Spitfire & GT6
As the decade rolled over into the 1960s, Standard Triumph's financial position was dreadful. The only way to save the company was a merger, and the Leyland (truck and bus) company stepped in. They immediately froze all development projects to conserve cost.
Shortly afterward, Stanley Markland, Standard-Triumph's new managing director and a reputed "hatchet man", was touring the factory warehouse with Harry Webster. In a corner, there was a prototype covered in a dust sheet. "What's this?" Markland asked, wanting the sheet removed. Beneath it was "bomb", a working prototype sports car built on a modified Herald chassis and styled, like the Herald, by Giovanni Michelotti. Webster explained that it was a fairly well advanced development. Markland got into the car, started it up, and drove it round the warehouse. On his return, he said "It's very good, we'll manufacture it."
The production Spitfire4 was visually very little changed from that prototype, although a fair bit of chassis development was still needed, losing the side rails in favour of a semi-unitary structural body sat on a narrow backbone. It gained wind-up windows, which set the Spitfire a step above the newly released MG Midget, as did the front disc brakes. The engine was uprated from the prototype's 948cc to a tuned version of the 1147cc version for the 1200 Herald, developed at the same time.
Triumph decided to reserve the first production batch for UK market, to reduce problems in the event of high warranty claims, which the Herald had suffered. This exasperated the US market, where enthusiasts had read the positive reviews and wanted to get their hands on a car the dealers were raving about, knowing it was so much better than the competition. As the export sales built up, it was clear the formula was right. The only real criticism of the Spitfire was for the now famous "rear wheel tuck-under", although Road & Track considered the handling "better at touring speeds than others in the same class". Dealers soon offered camber compensators for those who wanted to race their Spitfires.
With the success of the original, very little needed doing for a facelift version to keep things fresh. The Mk2 got a different grille, carpets instead of mats, better seat cushions, and vinyl trim over the previously bare painted metal in the cabin. Under the bonnet, a more sporty camshaft and extractor manifold boosted the power to 67BHP, and a diaphragm spring clutch gave better feel and control.
Although the Spitfire fell more naturally into the Spite/Midget market sector, the launch of the MGBGT led Triumph to think about a GT variant. They built a prototype Spitfire GT quite early on but found it too slow with the extra weight. However, they had already created the Vitesse by squeezing a Triumph 2000 engine (albeit reduced to 1600cc) into a Herald, so making a similar change to the Spitfire GT was an obvious option. Meanwhile, the competition department wanted to enter Spitfires at LeMans, and the coupe roof meant better aerodynamics. The marketing department took full advantage of their competition success, launching the GT6 as having been "born at LeMans", but in reality the LeMans Spitfire roofs were moulded from the pre-existing prototype GT6.
US regulation drove some of the more obvious changes for the Mk3 Spitfire. The bumpers were raised by 9 inches for crash safety, creating a quite different visual effect. The engine was changed to the 1296cc unit that had first appeared in the 1300 saloon, which better coped with early emissions controls. It also benefited from a proper fold-up roof, a new steering wheel, wooden dash panel, and improved front brakes.
The Mk2 GT6 (or GT6+ in the US) took the same styling changes as the Mk3 Spitfire but also got "more sting in the engine, more cling in the tail", as the marketing department put it. The engine changes involved a TR5-derived full-width cylinder head for better breathing, bumping the power up to 104BHP, while the rear suspension acquired lower wishbones to reduce the camber change and eliminate the "tuck-under" from cornering forces. The bending of the driveshafts was achieved with "Rotoflex" rubber doughnuts, as used on the 1300FWD, Hillman Imp and others.
As the 1960s drew to a close, the Spitfire and GT6 styling was beginning to be "too familiar" (some people say 'old' but that merely shows they've succumbed to the cult of novelty). Also, the press tools were getting past their best, so Triumph took the opportunity to re-style them in keeping with both the spirit of the times and the corporate image being established by the Stag and Mk2 saloons. The rear end received the Kamm tail, the bonnet lost its wing-top chrome (stainless steel covers hiding exposed panel seams), the wheel arches got subtly flared, the door handles recessed, and the windscreen enlarged slightly by merging its frame into the bulkhead. The front bumper, while still at the same height, was now fitted to the chassis rather than the bonnet, with significant under-riders enclosing the bonnet hinges in crash resistant boxes. These got even larger on US market cars, which also had them at the rear, for increasingly stringent crash safety regulations. Mechanically, little changed. The Spitfire got synchro on first gear (which the GT6 already had) and a slightly longer ratio diff. What was significant was that the rear spring got a clever pivot system, which reduced roll resistance to mitigate the tuck-under problem. This worked well, especially when combined, after a couple of years, with slightly increased rear track (longer shafts). So well, in fact, that the last few thousand GT6s got it as a cost down exercise.
In 1973, to remain competitive in the face of increasingly tough emissions rules, US Spitfires got the 1500 engine, with the rest of the world following about a year later, along with badging changes for the new model. The 1500 received various model year updates such as headrests, cloth trim and a TR7-derived steering column and switchgear. But Californian emissions limits and crash safety effectively killed it off there in 1980, and without that market it was no longer viable. The last Spitfire left Canley in August 1980.
Over its 18 year production span, 314,332 Spitfires were built, of which 242,918 went to the North American market. It was the second-best selling British sports car in history, behind the MGB.
Spitfire and GT6 consultant