Triumph Spitfire

By Les Bidrawn; photography by Jim Funkhouser

Put a college-aged male in a Spitfire 1500, make him wear a sweater, dark sunglasses and place a white Labrador (put a red bandanna round the dog’s neck for added effect) in the passenger seat. Now send him driving through a local campus. I did the very thing some years ago and it has marked me ever since. I had women literally throwing themselves in front of the car, begging for a ride. Forget the Camaros and Mustangs of the day—the Spitfire had an intelligent sexiness that often proved irresistible.

Although its production was somewhat hobbled by tightening emissions and DOT regulation, I find the later model Spits to be most desirable. Incredible as it may sound, I even like the late-model 5-mpg bumpers. And while these rubber bumpers completely changed the appearance of the cars like the Porsche 914, they lend an air of functional elegance to the 1500.

The 1978 Spitfire 1500 I drove belonged to a friend of my father. He didn’t like it because he had gout, a painful joint ailment that made it impossible for him to change gears. His loss was my gain. I got so good at rowing through its four-speed gearbox, Nigel Mansel himself would have been jealous. With less than 90 hp, you quickly learn to avoid the brakes unless absolutely necessary. Moreover, the tiny front discs/rear drums tended to heat up fast during spirited use. Better not to use them at all and keep all the hard-earned speed. Steering was fairly direct and despite its diminutive 13-in. wheels, it usually went where you pointed it.

Although the Spit was not unhappy being flogged through local canyons, I’d often find myself slowing down simply to absorb it all. Its simplistic controls let you concentrate on more important things, like where the next campus was.

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