It was one of those scorching-hot May afternoons when the air conditioning might as well just give up, where a slight breeze is the only break from molasses-thick humidity. It seemed far-fetched at the time, but tucked away in an unsuspecting backwoods Missouri lake house resided a four-wheeled curiosity: a Triumph Spitfire. It’s about as close to the archetypal British roadster as you can get, and after three hours of traveling, we weren’t going to turn around because of a little discomfort.
The directions we’d been given were cobbled at best, and our recent turn down a winding gravel road marked clearly as “NO OUTLET” gave us pause. But, you know, there’s just something about the thrill of a hunt that makes one take a detour around self-preservation.
The hunt that my dad and I had embarked on was one that neither he nor I had even thought of undertaking only days before. It’s odd how a seemingly astonishing price for an unusual vehicle can light an interest out of nowhere. We found ourselves hot on the scent of a 1981 Triumph Spitfire.
As the gravel road came to its final crest nearly fifteen minutes later, I caught my first glimpse of the car. Hidden under the dense shade of the untamed tree cover sat the Triumph in bright Mediterranean blue. The pictures didn’t lead us astray – this one looked good.
We attempted to quickly scrutinize every single detail as we walked around the Spitfire. You can only try your best at this when sifting through a haze of excitement. The seller informed us that he had bought the car for his wife years ago to cart the grandkids around in.
We weren’t well versed in old British roadsters, but they seemed simple enough that any serious defect present would be glaringly obvious. This one didn’t have any visible rust, an observation which may have been worth the asking price alone. The engine compartment, while dirty, looked original and honest; no one had gone near the carburetor or ignition system for quite some time. All of the factory emissions equipment was in place, for better or worse.
The old 1500cc pushrod four-cylinder sprung to life immediately, which fully caught me off guard. I anticipated a laborious session of cranking—choke on, prayers sent—and then watching it slowly cough into a self-supporting cadence. I was beginning to bond with this old thing. It seemed genuine, almost like a time capsule.
My dad and I jumped in and took the little car for a short test drive. Everything appeared to work as it should. There were plenty of noises, but I had come to expect this. These weren’t exactly advanced vehicles even in their day so rattles, creaks, and jolts were par for the course. The small engine made decent power and the transmission shifted reasonably well. That’s about where your critique of an old Triumph comes to a stop; if it runs, brakes and steers, there isn’t much more these cars can do.
As we pulled back into the seller’s driveway, my dad and I arrived at the same conclusion. This car was a good deal. We were bringing it home with us.
The Journey Back
It takes approximately one hour of interstate driving for the novelty of driving an old British car to wear off.
Geared for a comfortable highway cruising speed of 55 mph, colossal vehicles like Toyota Corollas quickly approached in the rear-view. Whizzing by at 75 mph, the passing cars created enough air dispersion to unsettle the little blue streak of sporting heritage. This occurred about once every 15 seconds. There wasn’t a single moment to relax and enjoy the drive.
It was about two hours into the trip back home that the miraculously well-running little car started to show its age. It had probably been many years since it had last ventured more than 20 miles in a single trip. Old parts began their abrupt downhill spiral into non-functionality. What started as a palatable journey in a top-down classic quickly became a stressful effort to simply make it back home.
It started with a slight misfire. Then it progressed into a moderate loss of power. A high idle set in and some white smoke crept from underneath the car. I found a safe spot to pull off the highway to see what in the world was going on. Opening the bonnet gave no obvious solution. At this point, my best guess was that a plug lead or a spark plug had given up. With only 25 miles left in the trip, my dad and I determined that we could slowly nurse the car back home.
As I pulled away, the clutch began to slip a considerable amount, followed by a huge billowing cloud of white smoke. At this point I had to assume an oil seal, either from the transmission or engine, had begun to fail. That would have contaminated the clutch. This little car was shaping up to be a good ol’ project.
It felt like hours before I finally pulled the car into the driveway. I shut it down immediately. Thankfully we made it back home, but we’d figured out that the car needed a lot of work. This is classic car ownership in a nutshell. It’s a fact that was made known less than four hours after signing over the title.
A Labor Of Love
The Triumph Spitfire is one of the easiest vehicles to work on. Everything is just so exposed. You don’t really even need a service manual to figure out how to take it apart and fix it. When it came time to address all the issues present, it became clear that the engine should be pulled from the car.
This was our first time ever considering an engine extraction at home. Once the idea was there, it was only a matter of days before we found ourselves purchasing the necessary equipment to do the job. Buying a tool like an engine crane is a gateway drug for the home mechanic. Breakdowns which may have previously been considered ownership-ending now become just another weekend repair. Consider yourselves warned.
Parts are inexpensive for Spitfires, due mainly to their cross-compatibility with many other British vehicles of the time. Everything is readily available for order online which makes the undertaking of a project like this even more enticing.
With the engine out of the car, it was obvious that fluids were leaking from everywhere possible. It’s an old British car so this was a completely expected finding. A full degreasing of every surface was objective number one, then separating the engine and transmission would hopefully get us to the bottom of the slippery-clutch issue.
The transmission input shaft seal was letting more transmission oil out than it was keeping in, which was handily soaking the clutch. The clutch’s friction plate needs to be dry at all times, or else you get slippage like I had experienced. Once oil has contaminated the clutch material, you basically have to replace the clutch. That wasn’t a big deal, because again, parts are cheap for these things.
When an engine is out of a car, you often find yourself chucking new parts in without much regard taken for necessity. We sure did. Included in the barrage of new parts was a new fuel pump, timing chain, oil seals, and numerous gaskets.
To account for the nasty misfire that had developed, new ignition wires, spark plugs, distributor cap, and distributor rotor were installed.
The cooling system looked in questionable shape, so a new radiator and coolant hoses were fitted to ensure that nothing would surprise us later on down the road.
With the engine and transmission nestled back into the frame of the little car, it was time to tackle some of the periphery mechanical jobs that needed to be sorted out.
The muffler on the car appeared to be the original unit. It had a few rust holes in it and looked pretty bad. In went a new piece which greatly enhanced the look and sound of the little Triumph.
The rear drum brakes were in need of some love. Upon removing the drums, the pads appeared to have hardly any friction material left on them and one of the slave cylinders was leaking. With new pads and slave cylinder installed, and the whole brake system flushed with new fluid, respectable braking performance was returned to the lightweight car.
The rear suspension was sagging, which is a common fault of these cars. We opted to install new leaf springs which returned the car to an as-new ride height. While in there, we also swapped the shocks out for new items. Continuing on with the pursuit of refreshing the suspension and steering, new tires were fitted to replace of the rock-hard and weathered tires that were originally there. The tie-rod ends had split boots and were close to becoming safety liabilities, so we decided to install new pieces here as well.
With the car now mechanically refreshed, reassembled, and running well once again, it could be enjoyed with the top down for the remainder of the summer. All in, the repairs came to just under $900. Not bad for a basic overhaul of such an old and unique car.
It’s easy for our minds to wander into a dream world of beautiful sculpted driving roads free of traffic, speed limits, and inclement weather. The idea of owning a classic two-seater drop-top fit this mental image oh-so-perfectly.
Go ahead and smack yourself right-up-side the head because this world you’ve dreamt up doesn’t exist without a television show contract.
The Triumph Spitfire is a wonderful car to look at, to imagine driving, and to be seen in. But that’s where the sparkling realities of owning such a car come to a halt.
I think it’s safe to say that motorcycles have more crash protection than the Spitfire does. Your head is right around the same height as that minivan’s bumper that you just watched squeeze through a red light. Rollover protection? You might want to wear a helmet. That’s not to say Triumph didn’t try to make the car safe—they fitted a steering wheel that is softer than your skull—so there’s that. To a lot of us tough guys out there, these sorts of things don’t matter. Well, they don’t matter until you find yourself out-and-about in real-world traffic with your significant other. Then you may find these thoughts crossing your mind.
Acceleration is brisk at best for the occupants of the Spitfire. Leaving a stop light, you give the car all it has got. The engine makes a lot of noise and emits a reasonably good sound. Making your way through all four gears, it feels like you’re really haulin’ the mail. That is, until you peek down at the speedometer. The crossover in the lane next to you, whose sole passenger has already been wafted away into a deep text messaging conversation, effortlessly walks past your little sports car to an inconceivable 48 mph.
Handling is where the little car shines, however. Steering is unassisted, direct and light. Weight transfer happens immediately, most likely due to the lack of weight. There is minimal body roll and you rarely need to use the brakes. If you do happen to find yourself near curvy backroads, there isn’t a better bang-for-your-buck vintage chariot.
The electrical system on the Spitfire is quite simple, but it’s manufactured by the infamous Lucas, so that reverses the “simple” claim. While we didn’t experience many electrical-type issues with ours, that isn’t to say Spitfires are are all that way. These are old cars, and as such, time has allowed many mechanics to try their own hand at fixing Sir Lucas’s wiring schematics. Be warned—you might be best driving this car only when the sun is out.
Even after dumping all of that reality down on the prospect of owning a Spitfire, you’ll still end up enjoying it for what it is. You aren’t going to drive it every day. In fact, you may find yourself rarely driving it at all. It’s fun to have for the spontaneous sunny weekend adventure or the occasional car show. It is certainly more of a toy than a practical utensil to get you from point A to point B. And that’s alright.
For some car enthusiasts, this is just the kind of vehicle that fits the bill for long-term ownership. The simplicity of maintaining it combined with the timeless lines of the bodywork creates a formula that not many other classics in the same price bracket can touch.
We, however, didn’t keep our Spitfire for very long. It stayed in our ownership for just over a year. Sometimes you just have to own a classic British convertible for a period of time to get the mirage that kind of car out of your system. Once you have lived and experienced it for all it is worth, once the thrill of the hunt has passed, you can finally feel with certainty that it’s appropriate to move on.