1963 Triumph Spitfire Mk I
4-cyl. 1147cc/63hp 2x1bbl
With an experienced team and a lot of data.
When the Triumph Spitfire roadster appeared at the 1962 Earls Court Motor show in London, it carried a heavy burden in its home country. The Supermarine Spitfire fighter plane captured the imagination of the free world during the Battle of Britain in 1940, and the name was something of a national treasure. Could a tiny sports car do it justice?
In the long run, the answer was yes. The Spitfire endured until 1980 with five variations, and easily outsold in its British Leyland rivals the Austin-Healey Sprite and MG Midget with 314,332 produced in all. Only the MGB roadster topped it, with 386,961 sold over the same time period.
The Spitfire’s styling derived from the able pen of Italian designer Giovanni Michelotti, who styled most Triumph products in the 1960s and was known for his ability to produce a running prototype while his colleagues were still discussing the idea down at the pub.
The design evolved from the Triumph Herald sedan of 1956-57, with a shortened separate backbone chassis. Despite the success of the Herald, Standard-Triumph was broke in 1959, in part due to a nationwide credit crunch, and it was only the company’s purchase by Leyland in November 1960 that saved the Spitfire – codenamed “bomb” during development.
It was an ingenious design. The Spitfire’s tilt nose resembled the Jaguar E-Type and made for exceptional engine access, while the 25-foot turning circle could match a London taxi. The gauges were centrally mounted, which simplified LHD construction for the important American market, and parcel shelves were located underneath the dash board, on each side.
Unlike the Herald, the Spitfire body was welded instead of bolted together and therefore quite rigid. It featured cut-down doors, wind-up windows (unlike the MGA, MG Midget/Austin-Healey Sprite and Triumph TR3), rack-and-pinion steering and front disc brakes. It was longer than the Midget and Sprite, larger and more comfortable inside, and with a bigger trunk. However, the rear swing-axle rear suspension led to wicked handling under hard cornering, and that would plague both the Spitfire and Herald until it was redesigned in 1970.
The first Spitfires debuted as 1963 models and were low, even by British sports car standards. Drivers who parked carelessly found that even casual contact could twist the entire nose of the car, so it wouldn’t latch. The Spitfire was powered by a modified Herald engine with twin S.U. carburetors. It produced 63 bhp at 5,750 rpm, top speed was 92-93 mph, and 0-60 mph came up in 15.5 seconds. The roadster was introduced to the U.S. at the 1962 Chicago Auto Show, priced at $2199 and American Triumph sales climbed 25 per cent in the first year.
In September 1963 a good-looking hardtop was offered with a curved back window and both roadster and hardtop cost $2349. Centerlock wire wheels and an overdrive were offered in 1964. In all, 45,753 Spitfire Mk I’s would be sold before the Mk II appeared in 1965.
Competition success bolstered Spitfire sales figures too. David Hobbs and Rob Slotemaker took a third in Class and 21st overall at Le Mans in 1964 with a fiberglass fastback coupe and Slotemaker teamed with Terry Hunter for a class win in the 1964 Tour De France behind a raft of Ferraris and Porsches. Spitfires also won three SCCA Divisional titles.