGB GT and, as you might expect in a coupe with a big windshield and backlight, the weight sits somewhat higher over the waterline.

That said, the MGB GT V8 (try saying that three times fast, Mr. Track Announcer) is a wonderful little brick of a car. Most of the standard racing B’s fine track manners remain, and the overall feel and balance are excellent. Torque is available in a meaty, thundering rush, and about the only downside is that the wheelbase feels just a wee bit short for such a powerful car.

It’s great through the tight, twisty bits, but somewhat more iffy on fast sweepers. Plus it gets a tad warm in there with the two exhausts running close under the floorboards and a big V8 just ahead of the firewall.

As has always been the case, how well you do with an MGB GT V8 depends a lot on what sort of track you’re on and whom they put you in against (a really tricked out Lotus Elan will have it for lunch on a handling circuit), but even so it represents the unquestioned ultimate for the true MGB enthusiast.

And it stomps most 911s.

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