By Jim MacQueen
An Affordable V-8 that's almost as Fast as a Corvette and a Lot More Fun
Mama, find my pipe and see if the tobacco in the humidor is still fresh. Have you seen my tweed cap and that old tartan scarf I used to wear? I'll need a heavy sweater, too. In fact, I'll need all those things I put away when we sold the Sunbeam Tiger and the 289 Cobra.
I didn't think they'd ever make cars like that again, but the Triumph TR8 reminds me why I fell in love with cars in the first place. This car shoots rocket's breath from its tailpipe, pushes you back in the seat so hard you think your back will break, and presses your liver against your tenth rib every time you make a sliding left. It is, in the context of today's cars, one of the fastest production sports cars available in America. It is almost as fast as a 'Vette, and you need to move all the way up to the $30,000 Porsches and the even more expensive Ferraris to find a sports car as exciting.
Jaguar Rover Triumph has put a bargain-basement price on the TR8. Loaded, it starts at $11,900 with only two available options: air conditioning (in this car?) costs $600, and fuel injection (mandatory on California cars) is an additional $440. For 12 grand, you get a 5-speed, an AM/FM stereo cassette and a convertible top. The bad news is that JRT is rumored to be bringing in only 2500 TR8s this year. This almost certainly means dealers will unscrupulously rake buyers over the coals for premium prices. The Mazda dealers did it with the RX7.
With less than two-thirds the cubes of an L-82 Corvette, the TR8 turned in a 0-60 time of 8.5 seconds and a 16.6-second quarter mile. The last time we tested an '80 'Vette, it went 0-60 in 8.1 and 1320 feet in 16.2. The TR8 is only 1 mph slower! Put 137 horsepower in a car 850 pounds lighter than Chevy's 2-seater, and not only can you accelerate alongside it, but you can run rings around it on a course. It's no wonder JRT calls the TR8 its "Corvette beater."
It will get rubber in the first three gears, pull away smartly from a stop light, and run 90 mph in the middle cog. While going forward is the TR8's most exciting ability, it does several other things well too. In fact, it's almost schizoid. You can race it brutally and get some of the most satisfying thrills. Yet, the TR8 is a sophisticated and elegant freeway cruiser that cuts time off long trips and leaves you a lot fresher than many comparable cars.
It returns a very solid feel through independent front MacPherson struts and coil springs working in harmony with a live axle located by a 4-link system and coils at the back. Freeway hop is minimized by this suspension, and although harsh bumps are delivered with a firm jolt, it's the only one you'll get as the car settles back into its smooth mode almost at once.
The lower control arms at the front fail to cope completely with dive and eight transfer under braking, but the front and rear anti-roll bars keep the TR8 level, side-to-side, under rapid cornering conditions. That's good, because the car is just a shade tail-happy, for a number of reasons ranging from the sublime to the absurd.
Under the "happy" heading comes a slight suspension modification from TR7 specs (the TR8, of course, is not much more than a TR7 with the venerable Rover-ex-Buick-aluminum V-8 stuffed inside) to anticipate the extra 100 pounds of engine weight. This extra weight makes the distribution a tricky-to-control 60-40, front to rear. Strangely enough, changing the pickup points seems to have increased the amount of weight transfer, which occurs whenever you slow down by any means, though this is probably what JRT engineers were trying to stop by changing them in the first place.
This is good because there are times when you want to get the back end of a car loose to help yourself through tight corners. But you want to be able to do this with control. At least in this regard the TR8 excels because the V-8 produces ample power and torque to allow exacting throttle control. In other words, you can perform beautiful power slides and opposite-lock drifts, which allow you to have the motor wound tight at the exit of the turn.
Some of the ridiculous reasons for the Triumph's tail-happy ways are just as likely to produce spins at the entrance to turns. According to a few sources, some of this is traceable to the purported fact that the TR8/TR8 design was originally intended to house a mid-engine. This is supposed to be one of the reasons the car is raked so high in the back. many JRT people deny that a mid-course change of direction dictated a front engine in a car difficult to redesign entirely. But who knows?
It is a fact, however, that JRT has made a mistake by using front-wheel disc brakes and drums on the rears. Under the best of circumstances, the front discs grip better than the rear drums, and the tail comes out under braking while cornering. In the worst of conditions, say three hard braking applications while traversing a twisty section of fun road, the drums heat up and fade away to nothing, leaving the entire effort to the discs. When this happens, nothing short of having anticipated the problem can save you from a spin while turning into the corner. The combination of front dive, weight transfer, and all the front wheel braking is just too much for any car to take and stay in a straight line. Any go-kart racer (karts have front brakes only) will tell you that it is possible to spin on a straightaway if you jump too hard on a kart's brakes. The same is possible, under the right conditions, in a TR8.
However, because the car is so docile at times, particularly in town where the power-assisted brakes require such light pressure that they don't really heat up, we didn't discover this problem until taking the car on a long drive up California's Highway 1 and into Big Sur country. Even though we had to rest the brakes once in awhile to get the rears working again, it was one of the most delightful days we have spent behind the wheel of a car.
Perhaps better than anything else, that experience shows what it is like to drive a Triumph TR8. Imagine cloudless skies and the kind of sunshine that enhances the colors of spring wildflowers, making the fields shimmer with surrealistic contrast. California is green at this time of year, a marked relief from the "Golden State" color that dominates the other three seasons. It is warm-sports car weather. Perfect for top-down driving - the kind of weather that brings out the racer in many of us. (A word here about convertibles. All the TR8s we've seen so far have been roadsters, although JRT says a limited number of hardtops will also be imported. As a matter of fact, we understand that JRT also intends to import many more convertible TR7s, making the familiar coupe a rarity this model year. JRT thinks that's what you want. If they're wrong, you may have to search a bit - perhaps even pay a premium - for a hardtop.)
The engine purrs at normal cruising speed, loafing along at 2000 rpm in 5th gear. Tromp on it, and it rises to a crescendo of gutteral, powerful, torquey noises. It is almost amusing to hear a British sports car sound like a Corvette. It leaves no question you are going fast.
North of Lompoc, Highway 1 twists over the hills and dodges farmland in a series of right-angle turns and straights. You cruise through the fast turns at 90 with the car holding rock-solid, neutral steering. You toss it around the sharp corners and run it through the gears. With sudden, explosive acceleration at your command, disposing of slower cars is only a matter of patience, waiting for the next slow corner, checking the road for runs off at 90 degrees, visible for a mile, nipping inside at the apex, and surprising the hell out of the other driver by going like a stick of dynamite away from the turn.
A short 10 miles north of Pismo Beach, clam center of America, the road turns off and heads in the direction of Big Sur. It is here, in an endless series of hairpin switchbacks connected by short uphill and downhill runs, that you become bothered by the brakes.
At first, you simply go charging fearlessly into the corners at 70-80 mph. As you brake and begin to turn, the tail comes round controllably. After a few corners it begins to snap around viciously. Then you try another turn, step on the pedal, and the car doesn't slow much at all. Fade! You're wishing for a set of jumper cables so you can get your heart started again. If you're lucky and quick enough, you gear it down, toss it sideways and scrub off enough speed to make it through the turn.
With the help of the torque, you can pass many slower cars in as little as 100 feet of clear space. The flat-handling TR8 straightens out the gentler kinds, corners that would be frightening surprises on any other road. The trip from Los Angeles to Monterey usually takes about eight hours by this route; this trip is completed in just over six, including two stops for gas. The TR8 recorded 30 mpg on the Sports Car Graphic fuel loop, but closer to 20 when driven hard. That's totally acceptable, considering the fun quotient.
Not surprisingly, it's the motor, operating with a low 19.3-pound/horsepower ratio, that's the key. The alloy block checks in at 215 cubic inches (3528 cc) with an 8.1:1 compression ratio. Using the Lucas L-Jetronic fuel-injection package, which applies a great deal of technology purchased from Bosch of Germany, the engine produces 137 horsepower at 5000 rpm but, more importantly, 168 pounds-feet of torque at 3250 rpm, most of it available over a wide band.
The gearbox is a real pleasure to use, and it's great to finally find a 5-speed in which 5th is more than jut a gas-saving overdrive. The car is light enough, the motor strong enough, that you actually gain additional speed from the shift to 5th.
The power-assisted rack-and-pinion has a minor quirk in that it gets very sensitive at lower speeds. While it always feels solid and gives a good sense of the road, you can overpoint the car in sharp, slow turns. With only 2.8 turns lock-to-lock, it takes some concentration to break the habit of weaving down the straight sections; each movement is translated into a change of direction.
The driving position is comfortable, almost restful, and the controls are at fingertips. All the gauges and warning lights can be seen with the exception of the low-fuel warning light (talk about hiding the important stuff). But it comes on at a quarter tank, anyway, so it's practically useless. The car carries 14.4 gallons, which allows your gas stations to be about 300 miles apart.
The fit and finish of our test cars were exceptional. In fact, the convertible top fit so tightly that it almost took two people to put it up, locate it in the windscreen holes, and clamp it shut. There was no discernible wind noise or draftiness. The seats and vinyl-trim panels used on the doors detracted from the general feeling of quality we got from the TR8, however. They looked kind of like that thin, cheap plastic you often see in mini-pickup trucks, and you just knew they'd wear poorly and tear quickly. But the seats were solid with wide-set bolsters that supported at the right times, and were generally comfortable, although the backs seemed a bit hard after awhile.
The TR8 is very roomy, particularly in the footwells, but the price you pay is lack of luggage space. In fact, with the battery stowed in the boot and the spare tire there as well, you'd better buy small suitcases, and make them flexible ones.
It doesn't make sense that JRT would limit the U.S. quota this year to a miniscule 2500 units. The financially troubled company could sell all it could produce, which is probably the major question surrounding the Triumph TR8. Can JRT build enough initial TR8s to survive long enough for this fine new sports car to help turn the company's financial condition around?
Since people started talking about it more than three years ago, the TR8 has been one of the most eagerly awaited motorcars of the decade. The reaction from people who see it is remarkable: "Wow, a TR8! I didn't think they'd ever that that thing done!" Kids and gas station attendants gather around it, begging to pop the hood. This reaction is all the more amazing since it is visually difficult to tell it from a TR7.
The TR8 is the finest British sports car I have had the pleasure to drive, one that, by itself, could change the entire image of United Kingdom industry and workmanship. It is a fun car that fills a need in the marketplace for a performance sports car. The TR8 can singlehandedly rekindle man's love for the automobile.