The Tri­umph TR7 that be­gan life as an Abing­don de­vel­op­ment hack and was trans­formed into a fully-fledged rally ma­chine by a pair of Scot­tish spe­cial-stage pri­va­teers, be­fore be­ing rolled, re-shelled, re-en­gined and re­stored to fight an­other day

Based on one of Abing­don’s de­vel­op­ment cars, this Tri­umph TR7 went on to lead a pun­ish­ing life as a pri­va­teer rally en­try be­fore be­ing locked away for a decade. Its many cus­to­di­ans and driv­ers re­veal their part in its story

Classic Cars (UK) - - Contents - Words MIKE TAYLOR Pho­tog­ra­phy JONATHAN JA­COBS

Ken Wood buys it from BL in 1976 for less than £100 ‘I’d been ral­ly­ing Dolomite Sprints so the move to a TR7 seemed an ob­vi­ous choice,’ says am­a­teur rally driver Ken Wood. ‘In early 1976 I heard through my rally con­tacts that this one had come to the end of its life as a de­vel­op­ment test­bed for the Austin Rover Mo­tor­sport de­part­ment, and could be bought. It was chas­sis num­ber 18 off the Speke pro­duc­tion line, reg­is­tered KDU 487N in July 1975. I trav­elled down to the MG fac­tory in Abing­don to in­ves­ti­gate.

‘When I ar­rived at the work­shop I met the mo­tor sports di­rec­tor John Daven­port, who showed me the car,’ con­tin­ues Ken. ‘It was fin­ished in green with tar­tan up­hol­stery and fit­ted with an ex­per­i­men­tal fivespeed gear­box, which was sub­sumed into the TR7’S stan­dard show­room spec­i­fi­ca­tion the fol­low­ing year. De­spite be­ing used by the team in BL’S de­vel­op­ment de­part­ment it was still in good shape.’

While he was there Ken ob­served the com­pe­ti­tions team mak­ing mod­i­fi­ca­tions to over­come the TR7’S limited sus­pen­sion travel – changes later in­cor­po­rated into the works bodyshells pro­duced by Safety De­vices.

‘Af­ter in­spect­ing the car I agreed a price with John – cer­tainly less than £100 – and bought it on the spot. I trail­ered it back to Scot­land and im­me­di­ately started strip­ping it down with my co-driver Peter Brown, so there was no op­por­tu­nity to fa­mil­iarise my­self with the han­dling char­ac­ter­is­tics of the short wheel­base.

‘We in­stalled a rally-pre­pared Dolomite Sprint en­gine with a Ley­land ST cylin­der head, camshaft and twin We­ber 48DCOE car­bu­ret­tors. We also added a com­pe­ti­tion clutch to the five-speed gear­box, with shorter ra­tios bet­ter suited to the de­mands of ral­ly­ing, as well as a set of Bil­stein dampers, com­pe­ti­tion-type Minilite wheels, AP ven­ti­lated brakes and a 4HA axle with a limited slip dif­fer­en­tial.’

‘We strength­ened the shell with a Safety De­vices roll cage, and added com­pe­ti­tion seats and seat­belts, a fire ex­tin­guisher sys­tem and a set of rally clocks for the co-driver. It was as close as we could make it to the works TR7S I’d seen be­ing pre­pared in Abing­don.’

The 1977 rally sea­son was to prove hec­tic. From eleven starts the re­sults in­cluded two third plac­ings, one fourth, two fifth fin­ishes and five re­tire­ments.

‘I have a li­brary full of rally stage mem­o­ries,’ says Peter. ‘On the Valen­tine Rally I spot­ted a head pro­trud­ing from a cul­vert inches from the front wheels of the car. We went back and checked later but he’d gone. Who­ever it was we only just missed him.’

‘There were no or­gan­ised pace notes for any of the ral­lies we en­tered,’ Peter con­tin­ues. ‘In any case pace notes in the Scot­tish Cham­pi­onship dur­ing the Seven­ties and Eight­ies were not al­lowed, and I had to rely on Ord­nance Sur­vey maps and the road books pro­vided by the or­gan­is­ers for route plan­ning.’

‘We re­ceived a lot of help from John at Abing­don,’ adds Peter. ‘We also had a won­der­ful re­la­tion­ship with stores man­ager, Stu­art Jack­son. Through him we were able to buy all the works parts we needed.’

In 1978 a failed clutch ter­mi­nated their en­try in the Heron Gandy Rally. How­ever, their whole com­pe­ti­tion cur­ricu­lum was brought to an abrupt halt when Ken rolled the car in spec­tac­u­lar fash­ion on the Devilla Spe­cial Stage on their next event, the Royal Bank of Scot­land rally in March 1978.

‘Ap­proach­ing a high-speed straight sec­tion I saw a mound of chip­pings in our path,’ says Ken. ‘The car cleared the mound but landed badly, tum­bling end-over-end and fin­ish­ing on its roof. We man­aged to knock out the rear win­dow and scram­ble out.

‘Af­ter sal­vaging the car a quick ex­am­i­na­tion re­vealed that the dam­age was ter­mi­nal so we sent an SOS to Abing­don, which ar­ranged for a brand-new Safety De­vices TR7 V8 bodyshell to be shipped north,’ says Peter. ‘It was seam-welded with a full rollcage welded into the screen pil­lars and roof panel, and fea­tured heavy-duty axle lo­ca­tion brack­ets, quick-lift jack­ing points and light­weight pan­els. Ken and I trans­ferred the parts and painted the car our­selves.’

Fully re­built, the TR7’S next out­ing was a sec­ond at­tempt at the In­ter­na­tional Burmah. Here they fin­ished 13th over­all fol­lowed by a fourth on the Bow­maker, sec­ond in the Trossachs and an eighth in the Gal­loway Hills. The TR7’S last year in com­pe­ti­tion was 1979. It was to be its busiest yet, mak­ing a dozen starts over­all, win­ning the King­dom Stages Rally out­right and com­ing fourth on the Bank of Scot­land, An­drews Heat for Hire and the Trossachs events.

By the sea­son’s end it was clear the TR7’S hard life in the glens was be­gin­ning to show, with no­tice­able wear in the sus­pen­sion and the driv­e­train. How­ever, in 1980 the re­la­tion­ship with Abing­don bore fruit yet again.

Simo Lampinen’s works TR7 V8 – SJW 548S – had been dam­aged in the In­ter­na­tional Welsh Rally and could be bought and re­paired. With its rally-pre­pared V8 en­gine fea­tur­ing four-valve cylin­der heads and

pro­duc­ing around 300bhp, there was a per­for­mance gulf be­tween it and KDU’S Sprint en­gine. Af­ter some in­tial trou­bles with the TR7 V8 the pair used it to win the 1982 Scot­tish Rally Cham­pi­onship, sell­ing it at the end of that sea­son to make way for a Group A Rover SD1 with which they took the Cham­pi­onship again two years later. In 1986 Ken and Peter com­pleted a hat-trick in the Scot­tish Cham­pi­onship with a ho­molo­gated Metro 6R4 bought from the fac­tory. Ken sells the TR7 to Mark Paul in 1981 Mean­while, now sur­plus to re­quire­ments KDU 487N was sold to fel­low en­thu­si­ast Mark Paul in 1981, who used it to en­ter ral­lies un­til 1985 when he sold it to John White – who also cam­paigned the car be­fore putting it into stor­age in 1998. KDU sur­faces as auc­tion in 2008 Ten years later the TR7 re-ap­peared at Bon­hams’ Stoneleigh Park auc­tion in Ke­nil­worth in 2008, where the es­ti­mate was put at £18-22k. How­ever, de­spite a com­pre­hen­sive de­scrip­tion of the car’s prove­nance it failed to gen­er­ate enough in­ter­est to sell. At this point clas­sic rally car spe­cial­ist Ja­son Le­p­ley Mo­tor­sport, based near Ne­wark, en­tered the pic­ture. ‘I bought the car di­rectly from John White and it was in beau­ti­ful orig­i­nal and un­spoiled con­di­tion,’ re­calls Ja­son.

Le­p­ley then sold the TR7 to rac­ing driver John Shel­don, whose me­chanic Ricky Higgs takes up the story. ‘John bought the car sight un­seen and sent it to my work­shop in Crick, Mon­mouthshire. Still sport­ing its pe­riod rally fix­tures, it looked like a barn find and needed a com­pre­hen­sive re­build. We in­stalled a fire ex­tin­guisher sys­tem, new wind­screen, brakes and in­te­rior, and re­sprayed it in Bri­tish Air­ways red. In went a rally-spec­i­fi­ca­tion V8, the car be­ing built to FIA spec­i­fi­ca­tion to en­ter in his­toric ral­lies.

‘Sadly, John had been badly burnt at Le Mans in 1984 when he crashed an As­ton Martin-pow­ered Nimrod at al­most 200mph. When we tested the TR7 it was clear that with­out power steer­ing, John’s in­juries were so se­vere that they pre­vented him from driv­ing the car in anger, so he de­cided to sell it. In my work­shop we swapped the V8 for a Don Moore-pre­pared four­cylin­der en­gine ready for sale. I would think the bill for all the work would have been at least £20,000.’ Af­ter an­other no-sale at Sil­ver­stone Auc­tions’ Race Retro sale in 2013 Ricky re­moved the Sprint en­gine re­plac­ing it with a rally-spec­i­fi­ca­tion Rover V8. John Coates buys the TR7 for £22,000 in 2013 Later that year rally driver John Coates, who’d pre­vi­ously ral­lied Subarus in Group N, A and the WRC, found KDU listed for sale and ar­ranged a view­ing.

‘Look­ing un­der the bon­net it was clear that the Rover V8 had been mod­i­fied with four new We­ber 45DCOE car­bu­ret­tors. Ricky started the en­gine so at least we were con­fi­dent it ran. We didn’t ac­tu­ally test drive it – the over­whelm­ing at­trac­tion was its ex-works Safety De­vices bodyshell. A price of £22,000 was ne­goa­t­i­ated and I trail­ered the car back to York­shire.’

In mid-2013 John took KDU to Car Fest North at Oul­ton Park, where he drove it in anger for the first time. How­ever, all was far from well. ‘The en­gine was mak­ing some ex­pen­sive-sound­ing noises and I could only se­lect one of the five ra­tios in the gear­box. Some­thing rad­i­cal was go­ing to have to be done.’ In late 2013 John sent the car to Terry Dol­phin of Dol­phin Mo­tor­sport En­gi­neer­ing, which promptly re­moved the en­gine and gear­box and sent them to Rover V8 spe­cial­ist JE De­vel­op­ments for a com­plete re­build.

‘Hav­ing bought the car I was pretty prag­matic – af­ter all, the shell alone could have cost much more,’ John ad­mits. ‘When JE stripped the en­gine the only use­able part was the ex-works cylin­der block; ev­ery­thing else had to be re­placed in­clud­ing a new up­rated camshaft and cylin­der heads along with dry sump lu­bri­ca­tion. Once com­pleted we put it on the dyno and recorded a healthy 330bhp at 5000rpm and 323lb ft of torque.’

To help with the restora­tion John’s good friend Steve Rock­ing­ham, who now owns the ex-simo Lampinen works TR7 V8, proved to be a mine of use­ful tech­ni­cal in­for­ma­tion and help with con­tact­ing the right peo­ple.

‘The car was trans­formed – but if I wasn’t care­ful it could still have bit­ten me’

‘One mod­i­fi­ca­tion we made was fit­ting power steer­ing – that’s made a huge dif­fer­ence to how the car drives. We also re­moved all the hubs and fit­ted new Ford disc brakes, Minilite wheels and a Jaguar limited-slip diff.’

John’s first time be­hind the wheel af­ter the re­build was at the Cur­bor­ough Sprint Cir­cuit in March 2017. ‘The whole ex­pe­ri­ence brought a huge smile to my face,’ he says. ‘The pack­age just felt so right. If I nailed the throt­tle in any gear the ac­cel­er­a­tion was ter­rific. Ob­vi­ously if I wasn’t care­ful it could still have spun and bit­ten me on the bum, but over­all the re­sult was amaz­ing. It was four years of work and de­vel­op­ment in the mak­ing, but it’s ended up be­ing so worth­while.’

And what of the project’s to­tal cost so far? ‘I’ve got a pile of in­voices, how­ever I’ve never taken the time to add them all up – mostly for the sake of my san­ity,’ he ad­mits. ‘That said, the car is prob­a­bly worth about £50-60k now – but most im­por­tantly it gives me plenty of joy.’

Af­ter many years ral­ly­ing Subarus, cur­rent owner John Coates bought the TR7 for back-to-ba­sics thrills

Ken with some lock-stop lu­nacy on the Heron Gandy in 1978

Tips on chas­sis strength­en­ing from BL’S com­pe­ti­tions de­part­ment

The cur­rent owner thinks it was worth buy­ing the car for the works bodyshell alone

Ken’s tour of the Abing­don com­pe­ti­tions de­part­ment in­formed the mod­i­fi­ca­tions he made to KDU 487N

Now with a re­built Rover V8, as used at sev­eral points in KDU’S life

Four years of hard work later, KDU is ready for ac­tion

Cur­rent owner John Coates daren’t add up the re­build costs

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