Triumph Spitfire Buying Guide

Introduced in the same year as the MGB, the Triumph Spitfire has always had a lower profile – but it’s every bit as desirable as its Abingdon rival

Prices
• Project £600-2000 • Good £300-6500 • Concours £9000-12,000 •
• Most expensive at auction: £12,500 (1966 Spitfire 4 MkII)

Practicality ★★★★
Running costs ★★★★
Spares ★★★★
DIY Friendly ★★★★
Investment ★★★★
Desirability ★★★★

See also...

Thrills don’t come much more accessible than here; the Triumph Spitfire is one of the cheapest established classic convertibles you can buy. Despite the low values the Spitfire is still a looker; early ones are prettier but 1970s examples are more usable. What didn’t change was the car’s accessibility as this was always the cut-price sports car king.

Those long-term low values mean bodged cars aren’t rare, but values have started to climb in recent years, which is why the standard of surviving Spitfires is going up rather than down. It’s the earliest cars that are the most collectible, with the best examples of these fetching eye-watering sums of money – to the point where the Spitfire’s raison d’etre is rather undermined.

Buy a 1970s Spitfire though – a MkIV or 1500 – and you’ll still be able to enjoy some classic fun on a tiny budget. But for how much longer?

Your AutoClassics Triumph Spitfire inspection checklist

Engine

Mk1 and Mk2 Spitfires had an 1147cc engine while the Mk3 and MkIV featured a 1296cc powerplant. These units 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. Rattling at start up signifies worn crankshaft big-ends, probably because the wrong oil filter is fitted. Once this has happened a bottom-end rebuild is necessary; it’s a straightforward but big job.

These engines will clock up 100,000 miles, the first sign of wear usually being a chattering top end because of erosion of the rocker shaft and rockers. The engine will continue to run for thousands of miles, but it’s always best to budget for a top-end rebuild sooner rather than later.

The 1296cc engine can suffer from worn thrust washers, given away by excessive fore-aft movement of the crankshaft. Push and pull on the front pulley; any detectable movement means the crankshaft and block will be wrecked if the thrust washers fall out. MkIV Spitfires are especially prone to this, so listen for rumbling from the bottom end as the engine ticks over.

The 1493cc engine in the Spitfire 1500 has problems of its own, as the crankshaft can wear badly, along with the pistons and rings. Listen for rattling when starting up and look for blue smoke as you accelerate through the gears. If the engine has had it, your best bet is to fit an exchange rebuilt unit.

Gearbox

The first three generations of Spitfire featured the same four-speed manual gearbox, with synchromesh on all gears except first. The MkIV’s was an all-synchro version of the same transmission, while the 1500 had a Marina-derived unit. All gearboxes are reasonably durable (the 1500’s is the strongest) but eventually the synchro goes, so check for baulking as you change gear. Whining indicates worn gears, rumbling signifies tired bearings.

Where fitted the overdrive can give problems, usually because of dodgy electrics or a low oil level. Effective fixes usually centre on sorting connections, replacing the relay or topping up with EP90.

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, leading to whining; parts are available to rebuild though.

Suspension and brakes

The Spitfire’s front suspension can give trouble, but it’s all cheap and easy to put right on a DIY basis. The nylon bushes in the brass trunnions wear, and so do the trunnions if EP90 oil isn’t pumped in every six months or so.

The rubber suspension bushes perish, but they’re easily replaced with standard or polyurethane items. The anti-roll bar links break and the wheel bearings wear, along with the track rod ends, steering rack and upper ball joints that locate the top wishbone. The rubber steering rack mounts also perish after being marinaded in leaked engine oil.

The rear wheel bearings wear out and are a pain to remove as a press is needed. The bearings act directly on the driveshaft, so if left the halfshaft can be scrapped as well as the bearings. The only other likely problem, apart from worn or leaking shock absorbers (easy to replace), is a sagging leaf spring. If the top of the wheel has disappeared above the wheel arch, the spring needs renewing.

Because the wheels have an unusual offset, clearance problems are common. The widest tyres that will comfortably fit are 185-section, but even if all looks okay with the car stationary, by the time the car is moving the tyres might foul the wheelarches.

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Bodywork

Corrosion strikes the bodyshell and chassis, and although there’s no monocoque construction, the sills are essential to the Spitfire’s strength. Start by looking at these, especially the leading edges and where they meet the rear wings.

Other weak areas include the rear quarter panels, door bottoms, boot floor and the windscreen frame along with the A-posts, wheel arches (inner and outer) plus the headlamp surrounds and front valance. The latter is double-skinned, so corrosion often spreads from the inside out; check for any signs of bubbling, because what you can see is likely to be just the tip of the iceberg.

Floorpans also corrode, having spread from the sills or footwells. The area behind the seats can rot, along with the front footwells, so lift the carpets to check the metal underneath. Badly restored cars can have a twisted bodyshell, and putting this right is a huge job.

Accident damage is also possible. It’s the small knocks that cause the most problems as they’re hard to spot; check the fit of the front valance because if this is wonky, the front chassis rail has probably been knocked out of true.

Interior

The trim shouldn’t pose any problems as it’s hard-wearing and replaceable with well-made repro stuff. Some bits for early cars are impossible to source, such as rubber mats or early dash surrounds, but seat covers and carpet sets are available for most models – especially MkIVs and 1500s.

Dashboards and their surrounds can fade, while holes are often cut for extra instruments or radios; the normal solution is to replace the dash altogether. They’re available on a new or used basis, but there’s a lot of work involved in transferring the switchgear and instruments.

History

  • 1962: The Spitfire arrives, with an 1147cc engine.
  • 1965: The Mk2 edition goes on sale, with more power and a stronger clutch.
  • 1967: The Mk3 has a 1296cc engine, a more user-friendly soft-top and revised styling.
  • 1970: The MkIV brings a facelift, an all-synchromesh gearbox and revised rear suspension.
  • 1971: Seat belts are now fitted as standard.
  • 1973: A 1500 edition makes its entrance in the US.
  • 1974: The Spitfire 1500 goes on sale in the UK.
  • 1977: The interior receives minor fettling for greater comfort.
  • 1980: The final Spitfire is made.

• Famous Owner: Nicolas Cage

AutoClassics say…

Having got this far you might think that the Spitfire is nothing less than a liability on wheels, as the list of potential problems is so long. Predictably, it’s all down to how well the car has been looked after as there are some superb examples out there, but there are plenty of tarted-up dogs too.

While parts availability is generally excellent, some bits are cheaply made and don’t last long – that’s why you need to check so carefully for tired suspension components for example. Most Spitfires have been restored by now and originality is hard to find; modifications are common but a lack of originality isn’t generally an issue, although poor restorations are. But it’s easy to spot a lemon from 100 paces, which is why if you buy with your eyes open the Spitfire can be one of the easiest and most enjoyable classics to own.

Specifications

Spitfire 4
  Power 63bhp
  Top speed 92mph
  0-60mph 15.5sec
  Economy 36mpg

Spitfire 4 Mk2
  Power 67bhp
  Top speed 94mph
  0-60mph 14 sec
  Economy 34mpg

Spitfire Mk3
  Power 75bhp
  Top speed 95mph
  0-60mph 14.5 sec
  Economy 31mpg

Spitfire MkIV
  Power 63bhp
  Top speed 90mph
  0-60mph 12.5 sec
  Economy 32mpg

Spitfire 1500
  Power 71bhp
  Top speed 101mph
  0-60mph 13.2 sec
  Economy 34mpg

Picture courtesy of MagicCarPics

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