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The Triumph Spitfire
In 1958, Austin launched the Austin-Healey Sprite, a tiny little sportscar designed by Donald Healey. It was an instant success, which did not go unnoticed in the Triumph offices. Triumph had already thought about marketing a small sportscar of its own. After the austere little Sprite had entered the market, Triumph were convinced they could do better than Austin.
Construction of a prototype called the 'Bomb' was started in September 1960 on the basis of a 948cc Herald chassis in the Turin studio of Triumphs new Italian designer Giovanni Michelotti. Apart from the height of the doors and its lack of wind-down side windows, the prototype (below) looked remarkably like the production model.
Unfortunately, by the spring of 1960, car sales on the home market had started to fall dramatically and in November 1960, the company books were showing red figures.
It so happened that the Leyland Motor company, manufacturer of trucks and buses, was looking for expansion into the car market. Leyland made a successful take-over bid on Standard-Triumph in December 1960 and took full control of the company in April 1961.
During the take-over process, the 'Bomb' project was stopped. The prototype was kept hidden away and was only revealed when a Leyland executive asked what that little car under the dust sheets in the corner of the design department was. The executive liked the 'Bomb' immediately and on 13 July 1961 ordered the project to go ahead for production. A prototype Spitfire chassis was tested on the road with a shortened Herald body. A development car like this is called a 'mule'.
The Triumph Spitfire, as the production car was to be called, would be built on a backbone chassis-frame, based on the Herald frame, but shortened by 8.5" (216mm) and without the Herald's side members. This enabled the designers to make the car much lower, as the seats could be placed at the side of the chassis instead of on top, like in the Herald. The lack of side members did call for the use of strong structural sills. The engineers had also learned from criticism about the flexibility of Heralds on the road. This was due to the fact that Herald bodies were largely bolted together - a feature still loved by restorers today, but a source of early quality problems in the days of production. It was decided to give the Spitfire a completely welded body, attached to the frame by twelve bolts. The very useful Herald feature of a bonnet that consisted of the complete front part of the car hinging forward was retained on the Spitfire design.
Triumph was careful to make the car better than the Austin Healey Sprite in many respects. More legroom, wind-down windows (the Sprite still had old-fashioned side curtains) a wider cockpit, stowage space behind the seats, space for an overdrive unit and of course unrivalled access to the engine bay by that big, forward hinging bonnet.
The first true prototypes meant for testing were not finished until the spring of 1962. Most of the road testing was completed by August of that year and the car was launched at the 1962 London Motor Show in October. Compared to today's cars, development time for the Spitfire was very, very short.