His­tory: How Amer­ica shaped Bri­tain’s favourite sports cars

Classic Car Weekly (UK) - - Epic Battle -

When GIs in Bri­tain dur­ing World War Two weren’t tempt­ing land girls with choco­lates and silk stock­ings, they were en­joy­ing our sports cars.

Some of those who made it home in one piece de­cided to con­tinue their au­to­mo­tive pas­sion by buy­ing MGs – and in­creas­ingly Tri­umphs – mean­ing that the US eas­ily be­came both man­u­fac­tur­ers’ most im­por­tant ex­port mar­ket.

Far and away the most suc­cess­ful of all th­ese cars would, of course, be the MGB. It was launched in 1962, and more than half a mil­lion would end up be­ing made dur­ing an 18-year pro­duc­tion run. Rightly so, we reckon. Its de­cent han­dling, re­spectable per­for­mance, us­abil­ity and sheer char­ac­ter won the day. It was fun and easy to live with, and driv­ers from Seat­tle to San Diego loved it.

In 1965, the more civilised MGB GT ap­peared, which had a higher top speed and – ar­guably – even bet­ter han­dling, de­spite its higher kerb weight. Not sur­pris­ingly, the GT would end up be­ing re­spon­si­ble for a third of all B sales.

In 1965, political ac­tivist, en­vi­ron­men­tal­ist and au­thor Ralph Nader pub­lished his in­flu­en­tial book Un­safe At Any Speed, a best-sell­ing cri­tique of the safety record of ma­jor car man­u­fac­tur­ers, which gal­vanised leg­is­la­tors into ac­tion.

The US Govern­ment re­sponded with the Safety Act of 1966, which in­cor­po­rated 22 ‘must dos’ for car man­u­fac­tur­ers to in­tro­duce on all ve­hi­cles. In ad­di­tion, var­i­ous anti-pol­lu­tion mea­sures were in­tro­duced. MG man­aged to get the B to com­ply, but with a num­ber of com­pro­mises.

The MGB MkII, with an all-syn­chro­mesh gear­box, was launched at the 1967 Mo­tor Show. But this was in­signif­i­cant com­pared with the fol­low­ing year’s shock news – the for­ma­tion of BLMC had re­sulted in MG and its one-time arch-ri­val, Tri­umph, be­ing um­brella’d un­der the same own­er­ship.

At the time, MG and Tri­umph were both work­ing on new ve­hi­cles. ADO21, a mid-en­gined sports car with Hy­dro­las­tic sus­pen­sion, was be­ing cre­ated in Abing­don. Mean­while, a more con­ven­tional Tri­umph, co­de­named Bul­let, was be­ing pieced to­gether in Can­ley. Only one would make it to sale.

The MGB and Tri­umph TR6 were still do­ing well in the USA. They chimed per­fectly with the era, when the na­tion’s ad­dic­tion to gas guz­zlers was cold turkeyed by the 1973 En­ergy Cri­sis.

But BLMC knew both cars were get­ting long in the tooth and needed re­plac­ing. A ma­jor study of

US deal­ers re­vealed that Amer­i­cans wanted a sim­ple, rear-driven sports car that was both soft and friendly to drive, as well as re­li­able. The Dat­sun 240Z was tak­ing that mar­ket by storm, so what was needed was a very Bri­tish re­sponse to it. But fur­ther fed­eral leg­is­la­tion was sti­fling BLMC’s aims.

Fur­ther emis­sions and safety leg­is­la­tion, plus a mooted out­law­ing of con­vert­ibles, com­bined to cause a raft of prob­lems. MG’s short-term re­sponse was the rubber-bumpered MGB and Midget, which might have been ef­fec­tive in low-speed prangs, but the clean styling was ru­ined. A fur­ther hu­mil­i­a­tion was the raised sus­pen­sion – it was jacked up by an inch-and-a-half to meet new US head­lamp leg­is­la­tion. Due to BLMC’s fi­nan­cial con­straints, the changes were shared on both sides of the At­lantic.

The fol­low­ing year, Amer­ica re­ceived the car its leg­is­la­tors wanted, and it was the pro­duc­tion ver­sion of the Bul­let. The Tri­umph TR7 was built in re­sponse to the fear of the ban­ning of con­vert­ibles.

The for­mula dat­ing back to 1953’s TR2 was thrown out in favour of a fixed-head two-seater. Styling was jaw-drop­ping, with Har­ris Mann’s wedge shape and its in­fa­mous pro­nounced swage line. Tri­umph’s mar­ket­ing called the car ‘the shape of things to come’, but sadly it came from BL’s Speke No 2 fac­tory, where qual­ity and pro­duc­tiv­ity nig­gles se­ri­ously ham­pered its rep­u­ta­tion.

The first cars left the pro­duc­tion lines in Septem­ber 1974, with all them go­ing to the USA. Bri­tain fi­nally saw the TR7 go on sale in May 1976, with more power (105bhp) than the smog equip­ment-sti­fled Amer­i­can spec car’s 76-90bhp.

Tri­umph TR7 pro­duc­tion moved to Can­ley the fol­low­ing Jan­uary, where qual­ity im­proved re­mark­ably, de­spite in­dus­trial dis­putes.

In 1979, Amer­i­cans had their first serv­ing of the TR7 con­vert­ible. This ver­sion was well re­ceived and looked great, and was a wel­come a ad­di­tion to the range, once it be­came clear the USA had de­cided to drop its plans to out­law all drop­heads. Back in Bri­tain, we never of­fi­cially re­ceived the V8-en­gined TR8, summed up by Car & Driver as ‘noth­ing less than the reinvention of the sports car.’

Hang on, what about the MGB? The world gasped with the in­no­va­tion of fit­ting two anti-roll bars to the GT in 1976, and the car was ba­si­cally left stand­ing un­til the sad clo­sure of Abing­don in 1980.

Poor cur­rency ex­change rates had re­ally wiped out US prof­its, and TR7/8 pro­duc­tion stopped at Soli­hull af­ter a to­tal of 114,445 TR7s and 2715 TR8s were built – just at the point they’d got ev­ery­thing right.

The MGB’s in­te­rior is the sportier of the two, al­though the pla­sticky four­spoke steer­ing wheel might not be to ev­ery­one’s taste.

Here we see the MGB GT act­ing out the Cal­i­for­nian dream, join­ing in a youth­ful pool party. Just try that in Rother­ham.

There’s noth­ing ad­vanced or pro­gres­sive about the switchgear – Mini own­ers will recog­nise them, too.

In­stru­men­ta­tion is tra­di­tional in the ex­treme. It looks good, but is too prone to re­flflec­tions.

Proof the Golf GTI wasn’t the only 1970s per­for­mance car to of­fer tar­tan seats. The in­stru­ments are neatly laid out, too.

In the run-up to the end of TR7 pro­duc­tion, BL be­gan pric­ing it ag­gres­sively in or­der to sell more. Look­ing at this im­age, you find your­self ask­ing: left or right?

Some BL parts bin raid­ing has gone on here, but the switchgear looks none the worse for it.

Tri­umph TR7’s in­stru­ment pack is great look­ing, and com­pre­hen­sive – tacho’s red­line seems am­bi­tious!

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