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Feature Story


by Bob Hagin

September 18, 1998

As I pulled up to a stop light in Concord a few weeks ago, I thought I'd driven into the Twilight Zone. Along side of me at that light was a 40-year old Triumph TR3, sky blue in color and sporting the then-popular Rudge-Whitworth wire wheels. The top was down and its driver seemed unaware of the fact that he was driving a car that hadn't been a common sight on the street for possible 30 years. His left arm rested comfortably on its windowless cutaway driver's door and the car showed the obvious signs of being driven frequently - it wasn't in concours condition.

The Triumph TR2 (and its almost identical successor, the TR3) hold a particular place in my heart and memory banks for several reasons. In 1957, I was working as a mechanic at a Triumph dealership in Oakland and I crashed a customer's Triumph so hard that it had to be scrapped. It was then that I learned the value of wearing a seat belt at all times.

Ten years later, I was hired by a Walnut Creek Triumph dealer to drive a TR3 in the first-ever Mexican 1000 Rally (Baja 1000) that ran the length of the Baja peninsula from Tijuana to La Paz. Being totally inappropriate, the car destroyed itself after 300 miles and my co-driver and I were stranded in that remote area for more than a week. Finally we flew out with the chief of police of Ensenada in a small plane. We left the car there where it remained a landmark at a small rancho for many years.

In between these events I raced an early TR2 for a friend in local sports car races, without much success, unfortunately.

When the Triumph TR2 first appeared in England in 1953, it created a sensation. It was designed to fill the performance gap between the cute, inexpensive but slow 1.2 liter MG TD, the sports car that got Americans into a sports car frame of mind, and the patrician and elegant 3.4 liter Jaguar XK120, a two-seater that was fast but expensive. With two liters and gobs of torque, the Triumph was good for 105 MPH and as John Bond (then publisher of Road & Track) put in his 1954 book "Sports Cars in Action," the acceleration was "...rocketlike.." Zero to 60 MPH in 12 seconds is no longer considered blinding but it was quite impressive 44 years ago.

Triumph was one of the myriad of British auto companies that fell on hard times in the late '30s and were unable to recover after World War II. In 1945 it the name was purchased by the more successful Standard Car Company which planned to used it on a proposed sports car. After a couple of abortive starts (the stillborn TR1 looked like a hacked-up '49 Crosley Hotshot), the TR2 was introduced to an enthusiastic sports car world. Its engine was an adaptation of the Standard Vanguard sedan powerplant which was tractor-like but sturdy. The Vanguard's three-speed transmission was upgraded with a fourth cog but first gear remained square-cut and unsynchronized. I spent many hours on the bench replacing those frail gear wheels for overenthusiastic TR2 owners.

The chassis was a ladder-like affair made of square sections that rode on the convention suspension parts (A-arms in front, underslung leaf springs in the rear) that were pulled from the parts shelf of the concurrent Triumph Mayflower. The Mayflower was a strange little two-door sedan that looked for all the world like a razor-edged Rolls-Royce of the era - but in miniature. Its only claim to fame was that it provided the underpinnings for its sports car sibling.

The body of the TR2 was a study in economical engineering. The detachable front section (including the frog-eyed headlight holders) was stamped out in one piece. Originally there was no grille in its gaping air intake but insects were filtered out by a screen that was attached deep inside, ahead of the radiator. The sweeping front fenders were also removable as were the rears. The trunk displaced five cubic feet (enough for a full-sized suitcase, according to Bond) and the spare tire reposed in a compartment underneath. The spare could be accessed only through an oblong removable "hatch" that was lockable but was secured by latches that required the use of a separate "T" handle that was kept in the glove box. Eventually those handles were lost and a ubiquitous screwdriver was pressed into service.

The brakes in the first TR2 were drum units, of course, but the fronts were huge compared to the size of the car. When I came home from Korea in '55, I took a job in small foreign car shop in Walnut Creek and my first assignment was to replace the brake shoes on a geranium-colored '54 TR2, a car that hadn't been imported when I was drafted. I thought at the time that the design was somewhat on the grotesque side but its performance soon changed my outlook.

A year later, the only changes made to the car was the addition of an outside chrome-plated grille and a shortening of the bottoms of the minuscule doors. The company had learned from American owners that as it was first built, it was impossible for passengers to open the right-side door when the car was parked next to the average city curb. Climbing over the door of a TR2 while wearing a typically tight skirt that was the style then was quite disturbing albeit athletic experience, according to my wife.

The Triumph TR2 was followed by the TR3, the TR3A and the TR3B but the appearance and dimensions of the car remained the same until it was superseded by the TR4 in 1962. In all, over 80,000 TR2s, and TR3s were built during those eight years.

I hope the driver of that blue TR3 that was next to me at that stop light in Concord last month reads this story. I'd like him to be aware of the flood on memories that chance encounter brought back to me.