Triumph’s equivalent to the MGB, born at the same time, deformed at the same time, and died at the same time. But, in common with the MGB, lived and still lives a strong life as one of Britain’s most iconic sports cars.
The roots of the Spitfire go back to the early 1960’s, where in response to the Austin Healey Sprite, Triumph itself wanted to develop a small open-top sports car that was built on something of a budget. While the Sprite was built on a majority of parts carried over from the Austin A30/A35 family cars, the Spitfire was intended to be based heavily on the Triumph Herald. The result was what is essentially a Michelotti styled sports body on a cut-down Triumph Herald chassis, which saved the company a fortune on designing and building a new chassis.
The MkI Spitfire 4 entered sales in 1962, and was an immediate success due to its low price and very good performance. The car was fitted with a 1,147cc Inline-4 engine producing 63hp, and had a top speed of 92mph and a 0-60 of 15.5 seconds. The car sold very well, with 45,753 examples leaving the showroom during its two year production.
In 1964, the Spitfire MkII hit the showrooms, and this included an increased power version of the original engine, now sporting 67hp. This upped the performance slightly to a 96mph top speed an a 0-60 of 15.0 seconds. The car was also priced competitively at £505, £10 less than the similar MG Midget, and was also given several external trim changes including a new grille and badging. During its two year construction life, 37,409 of these cars hit the road.
The MkIII of 1967 was the first major change to the Spitfire. Gone was the large front grille, replaced by a more smoothened bonnet design. American legislation on headlamp height meant that coil springs were raised to meet these demands, and the engine was replaced with a new 1,296cc unit producing 75hp and taking the car to a top speed of 95mph, with a 0-60 of 13.6 seconds. By this time 75% of all Spitfires sold were export models, being sent mostly to the United States. Production ended in 1970 with 65,320 built.
In 1970, the first version of the Spitfire to be built under British Leyland was launched, this being the MkIV. Rear design was the most notable change, being altered to resemble the new Triumph Stag. Other than that there was very little change to this model, although the engine, which was the same as before, was tuned down to 63hp with a reduced top speed of 90mph. Production of these cars lasted for four years, ending in 1974 with 70,021 examples made.
The final variant of the Spitfire was the 1500, launched in 1974 and featuring a much larger engine than before, a 1,493cc unit producing 71hp and giving the car a top speed of 100mph, with a 0-60 of 13.2 seconds. Unlike most other British Leyland companies, Triumph had the good sense to build two different versions for different markets so as to remove the need to mess around with the design on the domestic versions. As US legislation brought in the requirement for composite or rubber bumpers, Triumph responded in 1979 with plastic over-riders and wing mounted deflectors on the front and rear wings. UK and European versions however continued to sport a chrome bumper to the end, which still allowed the car to have some old-world charm to it, unlike the MGB which was yoked with a huge rubber bumper that made it look obscene.
However, although the Spitfire was still a modest success, the spectacular failure of the Triumph TR7 meant that the company’s reputation was tarnished. Sales in the US and even in the UK plummeted, and thus British Leyland saw no further interest in continuing sports cars. As such, in 1980 the Triumph Spitfire and the TR7/TR8 were ended simultaneously, the same year as the last MG sports cars such as the MGB and Midget were axed. The last Spitfire was an Inca Yellow example for the domestic market, which brought a sad and sorry end to the Triumph sports car, but also to Triumph’s Canley Plant in August 1980. In all, 95,829 Spitfire 1500’s were built in 6 years.
Today the Spitfires continue to maintain a cult following due to their iconic design and raw power. Although many argue that the MGB is superior for its size and more powerful engine, the Spitfire is still a common runaround for the weekend. Most examples you’ll find on the streets of Britain are British Leyland models, and once the problem of rust has been removed they’ll happily go on forever.