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Don Johnson bought his 1977 Triumph Spitfire in 1981 with the intention of converting it to run on batteries and a motor, but thankfully was dissauded by friends. (Don Johnson)
Don Johnson bought his 1977 Triumph Spitfire in 1981 with the intention of converting it to run on batteries and a motor, but thankfully was dissauded by friends. (Don Johnson)

Classic Cars: Triumph Spitfire 50th anniversary

A little Spitfire and polish Add to ...

Don Johnson’s 1977 Triumph Spitfire looks electrifying in its bright-red paintwork and sparkling chrome but isn’t actually powered by electricity, although he once intended it to be.

Johnson bought the car in 1981 with a scheme in mind to overcome then-current concerns about the price of gasoline by converting it to run on batteries and a motor. However, he wisely listened to friends who urged him, “Don’t, you’ll ruin it.”

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Johnson unplugged his notions of electrification and instead has treated the car to two full-teardown restorations in the years since that have resulted in it becoming one of the prettiest, best-running and fuel efficient examples of the Spitfire – which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year – you’ll likely come across.

And speaking of coming across it, if you were to turn up at the Brits On The Lake Classic Motoring Revival in Port Perry, Ont., on Aug.12, there’s a good chance you’d be able to look it over first hand (britsonthelake.com). The popular weekend-long event – which also celebrates 50th anniversaries of the MGB, Lotus Elan, Ford Cortina and Austin/Morris 1100 – is next up on this year’s calendar for this pristine but much-enjoyed classic British ’60s sports car.

The Triumph Spitfire was one of the new cheap and cheerful category sports cars that emerged following the success of the Austin-Healey Sprite of 1958. The Sprite was an ultra-basic little car that proved there was a market for cars less expensive than the MGAs, Morgans, Sunbeam Alpines and Triumph TR3s then available.

Standard-Triumph had made its first successful foray into sports cars with the TR2 of 1952 and built on that success with the TR3, so expanding the range into this new segment made sense. Construction of a prototype, based on the underpinnings and 948-cc engine of its new Herald saloon and a body designed by Michelotti of Italy, was started in late 1960.

But the prototype, known as the “Bomb,” was only partially completed before Standard-Triumph’s financial woes saw it taken over by Leyland Motors (later British Leyland) in 1961 and it was tucked away in a corner. It only came to light after the new owners began taking a closer look into the darker recesses of what they’d bought.

They obviously liked what they found in this case and relaunched and fast-tracked the project, which resulted in running prototypes by the spring of 1962. These were tested during the summer and the final version unveiled at that fall’s London Motor Show, christened the Spitfire 4 after the Second World War Battle of Britain fighter.

Its smoothly contoured and curved bodywork (of welded steel with the complete hood and fenders separate and hinged at the front) was bolted to a modified Herald backbone chassis. Suspension was by coil springs and wishbones up front and at the rear was a transverse leaf and swing-axle arrangement that (as it had with 1950s Mercedes and Porsche models) created notoriously “tricky” handling when pushed beyond its comfort zone.

It had rack-and-pinion steering, disc front/drum rear brakes and was 3683 mm long and weighed just 711 kg (Mazda’s current MX5 stretches 4032 mm and weighs 1,194 kg).

Under its unique flip-up front end was an 1,147-cc, overhead valve four-cylinder engine with a pair of SU carbs bolted on that produced all of 63 hp and 67 lb-ft of torque, transmitted rearward by a four-speed gearbox. Screaming it up to the 5,750-rpm “bloodline” on the tach would get you to 100 km/h in about 17 seconds and to a top speed of 148 km/h.

At about £640, it was pricier than the £590 the Austin-Healey Sprite Mk II or MG Midget were going for, but offered a roomier and plusher cockpit with wind-up windows.

The Spitfire proved popular and a Mk 2 version followed in 1965 and the Mk 3 in 1967 boasting a 1.3-litre, 75-hp engine, better brakes a nicer interior and a better top. The Mark IV appeared for 1970 still looking and mechanically much the same but even more refined and with an improved rear suspension.

It became the Spitfire 1500 in 1974 with its engine bored to 1,493 cc and making 71 hp, which gave it a top speed of just over 160 km/h, although early North American motors, made only 53 hp due to emission regulations.

By the time production finally ended its 18-year run in 1980, almost 315,000 Spitfires had been built, just about matching combined Sprite and Midget sales.

Johnson, now retired and living in Barrie, Ont., after a career as service manager for Mercury outboards and then selling boats from coast to coast, became a British sports car enthusiast rather after the fact, having bought the Spitfire 1500 with that plan to convert it to electric power in mind.

But the car soon became part of his and wife Judy’s lives. He’s been a member of the Toronto Triumph Club since shortly after buying it, now acting as the model’s technical specialist, passing on what he learned after restoring it for the first time in 1984 and then again in 2004. “I just keep playing with it,” he says.

His most recent tinkering efforts saw its engine fitted with a system that might have helped Spitfires meet American emission standards and survive for a little longer and proves interest in old sports cars continues to be strong. A U.S. enthusiast developed the kit he fitted that converts the twin SU carbs to throttle-body fuel injection units, which he says improves starting, power, drivability and fuel economy. “Gas mileage has increased from a little over 30 mpg to 41 mpg.”

That proved worthwhile on its longest outing so far this year, a Finger Lakes tour with 34 other members of the Triumph club, one of a couple of annual trips the couple make as well as taking in shows like next weekend’s Brits On The Lake. “If it doesn’t rain,” says Johnson who was forced to abandon last year’s run to the event due to a downpour.


BACK IN 1962

  • Acker Bilk’s Stranger On The Shore becomes the first Brit hit to reach number one on Billboard’s Hot 100 in the United States. The Rolling Stones debut at London’s Marquee Club and The Beatles record Love Me Do.
  • Johnny Carson begins his 30-year stint as host of The Tonight Show.
  • Wilt Chamberlain becomes the only player to score 100 points in a single NBA basketball game.
  • Sonny Liston defeats Floyd Patterson in a first-round upset to become heavyweight boxing champ, a title he will lose to Muhammad Ali.
  • Incredible Hulk comic series makes its debut.

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