History: How America shaped Britain’s favourite sports cars
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!