During the sixties Britain really cornered the market in sports cars: there were the upmarket Jags, Astons, Jensens and Bristols; the popular MGs and Triumphs; race/rally favourites like Austin-Healey, Sunbeam, AC, the Mini Cooper and, of course, Lotus; there were smaller companies like Reliant, Morgan, Ginetta, TVR, Elva, Bond, Marcos, and tiny ones, like Fairthorpe. That’s quite a list, and I’m sure I’ve forgotten a few. Indeed, the market was so strong that both Austin-Healey and Triumph would introduce a second-tier sports car, aimed at the more budget-conscious, but no less enthusiastic customer and designed to share running gear with an existing model from their range.
The Spitfire first saw the light of day at the 1962 Earls Court Motor Show, and was Triumph’s belated answer to the eccentric little ‘Frogeye’ Sprite (which would later morph into the MG Midget), rescued from mothballs by Leyland who had taken over the financially stricken Standard-Triumph concern. Attractive bodywork by Giovanni Michelotti concealed the chassis and suspension of the Herald saloon, though given the significant differences in performance (38bhp in the Herald compared to 63) this turned out to be something of a mixed blessing. The rearward transverse-leaf swing axle arrangement came in for considerable criticism for its effect on cornering predictability, a flaw that would only be remedied after even more severe effects in the 2 litre hardtop GT6 development threatened to damage sales in the US.
With continued success in historic racing around the world, the Spitfire continues to provide a budget sporting option.
The GT6 resulted from an unsuccessful attempt to produce a fastback version of the Spitfire, to be designated the GT4. The project was shelved after the discovery that the weight increase led to an unacceptable drop in performance, but thanks to the clear aerodynamic advantages of Michelotti’s roof, fibreglass copies were grafted onto the works racers, destined to score a famous 1-2 in class in the 1965 24 Hours of Le Mans. Capitalising on the publicity from the win, the GT6 arrived the following year, the six cylinder engine (shared with the TR6) capable of hauling the little car up to 105mph. Fearful of damaging TR6 sales, the straight six engine would never be available in the Spitfire, however by 1973 (’75 in the UK) declining sales led to the introduction of the Spitfire 1500, capable of 100mph and with handling stability you could count on.
By this time however, the Leyland build quality issues (which I appear to end up writing about every week, sorry) had set in and it seemed that some examples rolled off the production line with rust on the chassis. In a cruel twist of fate it turned out to be the brown painted examples that rusted the least, along with the purple ones, judging from those that lingered the longest. But 18 years in production is a fine record, and in all but one of those years it outsold the Sprite, making it possibly the wisest investment Leyland ever made. With continued success in historic racing around the world, the Spitfire continues to provide a budget sporting option, just as was originally envisaged. Sports cars are nothing if they’re not fun and, the usual sports car gripes aside, the Spitfire was plenty of that.
Oh, and I forgot to mention that it had the tightest turning circle of any production car ever built – 24 feet – just watch your tyres if trying it on a regular basis!
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