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The car that was the beginning of the end for Speke, the Triumph TR7

It's now 37 years since the first Triumph TR7 rolled of the line and into dealer showrooms. Billed as The Shape of Things to Come by British Leyland, Triumph's parent company at the time, the entire concept of the car caught people by surprise. The big issue for sports car enthusiasts was figuring out how the car had evolved from the earlier TR range, and the obvious and perplexing conclusion was that it hadn't. The TR7 was clearly unlike any TR before, but it was also unlike virtually everything else on the road as well. What, then, to make of it? To answer that question requires some understanding of the emerging North American market for cars in the early to mid-seventies, and how transformations taking place in the British automotive industry related to that market.

From the beginning of TR7 development, British Leyland saw North America as a primary destination for its new sportscar. Codenamed "Bullet" by the factory, the car was to be the first of a new line of Triumph cars with a selection of engines, including a long-wheelbase 4-seater hatchback called the Lynx. There was a big problem, though. Legislation was expected which would ban convertible cars, so British Leyland made the decision to produce a sports coupe, rather than a more traditional open-topped car. Related to safety legislation in the US was a requirement for bumpers that could withstand a 5mph (8kmh) crash. Under that legislation you would be able to drive your car into a post at 5mph, not damage the car's body, and have the bumper able to regain its original shape. Additional legislation specified minimum bumper height and minimum requirements for headlight height.

his proposed legislation had a direct impact on the way the TR7 was to look, and was to be built. Unfortunately for Triumph, the ban on convertibles never occurred, and American legislators halved the 5mph bumper rule to 2.5mph. This left Triumph to introduce their new big-bumpered coupe at a time when you could still buy a convertible TR6 (see picture at the left of screen), Spitfire or MG, as well as a range of European alternatives.

So one reason why the TR7 didn't owe much to earlier TR sportscars was because of the constraints imposed by proposed legislation in the US. Another reason had to do with the way British Leyland rationalized its holdings in an attempt to make itself profitable into the future. Part of the company's reorganization involved the decision not to further develop the MG line of sports cars, in favour of Triumph. Apparently the Triumph factory was more modern than that of MG, and MG was working on a new mid-engined car that BL had no interest in at all. So Triumph got the nod for development, a decision which MGB enthusiasts have not forgotten to this day. The principal designer of the TR7 was Harris Mann, a stylist working in the old Austin-Morris design studios. The earlier TR range was heavily influenced by the Michelloti studios in Italy (TR4) and the Karmann studios in Germany (TR6). But the TR7 was entirely an in-house project: a completely new car for a new era. Different it was -- low front, high tail, wide, looked like a wedge -- was this really the shape of things to come? For many people it just didn't look right, and from the beginning the design suffered the slings and arrows of people who couldn't or wouldn't adapt to its revolutionary shape.

he Shape. That's what the advertisers fixed on as the defining feature of the car. The Shape of Things to Come, Get into the Shape, The Shape of Things that Win, and simply, The Shape. But by 1976, the scramble was on to change the shape by getting the roof off the TR7. For this task, Triumph returned to the Italian design studio of Michelotti, and by the time of its NA introduction in 1979, what some thought an ugly duckling had certainly turned into a swan. Unravelling the production history of the TR7 is a challenging endeavour. Three factories built the cars during their production run from 1975-81: Speke, Canley and Solihull. During some periods, two factories assembled the cars so production overlapped. At other times the lines were shut down, but some cars were apparently built even then! Launch dates for various models were announced, revised, and postponed, sometimes for years. Vehicle identification numbers were not consecutive, appear randomly assigned, and sometimes defy interpretation.

It is generally agreed that cars built at Speke suffer from more problems than cars from the other two locations, with cars from Solihull most desirable largely because they are the newest. Labour strife plagued the entire British automobile industry in the mid-70s, with strikes and sabotage common. The Speke factory was in the thick of this and even though it was only 20 years old, the company's final solution was to permanently close the Speke operation in 1978. Production of the TR7 then moved to Canley. If you have a TR7 with original paint, you can immediately tell if it is a Speke car by the big TR7 decal on the nose. The decal on the Canley cars changed to a large wreath with the word Triumph in the center. A black badge with gold wreath and Triumph lettering identifies the Solihull cars. While styling differences between NA and rest-of-the-world specification cars are not large, there are significant differences in TR7 engine specification. From the beginning, Triumph supplied engines in three states of tune. Outside NA, the engine used twin SU carburetors to develop 105hp, but in 49-State tune the car ran twin Zenith-Strombergs and made 90hp. In Californian tune the car was only able to generate 76hp due to emissions equipment and a single carburetor. The California cars subsequently received twin Stombergs from 77-79, and fuel injection from 1980. All 1981 US cars were fuel injected using a Bosch L-Jetronic system (with the TR8 getting a specially designed Lucas ECU), although Canadian TR7s continued to use twin Strombergs. Related Topics: 2litre engine

Early cars came with 4-speed transmissions and 175/70-13 tires for all markets, but by 1977 Triumph offered a superior 5-speed transmission. A higher final drive ratio of 3.9:1 came with the 5-speed 'box, as did high performance 185/70HR-13 tires. Triumph standardized this specification for the NA market, but due to supply problems it was only briefly offered, then dropped, for the home market. The option was not reliably offered again outside NA until production moved to Canley in 1978, for the 1979 model year. Triumph also introduced an automatic transmission from 1976, mabye earlier, but it was never very popular.

The 1977 model year also saw the general introduction of catalytic converters (Californian cars had them from 1975) and the elimination of the small British Leyland badges at the bottom of the fenders, behind the front wheels. By March 1977 the wheel center rings changed from black to silver, and a fabric sunroof became an option. Still fiddling with the look of the car, Triumph engineers lowered its rear by 1 inch, and changed the interior from a spun nylon corduroy to a very distinctive red or green plaid. This was not an understated plaid, and if the idea was to draw peoples' attention away from the car's controversial shape, then full marks should certainly be given. When selecting an adjective to describe this particular plaid, the word loud comes fairly quickly to mind. These days, fans of the early TR7s regard this interior with great affection, as do owners of the Speke-built pre-production TR8 coupes, and early production coupes that also received it. In October 1977, workers at the Speke factory went on strike. This, of course, coincided with the introduction of the 1978 model TR7, with the result that very few 1978 TR7s exist. Even though the factory resumed production in March 1978, its operation was short-lived: It closed in May for good. Production of the TR7 moved to Canley (Coventry) and resumed in October 1978, which meant that Triumph missed almost an entire model year. None of this inspired buyer confidence.

Design, features and variants The car was characterized by its "wedge" shape, which was commonly advertised as: "The Shape of Things to Come", and by a curved line in the bodywork sweeping down from the door area to the rear of the car. The design was penned by Harris Mann who also designed the wedge-shaped Leyland Princess. The car had an overall length of 160 inches (406 cm), width of 66 inches (168 cm), wheelbase of 85 inches (216 cm) and height of 49.5 inches (126 cm). The coupé had a kerbside weight of 2205 pounds (1000 kg). During development, the TR7 was referred to by the code name "Bullet". Power was provided by a 105 bhp (78 kW) (92 bhp (69 kW) in the North American version) 1998 cc 8-valve four cylinder engine which shared the same basic design as the Triumph Dolomite Sprint Engine mounted in-line at the front of the car. There were plans to directly use the Sprint engine 127 bhp (95 kW) in the TR7 and 60 pre-production cars were made in 1977 using the 1978 model year body shell. This model was getting ready for full production until the closure of the Speke Plant. These cars, of which several still exist in the UK, can be identified by a different chassis number to the production 8-valve model. Drive was to the rear wheels via a four-speed gearbox initially with optional five-speed or three-speed automatic from 1976. The front independent suspension used coil spring and damper struts and lower single link at the front, and at the rear was a four link system again with coil springs. There were front and rear anti roll bars, with disc brakes at the front and drums at the rear.

Various British Leyland vehicles were driven by the lead characters in the British secret agent television series "The New Avengers", produced between 1976 and 1977. Amongst these was a yellow TR7 hardtop driven by the character Purdey. In 1978 Coca-Cola and Levi's ran promotional competitions with the top prizes being three TR7s in special red and white Coke livery. They also featured denim upholstery and genuine jean patch pockets on the door interiors. Also included were a 12V fridge in the boot and a TV in the glove compartment..