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Triumph TR7, 1975-1981

The Triumph Cycle Company of Coventry, Warwickshire, established in 1887, was known for bicycles, motorcycles and motorized three-wheelers long before it began building four-wheel cars in 1923. It became the Triumph Motor Co. in 1930, and built a variety of sedans and sporty cars, including the Super Seven, Super Eight, Gloria and Dolomite. Its most daring venture was the complex 1934 Triumph Dolomite Straight Eight, powered by a double overhead cam, 140 horsepower, two-litre inline eight. It was a knock-off of the Italian Alfa Romeo 8C 2300, but due to financial constraints only three were built.

Triumph went into receivership during the Second World War, and in 1944 was bought by the Standard Motor Co., becoming a subsidiary of Standard. After the war, Triumph cars, now Standard-based, came as 1800 (later Renown) and Mayflower sedans with razer-edge styling reminiscent of some 1930s luxury cars such as Rolls-Royces. A rather baroque 1800/2000 Roadster with the world’s last production rumble seat was also offered from 1946 to 1949. Standard began exporting Triumphs to North America in 1948, with modest success. That changed with the arrival of the car that really brought Triumph to North American attention, the 1954 TR2 sports car. Its twin-carburetor, 90-horsepower, two-litre, modified Standard Vanguard four’s performance far overshadowed the popular MG, and approached that of the larger engined Austin-Healey. The Triumph TR series was very successful for the Standard Motor Co. It evolved into the TR3, TR3A, TR4, et al., until it became the TR6 of the 1970s, now with a 2.5-litre, overhead valve six. TRs were all based on the original TR2 platform, and by the time the TR6 arrived it had reached the limit of its development.

Following a series of acquisitions and mergers, by 1975 Triumph was part of largely state-owned British Leyland Ltd., and former competitors MG and Triumph found themselves under the same corporate roof. To the chagrin of MG enthusiasts, BL management decided to concentrate on the Triumph sports car and allow MG development to languish. Thus while the MGB soldiered on virtually unchanged, an all-new Triumph TR7 arrived in 1975. And “all-new” it was. Whereas the TR6 was a body-on-frame roadster with four-wheel independent suspension, the TR7 was a unit construction coupe with a solid rear axle. The stubby coupe sat on an 85-inch wheelbase and weighed 2355 pounds. It featured coil springs on all four corners, MacPherson struts in front and tube shocks in back. It even came with front and rear anti-roll bars. The live rear axle was securely located by upper angled arms and lower trailing arms The stubby coupe sat on an 85-inch wheelbase and weighed 2355 pounds. It featured coil springs on all four corners, MacPherson struts in front and tube shocks in back. It even came with front and rear anti-roll bars. The live rear axle was securely located by upper angled arms and lower trailing arms. Rack-and-pinion steering was used, and suspension was via MacPherson struts in front and a beam axle and coil springs at the rear. Brakes were disc front and drum rear.This suspension setup provided a decent ride and solid handling. The disc front and drum rear brakes were adequate unless pushed hard. Two people could sit comfortably in the cockpit while experiencing good heating and ventilation (a/c was optional for $425). The instruments were visible and easy to read, and the controls were completely accessible. Overall, the TR7 offered a comfortable and pleasant, if not exhilarating, driving experience.

It was powered not by a six, as was the TR6, which would continue for another year, but by a two-litre (1,998 cc) single overhead cam, inline four. This engine was also fitted to the Triumph Dolomite sedan (post-war), and sold to Saab who used it as the basis for its 99, 900 and 9000 engines. In the TR7 it was tilted 45 degrees to the left, allowing easy access to the two Stromberg carburetors. It's 90 horsepower would, according to Road & Track (5/’75), accelerate the 1,068 kg (2,355 lb) coupe to 96 km/h (60 mph) in 11.3 seconds, and achieve a top speed of 174 km/h (108 mph). This was not that much different than the TR6′s performance, and only marginally better than the original TR2′s zero to 96 (60) of 12.2 seconds, and top speed of 166 km/h (103 mph) (R & T 4/’54), illustrating the stifling effect that emission controls were having on performance.

The TR7′s styling, which was done by British Leyland, was decidedly wedge-shaped and not really very elegant. It looked short and wide, and could have benefitted from the magic of an Italian stylist such as Giorgetto Giugiaro, as demonstrated in such exquisite designs as the Lotus Esprit and the Volkswagen Scirocco. The TR7′s production was a disjointed experience, reflecting the somewhat chaotic condition the British auto industry was sliding into. It began in Liverpool, was moved to Coventry three years later, which resulted in a part-year loss of production. Then in 1980 it was relocated yet again to the Rover plant in Solihull, west of Coventry. The results of these production disruptions and periodic union militancy were seen in somewhat indifferent quality control for the TR7, which negatively impacted sales. During the TR7’s debut, Italian master designer Giorgetto Giugiaro, after walking around the car and seeing the peculiar body sculpting with the deep, curved swage line on its flank, reportedly said, “My God! They’ve done it on this side as well.” Years later, the editors of Time included the 1975 TR7 in its list of the 50 worst cars of all time, describing the design as “fit to chop wood.” They called it “horribly made,” citing the car’s many electrical problems (“The thing had more short-circuits than a mixing board with a bong spilled on it…and headlights that refused to open their peepers”), not to mention equally irritating and destructive mechanical issues (“Timing chains snapped. Oil and water pumps refused to pump, only suck”). In his book “Triumph TR7 & TR8 1975-1981,” Triumph expert James Taylor says that “a rough early TR7 is likely to be a constant source of trouble and disappointment.” Even today—more than 30 years after the shape was introduced—some Triumph purists refuse to consider any wedge a true Triumph. A very bad rap indeed. But if the car was that bad, how did the humble TR7 manage to become Triumph’s all-time best selling TR, surpassing even the beloved TR6? Aside from the TR7’s radical look, Triumph engineers actually came up with a pretty solid idea. They were aiming for a modern, affordable sports car to replace the TR6 that would appeal to the U.S. market. Their new package featured many of the right elements: relative simplicity, a front engine in a sturdy monocoque, a roomy cockpit, rear-wheel drive, a solidrear axle and proven corporate components. Despite these advantages, designers launching a sporty new model for American roads in the early 1970s were shooting at a moving target. Stylists were forced to comply with ever-changing federal standards, including 5-mph bumpers, ride height requirements and engine emission controls. Even worse, because Triumph’s designers were afraid the Feds were going to enact legislation banning convertibles, they initially offered only a fixed head coupe. This drew howls from the open-air crowd, not to mention Triumph’s U.S. dealer network. To make matters worse, the TR7 had fewer cylinders than the model it replaced. One tester lamented, “It has virtually nothing in common with its immediate predecessor. Gone are the smooth but punchy six-cylinder engine, the overdrive, and the independent rear suspension.”

Even with all those challenges, the car might have still had a fighting chance. But unfortunately for British Leyland, they launched the TR7 into a perfect storm of financial woes, labor crises and management shuffles. In 1975, the British government rescued the tottering giant from a financial bog when it purchased the majority of the BL shares, effectively putting the company on life support. Despite the infusion of cash, BL still faced major problems with its workforce. When the first TR7 (code named Bullet) rolled out of the Speke plant in Liverpool in late 1974, constant and bitter labor strife—strikes, shut down lines and even sabotage—ruled the scene. The result? Cars that were called some of the shoddiest the U.S. and Britain had ever seen. Serious quality issues soon started bedeviling owners. Most notable were the head gasket problems, which caused engine overheating and often escalated into claims for replacement engines. Add in the electrical quirks, poor fit and finish, and loose parts (in one case, a rear axle fell off), and the car’s reputation dropped like a wedge-shaped stone.

To boost interest, BL built a handful of special editions featuring cosmetic changes and/or no-cost extras. The 1976 Victory Edition, the later 30th Anniversary Edition and the Spider are a few examples. The Southern Skies, which offered a sliding sunroof, was sold only in the southeastern U.S., and the Jubilee and the Premium were offered only in the U.K. By July of the next year, Triumph introduced a new convertible version of the car. Most felt this move dramatically transformed the TR7’s appearance (“The car they should have built all along,” said one reviewer). These new cars also featured five-speed transmissions from Rover’s SD1, which greatly improved drivability. Together, these changes helped spark buyer interest and gave sales a needed boost. And despite Triumph’s continuing labor and cash problems, quality control did improve. By 1980, the TR7 production line had made its final move, to Solihull, and there is no doubt that later cars offered significantly improved build quality and a multitude of design improvements.

Despite the TR7’s reputation for poor reliability (not to mention a so-called lack of speed) some race teams found ways to make the car last and go fast. Following in the footsteps of earlier Triumph models, the wedge actually amassed a nice little competition record. During the 1976 SCCA season, Bob Tullius drove a Group 44 Triumph TR7 to five D Production national race wins in a row. On the West Coast, Joe Huffaker’s factory-backed TR7 also scored several national wins and finished second at the season-ending Runoffs to Paul Newman’s TR6. Huffaker’s TR7 returned in 1979 with Lee Mueller driving and won the D Production championship. While the TR7 ran in D Production, its faster near-twin ran in C Production—where Ken Slagle took a yellow TR8 convertible to the 1981 national title. The car also has the distinction of being the last factory-sponsored Triumph in SCCA competition. In 1975, John Buffum’s TR7 started dominating SCCA ProRally and North American Rally Cup events. Buffum and his co-driver (and wife) Vicki won seven events in 1977—five of them were in a row. But unhappily for the TR7, Britain’s auto industry was fading on the world stage and the Japanese were coming on strong with such outstanding sports cars as the Datsun Z-series and Mazda RX-7. In spite of several strikes against it, when TR7 production ceased in 1981 more than 112,000 had been built. The TR7 was replaced by the short-lived TR8, a TR7 fitted with the GM-designed 3.5-litre, aluminum V8. The TR7 had been a good attempt at reviving Britain’s waning sports car leadership, but it came too late.

What To Look For
-- Rust is the TR7’s worst enemy and there are plenty of crusty examples around or – worst still – nice lookers, which are full of fi ller and a layer polish. And because TR7 residual values are so low, enthusiasts aren’t exactly encouraged to spend big money on their cars so expect the worst.
-- The major rot areas are the chassis rails (particularly at the front around the subframe points), fl oorpan, bulkheads and inner front wings, especially at the strut top mounts. These Triumphs can literally fall apart at the seams and if bad, the car is of scrapper use only Other major areas include the A posts (very common), boot fl oor (check spare wheel well for rot) and rear suspension pick up points.
-- Sills are a real worry on TR7s because they comprise of an inner, outer, centre and strengthening panel (the latter on the rag top only); the most common bodge is to tack just a new outer on hiding all the crap underneath.
-- Those huge rubber bumpers can mask wild valance rot and these bulky US-inspired fenders can even droop or drop off entirely if their glued mounts give up the ghost.
-- It has to be an exceptional TR7 if you can’t find any rot or repairs around the wheel arches, door bottoms and around the windscreen area. So vet well.
-- Mechanically, the car fares better. Loosely Dolomite-derived hardware is fairly sturdy and not dear to replace either.
-- As with all 1970s Triumphs, overheating is the biggest worry (the Dolly engine was half a Stag unit, remember). Silted and corroded waterways are common and head gaskets often fail. Worse still a cylinder head can prove virtually impossible to remove at the kerb if it has rusted on with the studs.
-- Check the state of the cooling system; if only water is in the header tank then be ultra wary as these engines need a constant diet of quality anti-freeze to keep them healthy and cool. And be doubly wary if there are signs of oil droplets; have a sniff to confirm!
-- The timing chain is rattle-prone although doesn’t slip like the Stag’s. Listen also for cam wear and worn cranks, including that well-known Triumph foible, the crank end fl oat (have an aid depress the clutch as you watch the crank’s pulley move.
-- Early transmissions are Dolomite/GT6 sourced so will usually be tired on P- reg cars. Most featured the Rover SD1 fi ve-speeder however, which apart from being slicker is also sturdier, although worn synchros (watch for gear clash) on second and third are pretty common.
-- The three-speed Borg Warner automatic ‘box is reliable and doesn’t detract from the Triumph’s appeal too much – plus they are normally a lot cheaper to buy, too.
-- Suspensions are simple – damper, spring and mounting bushes usually go, especially the front shockers. TR7s normally handle well so if the car feels like an old TR6, then the suspension is clapped out.
-- A good number of TR7s were upgraded to V8 power. Check it’s been done properly (many haven’t.) Ditto a conversion to Dolomite Sprint power. Turning the latter on its head, has the stock 1998cc engine been swapped along the way with a lesser 1850 Dolly engine? Bosch L-Jetronic fuel injection was used on last of the Stateside TR7s, although emission-sapping gear meant it was a good 10bhp down normal UK cars.
-- Various styles and types of trim were tried – and usually they all age rapidly; the tartan like seat facings are very hard to replicate now. A lot of TRs are running around with naff seat covers to hide the deterioration.
-- Is the TR7 winking at you? It’s not a come-on… sluggish or no show headlamps are usually due to dodgy wiring or the motors being on the way out – around £45 a pop to fix if it’s the latter.
-- The TR7 is a lot more watertight than early TRs, and this includes the convertibles. As always, inspect the rag top for wear, damage and ageing plus check (and smell) for a weather worn cabin.
-- Although it’s of scant consolation after 37 years of use and deterioration on the road, it is reckoned that cars made from 1979/80 are the best built. Whatever, even though parts supply is pretty decent from Triumph specialists (Robsport International has just started marketing proper heater controls for instance), there’s little value in restoring a basket case unless it’s something rare or special