Three European roadsters that should have succeeded.
Why do some cars fail in the marketplace and others thrive? Why are these three roadsters nearly forgotten? Why didn’t more people buy them in period? After all, they were produced by skilled, experienced designers and engineers for Italian and British carmakers of great reputation in the heart of the sports car golden age. The performance and looks of the Fiat Dino Spider, Jensen-Healey, and Triumph TR8 should have been enough to guarantee success. All three cars would’ve, could’ve, and should’ve scored big sales and large followings from a generation of Americans who were snapping up sports cars as soon as they arrived in our ports, but in each case, timing and other factors conspired against them.
The idea for this gathering started with the Fiat. I love Italian cars in general and postwar Italian sports cars in particular, so the Dino Spider has long been a curiosity for me. It was never officially imported to the U.S., so it wasn’t easy to find a good example stateside. I finally tracked down a recently restored 1970 model in the Houston showroom of DriverSource, a classic-car dealership specializing in European sports cars. Houston-area Hagerty members Paul Purcell and Gabe Rodriguez kindly lent us their 1973 Jensen-Healey and 1980 Triumph TR8, respectively, to round out our trio of cars “On the Verge of Greatness.” Cars, owners, and the Hagerty team gathered one February morning north of Houston for driving, photography, and the opportunity to consider the story behind each car.
If it seems an odd gathering, consider that all three roadsters follow the same classic sports car formula of a long hood, a short deck, a front-mounted engine in unit with the transmission, and seating for two (the Fiat’s tiny rear seat is best used as additional luggage space as there is no legroom). Rear-wheel drive and sleek sheet-metal also characterize the three cars, although they have distinctly different engines. A 16-valve twin-cam four drives the Jensen-Healey, a four-cam V-6 of racing parentage flings the Fiat, and a small, understressed overhead-valve V-8 propels the Triumph.
Despite the diverse powertrains with specifications that were completely respectable in their day, not a single one of these roadsters was a hit when new. The resulting small production numbers ensured that, by 2018, few of them remain. It was a task to organize the three examples we have here but worth it to examine why great cars sometimes misfire when so much about them is right.
1970 Fiat Dino 2400 Spider
The Fiat Dino seems to have had everything going for it. Its stunning Pininfarina styling, with fenders that peak over the front wheels before sweeping down into the nose, made it a veritable poor man’s Ferrari. That wonderful 177-hp four-cam V-6 was in fact a Ferrari engine, mated to a slick five-speed transmission, with a mellow burble that becomes richer as the revs rise. No other V-6 ever sounded this good.
How did a lowly Fiat end up so blessed? Like so many stories about Italian cars, this one is complicated. In the 1950s, Enzo Ferrari’s only son, Alfredo “Dino” Ferrari, and engineer Vittorio Jano, of Alfa Romeo and Lancia fame, conspired to create a double-overhead-camshaft, two-valve-per-cylinder V-6. Tragically, Alfredo died in 1956 of muscular dystrophy at age 24. It was two years before Ferrari produced the first engine, a 65-degree unit for the Ferrari Dino 196S sport racers. (Alfredo’s nickname, of course, graced a variety of Ferraris and several Fiat models in homage.) The same engine shot the raw Lancia Stratos to the World Rally Championship in 1974, 1975, and 1976.
As for the engine he helped conceive? Well into the 1960s, V-6s of 60 and 65 degrees were an essential part of Ferrari’s racing programs. By 1966, Formula 2 was switching to a production-based formula requiring the homologation of at least 500 units of a given car sold to the public. Without the capacity to produce that many engines or cars at its factory in Maranello, Italy, Ferrari struck a deal with Fiat, which would build the Ferrari all-alloy, four-cam 65-degree V-6 for a new, range-topping Fiat model. (Fiat did not yet own Ferrari. That purchase happened in 1969.) This homologation trickery thus satisfied Ferrari’s racing needs while creating a particularly desirable Fiat sports car.
Owing to Fiat’s decision to split the design duties for the coupe and convertible, the resulting Dino arrived in two distinct versions. Giorgetto Giugiaro penned the suave two-plus-two coupe as the head of Bertone’s studio; the lovely spider emerged from Pininfarina. Both cars bore the 160-hp, 2.0-liter version of the V-6, making the Dino quicker than the average Fiat. The chassis was fairly conventional, with an independent front suspension ahead of a solid rear axle riding on leaf springs, and four-wheel disc brakes. Performance was modest, but handling was predictable, and did we mention the beautiful sheet-metal?
The Fiat Dino 2400 debuted for 1969 with a larger, 2418-cc engine with a cast-iron block. Chassis improvements included an independent rear suspension instead of the live rear axle. Coupe and spider bodies were little changed for the 2400, although production of the spider eventually moved to Maranello, and the coupes continued to be built at Bertone’s facility outside Turin. Production more than surpassed the required 500 Formula 2 homologation units with 7803 cars, but only 424 examples of the 2.4-liter spiders were built, making it the rarest of all Fiat Dino varieties.
When new, the Fiat Dino had few direct competitors. It cost about the same as the Porsche 914/6 and Triumph Stag, or some $6600 for our 1970 photo car, but was half the price of the Ferrari Dino 206, 246GT, and GTS—all of which shared its engine—and the other contemporary six-cylinder Italian exotic, the Maserati Mistral. Didn’t matter. Not many people bought it, presumably because the Fiat badge didn’t carry enough prestige to merit the price, even in Italy, and even though this was, and remains, a handsome machine. For Fiat, which built 1.4 million cars in 1970—the first full year of Dino 2400 production—a model that sold only a few thousand units over five years couldn’t possibly mean much. When Fiat chopped the Dino after 1973, it disappeared with hardly a trace.
The car shown here was purchased from its original owner by an American serviceman while he was stationed in Europe. He brought it back to Minnesota and drove it for 30 years before selling it to a Florida dealer in 2015. For years, it cost more to rebuild a Dino engine than a restored Fiat Dino was worth, which meant that, for most owners, they weren’t worth restoring. But this prime example was expertly restored mechanically and cosmetically before it landed in DriverSource’s showroom. Since restoration costs are extremely similar for the $350,000 Ferrari 246 Dino and the $150,000 Fiat Dino 2400 Spider, it takes a special collector who relishes the Dino Spider’s unique role in Ferrari’s competition history to truly appreciate it.
1973 Jensen-Healey Convertible
The Jensen-Healey is as British as the more flamboyant Fiat is Italian, with understated good looks penned by Hugo Poole and finishing touches by William Towns of Aston Martin fame. The 17-year-old paint job on our photo car, in factory Tangerine, has held up remarkably well and aptly highlights the car’s simple, uncluttered lines. At $5195, the Jensen-Healey was priced above the MGB and Triumph TR6, so its most direct competitors were the Alfa Romeo Spider, Porsche 914 2.0, and TVR 2500M. Buyers who could live without a convertible or sunroof might have turned to the Volvo 1800E or considerably less costly Datsun 240Z.
The creation of the Jensen-Healey is one of those stories involving a crafty American importer with deep ties to the factory. In this case, very deep ties. Kjell Qvale, the famous San Francisco–based British-car distributor and dealer, had purchased Jensen in 1970, and he needed a moderately priced sports car for the American market that would fill the void left when the Austin-Healey 3000 was discontinued. He also wanted to have a Jensen model that slotted in under the luxurious Interceptor, which ran a gas-inhaling Chrysler 440 and cost $13,500. With sports car legends Donald Healey and son Geoffrey Healey installed on the Jensen board and lending their name, this new car should have been a winner.
It was certainly a winner on paper. A brand-new twin-cam, 16-valve slant-four Lotus 907 engine accelerated the roadster to 60 mph in 8.1 seconds via a light and precise four-speed manual transmission (later replaced by a five-speed ZF unit). The handling was crisp, and it had a great exhaust note, particularly as the revs increased toward 6500 rpm, where the horsepower peaked at 140. To avoid the expense of developing unique components, the Jensen-Healey chassis was designed around existing Vauxhall Firenza parts, including an independent front suspension with upper and lower control arms and coil springs and a live rear axle with coil springs. The brakes were front discs and rear drums. Unfortunately, the Lotus engine often suffered from oil leaks, oiling problems, and burned valves. These issues eventually were solved with better seals, revised cam towers, and stainless-steel valves, but the cars suffered from poor build quality, and warranty expenses soared. By the end of 1972, Qvale must have regretted his unfathomable decision to buy the engines from Lotus founder Colin Chapman without a warranty.
Meanwhile, escalating labor troubles and work stoppages at the Jensen factory in England conspired to limit production, which in turn limited sales, which no doubt were further suppressed by the steadily rising sticker price. In 1975, the Healeys left Jensen, and the Jensen-Healey roadster was replaced by a liftback coupe version known as the Jensen GT, with no trace of the Healey name. With finances in a precarious state, a receiver was appointed in 1975. Production of the Jensen GT continued into the new year, but with no financial relief in sight, the company was liquidated in 1976.
Today, the mechanical maladies of the early Lotus 907 engine have been resolved, and many cars have been rebuilt with increased performance. Jensen-Healey prices have remained low for years, which is remarkable considering it is a limited-production car with an all-steel body and an exotic 16-valve engine. Purcell is the third owner of his and has had it nearly 20 years. With prices beginning to creep up, maybe it’s time to look a little closer at this all-but-forgotten Brit.
1980 Triumph TR8
The story of the TR8 might be the saddest of these three. British Leyland included two revered sports car brands in the late 1970s—MG and Triumph. But the government-husbanded conglomerate was bleeding money and could develop only a single new model. Triumph won the toss and began work on a wedge-shaped sports car powered by an overhead-cam inline four. As early as 1972, a V-8 prototype was complete and running, but it was another eight years of OPEC oil crises before the TR8 hit showrooms. By then, the chassis was old and the car was guilty by association with the poorly performing (but good-selling) four-cylinder TR7. When the TR8 finally arrived, it was predominantly available as the handsome convertible, adapted by the storied Italian stylist Giovanni Michelotti, the pen behind numerous early Ferraris and Maseratis as well as the Triumph TR4, Spitfire, GT6, and Stag.
If you’ve ever driven an early Triumph TR7 and a late, fuel-injected TR8, you may scratch your head and wonder how any automaker could get a car so right after it started out so wrong. “If they could’ve, they should have just forgotten about the TR7 and gone with the TR8,” longtime British Leyland PR man and Triumph marque authority Mike Cook says. “The TR7 is eminently forgettable to drive and challenged in the looks department. The very attractive TR8 convertible has a torquey and seemingly unbreakable V-8 engine and a strong five-speed transmission.” With an independent MacPherson-strut front suspension, power-assisted rack-and-pinion steering, and front disc brakes, the TR8 handles well and feels reasonably well built, “which is something not often said about any British Leyland machine,” notes Cook.
Cook confirms that there was early talk about forgetting the four-cylinder TR7, and that testing for the V-8 had started as far back as 1974. Problem was, British Leyland didn’t have the production capacity to make enough of the Oldsmobile/Buick-derived aluminum V-8s, with volume cars like the Range Rover and Rover 3500 needing all of them—not to mention that British Leyland was in all manner of financial hell. “Even then, the corporation was starting to fail,” recalls Cook. “The TR8 should have been launched in 1978, and by the time the car came out, we were just going through the motions.”
Those early cars had fussy wedge styling by Harris Mann, substandard build quality, and myriad reliability issues. I recall seeing many TR7s parked with one headlamp up and one down, the cylinder head sitting on a cardboard box in the passenger footwell, and the rear end on blocks and missing the differential assembly. I also remember how loudly I groaned when a buddy from high school called to tell me he’d bought a used ’76 TR7 because he couldn’t afford a TR6. Guess how it was sitting when I visited him?
Many of the early quality issues came from the Speke factory near Liverpool. When production was moved to Canley in 1978, with bodies being made at a Pressed Steel Fisher plant in Swindon, quality immediately improved. Triumph cited more than 200 changes to the production process, which underscored how much room there was for improvement. A convertible was offered for the first time. Quality remained high, with a September 1980 move of all production to Solihull in time for the introduction of fuel injection for the TR7 and TR8.
Everything about the TR8 was better than in the pre-1978 TR7s: quality, looks, power, reliability, body integrity, and appearance. Gabe Rodriguez’s 1980 roadster seen here benefits from all those changes, plus the addition of 15-inch Panasports that he added after buying the car years ago from the original owner.
Sadly, the TR8 was too late to save a company that was lurching toward insolvency even before the introduction of the TR7. The TR8 is by far the best known of our three subject cars, although only 2497 coupes and convertibles were built in 1980 and ’81, so it is rarer than the Jensen-Healey (10,402) and the Fiat Dino (7803).
None of our three roadsters is likely to be considered a car for the ages. The Fiat was overshadowed by the Ferrari Dino 206/246 and the Lancia Stratos, and it did not wear a prancing horse or a trident badge. The Jensen-Healey was the victim of rampant labor troubles and the 1973 fuel crisis. The Triumph was a case of too little too late. Had British Leyland led with the TR8, the outcome might have been very different. But that’s all history from 40 years ago. Spending a day in and around these three cars made me appreciate them more than ever, and I wonder how I could possibly get a Fiat Dino Spider into my garage. The Fiat badge doesn’t bother me one bit.
The article first appeared in Hagerty Drivers Club magazine. Click here to subscribe to our magazine and join the club.