The Triumph TR7 always seemed like a “nearly” car to me. It didn’t have the old fashioned charm of the TR6 or the modern driving experience it’s appearance promised. Like many British Leyland cars of this era, there was huge pressure to get a product to market quickly and rationalise the range of cars competing against one another.
The Triumph TR7 was launched to the public in 1975. From outside observation at least, it looked like Triumph were designing a failure. With awkward styling, a simple live rear axle, fixed roof and a four cylinder engine – The TR7 was supposed to improve on its predecessor, but many elements seemed like a backward step. The TR6 was ancient but still had its six cylinder engine, a soft top and independent rear suspension.
To understand why Triumph did this, we need to look at the situation back in the early 1970s and what parent company, British Leyland were trying to achieve with the Triumph brand.
Gestation Of The TR7
Since the earlier merger of companies, British Leyland had both MG and Triumph selling sports cars against each other. The former Triumph boss, Lord Stokes was now in charge at British Leyland and needed to rationalise the range of cars.
British Leyland Competing Sports Cars 1969-1974 (Excluding Jaguar)
Small Sports car:
V8 Sports car:
MGB GT V8
Lord Stokes decided the new sports car should, over time, replace all the sports cars under the British Leyland brand. One sports car would replace all the others, from the entry level MG Midget to the bigger and more powerful Triumph Stag. This would prevent the company from competing directly with itself. The American market was top priority for the new car.
At the time both MG and Triumph had concept cars that were in development, the MG AD021 and Triumph Bullet. These cars were polar opposites in design and layout.
The MG AD021 was an exotic mid-engined sports car. Designed to replace both the MG Midget and Triumph Spitfire, it featured hydroelastic suspension and a futuristic design.
The Triumph Bullet was more traditional with a simple front engined, rear drive setup. It had been worked on since 1969 and had been modified to fit a variety of engines to expand the range further.
The Bullet was the concept that got the go ahead in 1971 and it was to be badged “Triumph” despite MG being a much better known brand in America. It could be argued that Lord Stokes did this out of loyalty to his previous employer, but the rationalization plan intended to keep MG as the open top car brand, which left Triumph for other sports car variants.
A Backward Step?
So why did British Leyland go with the Bullet and not the more exotic AD021?
In the world of British Leyland the answer would usually be lack of funds or lack of time. In this case, the answer was actually based on research. Triumph had sent out Spen King and Mike Carver to America to analyse what the great American public wanted from a prospective new sports car.
It turned out mechanical simplicity and exotic looks were most important. In the US you might be hundreds of miles from the nearest Triumph dealer, so simple mechanics a local garage could fix was the preferred option.
Against the contemporary Porsche 914 and Fiat X19, the TR7 was able to look exotic, while maintaining a simple front engine, rear drive layout. The compact slant four engine fitted neatly under the steep bonnet. The steep windscreen was apparently designed to enable American customers to see up at the overhead traffic lights.
The lack of a soft top was down to American legislation that seemed hell bent on banning convertibles. In response British Leyland designed the TR7 as a hard top, leaving the convertible market to the existing open top MG models.
All good points so far, until you found the spec sheet. The slant engine was advanced but it was less powerful than the old Triumph TR6 engine by 45bhp. If it was badged MG, the comparison wouldn’t have been made, but would you upgrade from the old TR6 to the new, less powerful TR7?
Plan For The Worse, Hope For The Best
Production of the TR7 started in 1975. Despite the planning of British Leyland, the TR7 would suffer the same quality issues and industrial action that previous cars had. In the rush to hit the production deadline, several badly finished cars were sent to the press for testing which didn’t go down well. An issue with overheating was also experienced by a press car too.
The Speke plant in Liverpool was shut for almost a year after workers went on strike. British Leyland moved the entire operation to Canley in Coventry in 1978. Quality improved drastically, but the car’s image had been tarnished somewhat by the earlier quality issues. Cars built in Canley were identified by the rather crude laurel badge on the front of the car.
The Battle For Sports Car Sales In America
The success of earlier MG and Triumph models in America didn’t go unnoticed and Fiat, Porsche and Datsun all had cars lined up to chase the Yankee dollar. They were all universally acclaimed for their handling and the Datsun in particular was about as practical as a sports car could be.
Datsun 260 Z
“It is neither a saloon car nor a sports car in behaviour, yet it has only two seats in a very attractive and comfortable interior. It is an easy enough car to drive when pottering around and reasonably quiet when so driven, but drive the TR7 like the sports car Leyland proclaim it to be and it becomes fussily unpleasant”
Motorsport Magazine – Clive Richardson June 1979
TR7/TR8 Rally Success
With overly high suspension and angular looks the TR7 looked like the Lancia Stratos’ ugly sister. The Triumph is all awkward angles where the Lancia exudes style, but they both shared success in rallying.
The late introduction of the Rover V8-powered TR8 derivative, which was only sold in North America, was converted into a rally car in 1978. The Rover V8 was lighter and more powerful than the slant four engine on the TR7. The road going V8 had around 155 bhp, but the rally spec car had 300 bhp. It’s early success on tarmac stages led to some improvements for forest stages including a hydraulic tappet system. With Tony Pond behind the wheel, the TR8 rally car was almost unbeatable.
The End Of The TR7 & Triumph
The rationalization plan went out the window in 1978 when a soft top version of the TR7 was launched, meaning more cannibalized sales between MG and Triumph. The MGB was finally axed in 1980, when British Leyland decided to focus on the “hot hatch” market instead.
In 1981 the strength of the pound meant Triumph made a loss on every car sold in America. This marked the end of the TR7 and the TR8 (although this was never sold in the UK). The car continued in production for the domestic market until 1984.
The last Triumph car made was the boxy Acclaim, shortly after the TR7. The Acclaim was a rebadged Honda Ballade, so the final “real” Triumph was the TR7.
The TR7 sold more than 100,000 examples but isn’t remembered fondly, partially due to the divisive styling but also the fairly mundane engine. The TR7 was another example of a pretty good car, that was impeded by poor construction, internal rivalry and fast improving competitors. It would be the last sports car with a Triumph badge.
I'm fortunate enough to drive classic cars and speak with owners, designers and engineers. This has given me both inspiration and stories to share. I write stories that interest me, from the E-Type replacement that formed the basis of the Aston Martin DB7, to the missing Metro Cooper and the truth behind the Rover 220s nickname. In addition to attending car shows, track days and other informal automotive events for the last 20 years, I have planned & driven various road trips. I once drove to the Nurburgring and back in a day, went karting in Montenegro and also drove through the Florida keys in a Mustang GT. The blog is a passion project so any support is appreciated; whether that is by sharing on social media or buying me a coffee!