Triumph Spitfire the Affordable British Sports Car

Marina Green Triumph Spitfire 1500
Triumph Spitfire 1500 in Marina Green. Photo by Mark Gittelman

British sports cars like the Triumph Spitfire are a blast to drive. For me, it brings back fond memories of my go cart racing days. Of course, my go-cart didn't have a 1500 cc engine.

These cars ride so close to the ground they provide a completely unique driving experience. With an enhanced sense of speed and the improved handling from a lower center of gravity, you feel connected to the road and to the automobile.

Of course a Spitfire isn't the only car built in England that provides this exhilaration. The 3000 Mk III by Austin Healey got the jump on Triumph and built two-seater roadsters and hardtops from 1959 through 1967. However, the Triumphs can deliver just as much bang for a lot less bucks.

Not everyone can afford a vintage Austin Healey or a luxurious Jaguar performance automobile. But we might be able to afford a British sports car in the form of a Triumph Spitfire. Here we'll review the details and history of one of the most fun to drive cars from across the pond.

Brief History of Triumph

Siegfried Bettmann established the Triumph marque in 1863. The company built bicycles and later motorcycles in a manufacturing plant in Coventry England. In 1930 they reorganized into the Triumph Motor Company and focused on building a new line of automobiles.

However, the company struggled financially and as World War II approached their problems would only worsen. A manufacturing facility was completely destroyed in a bombing raid and the production of automobiles ceased in 1940. Triumph got a second chance in 1945 when the Standard Motor Company stepped in and purchased the company.

By the early 1950s, Triumph focused its efforts on two-seater performance models and Saloon style sedans. The TR series sports cars launched in 1955 and continued to evolve into a reasonably priced automobile for the driving enthusiast.

The Triumph Spitfire

When it comes to picking a name for an English built sports car you probably can't do much better than the Spitfire. The world renowned World War II era fighter aircraft helped secure a victory in the battle of Britain. The name surfaces the emotions of pride and performance in the British people.

The Triumph Spitfire car launched in 1962 as a two-seat roadster with a manually operated convertible top. The car line had a long run as they built the automobile in five generations through 1980. The Mark I Spitfire built through 1964 represented an inexpensive sports car producing 68 HP with a top speed of more than 90 miles an hour.

Although its performance wasn’t blistering on the dragstrip the surefooted handling made up for its shortcomings. Its capability to pull down more than 30 miles per gallon remains an impressive statistic even by today's standards.

Second-generation Spitfire Mark II

When Triumph launched the second-generation Spitfire in 1967 it looked the same as the previous years model except for an updated grille. However, they did make major improvements to the powertrain. An improved clutch design provided longer, more reliable service.

The factory applied several performance upgrades to the engine and boosted the redline to 6,000 RPMs. This raised the top speed to nearly 100 MPH. Despite the performance upgrades the engine still managed 30 miles per gallon or better.

Second-generation cars also addressed the many shortcomings in the interior cockpit. They replaced the rubber mat flooring with molded short pile carpeting. The seating for both the driver and passenger received a complete redesign, providing additional comfort and support for performance driving.

Exterior Redesign with the Spitfire Mark III

A complete exterior revamp with the launch of the third generation Spitfire in 1967 proved quite effective. Interest in the automobile increased and the sales and production numbers along with it. In The first quarter of 1968 they reached the 100,000 unit production mark.

Most of the cars sold found homes in the United States. Unfortunately for the Triumph Motor Company this breakthrough success came at a dark time in American automotive history. With increasing regulations, America was preparing for the death of the muscle car.

The British built sports car would also have to meet these tougher regulations. By the time they built the last Spitfire Mark III in 1970, compression fell to 8.5:1. For the first time horsepower went down. It looked like things would only get worse for the performance of the two-seater sports car in the years to come.

Last of the Mark Series Spitfires

Starting in 1970, the Spitfire entered its fourth generation. Triumph continued to detune the engine on the Mark IV Spitfires to meet increasingly tougher emissions standards. Horsepower dropped to 63 with the addition of positive crankcase ventilation and exhaust gas recirculation valves.

This pushed 0 to 60 times way up near the 16 second range. Top speed also suffered, dropping to 90 MPH. Despite its struggles in the performance department, Triumph continued to refine the cars exterior appearance and interior comfort. Sales remain strong through 1974 as the company built and sold more than 70,000 units under the mark IV designation.

At the end of 1974 they launched another exterior redesign as the Spitfire 1500. This marked the end of the Mark series car names. They continued to build the Spitfire and sales remained steady through 1980. However, the performance of the automobile suffered as the compression ratio and horsepower continued its way downward.

Despite the performance shortcomings the company pushed hard to advance the car in other departments. They improved handling with a redesigned suspension system. The exterior took on a more modern European look with color-coded bumpers. And the interior compartment evolved into a classy and sporty driving experience.

The End of the Road for the Triumph Spitfire

Leyland Motors purchased the financially strapped Triumph Motor Company in 1960. The Leyland Company was later bailed out by the British government and nationalized.

This is a process where privately owned assets become publicly owned. By the end of 1980 Triumph had built just shy of 315,000 Spitfires through five distinctive generations. The rights to the Triumph name currently reside with BMW.

The Budget Minded British Sports Car

Let's face it, not all of us can afford to jump into the British classic car hobby with a Jaguar XK 150 or a mid-60s E-type Jaguar. The Triumph Spitfire makes an excellent hobby car, because of its low entry fee. Cars in average condition sell for $5000 to $10,000.

Even older examples built in much smaller numbers, in excellent condition, seldom rise above the $18,000 price point. For the same reasons the car isn't considered a great investment if you're looking to buy and hold.