TRIUMPH SPITFIRE REVIEW

Pretty styling and simple mechanicals make an early Spitfire a tempting proposition, but what’s it like to buy?

Even in a fairly light car such as this, less than 70bhp from a small engine is never going to set the tarmac alight. And so it proves with the Spitfire, the 0-60mph sprint taking a leisurely 15 seconds and three-figure speeds out of reach without a (very) favourable tailwind. 

What this pretty soft-top Triumph is really about, though, is fun. And fun is something the Spitfire delivers by the bucket-load. Despite what the figures might say, there is enough pep to easily keep up with modern traffic, especially if you make good use of the light and accurate gearchange. 

The optional overdrive of MkII models does make longer distances a little easier, but the Spit is an easy car to row along while you just enjoy the top-down experience. Light, accurate steering is a boon around town as is the tight turning circle. The brakes are adequate but it pays not to be too exuberant in the corners, as the swing-axle rear suspension has potential to surprise in the wrong hands. It’s not as unpredictable as some would have you believe, but a modicum of caution is needed in slippery conditions. 

The ride isn’t exactly cosseting – the leaf-sprung rear end making things a bit choppy (though no worse than an MG Midget) – but with the roof down and the sun out such things are easy to overlook.

What is a plus point is the snug but comfortable cabin, the low seating position giving a real impression of speed even when travelling at a modest pace. Very early cars are a bit basic, admittedly, but the few switches and dials are perfectly placed, the driving position is fundamentally sound and everything is within easy reach so you should be able to get comfortable. The MkII got better seats and carpets, by the way. 

The Spitfire might lack a few creature comforts then, and refinement isn’t a strong point, but, make no mistake, it’s a very capable little sports car.

VITAL STATISTICS

Engine                                    1147cc/4-cylinder/OHV

Power (bhp@rpm)                  67bhp@5000rpm

Torque (lb ft@rpm)                 67lb ft@3750rpm

Top speed                                92mph

0-60mph                                  15secs 

Consumption                           32mpg

  Gearbox                                    4-spd manual

WHAT TO LOOK FOR

BODYWORK & CHASSIS
 

The bodywork can hide a whole host of corrosion-related sins and first stop are the sills – a major structural element on the Spitfire – so problems here will seriously affect the integrity of the body. If they’ve been replaced, you need to ensure it was done correctly as failure to brace the shell can result in it twisting, so check panel gaps and door alignment carefully. The rest of the panels should also come in for scrutiny, particularly the bonnet, inner and outer wings and wheelarches, A-pillars, and front valance. Safest thing is to assume any rust bubbles are significantly worse underneath. 

Replacements are common but the chassis is actually quite robust. Nevertheless, inspect it closely, paying special attention to the outriggers behind the front wheels that support the bulkhead. Rotten floorpans are common – rust can spread from flaky sills so check those too, not forgetting the suspension mountings particularly where the rear leaf spring attaches and the low points by the rear axle. Sub-standard restorations are always a risk with cars of this age, so make sure you’re happy with the car’s history and the standard of any work – putting things right can be a labour-intensive and costly process with a Spitfire.

  ENGINE

Both versions used a 1147cc engine derived from the Triumph Herald’s. It’s a reliable unit and great accessibility makes it a cinch to work on. Watch for oil leaks and tired cooling systems, but the main check is for worn crankshaft thrust washers – excessive play at the pulley is the giveaway. In the worst case, they can drop out, terminally damaging the crank and block. The correct oil filter will ensure oil doesn’t drain back to the sump, leading to top-end wear on start-up, and it’s worth listening for the rumble of worn big-end bearings.  It’s an easy unit to rebuild so general wear and tear isn’t a major concern. 

RUNNING GEAR

The four-speed manual gearbox can suffer from worn synchromesh and whining from tired bearings. You need to check thoroughly for oil leaks, but that’s about the extent of the problems, and replacement is fairly straightforward. Overdrive was optional on the MkII so check it engages correctly – if not, it is normally electrical problems or lack of oil in the unit. Lastly, listen out for clunks from worn UJs and ensure that engine oil leaks haven’t contaminated the clutch causing slippage. MkII models got a stronger diaphragm spring clutch as part of the updates.

Easy access to the running gear means repairs are simple, but it’s worth checking a few things. The front trunnions need to be oiled with EP90, not greased, so check the seller knew that. Worn bushes and balljoints are other issues and you need to watch for sagging rear leaf springs and play in the steering rack. Don’t ignore noisy rear wheel bearings as they are tricky to fix. 

INTERIOR

The cabin of an early Spit is as simple as they come, with MkII models getting better seats and carpets as standard. It’s a case of checking general condition but, with most parts available, refreshing a tired example isn’t costly. The hood on these early cars was a complex affair so check the condition of the hood and frame. A hardtop was optional on the MkII so make sure it’s not hiding a rotten soft-top.  

OUR VERDICT

 It may not be fast, but the styling alone should ensure it a place on your shortlist. It’s fun to drive, too. There’s a real feel-good factor to the Spitfire, and as long as you avoid the rusty ones, it makes for a great ownership proposition.

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