Always Crashing in the Same Car

The Triumph TR7 Convertible embodied the BL charter in microcosm. 

(c) Car Magazine

If only this could have been the TR7 that was launched five years ago instead of the poorly-assembled and inadequately developed Speke-built versions that so quickly acquired a tarnished reputation.” [Howard Walker, Motor – August 30 1980.]

If only. Those two simple words perhaps most poignantly encapsulate the British Leyland charter. Because amid the egos, the politics, the industrial strife and lost hopes chiselled onto BL’s cenotaph, there were also well-conceived, rational motor cars which deserved a better fate.

The Triumph TR7 has never been a car which brooked much by way of ambivalence. Not only did it polarise opinion by dint of its striking Harris Mann body style, its toxic reputation became as potent a metaphor for the malaise affecting both its parent company and UK motor manufacture in general during that most troubled period of its history as anyone’s Allegro or SD1.

Like that ill-starred product of Solihull, where incidentally the TR7 ended its life in 1981, the Triumph was a pragmatic, cost-rationalised product which employed a good deal of well-judged off-the-shelf componentry to produce a car which in conceptual terms at least, performed as well as more sophisticated rivals developed at far greater cost; not altogether surprising, since the fingerprints of that smart, pragmatic engineering figurehead, Spen King were all over it.

Early TR7’s were plagued with build and component-related maladies, not to mention shoddy build and finish; legacies of the industrially troubled Triumph plant at Speke in Merseyside, and undoubtedly, a rushed and incomplete proving regime. The reputation these early cars gained was truly appalling, precipitating the closure of the plant entirely in the spring of 1978. TR7 production was moved to Triumph’s home in Canley, and coincided with a notable improvement both in build quality and in the product itself.

However, while the car made more friends amid the buying public, the remained a notable resistance to the TR7’s appearance, which its rather abrupt looking canopy and ugly US-specification bumpers did little to assuage. Furthermore, and largely thanks to the motor press, who propounded the legendary Giugiaro anecdote, the bodyside swages had become the equivalent in social-stigma terms of the XJ-S’ much-derided ‘buttress’ panels.

By the time TR7 production was dispatched to Coventry, development was well advanced on a drophead version. When first conceived, BLMC product strategists were confronted with proposed US federal legislation which was intended to outlaw all open-topped vehicles for safety reasons. In a test case, this was allegedly overturned in 1973, but the ensuing timelines ensured the TR7 (like the XJ-S) was initially developed only in closed form.

Aside from the requisite strengthening of the floorpan, scuttle and front subframe to account for the canopy’s removal, the conversion was a relatively straightforward one, although despite reinforcement, prototypes still suffered from unwanted movement in the forward scuttle area. However, Peter Robinson, writing for Car in 1979 reported that at the suggestion of Spen King a large mass was added to the front bumper bar, which had the effect of harmonically cancelling-out movement in the scuttle – a solution believed to have been borrowed from pre-war Packards.

Robinson was unequivocal as to the conversion’s visual success, stating that it was “far better looking than the Coupé”. Not only were appearances in its favour however, he went on to laud the car’s finish and the improvements in the driving experience which coincided with its relocation to Canley. “…the convertible feels tighter and far more fun to drive than the closed version… it is so much nicer a car than the Coupé”, he went on to add.

The drophead model went on sale in the US in 1979, but UK customers had to wait until the following summer before they could sample some Triumphant wind-in-the-hair thrills. Motor added an example to their long-term test fleet that year – the car arriving portentously on April 1st. But their test-TR7 belied such superstitions, Motor’s Howard Walker asserting, “If there was an award for the most improved car then I’m sure the TR would win it hands down. It’s certainly a Triumph in more ways than one.

This example was also subjected to Motor’s full road test earlier that summer, where BL’s development of the TR7’s engine, transmission and suspension, to say nothing of the quality of the conversion was fulsomely praised. Like everyone else from the press corps, Walker praised the convertible’s “strong, purposeful wedge-shape, enhanced by its steeply-raked windscreen”.

(c) Autocar

Also lauded was the 1998cc engine’s mid-range refinement, its “Swansea tug ‘o war team’s” torque and the slickness of the Rover-sourced 77mm 5-speed gearbox. The Triumph’s road behaviour was also singled out, Walker stating, “there are few cars in this price range that are so enjoyable, yet so viceless to drive quickly and I for one get tremendous pleasure from driving the TR.” The car defied all previous orthodoxies, proving by that point at least to be a reliable companion, with only minor niggles blotting an almost spotlessly clean record.

It was all starting to come good for the TR7 by the turn of the decade, but as with so many BL products launched prematurely, the turnaround when it came arrived late in the car’s lifespan, by which time views had already hardened against it. Yet it did seem for a short time at least that the TR7 had a second chance at success.

But in true dramatic-narrative style, its time in the sun would prove short-lived. With Convertible production still ramping up, and US deliveries of the much anticipated and critically acclaimed TR8 just beginning, the combination of a sharp US recession precipitated by the 1979 Iran oil embargo and the Thatcher Government’s monetary policies which saw Sterling’s value gain significantly against the Dollar meant that BL’s US market prospects fell through the floor.

(c) wheelsage

The TR7 was almost wholly reliant on US sales and with BL’s Michael Edwardes wielding the knife across all loss-making BL divisions, the die was cast against both Triumph and its respected but unloved sportscar.

Canley had proven almost as turbulent as Speke from an industrial-relations perspective and Edwardes was in no mood for appeasement, shutting the plant for good in 1980. Homeless once more, TR7 body assembly (and painting) was moved from Castle Bromwich with full production shifting to Rover’s Solihull plant, but the following year, that too was closed, ending the TR7’s seven year lifespan.

The Convertible enjoyed a brief life, yet with total TR7 production of around 115,000 cars in total, the fact that close to 29,000 of these were drophead models appears to suggest that had events not conspired against it, the Convertible model at least might have had a commercial future. But this is a core tenet of the BL charter, because if anything ought to be chiselled upon that ill-fated carmaker’s headstone, it would be those two solitary words – If Only.

Author: Eóin Doyle

Founding Editor. Content Provider.

26 thoughts on “Always Crashing in the Same Car”

  1. I remember a BL executive was quoted in Autocar saying exactly the same thing when the major revision to the SD1 was launched in 1981. Conceptually,both cars shared much in common (pragmatic designs, straightforward to build using tried and tested components) and had so much to recommend them, only to be hobbled by dreadful initial build quality that permanently sullied their reputations.

    Both cars had potential for further development that was never exploited. The SD1 should have spawned estate and, possibly, four-door saloon versions:

    The estate would have been an excellent development, combining a rakish, sporting style with extra practicality. The saloon would have catered for those who couldn’t reconcile themselves to the notion of a hatchback on an executive car.

    The TR7/8 proved rather trickier to develop. The Broadside 2+2 roadster was a handsome looking car, having lost the polarising curved bodyside swage lines in favour of a simpler horizontal indentation, which suited the longer wheelbase body rather well:

    The coupé was more problematic. There were (at least) two distinct prototype versions. IMHO, this was the better one, although the very heavy rear bumper does it no favours:

    The other version is a sad and frumpy looking thing:

    Finally, here’s an enterprising conversion of a fixed-head TR7 into something more appealing:

    Today’s teaser is to identify the car that is the donor of that rear hatch. The prize for the correct answer is a Ford Granada Scorpio.

    1. Looks like Citroën SM to me? And a pragmatic very French solution to a problem only the French could’ve gotten away with. In a weird way that solution works perfectly!

    2. Damn, can’t believe I missed out on winning a Scorpio, congratulations Ingvar.

    3. Citroen SM….(pause for dramatic effect)…is the wrong answer!

      Answer at 21.00hrs GMT if no winner beforehand.

    4. gooddog wins, Datsun Cherry F10 Coupe. I’m amazed that is not an SM hatch, maybe it’s the silver colour but it’s very similar in form (at least in my head). I still miss out on the Scorpio though; don’t tell me it’s a hatch as that would make it worse.

    5. Correct! Here’s the donor vehicle:

      The hatch actually looks rather better on the back of a TR7, don’t you think?

      Your prize will be revealed shortly.

    6. Congratulations, Goodog, and here’s your prize:

      I’m no expert in these matters, but I’m advised that it would benefit from some light restoration work, nothing too onerous.

      Ty, sorry, but I think it might be a hatchback…or a saloon or estate.

    7. Oh just my luck, the floating roof was the only part I intended to keep, but there’s still a chance a spry Cossie 24V lurks under the relatively pristine bonnet.

  2. Daniel, I would respectfully suggest that the SD1 design didn’t particularly lend itself to either bodystyle. I have viewed the estate prototype shown above at the British Motor Museum’s Collection Centre (well worth a visit!) and it’s a clumsy looking thing. For a start, the rising beltline causes all sorts of problems which were not adequately resolved and that is before we get to the rear, where it appears as though David Bache’s team simply gave up.

    The saloon as shown is (I believe) a photoshopped image, since no three volume SD1’s were built or mocked up. Better informed individuals than I might know if thought was ever given to such a model, and thinking about it, it’s something of a surprise that it wasn’t considered for the 1982 re-launch – as a means of distancing it from the earlier car. After all, three volume conversions were all the rage at the time (á la Trevi etc). However, the same issue would have reared its head, necessitating a very high tail treatment, which would have been difficult to satisfactorily reconcile with a more conservative audience. Anyway, SD1 really was a stylistic entity in itself.

    The BMM also retain both Lynx and Broadside prototypes and I can say without reservation that close examination of either does not lend further fascination. In fact, I would suggest, both place Harris Mann’s original design in a far more favourable light – the drophead TR7 being particularly well proportioned to these eyes – a matter which genuinely surprised me.

    I don’t know if the 2+2 version of Broadside has survived, but if not, it’s clearly no tragedy.

    1. Hi Eóin. Like you, I am a fan of the TR7 drophead and always liked the swage lines. I also like the Broadside 2+2 drophead but, I agree, the coupés just don’t work. Maybe a Reliant Scimitar GTE or Lancia Beta HPE style sports estate treatment might have worked better? Incidentally, the last photo above makes me think that BL missed a trick by not making the fixed head TR7 a three-door coupé instead.

      Here’s an interesting image I came across of the Broadside 2+2 drophead with a more sympathetic bumper treatment. The execution is pretty rudimentary, but it gives one an idea as to how the styling could have been improved as body coloured fully integrated bumpers became feasible:

      Regarding the SD1 estate, maybe the right answer was, rather than fight against the rising waistline, to have gone with it and create a four-door shooting brake in the mould of the, er, Reliant Scimitar GTE? It would have sold on its sporting looks rather than absolute carrying capacity. Such a car might have been a bit ahead of its time, but could have been quite a looker. At the risk of undermining my own argument, I post the following picture purely as an illustration of the DLO I have in mind (and nothing else!):

      Regarding the saloon version, yes, that is just a clever bit of Photoshopping, but looks good and I don’t think the tail is excessively high. Given that the Beta was a four-door with a conventional boot rather than a hatchback, yet Lancia still thought it worthwhile to produce the three-box Trevi as a more upmarket car, the Rover saloon would have been a good complement to the hatchback. Of course, its successor the 800 was sold in both forms (although I’ve no idea of the split in sales between the two versions).

    2. Daniel, that version of Broadside puts me in mind of the mid-80s Reliant Scimitar SS1 and shares its acute visual awkwardness. Even less of a stylistic success than the prototype in my opinion. The additional length did the TR7 body no favours at all – but of course, other viewpoints are available…

    3. Good morning, Eóin. Since my earlier post I’ve looked at more photos of the Broadside drophead and read your earlier critique of of the prototype, referenced above. Upon reflection, I have to concede that it doesn’t really work neatly as well as I had hoped. I think the main culprit is that deep concave indent along the sides. As with the Maestro, this gives the car a somewhat weak and insubstantial appearance. The “Kamm” tail looks rather blocky and the SD1 tail lights’ inward sloping outer edges clash awkwardly with the upright bodysides, exaggerating the effect you describe, where the body appears to widen aft of the rear wheelarches:

      Unlike me, you have had the benefit of seeing the car in the metal, which is invaluable.
      Thanks for the pointer to the British Motor Museum’s Collection Centre, by the way. It’s a long way from the Norfolk coast, but would make for a nice couple of days away in the summer.

      I’m still with Richard on the SD1 four-door though: infinitely better looking than the XX saloon that would have succeeded it, had it been built!

  3. Does BHP 2T refer to the cars overall pace with those bumpers? Goodness, they needed a diet!
    As to the rest of the pictures, I do actually like the SD1 estate version as seen in the Gaydon museum. And yes, it really is well worth a visit – last time I visited, it was there as was a TR7. and a lot of thoughts in my head going “if only…”

  4. The TR7 manages the rare feat of having an even more unfavourable ratio of wheelbase to car length than the already short wheelbased Alfa Spider 105.
    The Broadside car’s scalloped side very strongly resembles the Alfa ‘coda tronca’ and the bumpers are just as ham fisted als those of Alfa’s ‘aerodinamica’.
    If only they had built the Sprint version – or maybe not, because that engine had enough reliability problems – that could have been a creditable competitor to the Alfa spider.
    Faced with the decision between a TR7 and an open Alfa 2000 I’d have known which one I’d choose (pricing ignored).

  5. What’s funny is that both the TR7 and the SD1 seems to suffer the same problem, that their designs are full entities of their own not suited for design extension. Applying the TR7 design language on the Lynx and Broadside makes them look fussy, dated, and old. Perfect for the market of 1976-78, but already past its prime even before launch had they come in 1980-81. I think they should’ve gone a completely different route for that to work. Funnier though is the previously published thought experiment of applying the TR7 design language on the larger SD1 platform, somehow that works perfectly.

  6. The SD1 saloon image is really simply superb. I really wish something like that had been possible.
    It´s very rare such a revision works because of the volumes and proportions are so sensitive or are an integrated whole. I have made simple revisions to a few car images and found even quite small changes upset the balance noticeably. In this case it all hangs together still.

    1. Hi Richard, I found another image of the four-door:

      Does it need a sonewhat longer tail to balance up the bonnet? Otherwise, I rather like it. Another lost opportunity for BL.

    2. Thanks: to answer, no, it seems to be about right for me. It is still a strikingly handsome vehicle. If there is a fly in the soup, it´s the only that it might have stolen Jaguar sales. Chalk up up as another missed chance. BL and all its messiness morbidly fascinating. What is it – the almost utter lack of co-operation blended with bad management. I can´t think of another car industry with this type of problems. Maybe Fiat in a more chronic sense would approach the BL level of serial mess-ups. What distinguishes BL is the intensity of the mismanagement.

    3. I did a bit of digging and discovered that the Rover SD1 four-door goes under the pseudonym of Antigoon. He is a talented photoshopper and has a large number of “what might have been” versions of production cars on his website:

      http://www.antigoon.info

      Some are more successful than others, but the website makes for an enjoyable diversion over a cup of coffee.

    4. Insert “author of the” in my post above where appropriate. Sorry…not awake yet.

    1. That’s correct. One had a clamshell tailgate with an inset number plate, the other an inset item with the number plate under the bumper

  7. Oh, and this homespun effort that has done awful things to the SD1’s svelte lines in order to incorporate a Volvo estate tailgate:

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