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
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.’
Ken’s tour of the Abingdon competitions department informed the modifications he made to KDU 487N
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
After many years rallying Subarus, current owner John Coates bought the TR7 for back-to-basics thrills
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