Sophistication doesn’t come into it with this ’50s Triumph TR3, but with its Spartan, no-frills nature comes unadulterated driver enjoyment.
Let’s face it, we’re living in an age of ever increasing complexity. Today, even simple toasters come with a 100-page instruction book and the need for a science degree to operate them. It’s the same with cars. Now, this is all very well except usually less is more and that, as drivers, any distraction between us and the road, makes the whole experience feel more remote. Which is precisely why cars like the Triumph TR3 are so appealing. With its cramped cockpit, steering wheel almost touching your chest and side screens flapping, even a trip to Sainsbury’s will feel like an epic adventure. In fact, driving a TR3 is as about as far removed as you can get from modern motoring. Not only that, but the Triumph’s got a relatively big engine for such a small car and when you are sitting just inches from the road, with your elbows protruding over the low slung doors, you’ll be surprised by just how pokey it still feels for something that dates back to the time of flickering black and white tellies and Tony Hancock.
Inevitably, you can’t talk about the TR3 without mentioning the TR2 first because, dare we say it, the two cars are basically the same. Well, let’s just say they share the same basic DNA.
The ‘2 was aimed squarely at customers across the pond who, in the early 1950s, had a seemingly insatiable appetite for open topped British sports cars. They bought Jaguars in droves, loved the MG T-type, and understandably Triumph wanted a stab at the market too. The luxurious and peculiarly wide Roadster (1946-’49) didn’t quite hit the spot, and the awkwardly styled Mayflower was even further off the mark. Which led to the launch of the TRX concept, announced as the TRA in North America. It was based on the Vanguard platform but with a smoother profile and retractable headlamps. However, it got a mixed reception, too, and never really got off the ground.
PARTS BIN SPECIAL
We imagine several heads were banged together at Canley before they came up with the idea of producing an open top two-seater for the 1953 London Motor Show; the 20TS. The idea behind it was to keep costs to a minimum by plundering the Triumph parts bin, but at the same time make it quick enough to appeal to sporty drivers, the latter box being ticked courtesy of the feisty 75bhp 2.0-litre from the Vanguard. Triumph even managed to make use of the independent front suspension setup developed specifically for the Mayflower. Sadly, the Standard 8 chassis on which it sat really wasn’t up to the job and a major revision was needed.
Five months later, in time for its Geneva Motor Show launch, the 20TS morphed into the TR2 with a custom built chassis, more elaborate body and a few tweaks to the suspension making it a much more rounded product. As a 100mph+ open topped two-seater that handled relatively well and could do 30mpg, Triumph had finally got it right with the TR2. And, costing roughly £900, it was certainly an attractive alternative to the by-now archaic MG T-type and the virtually out-of-reach Jaguar XK120. As intended, with the vast majority finding buyers in the US, it was the car that paved the way for Triumph’s future sales successes across the Atlantic. The fact that it scooped a win in the 1954 RAC Rally helped bolster sales even further amongst those in the know. Despite gaining a hardtop in 1954 and higher side doors from 1955, inevitably the desire was there for it to evolve, a desire promptly satisfied by the launch of the TR3.
THIRD TIME LUCKY
The ‘3 arrived in late 1955 and is easily distinguishable by the egg-crate grille covering the gaping mouth of its predecessor. Bigger SU H6 carbs added another 5bhp over the TR2 and the further addition of a free-flow cylinder head/manifold eventually took power output to 100bhp. Buyers had to wait another year, however, for the thing that would really set it apart mechanically from rival sporting two-seaters at the time – namely the addition of Girling disc brakes at the front, a first for a British production car.
Underneath, though it was still very much a product of the ’50s with its leaf sprung rear end, steering box and lever arm dampers. Not that US buyers minded; they’ve always liked simplicity. And indeed, that simplicity is the thing that’s resulted in a relatively healthy survival rate today. Remember we said that most went to the US? Well, here’s the figures; of the 13,377 made, just 1,286 stayed in the UK.
The model commonly known as the TR3A (although it was never an official model designation) arrived in 1957, this time with a full width slatted chrome grille that now included turn indicators and sidelights and slightly recessed headlamps. Other identifiable features included external door handles and a lockable boot handle. A full toolkit, offered previously as an option, became standard fit – not that we think this was in any way an indication of diminished reliability! Total TR3A production was 58,236, making it the third best selling TR after the TR6 and TR7.
Before TR3 production stopped, the US got the so-called TR3B from 1959 to 1962. It was a kind of overlap model for the US market only, the first batch of which were identical to the TR3A, the second lot featuring a four-cylinder 2138cc engine and TR4 all-synchromesh gearbox. Reportedly, it was introduced to quell anxiety that some potential buyers would find the TR3’s replacement – the TR4 – just a little too radical. It sold for a while alongside its eventual replacement.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR?
As you might imagine, rust plagued this ’50’s British gem and because it featured a unique drainage system, when the drains block, the metal to the rear of the front wings, the sills, bulkhead and scuttle panels all tend to rust out. If the edge of the boot has been nibbled away, water can get into the boot which in turn will rot out the boot floor. Again, if the drain holes in each corner block, it won’t help. Here it’s a case of removing the spare wheel to carry out a careful inspection.
But it doesn’t end there. The chassis rots too, especially where the body mounts. The front and rear outriggers and where the chassis attaches to the sills are also common areas for corrosion.
Chances are, though, unless you stumble on a barn find, all this work will have been done by now so it will be a case of determining who’s carried out the work, and whether they’ve done it by the book or made a dog’s dinner out of it. The only way to find this out will be by looking underneath and ensuring it doesn’t resemble a patchwork quilt.
Most body panels are still available from specialists, including wings, doors and bonnets. You can even get hold of complete front apron and bulkhead assemblies if the car you view is really bad. Though unless you can do all the fabrication yourself, you have to weigh up whether it will really be worth it if the rust is too severe. In truth, a better alternative is to buy a car that’s spent all its life in a dry US state (Arizona, Utah, California, etc) that is bodily sound in the first place and hasn’t had its history and provenance cut and welded out of it.
The mechanical side of things will be your least worry to be honest because that wet liner engine is tough and easy to rebuild. And while you are at it, why not fit a fast road cam for some extra performance? There’s all manner of tweaks you can do.
Some blue smoke is normal, but if its excessive and the oil pressure’s reading significantly lower than 50psi at 3000rpm, then suspect general wear and the need for work. But, as we’ve said, its health is of secondary importance against the state of the body. Otherwise, look for evidence of water/oil contamination and any obvious rumbles from the big end.
It’s worth making mention at this point of the excellent parts situation enjoyed by the TR3. Virtually everything is still available to bring a sketchy TR3 back to rude health, including complete reconditioned engines from the likes of Moss Europe (£2661.60 exchange). That’s a drop in the ocean compared to a full body restoration, emphasising the importance of buying a structurally sound car in the first place.
All TR ‘boxes of this era will whine, especially in the lower gears, but jumping out of gear, loss of synchromesh and rumbling isn’t a good sign. Rebuilt units are available and inexpensive.
Overdrive was an option (there will be the suffix ‘O’ in the chassis number) and highly sought after today, so make sure it engages as it should while out on a test drive.
There’s lower wishbones mounted on trunnions at the front and leaf springs at the rear. If not properly greased, using EP90 gear oil, the trunnions can wear, so check for play – although it’s not always easy to determine whether it’s in the actual trunnions, the bearing or the hub.
The leaf spring and lever setup at the rear works well, and with new springs and reconditioned lever arms there’s little point converting to traditional telescopic dampers.
Some owners grumble about the worm and peg steering, but it’s not all bad. That said, unless you’re a purist, consider a car that’s had a later TR4 rack and pinion conversion as a bonus.
If a TR3 you look is sitting on wire wheels, check the condition of the spokes.
Given their age, it goes without saying that lots of TR3s will have been taken away from factory spec. However, be careful when viewing examples that have been too butchered about because the general opinion is, the more you meddle with the TR3, the more you detract from its original fun character. To give an example, some owners fit Mazda MX-5 seats because they’ve got headrests – but the general consensus is they’re not a good look in a car with cut away doors. After all, aesthetics are everything on a British car of this era. And anyway, the original seats are comfortable enough and can be easily and cheaply recovered.
Likewise, be wary of cars where the suspension has been made too stiff – if the owner’s gone too far it will feel like a go kart and be impossible to live with. You’ll get a good feel for what works and what doesn’t by test driving as many different cars for sale as possible. You’ll end up buying the one that feels tight and right when you are out in it.
Expect that a newer rear axle has been fitted, as the original wasn’t all that good, and though most TR3’s had them anyway, don’t be surprised if a really early car has been converted to discs at the front.
Other worthwhile improvements include the fitting of an alternator in place of the original dynamo, and other electrical upgrades such as electronic ignition. Things like this serve to make a TR3 more reliable, and make maintenance even easier, without detracting from its value.
What to pay?
You won’t find a cheap TR3 any more, sadly. The best bet, if funds are tight, is to search out a relatively solid US project that doesn’t need significant welding. That way, you can spend time doing an engine rebuild yourself and putting on the finishing touches. Look hard and you might be lucky enough to find one for between £15,000 – £20,000. One minus paperwork might be even less if you are willing to take a bit of gamble and do a bit of detective work to get everything in order.
Bear in mind, some imports may have been converted to right-hand drive, so make sure you know what you are looking at as genuine right-hand drive cars will always retain a higher value than a car that’s undergone conversion. Left-hookers have the letter ‘L’ in their chassis number.
Before doing a deal, always check the commission number corresponds with model sequence given on the TR Register’s website (www.tr-register.co.uk) because it’s been known for early body panels to be fitted to a later chassis and visa versa.
Generally speaking, for a car that’s up and running, you can expect to pay in the region of £30,000. One that’s undergone a full nut and bolt restoration by a known scene specialist might be £35,000-£40,000. That might sound like a lot, but anything with a whiff of competition history in its past will be even more.
The thing is, you’ll buy a TR3 for its back-to-basics nature and be able to do all the maintenance yourself, while relishing in the fact that it’s an absolute hoot to drive and a very solid investment.