A popular choice on both sides of the Atlantic, the Triumph TR4 is still winning hearts today. Here’s how to buy a great example
Images: Jack Grover
The TR-badged series of two-seaters produced throughout the 1950s and early 1960s by Standard-Triumph are probably the most fondly recalled sports cars ever built by the company. From the fashionable streets of London, Paris and Rome to the skyscraper-lined boulevards of New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco these popular, back-to-basics roadsters helped ignite a trail for the British built open-topped sports car that’s still blazing brightly today.
Although the TR3 proved a massive hit for Standard Triumph on both sides of the Atlantic and beyond, by the end of the 1950s automotive tastes were starting to mature. To match the changing trends, Triumph desperately needed a new model to replace the ageing TR3 but to do this economically, it was decided to retain as much of the outgoing model as possible. Developed as project Zest and introduced in 1961, the totally restyled TR4 was essentially a TR3A’s rolling chassis topped off with a handsome Michelotti-designed body.
The TR4’s sharp new Italian-designed suit was not only wider and lower than the outgoing model, but the redesigned cabin now offered more space for passengers and their luggage. In place of the TR3’s trademark cut-down doors and fussy wet weather gear, the new sports car featured a pair of straight-topped doors with the luxury of wind-up windows – a first on a Triumph-badged TR.
As well as offering the TR4 as a soft top with a folding canvas hood, Triumph also produced a version with an optional ‘Surrey’ top, comprising a removable metal centre section and a curved fixed rear screen. Unfortunately, the metal centre section of what was essentially a Targa-style roof couldn’t be stored inside the car, so a foldable canvas top was carried in the boot to fill the gap and protect the occupants from the elements.
Power for the Triumph TR4 was mustered by a 2138cc inline-four rated at 100bhp at 4600rpm and drove a live rear axle through a four-speed gearbox offered with optional overdrive. Given the right conditions, Triumph’s latest TR could accelerate up to 60mph in 10.7 seconds and go on to a top speed of just over the magic 100mph.
Rack and pinion steering sharpened up the TR4’s handling when compared to the previous model’s cam and lever set up and in 1965 Triumph unveiled the revamped TR4A featuring a redesigned rear chassis section to accommodate an independently sprung rear axle featuring trailing twin arms and coil springs.
Although the motoring press considered the new independently-sprung TR4A to be a great leap forward over the outgoing TR3, distributors in the US thought differently. At the time, independent rear suspension was considered the work of the devil in North America, so the majority of TR4As that ended up Stateside retained a live rear axle set-up.
When it came time to replace the TR4A with a new model, a major rethink was required and in 1967 Triumph, now part of Leyland Motors, took the covers off the six-cylinder powered TR5 – a red blooded two-seater that went on to open a fresh new chapter in the history of the iconic range of TR-badged sports cars.
While inspecting the bodywork, it’s important to stand back and carefully examine the overall condition while checking he symmetry of all the panels. All the shut lines should be reasonably equal – if a door gap looks bigger at the top than it is at the bottom, suspect the body has ‘hogged’ due to corroded chassis rails.
Your fingertip are extremely sensitive and by slowly running them over each panel, it should be easy to detect any poorly-formed curves and even minor paint defects, such as micro blistering. To check for excess filler, wrap a cloth around a fridge magnet and gently run it over any suspect areas to detect non-metallic areas. Next, open the bonnet and check the condition of the exposed inner wings, front panel, rear bulkhead and all the visible parts of the front chassis legs.
Before diving underneath the car, take a look at the condition of the front and rear valance and the leading edge of the bonnet, as well as the lower part of the sills (especially at the rear), front and rear wings and the inside of all the wheelarches.
Although the TR4’s chassis is a sturdy affair it can still corrode, so an inspection should concentrate on the condition of the front and rear legs, as well as all the outriggers and suspension mountings. Be particularly aware of any MoT-style welded patches on the chassis rails, as these may be hiding a can of rusty and very expensive-to-repair worms.
Engine and transmission
The TR4’s 2.2-litre Standard-sourced OHV inline-four was originally developed as part of a contract to produce an engine for the Ferguson TE20 tractor. Although these units tend to be rather coarse and don’t like being revved too much, they do produce a decent amount of torque and a TR4 in fine fettle will certainly give a 1.8-litre MGB a good run for its money.
Unless the engine is seriously worn, oil consumption should average out at around 600 miles a pint. However, a major issue that can affect a TR4 engine is water getting into the coolant. These engines have wet cylinder liners that rest on two figure-of-eight seals in the bottom of the block. If the seals are shot, coolant will leak into the sump and mix with the oil. So check the condition of the coolant and be suspicious of any mayonnaise-type gloop lurking in the header tank.
While the engine is idling, listen carefully for any rumblings from deep down in the block that could indicate worn bearings. Light rattling from the front of the engine will be from a worn timing chain but don’t worry if the engine has several light oil leaks, as that’s quite usual. While looking around the bottom of the engine bay, don’t forget to inspect the condition of the rubber engine mountings.
Worn crankshaft thrust washers can be a problem, which means it’s not advisable to sit in traffic with the clutch pedal pushed down. Inserting a large screwdriver or pry bar between the bottom pulley and block is the easiest method to check for worn thrust washers on a TR4. Excessive crankshaft end-float will indicate worn washers.
The TR4’s clutch is fairly heavy to operate and to disengage the drive the pedal needs to be fully pushed to the floor, otherwise the gearchange will be noisy. Despite being heavy, the shift itself should feel reasonably positive. Synchromesh is only fitted to the top three ratios on most boxes and weak synchro on second gear is a common issue. The good news is these gearboxes are as tough as old boots and even a noisy box should still have a lot of life left in it before a major overhaul is required.
Overdrive was a desirable optional extra on these cars and gives the four-speed gearbox a useful extra couple of ratios. To avoid the overdrive snatching, it should only be engaged and disengaged when cruising and not while accelerating hard. A non-functional overdrive may be down to a faulty steering column switch, issues with the wiring or a stuck solenoid.
Suspension, steering and brakes
At the front, the TR4’s suspension set-up comprises upper and lower wishbones, coil springs and telescopic shock absorbers. Checks should include inspecting the dampers for leaks, looking for broken springs, worn or seized steering and suspension joints, as well as any perished rubber bushes.
Depending on the model, the rear suspension will be either a live rear axle supported on semi-elliptic leaf springs, or an independent set-up comprising trailing arms, coil springs and twin driveshafts.
Checking the rear suspension on a TR4 with a solid rear axle should include the condition of the leaf springs, shackle bushes and the telescopic dampers. On IRS cars, the state of the large trailing arm bushes and the security of the metal around the mounts should be carefully checked. The driveshafts on these cars have four universal joints that should be checked for any play – any clonks during a test drive would point to a worn UJ.
On IRS models it’s also important to inspect the rear hubs for play. Any movement in the hubs mean they are scrap and need to be replaced ASAP. If the car’s fitted with wire wheels, check the condition of the spokes by gently tapping each one and listen for any that sound ‘dull’, which means the wheel will be scrap.
The braking set-up on the TR4 and TR4A consists of discs at the front and drums at the rear and the system should be checked for leaking fluid, worn discs/pads, cracked flexible hoses and corroded brake lines. Some cars may have been upgraded with a servo but this item wasn’t fitted to the TR4 as standard.
On the TR4, the handbrake is a ‘fly-off’ type and to operate it correctly the lever has to be pulled up to apply the brake and the button on top of the lever pushed down to lock the handbrake in place. The brake is released by pulling the lever up sharply until the button pops off, then the lever can be let go and released. When parking on a hill, it’s advisable to leave the car in gear, just in case the hand brake ‘flies off’ of its own accord.
Interior, trim and electrics
A shabby interior may not look great, but it’s a good negotiating point if this is the only major fault found with the car. Replacing a tatty interior on a TR4 is well within the remit of a keen DIY owner and everything required to smarten up a duff interior is available from specialist suppliers. Sagging seats can be improved by replacing a split rubber diaphragm with a brand new one and crumbling seat foam is also relatively easy to replace. Some cars may have had their original seats replaced with more comfortable ones from a Mazda MX-5.
While the TR4 has a painted dashboard, the TR4A was fitted with a wooden veneered affair and this can discolour and crack with age. Again, this is a repair well with the scope of a keen owner. Plastic dash tops and the lower padded crash bars can crack and wrinkle with age, but replacements are available.
Brand new original-style soft trim, like carpets and side trims are all obtainable from specialist outlets and many different and even bespoke styles are available. While checking the condition of the dashboard and instruments, take a look at the ‘H’ frame that straddles the gearbox cover. This also locates the radio and if it’s not been replaced correctly, the dash will wobble around.
Finally check all the switchgear works and don’t forget to inspect the condition of the soft top if the hood frame is folded away. On cars equipped with a Surrey top, take a look at how neatly the panel fits and check the seals are in good condition.
Triumph TR4: our verdict
When viewing a TR4 or a later TR4A, it’s important to research the car’s history to see whether it’s a repatriated example that’s been converted to right-hand drive. This shouldn’t really affect the price, as a top-drawer TR4, whether it’s a home-grown variant or a carefully converted import, will still cost around £30,000. Rare specials like the hard top Dove GTR4 coupe (1961-64) will obviously sell for a premium over even the best presented TR4A.
Lowering the sights and opting for an example requiring a small amount of work should be able to flush out a useable car priced at £16,000–20,000 but avoid sub-£10k TR4s unless a long term project requiring a lot of work is what you’re after. Desirable extras on these TRs include electronic ignition, overdrive, alternator conversion, spin-on oil filter, electric fan, uprated and adjustable shock absorbers, unleaded cylinder head and a mohair or double duck hood cover. Lightweight body panels are acceptable – providing they aren’t fibreglass – and a stainless steel exhaust is another very desirable extra to look out for.
Triumph TR4 timeline
TR4 introduced in July, effectively being the existing TR3A with an all-new Michelotti-styled body, incorporating a wider cockpit, winding windows and a folding hood. Engine was enlarged to 2138cc, making 100bhp. Track was increased, rack and pinion steering was fitted and an all-synchromesh gearbox was introduced.
In January the TR4A replaces the TR4 as the standard production model. The main change is the fitting of fully independent rear suspension. Revised ports and manifolds lift engine power to 104bhp. The old live-axle rear end is available to special order and is commonly sold in the USA, making up approximately a quarter of all TR4As. All TR4As have a wood-panel dashboard, which was optional on the TR4.
TR4A production ends in August as build of the TR5 gets underway. Around 71,000 TR4s of all sorts were built.