Buying Guide Triumph Spitfire
This perfect introduction to classic car ownership is still affordable – just – so act fast
Words RICHARD DREDGE
Photography JON COLLEY
Seven steps to buying a Triumph Spitfire
Bargains at one end, investments at the other – so buy a Spitfire now!
Buying Guide With early Triumph Spitfires making big money, now’s the time to buy
What to pay
- You can still find a scruffy 1500 for as little as £3400, but it’ll probably need bodywork attention. For £5k you’ll secure one with no issues – a figure that’ll also get you a scruffy MkII or MkIII. Excellent privatesale examples of all three fetch £8k-£11.5k.
- Spitfire 4s command premium money – at least £6k for a runner, £15k for a good one, and dealers will want up to £25k for restored examples.
- Perfect MkIIs have Spitfire 4 appeal too, given their design purity. Dealers will want £20k for a restored car.
- Engines often nonoriginal; check it’s been looked after
- Chassis repairs are affordable, but body panels need careful, expensive alignment
Triumph’s Spitfire has been a popular entry to British sports car ownership all its life. That combination of baby-E-type looks and mechanical simplicity, plus the fact Triumph sold more than 300,000 during a production run that lasted nearly 20 years, ensures they’re still easy to get hold of and run. But things may be changing. Early Spitfires are attracting collector attention, expensive restorations are being lavished on them, and an upward pull in prices may sweep across the board. So if you’ve always fancied one, act now. In order to guide us to a great example, we’ve asked David Aspinall of Anglian Triumph Services, marque specialist David Manners, and Graham Hume of Classic Car Restorations for their expert advice.
Which one to choose?
Essentially a roadster based on the separate-chassis Triumph Herald, the Spitfire 4 was launched in 1962, with an 1147cc engine and styling by Giovanni Michelotti. An overdrive gearbox and bolt-on hardtop were added as options in 1964.
1965 MkII looked outwardly identical, but featured a slight power hike, from 63bhp to 67, raising the top speed from 92mph to 96 and reducing the 0-60mph dash from 16.4 seconds to 14.8.
1967 saw the introduction of the MkIII, with a simplified hood, and a frontal restyle that raised the bumper over the grille. Engine bore increased to 1296cc; 75bhp and 0-60mph in 13.4sec.
Biggest changes came on the 1970 MkIV: Kammtailed rear styling, hardtop altered to incorporate three-quarter windows, and interior revised to place instruments in front of the driver rather than the middle of the dashboard. Revised rear swing-axle suspension altered to incorporate lower-profile springs and reduce the camber angles.
1500 replaced MkIV in 1974: 1493cc engine giving 71bhp and 100mph. Negative camber and wider track at rear. Production ended in 1980.
Bodywork and Chassis
Corrosion strikes the Spirtire’s bodyshell and chassis, and the sills provide essential structural rigidity. Where these meet the rear wings is the most rotprone area. Other weak areas include the rear quarter panels, door bottoms, boot floor, windscreen frame, A-pillars, wheelarches, plus headlamp surrounds and front valance. The valance is double skinned, so corrosion spreads from the inside out – visible bubbling is often the tip of the iceberg.
Floorpans rust, having spread from the sills or because the footwells have filled with water. The front footwells can rot, as can the area behind the seats, so lift carpets to check the metal beneath.
Badly restored cars can have a twisted bodyshell, guaranteeing a door that sticks out and erratic shut lines. Putting this right is a huge job – done professionally, it can cost more than the car is worth, because the whole structure must be realigned. Accident damage is also a strong possibility; any prang that’s distorted the chassis will have wrecked the car’s delicate panels. It’s the small knocks that are likely to cause you the most problems though, because they’re harder to spot. Inspect the fit of the front valance, because if this is wonky, the front chassis rail has probably been knocked out of true.
New chassis are no longer available, although simple construction makes it easy to work on – a rusty one can be returned to strength for £3k-£4k. Bodywork is less straightforward, because panels require careful alignment, which is time-consuming. The cost of addressing rust, repainting and realigning a Spitfire bodyshell can easily run to £20k.
Most MkI and MkII Spitfires have had their engines swapped for a later unit, such as the 1296cc, by now. These are durable, but a filter with a non-return valve must be fitted, to stop the oil draining back into the sump when the car is left standing. Rattling at start-up signifies worn big-ends, usually because the wrong type of filter is fitted. If this happens, a bottom-end rebuild is necessary; it’s a big job, but an easy one that you could do at home.
Engines will clock up 100,000 miles; the first sign of wear is usually a chattering top end because of shaft and rocker erosion. The engine will still run for thousands of miles, but it’s best to budget for a topend rebuild – a rocker gear overhaul kit costs £86.40. The 1296cc engine can suffer from worn thrust washers, given away by excessive fore and aft movement of the crankshaft. The easiest way to check this is to push and pull on the front pulley; any detectable movement means the crankshaft and block could be wrecked if the thrust washers fall out. MkIV Spitfires are especially prone to these problems because of their larger crankshaft, placing more load on the thrust washers; listen for rumbling from the bottom end on tickover.
Check for rattling and blue smoke on 1500s because the crankshaft, pistons and rings wear. If the engine has had it, your best bet is to fit an exchange-rebuilt unit, available for around £1500; decent used powerplants are closer to £300.
All gearboxes are reasonably durable – the 1500’s is the strongest – but eventually the synchro wears, so check for baulking as you go up and down the gears. Also listen for whining, indicating worn gears, or rumbling signifying tired bearings.
If there’s any sign of trouble, your best bet is to budget for a rebuilt gearbox at £500-£600. Replacing a gearbox is easy because it just pulls out from inside the car, once the trim has been removed.
Any overdrive problems are usually down to dodgy electrics or a low oil level. If the overdrive needs to be rebuilt, expect a £550 bill for an exchange unit. The rest of the transmission is simple, cheap and easy to repair. Universal joints wear and propshafts go out of balance, but they’re easily fixed. Clutches are tough but the differential wears. A rebuilt axle is £350-£550.
The Spitfire’s front suspension can give trouble, but it’s all cheap and easy to put right. The nylon bushes in the brass trunnions wear, so feel for play; fresh bushes are a tenner per side, while replacement trunnions are £25. The trunnions wear if EP90 oil isn’t pumped in every few thousand miles, leading to water corroding the lower portion of the steel vertical link. Replacement links are £150 each.
The rubber suspension bushes perish, but they’re easily replaced with standard or polyurethane items. Anti-roll bar links can break (new ones are just £11 apiece) and wheel bearings can wear, as can the track rod ends, steering rack and upper ball joints that locate the top wishbone. Rubber steering rack mounts perish after being covered in engine oil. The rear wheel bearings wear out and a press is needed to remove them. The bearings act directly on the driveshaft, so if they’re left to wear too much the halfshaft can be scrapped as well as the bearings.
The only other likely problem, apart from worn or leaking dampers (easy to replace), is a sagging leaf spring. If the top of the wheel has disappeared above the wheelarch, the spring needs renewing. Replacements are £100, but without the correct spring lifter (around £40), fitting it will be difficult. Pressed steel wheels were fitted to all Spitfires as standard, but many have been swapped for alloys or wires. Because these cars have an unusual offset, it’s easy to buy wheels that suffer clearance problems, so if aftermarket wheels are fitted make sure they’re not rubbing. The widest tyres that will comfortably fit are 185-section – but even if all looks OK with the car stationary, by the time the car is moving there could be contact with the wheelarch lips or front bulkhead, so look for signs of rubbing.
If wire wheels have been fitted, make sure the spokes aren’t broken and that the splines haven’t worn – with somebody holding the footbrake on, try to rock the wheel top to bottom. Significant movement suggests that the splines of the wheel have worn – which generally means throwing the wheel away and getting another one.
Trim and electrics
The trim shouldn’t pose any problems – it’s hardwearing and replaceable, with well-made repro stuff available. Some bits for early cars are impossible to source, like rubber mats or early dash surrounds, but seat covers and carpet sets can be had for most models thanks to Newton Commercial. A set of new vinyl front seat covers costs £300 (double for leather), door trim panels are around £120 a pair and a moulded carpet set is £345.
Dashboards and their surrounds can fade; later dashboards are easier to source than earlier ones. The electrics shouldn’t pose any issues; any glitches are usually only down to poor earths or the failure of a cheap-to-replace component. Everything is available and nothing’s a big problem to fit.
1978 Triumph Spitfire 1500 manual overdrive – £9990
Flamenco Red with black leather upholstery and red piping. This Spitfire has been thoroughly enjoyed every summer and has only been let go because of a loss of storage. It comes complete with a large history folder containing many bills, invoices and old MoTs dating back many years as well as photographs detailing the restoration some years ago. The most recent spend of £900 included a brake overhaul with new calipers, brake lines and master cylinder. The paintwork is very bright and presents very well with just a couple of age-related marks, and the seats, carpet and hood all in great order. On the road the car drives very well, the engine with strong oil pressure and the overdrive gearbox operating correctly. The car also has a half and full tonneau cover, soft-top cover and also an outdoor car cover with storage bag. MoT tested seven months ago, absolutely any inspection welcome.
Owning a Triumph Spitfire
David Aspinall has run Norfolk-based Anglian Triumph Services since 1990, having worked on Triumphs as a hobby for several years before that. He says, ‘We specialise in the separate-chassis models such as the Spitfire and GT6 as well as Triumph TRs. Along with undertaking restorations, we can also maintain and upgrade most Triumphs and we do lots of hood fittings and general workshop tasks such as fitting trim.
‘The beauty of the Spitfire is that unless you do big miles or use the motorway a lot, you could use one every day. Hardtops are available for winter use, the 1.5-litre engine, which can be retrofitted into any Spitfire, coupled to an overdrive transmission provides comfortable cruising abilities, and there’s plenty of luggage space because the boot isn’t small for a roadster of this size. These are comfortable cars too, as long as the seats are in good condition – some owners have fitted MX-5 heated seats to make things even more comfy.’
Jez Woods owns two Spitfire 4s, including the pictured car. He says, ‘This is one of the earliest survivors, chassis #301. I finished the project three years ago and it’s since taken me to Europe. ‘They’re easy to work on, and all the parts you need are readily available and affordable, as are upgrades. Club support is excellent via the Triumph Sports Six Club, which was set up in the Seventies originally to cater for the Spitfire and its relatives, and it’s still one of the largest and most active classic car clubs in the UK.’
‘I’ve had Triumphs all my life, and even met my wife Suzie via the Spitfire ownership scene,’ says Guy Singleton, who owns one of the earliest Spitfires on the road today.
‘We bought it 15 years ago – at the time we hoped we could just run it as a cheap tatty runaround. However, as I looked into it a bit more, I realised the bodywork was completely rotten and it would need a total restoration – this ended up taking five years.’
The nature of the car makes restoration relatively easy, but Singleton had to be wary of compromising his 4’s originality. ‘I suppose you could say I cheated with the restoration, in that the chassis was so rotten that I ended up acquiring a better one and retro-fitting the parts from this car into it,’ he admits. ‘The separate-chassis, modular nature of Spitfires makes this easy, although we had to be careful to retro-fit certain rare parts rather than buying replacements. The length of the chrome strips on the rear wings changed early on in production, for example, and originals are hard to come by.’
Simple interior is easy to replace, unless it’s an early car. Early cars are pricey now, but Triumph Spitfire ownership starts at £3500.
‘Early Spitfires are attracting collector attention; an upward pull in prices may sweep across the board