‘It had definitely been rolled… but what they did next took bodging to Olympic standards’
Obsessive quests for perfection
Restoring a rare, hand-built classic is hard enough without having to undo somebody’s previous efforts. But with a car as pretty as this Triumph Italia, motivation was easy to find
You’ve owned and restored most of Triumph’s TR range, won concours prizes and assembled a collection that would make any Triumph fan drool. So where do you go next? If you’re Graham Andrews, you hunt down the greatest rarity of all – the Italia.
This one hadn’t moved far from Turin when Graham Andrews spotted it on the internet in 2013. It was near Lodi, outside Milan, where it was being sold to pay for restoration work performed for the late owner.
‘It had been restored, but not properly,’ says Graham. ‘My wife’s cousin lives just 17km from where the car was, so we sent him to see it. He met the vendor and gave us the thumbs-up, and I transferred the money. About a fortnight later it was here and I could see just how bad it was. There wasn’t a straight panel on it.’
Just 329 of these exceptionally pretty fixed-head coupés were made between 1958 and 1963 and only around a third are thought to survive. The design was by Giovanni Michelotti, the talent behind Vignale’s exciting Ferrari and Maserati bodies of the Fifties. He spread his wings and set up his own agency in 1959, soon cementing a relationship with Standard-triumph that would last through the Sixties, but the Italia was created for Vignale to build. The idea came from Salvatore Ruffino, Standard-triumph’s distributor in Italy. Ruffino felt there was room in the market for a car with glamorous Italian styling and dependable English underpinnings; he may also have felt the rather dated-looking TR3A was going to be a hard sell. So TR3A chassis were sent from Coventry to Turin where they were bodied, trimmed and finished by Vignale, each to be badged Italia 2000 with only a minor reference to its British parent on the rear wing.
What arrived at the Andrews household was a non-running, disassembled sculpture in body filler and lurid yellow paint. Much of the trim was missing, including the seats.
Graham began the laborious process of exposing bare metal with a hot air gun and a scraper, eventually removing enough material for soda-blasting to finish the job. What came back confirmed his worst fears – there was accident damage and a number of bodges that would have to be repaired properly.
‘I think it was hill-climbed,’ says Graham. ‘That would explain the damage and the fact that someone stripped out and sold the interior, which eventually ended up in another Italia.’ That caused some confusion because the car’s number is stamped on many removable parts, including the seats, and its identity was initially disputed because the owner of this other Italia thought his car was number 82. But at that point, Graham had more significant problems. ‘There were a lot of bad areas… very bad areas. One example was where they’d cut the windscreen pillars, then reattached them by welding a patch over the join.’
Before embarking on what looked like an immense repair job, Graham arranged to borrow a low-mileage Italia from a helpful friend, Paul Harvey, to find out what his car should be like. Two weeks were spent measuring, taking photos and making notes. Some of the absentees included the bootlid, rear bumper, door handles, badges and those seats. Secondhand spares for Italia bodies are essentially non-existent, so replacing them would require a combination of patience and ingenuity. As would repairing the body, but here Graham decided to call in help from his friend Tom Wilks and an expert body man, Mike Harris of Storico Restorations.
‘Tom not only introduced me to Mike, he did a great deal of work throughout the project,’ says Graham. ‘Without his skills and his years of knowledge, I doubt we would have completed the job.’
When a car bodyshell needs substantial repair, it’s common practice to weld braces across the door apertures or from A-pillar to rear corner. This ensures that the original dimensions are not disturbed as large structural sections are removed. But Mike Harris quickly discovered this was going to be pointless.
‘It was too bent already. From measuring Paul Harvey’s car, we knew ours was a long way off where it should be and it had definitely been rolled at some point,’ he says. To give an idea of how bad it was, Mike describes how previous repairers had discovered that the windscreen could no longer be made to fit, presumably after the car was inverted. What they did next took bodging to Olympic standards.
‘They dropped the screen onto the scuttle and welded a strip of steel across the front of the roof to bridge the gap, then covered it with filler. That was pretty typical. We found one bodge on top of another.’
This was going to require a radical approach. Graham and his team split the body from the chassis so that each could be restored and rebuilt in parallel, with the body remounted on a spare chassis. The chassis did more than just prevent the shell from collapsing in a heap, it provided the datum points that Mike Harris was going to need as he rebuilt the shell from the inside out.
‘We had to pull it right back to basics to find something that we could trust,’ he says. ‘We cut the whole front end off to expose the bulkhead, the steering and suspension mounts. From there, the flat panel work around the bulkhead, inner wings and so on is a logical progression.’
Chassis and running gear
The Italia’s bodyshell remained at Tom Wilks’s garage, where he and Mike Harris carefully cut it apart and stitched it back together in preparation for the outer panels. Graham held on to the chassis, which he stripped to a bare frame and sent for blasting. Unsurprisingly, the chassis was also crooked, which meant cutting the front off and welding it back on again perfectly straight. A couple of less serious rust repairs left it ready for paint.
Graham renewed most of the running gear as a matter of safety, with new brakes, bushes, springs, dampers and bearings at all four corners. The front brakes are uprated from standard and now have four-piston calipers. It was the first of a few bolt-on modifications made to the Italia, including rack and pinion steering which offers lots more feel and accuracy but a pretty terrible turning circle.
With so much experience of Triumph TR chassis and drivelines, Graham was able to tackle the engine himself. ‘The cylinder head was knackered and had to be replaced, but the rest of the engine survived with new bearings, gaskets and fixings.’
The Italia/tr3a engine is part of the tough wet-liner, four-cylinder family used on every Triumph TR between 1953 and 1967, as well as the Standard Vanguard. Two SU carburettors sufficed when the Italia was new, but Graham has moved up to a pair of Weber side-draughts. As a final concession to modern motoring, the original four-speed gearbox has been cleaned up and retained, but replaced for now by Triumph’s overdrive version for easier cruising.
Throughout this period, Graham was patiently assembling all the small pieces required to put the car back together correctly. But when would he have something to attach them to?
Repairs and replacements
‘It took us about two years, all told,’ says Mike Harris. ‘Most people would have thrown it in the bin, but not Graham.’
Part of that time was consumed by a policy Mike and Graham were both keen to follow – where he could, Mike would repair and re-use old panels rather than replacing every damaged area. From the spot-welded flat sections you can’t see, to the beautifully contoured outer surfaces, the bodges were neatly cut out and replaced with Mike’s impressive invisible tailoring. ‘About the only thing that’s completely new is the bootlid, because we didn’t have one of those,’ says Mike. ‘I made up the frame and the skin and I had to make up new door skins too.’
Where pieces of original Vignale work were found intact under the bodges – the three-piece sills are one example – Mike could replicate the correct cross-profile and fabricate lengths of sill to that specification. Otherwise, the car received only a couple of lower portions to the front wings, a strip in each outer floor, a rear valance and sundry smaller repair sections let in to fix horrors like the roof and windscreen aperture.
While re-making the bootlid, Mike got involved in recreating the surround for the numberplate light, once again from scratch. He fashioned it from sheet brass and eventually found a suitable light from the current Fiat 500, which when removed from its plastic housing looks very good on the back of an Italia.
By the time Tom and Mike were laboriously offering panels up to the body shell, adjusting things and checking door gaps, they were on the home straight. It was time to get it painted.
Preparation and paint
Clark & Carter has been restoring Rolls-royce, Bentley and Porsche classics near Braintree in Essex since 1980 but its portfolio has taken in all the great marques at various times. Graham needed the car painted and trimmed to the highest standard, and as a restoration business rather than simply a paintshop, C&C seemed the perfect solution.
Jamie Clark looked after the Italia and explains how it progressed. ‘It arrived as a bare steel shell, but off the chassis,’ he says. ‘We painted the inside, the engine bay, the boot and the underside in black and then we could re-unite it with the rolling chassis Graham had completed by that point.’ It was vital to have the shell back on its own chassis and bolted down so that it could be allowed to settle. Only then could the final check and adjustment of panel gaps and levels be completed, after which the preparation of the exterior could begin. ‘We shaped it in filler, rubbed down with 180- or 240-grit,’ says Jamie. ‘Then a polyester spray filler and further rubdowns got every line nice and sharp, so after that it was ready for primer. With metallic paint you need to use a pretty fine grade – 800-grit – to rub down the primer because the metallic content of the paint tends to gather in any tiny scratches and show them up.’
The paint is a custom mix tinted to Graham’s liking, based on Rollsroyce Pewter. But the paint was only half the job – Clark & Carter’s trimmers had the challenge of recreating seat coverings and door cards from Graham’s research.
‘Graham borrowed some seats and we were able to copy the frames,’ says Jamie. ‘We painted
them, but we had the odd little challenge left, like the textured finish on the dashboard.’ One tiny remnant of the original finish on the back of the glovebox door was enough to provide a reference. Adding varying amounts of coarse and fine texturing compound to black paint eventually produced the perfect mix.
Restored faith in humanity
Once the trim and bodyshell were reunited at Clark & Carter’s premises, build-up could begin in earnest. Some unobtainable items became obtainable through generosity and co-operation. When Graham set about finding weather seals for his car, he was able to obtain a small piece of each of the rubbers – windscreen seal, boot, doors and so on – from another friend, Adrian Sinnott, who would provide all kinds of assistance. A rubber and plastics manufacturer was able to machine dies to extrude all of these, but to try and amortise the costs a little, Graham ordered stock that could supply other Italia restorers as the need arose. With a system of trading and favours owed back and forth, Graham was able to locate and obtain vital missing elements such as the windows and rear screen. ‘A young Italia owner in the Netherlands called me one day to say he’d found a load of original Italia spares, including the right Dutch-made glass,’ says Graham. ‘Thankfully we were able to act quickly and he got the lot for me.’
Nonetheless, there were still bits missing. The interior door handles have a hinging piece in the centre of their sweep that had to be cast in brass and chromed. The exterior door handles were gone too, but having borrowed an original, a local engineering firm Cnc-machined copies from aluminium blanks.
The bills for all the chroming and off-the-shelf replacements such as wire wheels and the new steering wheel were painful, but at least they were easily procured. For the rest, improvisation and yet more patience had to suffice. The wiring loom is one such example. Graham had carefully removed the original and having laid it on the floor next to a new TR3 loom, extended the new one in the correct – but deeply confusing – black cloth-coated wire. Changing the car from positive to negative earth meant that the standard TR3 column-mounted horn switch no longer works, because it switches to earth. Instead, Graham wired it through an overdrive relay to run the two Fiamm horns behind the front valance.
The standard of work does justice to one of the prettiest, purest shapes Michelotti ever drew. It’s genuine exotica, and it’s only here at all because of Graham Andrews’ particular mixture of determination and experience. Mike Harris sums it up well, ‘It was difficult and stressful, but fun because of Graham’s enthusiasm for it. That tied us all together.’
Thanks to: Storico Restorations (07729 404440), Clark & Carter (01376 584392), Tom Wilks, Adrian Sinnott and Paul Harvey
The bodyshell was bent and bodged; trim and seats missing
New seals were made from scratch – and these inadvertently led to a spares cache in Holland
Missing parts tested Graham Andrews’ ingenuity It looks good in the pictures, but in the metal the impression of ‘baby Maserati’ is even stronger. Of the 329 made, little more than 100 Michelotti-styled beauties have survived