By on July 11, 2014

09 - 1979 Triumph Spitfire Down On the Junkyard - Picture courtesy of Murilee MartinThe low-value British or Italian sports car that sits in rough condition in a yard or driveway for decades, then takes that sad final journey to the local U-Wrench-It— it’s been a staple of the American self-service wrecking yard landscape for what seems like forever. The MGB and Fiat 124 Sport Spider are by far the most common examples of this breed, followed by the TR7, Alfa Romeo Spider, and the Triumph Spitfire. So far in this series, we’ve seen this ’65, this ’67, and this ’75, and now we’re getting right to the end of the Spitfire’s 19-year production run with today’s ’79.
06 - 1979 Triumph Spitfire Down On the Junkyard - Picture courtesy of Murilee MartinLike just about all junkyard convertibles, the interior of this one is pretty well roasted to oblivion by many years of outdoor storage.
07 - 1979 Triumph Spitfire Down On the Junkyard - Picture courtesy of Murilee MartinIt’s possible that someone plucked this tube header before the car got crushed (I shot these photos last October in Northern Californai, which means this car is probably shredded metal bits in a shipping container in Shenzhen at this point), but there’s not much demand for smogged-up 1500s these days.
05 - 1979 Triumph Spitfire Down On the Junkyard - Picture courtesy of Murilee MartinThose horrible 5 mph crash bumpers! Even in this apparently rust-free condition, nobody was willing to rescue this forlorn British Leyland machine.


The emergency run to the hospital in a Spitfire seems like a risky proposition, but it worked out fine in the commercial.

From the land of British Racing Green.

For the man who has lived long and well, it offers a respite from boredom.

This ad offers a more accurate portrayal of real-world Spitfire driving on American highways.

Chicks dug it, though, especially after pulling .87 Gs on the skidpad.

British Leyland had something for everyone!

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61 Comments on “Junkyard Find: 1979 Triumph Spitfire 1500...”


  • avatar
    28-Cars-Later

    Wow, BL was all over the airwaves back in the day.

    I had a friend in high school who had an MY80 IIRC correctly, which then would have been about 17 or 18 years old. Initially we all thought it was pretty cool, but then Dan was frequently without his car due to its BL goodness. I think he ended up getting rid of it by the time we were seniors.

  • avatar
    PrincipalDan

    You know having been born in 1977 and growing up in the road salted Midwest with many neighbors who worked at the factories of the Big 3 I wasn’t even aware British sports cars really existed until the first Miata was released and every journalist was blathering on about how the Miata was the perfection of the idea of a British roadster.

    Watching these commercials I can see someone sitting in an office at Mazda in the mid 80s going: “Hey what if we did a British style roadster, but you know… reliable.”

    • 0 avatar
      bomberpete

      That was exactly the idea of Bob Hall, former motor journalist and Mazda product planner.

    • 0 avatar
      Joe McKinney

      I was born in the 1960’s and grew up in a Navy town in Florida. The military guys loved sports cars and there was a British Leyland dealer in our town until around 1980. MG’s and Triumphs were a common sight well into the 1990’s. We also had a Fiat dealer and the 124 Sport Spider and X1/9 were almost as common as the British cars.

  • avatar
    challenger2012

    A Fraternity brother purchased a 1976 Spitfire, new. It was simple to work on, had a great looking design, but was poorly executed. You could open the hood and sit on the tires to work on the engine. The engine was a 1.5 liter, 4 banger that would get about 19 MPG on the highway. It was fun to drive for it could corner quickly, but fast it was not. My Fraternity brother purchased an extended warranty from an oil additive company to protect the engine. In exchange for going to the oil change store for all his oil changes, they would warranty the engine for failure. At the time, I thought it was a waste of money. At about 20,000 miles, the engine blew up, and the oil change company made good on the repair/replacement of the engine. But this was only the beginning of the car’s problems. One time, the alternator quit, when he was out of town with his girlfriend. For a 100 miles, he drove at night only turning on the lights when needed to see, until he got home. I can’t remember all the problems he had, but now you know what happened to the English Car Industry, a high quality car, it was not.

  • avatar
    koshchei

    Every time I dream of owning one of these BL cars, I pinch myself awake by visiting the various buyer’s guide sites. Beautiful cars they were, but complete garbage.

    • 0 avatar
      krhodes1

      Once you put an old British sportscar together correctly, they are just fine. The problem is that in the 70s the factories DID NOT put them together worth a darn, and the 60’s cars that were built decently were OLD cars by the 70s and 80s. So the new ones had quality problems and the old ones were just old cars. My Spitfire is bulletproof, and has been for almost two decades. And of course, after all these years the trouble spots are well known, as are the fixes.

      A GOOD Spitfire is a much cheaper weekend toy than a Miata is. Parts are cheaper, and there a lot fewer of them. They qualify for classic car registration and cheap classic car insurance (<$100/yr for me). In my state classic cars are exempt from the annual inspection. Though I have it gone over by a garage every few years just for safety's sake. And while I don't really care for it, not being a particularly friendly type, they attract a TON of attention. And shows are a lot of fun to go to.

  • avatar
    28-Cars-Later

    What could you swap into this today if you happened to come across a survivor?

    • 0 avatar
      I've got a Jaaaaag

      Late model Miata engine and transmission, do it right and you have a care free weekend joyride machine.

    • 0 avatar
      krhodes1

      The coolest swap I have seen in a Spitfire is a Mazda Rotory. Second coolest was a Ford 2.8l V6 from a (German) Capri.

      I have pondered for some time doing a stand-along fuel injection system on mine, just for the challenge of it. But reality is that my breathed on 1296 with dual SUs runs perfectly fine and makes a decent amount of power. A properly rebuilt set of SUs really are about the best carbs ever made. They run great, and stay in adjustment. Mine have a set of very fancy throttle spindle bushings by a local guy who rebuilds them. Lifetime warranty against air leaks, which are the bane of these things. I have not touched the carbs in 10 years other than to top up the dashpot oil.

  • avatar
    Omnifan

    Yes, BL had “something for everyone.” No discrimination here, just poor reliability and Lucas electrics for EVERYONE!

  • avatar
    DC Bruce

    The Spitfire was the competitor to the MG Midget and the Austin-Healy Sprite. For my money, the Spitfire was the best looking of the 3. The “bug-eye” Sprite was cute, but the midget looked exactly what it was, a 7/8’s scale MGB. I actually managed to fit into a Midget, as a passenger. But, at 6’4″ there was no way I could drive one.

    Unfortunately, the quality of all of these cars went down in the 70s’ added by efforts to meet US emission and bumper standards. The 60’s versions of these cars were not bad, by the standards of the time. The Triumph TR-4A with the all-wood dash board, wire wheels and “British Racing Green” paint is/was a handsome car. About a year ago, I stumbled into one, parked. It had been fully restored and looked as good as I recall a similar car owned by a friend in 1968.

    One of the Spitfire’s “virtues” was an independent rear suspension, IIRC. This made the car ride better, but gave it the tricky handling of all IRS cars of its day, which severely penalized a driver who lifted — or, God forbid, used the brakes — rounding a curve at speed.

    • 0 avatar
      thelaine

      Excellent comment DCB. Agree with you that the Spitfire looks the best.

    • 0 avatar
      CJinSD

      The MG Midget was actually a face-lifted Bug-eye Sprite. It was also sold as the MKII Sprite with the only difference being the grill. The MKII Sprite and MKI Midget were introduced a year before the MGB, so any styling influence was transferred from the Midget to the MGB.

    • 0 avatar
      CoreyDL

      “The Spitfire was the competitor to the MG Midget and the Austin-Healy Sprite”

      You’ve outlined perfectly the problem with BL making everything.

      • 0 avatar
        Lorenzo

        Well, that’s what happens when the government decides to cobble together, from several independents, a bureaucracy masquerading as a large manufacturer with “economies of scale”.

        • 0 avatar
          CoreyDL

          I thought the problem happened in reality much earlier, when the BL founder guy bought the steel company which made all the dies for his British marque competitors.

    • 0 avatar
      krhodes1

      The swing spring arrangement fixed the handling. You really have to drive like a first class idiot to get the tail to do anything unruly on a swing spring Spitfire or GT6. GT6s have the advantage of a bunch more power and relatively light tail end though – they will definitely power oversteer all day long. The “rotoflex” double-jointed suspension that some GT6s got was technically better, but didn’t really handle any better in the real world and was far more expensive to build and to maintain.

  • avatar
    tiger260

    I think describing them as “garbage” is a bit harsh. What are you comparing them to? A contemporary Mercedes? a Rolls Royce? Judged fairly against the build quality of the majority of what the big three were producing in 1979 and they don’t compare that badly.
    I think if you consider them for what they are/were – a very inexpensive, simple, fun car – they filled that role well. Yes, they suffered from the quality control problems that plagued the British auto industry through the 1970’s but I think you’re overdoing it a bit in the above comments. I can’t help feeling that the impression most folks have of British cars from the 1970s is driven largely by what they’ve read on the internet and watching top Gear –rather than 1st hand experience in most cases? Sadly, that’s a negative feature of the internet. Myths and legends tend to grow with repetition.
    Considering the Spitfire today, as a very inexpensive “classic” car they have few rivals in the “fun for your buck” equation. Cheap to buy, cheap to get parts for, just about the easiest car on earth to work on, and truly fun to drive (proof of the adage that you can have fun going relatively slowly, it just feels fast with your butt just 6 inches off the ground and the wind rushing through your hair). Sure, it’s not a Honda Civic. You won’t get away with turn-key reliability for just the occasional oil change but realistically if you don’t have the mechanical aptitude to keep one of these running reliably you really need to turn in your “genuine gearhead” badge.

    @DC Bruce – Yeah, the “swing axle” rear was prone to “sudden tuck-in over-steer” which could be dangerous when the car was pushed to the limit. Though, this problem was pretty much totally remedied with the introduction of the Mk IV, 1971-onwards when they came up with the ingenious “swing spring” set up which allows all but one of the leaves in the transverse leaf spring to pivot around the central mount point. This results in greatly reduced roll resistance for the spring while maintaining the same compression resistance. It was a cheap and simple fix (they were totally cash-strapped and couldn’t really afford to re-develop anything more extensive) but very effective.

    • 0 avatar
      MK

      No they really were unreliable vehicles even by the standards of the time.
      fortunately for my pocketbook and sanity i got to live vicariously through one of my best friends family who owned all manner of inexpensive euro cars British marques included (spitfire (2), mgb (2), tr4, tr6, tr3 and tr7 (2).)

      they spent a ridiculous amount of time not working, this is a stereotype that happens to be true.

      by contrast, my families 60s,70s and 80s American and Japanese hardware wasn’t nearly as interesting or fun to drive but it also spent less time in repair.

      there’s a reason the British auto industry from this time period is the butt if many jokes, its not an anti-Anglo conspiracy.

      the tr6 is a gorgeous car though, and they all were quite fun when running. These days im happier with reliability though!

      glad you enjoy yours!

      • 0 avatar
        ExPatBrit

        It was thought that convertibles would be prohibited in the US by the late 70s so none of the manufacturers was willing to spend any cash on them.

        As a result, Leyland who owned most of the UK volume sports car brands let them die off.

        Along with UK labor unrest, malaise era Federalization emissions and US dealer/ customer requirements really messed these cars up.

        So these cars had all sorts of gee-gaws foisted on them to keep them current.

        Strip off or disable the “updates” and there’s a cool little roadster under there. Add a decent carburetor setup , retrofit the older style shorter front springs and you have a nice reliable simple non depreciating summer cruiser for less than the price of a used up 100,000 mile Camry.

        There are several companies in the US that can supply pretty much any part including trim. Mail order parts from the UK as well. Internet forum and club support is excellent.The parts are often cheap too, although quality is not always great.

      • 0 avatar
        CoreyDL

        My neighbord two doors down has a TR-6, in old British dark red, I believe. It sounds rough when he drives it, which isn’t often.

        It gets parked in the garage, while their R-Class sits outside.

        • 0 avatar
          ExPatBrit

          I’d park any car with a soft top in the garage too.

          And a TR6 is an appreciating asset (nice ones fetch $10K+) whilst the R-Class certainly isn’t and probably will never be.

          • 0 avatar
            krhodes1

            A good Spitfire is a $10K car these days. A good TR-6 is worth considerably more. Back in ’99 I almost bought a decent TR-4 for $4500. I have been kicking myself ever since.

          • 0 avatar
            ExPatBrit

            Lots of survivors here in the PNW, so $10K would be for a show winner or a good Mk1

            Resto projects for less than $1500 and drivers for less than $5K, I bought mine for $4k a year ago.

            I have a friend with a TR4A that he parked in his garage in 1976. Hopefully when he finally realizes he will never do anything with it I will have first dibs.

          • 0 avatar
            CoreyDL

            I’m really not sure his TR6 is that nice, I have yet to see it up close. I just hate having a dirty DD to go to work in.

    • 0 avatar
      bomberpete

      I think you’re engaging in too much nostalgia. Face it, BL lost the plot completely.

      Car & Driver reviewed both the Spitfire and MG Midget in their last year, 1979. Neither was worth a damn at that point. Detroit cars were getting lighter and better handling, and were still way better than this. And certainly the Germans, Swedish and Japanese were turning out superior machines.

      • 0 avatar
        ExPatBrit

        What did “Car and Driver review them against?

        Datsun Fairlady … Gone from US market.
        Datsun 260Z …. no convertible
        Porsche 914…discontinued by 79.

        The Fiat X19 and Alfa Spider were around, they weren’t exactly paragons of reliability either.

        Everything else was a lot more expensive .

        • 0 avatar
          CoreyDL

          The Fairlady was just another name for the Z, so not really gone.

          • 0 avatar
            ExPatBrit

            The original Fairlady 2000 was a convertible “MG clone” , nothing to do with the Z.

            That’s why I listed them separately.

            http://bringatrailer.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/01/1964_Datsun_Fairlady_Roadster_Solvang_Winner_For_Sale_Ad_1.jpg

          • 0 avatar
            CoreyDL

            Oh! Have never heard of that model before.

          • 0 avatar
            CoreyDL

            I will add that I very much like the chromed hubcaps on that Fairlady.

        • 0 avatar
          CJinSD

          In 1979, the Mazda RX7 was the most exciting affordable sports car. Cars like the Scirocco and Celica were getting the demographics that once bought Spridgets and Spitfires, cars that offered far superior performance and handling in addition to the greater security and practicality people wanted.

          • 0 avatar
            bomberpete

            Yes, that’s exactly the point. At the start of the Seventies, the Z, 2002, Capri, Celica, Mazda RX-2, Opel Manta, etc. changed the equation. The Scirocco and even the first Accord were real revelations.

            Call them super coupes, small sport sedans, hot hatches, for-real sports cars or whatever you want, they were huge improvements over the British and Italian roadsters.

            The fate of the roadsters was sealed as they became more antiquated and unacceptable due to emissions, bad quality, lack of investment, BL’s enormous problems, etc. Only the Alfa survived, miraculously getting some Miata buyers for its last five years.

          • 0 avatar
            ExPatBrit

            Agreed, the demographics changed.

            Those Sciroccos, Rabbit GTIs and Celicas with comforts like A/C changed the game.

            Despite being the only player, the MX5 has never had anywhere near the market share that those old 60-70s British and Italian Roadsters did.

  • avatar
    05lgt

    The question now was the same question then; since the MG and Alfa exist, what’s the point of this? In this series, it’s a rare find and a good read, but why would anyone restore it if the beautiful Alfa and iconic MG are also available?

    • 0 avatar
      -Nate

      Because different strokes appeal to different folks of course .

      Hell , some folks even like _Kias_ I am told .

      =8-) .

      -Nate

    • 0 avatar
      krhodes1

      Because some of us would rather push a Triumph than drive an MG, as the T-shirts say. A Spitfire drives VERY differently to an MGB or an Alfa Spider (I also had a nice one of those for 4 years). Even under BL, Triumph was a step up from MG – think Pontiac vs. Buick. The equivalent Triumph was more expensive and more sophisticated than the equivalent MG. A Spitfire IS a nicer car than a Midget in many ways, and a TR^ is certainly in another league from a 4cyl MGB.

      I do agree that it is never worthwhile to restore a Spitfire unless it is a labor of love. Too many good ones out there to just buy and enjoy. Mine, which I have owned for 18 years, was built by a guy would planned to do some fairly serious autocrossing with it. So he assembled himself the “ultimate Spitfire”. It’s kind of like a British RestoMod. The best engine, a ’69 small bearing 1296. The best transmission, a ’77 with electric overdrive. The best tub and suspension. The best cooling system, the slant radiator/electric fan setup from a ’79-80. It drives very well, and since it has been put together better than the factory ever did it is quite reliable.

  • avatar
    -Nate

    Poor old Trumpet , unloved new and now too .

    Those crappy engines were 40,000 mile grenades when new , they dropped like flies .

    I still loves me some LBC’s however .

    Interesting and clever designs that , once you sort out the zero QC issues , make good daily drivers even to – day .

    Not Trumpets of course .

    -Nate

    • 0 avatar
      krhodes1

      Absolutely right about the 1500. Utterly horrible. The 1296 was the best iteration, but once the smog laws hit it made no power at all. Stretching it out to 1500cc restored some of the power, but made them really fragile, especially without the overdrive gearbox that was an expensive and rare option in the US. They turn 4K at 75, and are just not up to it at all. The MG A-series motor was much better, but did not have the ability for the displacement to be increased, so the poor Midget got the crap Triumph motor too!

      The 1296 is a gem though. Mine is actually bored out to about a 1330, has a fast road cam, dual SUs, and a 4-2-1 header with a little porting and polishing. Makes 75-80hp on a good day – not bad for the finest 1930s tech. The factory 1500s were down to something like 50hp in catalyst-equipped form like this poor ’79.

  • avatar
    71 MKIV

    I have a 71. Drove it daily for years.
    Restored now. Fixed it’s issues. Insulated fuel line, so it doesn’t vapor lock. Redid all the grounds, proper fuse box, replaced the cardboard engine bay parts and glove boxes with aluminum. Replaced the carburettor with a Weber. Full circle thrust washer. O/D transmission.
    I would want the radiator and fan out of that one. BL finally fixed the lack of expansion room in the radiator.
    Great fun now. I agree it’s not a highway cruiser. Something about looking up to see the hub of the truck next to you is disconcerting. But it never fails to start, never fails to bring a smile. Stone simple, fix it with a rock and a Crescent wrench.

    This one’s junk, not enough left there to even bother, other than afore mention radiator and fan, but it’s still sad :(.
    71 MKIV

    • 0 avatar
      krhodes1

      If you do upgrade to the late electric fan setup, add a fused relay to the wiring for it. From the factory there is no fuse! Typical British stupidity. Other than that, it really works great, my car can idle all day long in 95F heat with no problem.

      • 0 avatar
        71 MKIV

        yup, I fused all of the power leads coming off the starter solenoid. I have a fan out of a Fiat x1/9 installed as a pusher in front of the radiator and a relay to turn it on and off. The motor and blade in the Fiat unit are identical to the later Spitfire units.

        71 MIIV

  • avatar
    wmba

    I spent almost five years in the UK back in the early ’70s. People who owned Fords and Vauxhalls (GM) ran ‘em pretty much the way we do today – just get in and drive.

    BLs, though, what loads of rubbish. My uncle, a pathologist, decided the first weekend I visited to “decoke” the Jag 3.8 he drove. Right after breakfast, off with its head, then scrape, scrape, grunt, grunt. By 2 pm, we were on a trip to Leeds!

    I stood there in disbelief while my cousin helped my uncle lift the head about. Steam loco engineering. And then just tried to imagine ANYBODY doing this back home in Canada in 1969. I hung around a service station in my teens and never saw this happen.

    Of course Austins and Morrises, plus the crap from Triumph weren’t as well made as a Jag. Only Rover seemed like quality, but the 2000 put paid to that antiquated notion very rapidly.

    It was all regarded as normal.

  • avatar
    CoreyDL

    Was this one (or some other BL convertible) where they had to add basically rubber blocks under the suspension to comply with US bumper height standards of the time?

    I remember hearing this in a Clarkson video about “Why did BL go under?” from the late 90s.

    • 0 avatar
      ExPatBrit

      The Midget and MGB had blocks to raise the bumpers and headlights.

      On the later model Spitfires they installed taller front springs on it as it wasn’t possible to raise the IRS much, so it drives and looks like a motorboat.

      It became apparent that convertibles would not be banned (apparently using similar logic motorcycles could also be banned and Harley was not pleased).

      Triumph TR7/8 was intended to replace that entire price segment of Leyland sports cars but only was available as a hard top .

      They finally launched a convertible TR7/8 and a V8 but it was too late.

      The TR7 story and the militant Speke factory has had books written about it. A case study in how to screw up Industrial relations.

  • avatar
    davew833

    “The low-value British or Italian sports car that sits in rough condition in a yard or driveway for decades, then takes that sad final journey to the local U-Wrench-It…”

    Yup, I found a ’76 TR7 at the Pick-N-Pull this week that matches this description exactly.

  • avatar
    APaGttH

    That second picture shows that the wiring is still in its original state. Impressive after all these years.

    ;-)

  • avatar
    Geekcarlover

    I had a 76. Every now and then I miss it. Then I remember wedging my 6’4″ (and a bit wide) frame into it. Or trying to track down the source of the latest mechanical/electrical mystery. Or figuring how many different sized tools are going to be needed to get to the problem. Or driving in the rain, with the windows down, elbow out, because I couldn’t steer properly with the window up, and a penchant for fogging up.
    Yeah, it was fun. And sometimes I miss it. But then reality settles back in.

    • 0 avatar
      71 MKIV

      I work as a railroader, and there’s a bit of wisdom that crosses.

      A steam engine takes 3 minutes to diagnose a problem, and 3 days to fix. Like my LBC.
      A diesel engine takes 3 days to diagnose, and 3 minutes to fix. Like anything with OBDII.

      71 MKIV

  • avatar
    Joss

    No Cali Stags? Opened your wallet wider and died sooner. By 79 this first buyer shoulda known better. Buy
    then cat was WELL out of the bag on BL.

    Typical British stupidity & the Calis that fell for it.

  • avatar
    PunksloveTrumpys

    These cars have quite a strong following here in NZ. In fact most pre-1980 cars on our roads (unless they are completely rusted out or mangled in an accident) find somebody willing to fix up or restore them before the scrappers take them away. I ran into a few friends from the Auckland Triumph Car Club dismantling a Spitfire at my local U Pick several months ago, it had crashed into a tree and had a badly dented rear quarter panel.

    We took out the engine, gearbox, front suspension including the brakes and most of the dashboard switches too. Most of these live on in one of the participants Triumph Vitesse (that’s a Triumph Herald with the 2 liter straight six engine. About 2 months after that had taken place I got an email from another club member with the following link in it:

    http://www.jaianila.com/353790363

    Somebody had found the Spitfire and bought it about 30mins after we had left the junkyard with most of it’s parts! Unbelievable, we’d honestly thought that poor car was crusher fodder (even by our incredibly generous Kiwi standards).


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