The Triumph TR7 Convertible embodied the BL charter in microcosm.
“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”.
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.
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.