The Triumph TR7 and TR8 have long provoked extreme reactions on both ends of the spectrum. Initially TR7 was brutally criticized, while the TR8 was named 1980 Motor Trend Car of the Year. Time magazine listed the TR7 among the 50 worst cars of all time, while Hemmings Sports & Exotic Car said the TR8 has “strong collecting credentials.”
How could two seemingly similar car models be such polar opposites?
They have completely different engines, components and driving performance, plus very different visual looks between coupe and convertible. And yet, the cars do share many parts.
These days the TR7’s issues can be fixed, and many owners are upgrading their cars to TR8 specs. And TR8 owners are modifying the standard V8 to produce eye-opening performance, illustrating the potential of this last-of-the-breed Triumph.
The Concept and the Shape
In the early 1970s, British Leyland wanted to build a modern sports car appealing to the U.S. market with rigid unibody construction, power brakes, modern wiring and instrument panel, air conditioning, independent MacPherson strut front suspension, and trendy-at-the-time pop-up headlights seen on the Corvette Stingray, Ferrari 308 and Lancia Stratos.
Since it was meant to be a major departure from previous models, they passed over longtime Triumph design consultant Giovanni Michelotti and TR6 designer Karmann, instead tapping in-house designer Harris Mann. He got his start under Raymond Loewy, renowned for the Avanti. The angular wedge shape came from a quick sketch, and company executives approved it in December 1971.
The company intended to introduce an open-top roadster with an optional V8 engine. But America was focused on fuel economy thanks to the oil crunch, and pending safety regulations threatened to ban drop-top cars. Plus the new five-speed gearbox wasn’t ready for the GM-developed V8. So TR7 launched as a fixed-head coup with a four-cylinder engine.
History might have read differently if TR7 first launched as a convertible with a V8 engine. At that time you could still buy a new convertible TR6, Spitfire, MGB or Midget.
TR7 Debuts in 1975
The TR7 debuted in the U.S. in January 1975. Ads proclaimed it “the shape of things to come,” but detractors called it a flying doorstop. The design was radical—few cars aside from the Fiat X1/9 and Lotus Esprit featured such angular lines.
The car featured 90 horsepower and 106 lb.-ft. of torque, making it less powerful than the TR6. Top speed was 110 mph. It had single or twin Zenith-Stromberg carburetors, a four-speed manual transmission, rack-and-pinion steering, MacPherson front struts, live rear axle, and front and rear anti-roll bars.
Critics pointed out the lack of power, soft suspension, inadequate brakes, electrical glitches and cooling problems. Yet the car was a fun, year-round daily driver and a roomy highway cruiser at a fair price—just $5100—so it sold well.
Initially the car was produced at the Speke, Liverpool plant, which was stymied by labor issues. Poor build quality gave the new model a bad reputation. Changes for 1977 attempted to address image problems with a manual five-speed transmission for the U.S., an optional three-speed automatic, catalytic converters, lowered ride height and optional tartan plaid interior.
When a strike halted production in 1978, the company moved assembly to Canley in Coventry, a major improvement. New features included an upgraded rear axle, more modern fuse panel and optional fabric sunroof.
The convertible version came to the U.S. market in 1979 and featured a more tilted windshield and bolder A-pillars presenting a more visually pleasing package. Michelotti handled the revised styling.
The V8 engine was an option in the 1980-’81 TR7. General Motors originally developed this small aluminum-block motor, installing it in compact Buicks, Oldsmobiles and Pontiacs between 1961 and ’63 before selling the tooling to British Leyland.
TR8 Powers Up
The TR8 officially launched in the U.S. in January 1980 as a convertible, although there were some prototype coupes. The 3.5-liter V8 engine featured 135 horsepower with top speed of 118 mph; it could do 0-60 mph in a respectable 8.5 seconds. It also produced impressive low-down torque (174 lb.-ft. at 3000 rpm), as well as a deep, rumbling sound. Car and Driver called it “nothing less than the reinvention of the sports car.”
TR8 also had power steering, dual exhaust, alloy wheels, leather steering wheel, five-speed manual transmission, twin Zenith-Stromberg carbs and fuel injection for the California market. The brakes and suspension were upgraded, and a different rear end ratio offered better highway cruising. Buyers could opt for the three-speed automatic transmission or air conditioning.
Great magazine reviews rolled in from more magazines, while rally and racing results generated further excitement—but the company couldn’t capitalize on it. They were in such bad financial shape by then they couldn’t afford marketing or advertising. To consolidate, they moved production to Rover’s Solihull factory mid-1980.
For 1981, the cars got standard fuel injection and other small details. But the TR8 never had a chance; production ended in October with just 2,715 produced.
Which One and How Much?
Andy Reid, auction editor for Classic Motorsports, likes TR7s but says the TR8 will always trump it in popularity and value because of the great engine, low production numbers, racing record and its history as the last Triumph.
For a TR7 coupe, expect to pay $2,500 for a nice driver and $4,000 for a perfect car, says Reid. A TR7 convertible runs $3,500 for a good driver and $6,500 for a perfect one. An original TR7 V8 coupe sells for $7,000. He advises staying away from the early Speke-built cars.
The best TR8 convertibles top out at $10,000 to $12,000, while a good driver can be had for $6,500 to $7,000, says Reid. A nice TR8 coupe sells for $8,000. “These cars are a steal,” he adds.
TR7 To-Do List
The biggest problem with TR7s is a blown head gasket and warped cylinder head, says Kelvin Dodd, Moss technical expert and TR8 owner. He recommends tightening cooling hoses and checking coolant levels regularly.
Failure of the original Lucas electronic ignitor is common; the PerTronix ignitor is more reliable. (A Crane electric ignition kit is the fix for the TR8 Lucas distributor.)
Dodd says the TR7’s Zenith-Stromberg carbs work well except for the auto enrichment device, but Moss has a kit to convert it to manual choke operation. A Weber twin-barrel downdraft carburetor offers performance and economy; a K&N air filter enhances any system.
Other TR7 upgrades: Cobalt high performance ignition wires, cross-drilled and slotted rotors, and an adaptor to convert the canister oil filter to a spin-on filter. Go for a single pipe, free-flow exhaust with twin chrome outlets, or simply add a polished, chrome-plated steel single or double exhaust tip.
Suspension and Other Upgrades
For suspension upgrades, Dodd recommends a four-part fix: stiffer Metalastic suspension bushings made of bonded rubber; higher-rated springs that are 25 percent stiffer than stock; KYB gas shocks and struts; and a higher-rated anti-roll bar that tightens up handling.
Alternatively, owners who want to keep the car stock can control nose “diving” under braking by installing the Moss anti-dive kit. “It makes a difference,” Dodd says, adding it is also less expensive than suspension upgrades.
The shifter housing on the five-speed transmission has rubber bushings that rot out, allowing the shifter to move and possibly hit the drive shaft. Moss’ Delrin shifter housing bushing kit with stainless steel spacers resolves the problem, although you can also get polyurethane bushings and use your original spacers, Dodd says.
Other goodies for TR7 and TR8: halogen headlamps to replace the sealed beam bulbs provide better visibility; EBC GreenStuff brake pads for better braking and low dust; a Westco sealed, dry cell battery that is lightweight and will never leak; and a RetroSound radio that fits the dash paired with an electric retractable antennae.
To customize your car’s look, Moss carries canvas tops, tonneau covers, carpet sets, and Panasport and Minilite style wheels. “I’d go for 15-inch wheels for a wider tire selection,” says Dodd. Moss also carries the British Motor Heritage front spoiler.
This is the car that nearly brought the classic British roadster into the modern age. It’s a milestone in the British car world.
• The Triumph TR7 was Triumph’s all-time best selling model. It outsold the well-loved TR6 by nearly 18,000 cars with one year less production time.
• The TR7 concept car was code named Bullet.
• In an attempt to feature modern build materials, the car featured one of the first mass-produced plastic dashboards. Gone were the classic styling cues like wooden dashboards and chrome trim.
• In six years of production, 112,375 TR7s were sold; a quarter of them were convertibles. Only 2,715 TR8s were produced in total, including just 414 in 1981. Most TR8s were shipped to the U.S. and Canada.
• The Spider was a special edition TR7 convertible with black paint highlighted by red pin stripes and laurel wreath; about 1,200 were produced in 1980.
• See TR7/8 production stats and learn how to read the VIN number codes: www.trdrivers.com/tr7___tr8_vin_numbers.htm.
• Model identification/decals were changed with each move of the assembly line. For instance, the nose of the Speke-made cars had outlined TR7 letters; Canley-built TR7s had a laurel wreath and TR8s had striped TR8 letters; and Solihill-built cars had an enamel badge.
• Check out the World Wide Wedge mailing list for technical info: www.team.net/TR8/maillist.html.
• In 1977 about 60 TR7 coupes were made with Dolomite Sprint 16-valve engines. The factory used some as rally competition cars with 220 horsepower in full works trim. The Sprint engine was approved for full production when a strike closed the Speke plant, scrapping plans.
• Watch a TR7 joust against a Ford Scorpio, complete with jousting pole, shield, and a flaming ending on Top Gear: www.youtube.com/watch?v=xn74sErmKcI&feature=related
• The last Triumph to come off the production line on October 5, 1981 was a TR7, and it went to the British Motor Heritage Museum.
By Kathleen M. Mangan
Photos by David S. Wallens