Rescued: A Rare 1980 TR7 SPIDER
By Richard Truett
At a recent meeting of the Detroit Triumph Sports Car Club, a local dentist said he wanted to sell his 1980 TR7 convertible. Any reasonable offer, he said, would get it out of his garage. A picture revealed that it was no ordinary TR7, but one of the USA-only Limited Edition Spider models built between April and August 1980. He was the original owner. The car had just 48,000 miles. As with most TR7s, it needed minor body, mechanical and electrical work.
The $1,200 asking price was tempting. But I already had a restored 1971 TR6 and a converted 1982 TR8 occupying my two-car garage. The next day one of my best friends in the club looked at the TR7 Spider and ending up buying the car for just $600.
If there is such a thing as non-buyer’s remorse, it set in on me. Like most guys who own a TR8, I wanted nothing to do with any TR7 — until I took a closer look at the Limited Edition Spider. The more I learned about the car, the more I liked it.
The TR7 Spider came in just one colour: black. The glossy paint, which some say is the highest quality paint job ever applied to a TR7 or TR8, is set off by the special red reflective decals and full-length wraparound pinstriping. The word “Spider” appears on the rear quarters and trunk, The Triumph laurel wreath on the nose and the “TR7” on the trunk are also done in red reflective material.
On the inside, the TR7 Spider came with a special shagadelic interior that Austin Powers would surely find groovy. The carpet is pewter colored semi-shag and the seats are upholstered in gray cloth with black racing stripes. There’s a TR8 steering wheel and TR8 alloy wheels for good measure. All TR7 Spiders came standard with air conditioning and an AM/FM cassette radio. Bosch Pilot front fog lights and a stainless steel luggage rack were optional. Price new: $10,585.
Triumph built the TR7 Spider at British Leyland’s Solihull plant, where Land Rovers, Range Rovers and the Rover 3500 were assembled. These were the first Triumphs built at Solihull before all TR production was transferred there from Triumph’s home in Canley, Coventry in the summer of 1980. The Spider was made exclusively for the American market and is not well known in England and elsewhere.
It is at the Solihull factory where the quality of the TR7 and TR8 improved dramatically. No one is quite sure how many Spiders were made. Some say the number is 1,208. However, in his book “Triumph in America,” Mike Cook, former British Leyland public relations executive, and well-known Triumph historian, says around 2,000 Spiders were made. In either case, the Spider is even rarer than the TR8.
After missing out on the Spider offered at the Triumph club meeting, I decided to go looking for one of my own. I found several Spiders on the Internet spread around the USA. They weren’t cheap, not even ragged out ones. Luckily, I the car that really caught my eye was just 3 miles from my front door. The ad stated that the car had low original miles. It looked pretty good in an online photo. When I called and asked about the car, the owner said it had only 13,000 original miles. The asking price: $3,000. I knew I wasn’t going to spend three grand on a TR7, but I made an appointment to look at the car just to see if it really did have so few miles, and, if so, how flexible the price might be.
A burly man in his mid 50s named Geroge said he was the original owner. A casual look at the car revealed that it suffered greatly under his stewardship. In 1982, someone tried to steal it. The would-be thief pried off the ignition lock. Rather than fix it properly, he installed a push-button switch for the starter. Because George felt uneasy leaving the car unattended in the Detroit area — America’s auto theft capital — with a steering wheel that could not be locked, he only drove the car around his neighborhood.
He also said that he hadn’t driven the Spider in years because he could no longer fit behind the wheel. That, he said, accounted for the low miles. A look at the original upholstery and carpet revealed no wear, but a lot of dirt and a few — hopefully removable — stains. George’s story seemed credible. I could tell from the freshness of the body hardware that the car did indeed have 13,545 original miles. All the belts and hoses were factory original, as were the dry-rotted Goodyear tires and convertible top.
But the car needed work. There was a nasty mess under the hood. A carburetor or electrical fire melted 90 percent of the engine wiring harness and ruined the throttle cable. Somehow the engine still started. Even more shocking is that it idled as smooth and quiet as a Toyota engine. The clutch worked OK. But the turn signals, horn, headlights and brake lights did not. The emergency brake was disconnected, and the rear brakes were not working. The body had a sizable dent in between the taillights and another on the left rear wing. Because the car had been rustproofed when new and stored inside all its life, there was no rust, just a few bad scuffs.
When bargaining time rolled around, I said the car was too much work, a much bigger project than I really wanted. I mentioned that the ad said nothing about all the mechanical problems and missing parts. But that was just a tactic to try to lower the price. When you have a chance of getting a TR7 — or any TR for that matter — with just 13,500 original miles, you go for it and worry about the consequences later. I really wanted the car. I had a garage full of good used spares leftover from converting my TR7 to TR8 specs, and I saw nothing wrong with the Spider that I shouldn’t be able fix quickly with a minimum of cost and effort.
I told Gerege I would only be interested in the car if he made the deal irresistible. He did. Soon $3,000 became $2,000. Then it became $1,800. Still, I balked. I mentioned “cash” a few times. And then the price dropped to $1,500. We shook hands and I promised him money the next day.
But there’s a lesson here. No matter how well you think you know British cars — and I have owned around 20 — they always have a way of surprising you. My new TR7, despite a fairly close examination, turned out to be in deplorable condition — which is probably why the price went from $3,000 to $1,500 in less than two minutes. There are some people in this world who should not own British sports cars, and George is one of them.
Worse for a car than neglectful maintenance is an owner who tries to take care of a car himself when he has no mechanical aptitude, no money to spend on the proper spares, the wrong tools, no time and no place to carry out said repairs. Factor in the attention span of a gnat and you have a disaster in the making.
The first thing I did upon getting the car home was give it a thorough cleaning to get rid of all the papers and junk that had been left in the car over the years. I found a few brake springs and other small unidentified TR parts in the trunk. Then I gave the car it’s first tune-up since Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan dominated world politics.
Out came the car’s original Unipart spark plugs, which, shockingly, were only finger tight in their holes. I wrestled with the oil filter housing for a half-hour before it finally came off. My guess is that also hadn’t been removed in decades. After the oil change, I flushed the cooling system and put in a new thermostat. I installed the new throttle cable and drove the car around the block a few times. Except for weak brakes and a clutch hydraulic system that seemed to need bleeding, the car ran and drove fine and, I noticed, unusually quick for a TR7. The engine sounded great. I’ve come to really like the high-pitched whine it makes when revved hard.
After 45 minutes or so behind the wheel, I felt I could trust the TR7 enough for a 12-mile trip to my friend’s house so we could compare my Spider and his — and perhaps pat ourselves on the back for two great deals.
I never made it.
The first stop, to the gas station for a high protein tank of super unleaded, nearly cost me my life. The tank was about half full when I heard a sloshing noise, like water hitting the pavement. I looked under the car and saw gasoline pouring from the tank and dousing the muffler, which was smoking and dangerously close to combustion. I felt near death or at least a major catastrophe. I quickly put the nozzle back in the gas pump and pushed the car over to the corner of the station.
I let the tank drain. Then I jacked the front of the car up to force more fuel from the tank. Then I started the car and headed home, staying in the right lane and driving with the emergency flashers on. I felt a little like Slim Pickens at the end of Doctor Strangelove. Remember that scene where he straddles a loaded nuclear missile, waving his cowboy hat hootin’ and hollerin’ as it falls from a B-52? The sounds I was making were more akin to prayers.
I hoped the fuel leak was just a bad seal around the sending unit or a dry-rotted hose. But it was much worse than that. The top of the tank was rusted through in several places. Then I realized the previous owner obviously knew about the leak because the tank was nearly empty when I bought the car. The leaky tank was just the start of the bad news.
When I got the car home, I noticed green fluid on the ground at the front of the car. The radiator had developed a couple of small leaks. More surprises were in store: When I unbolted the clutch master cylinder for the rebuild, I found that one of the mounting ears had snapped and that it had been rigged in place with a big washer. When I pulled off the left rear brake drum, I found nothing inside except the brake shoes. All the hardware for the emergency brake was gone. So were most of the springs. The wheel cylinders on both sides were rusted frozen.
These problems left me angry and disappointed. I was hoping for a quick and easy project that I could knock out in a couple of weekends. My plan was this: After fixing the electrical and mechanical problems and a giving the car a thorough cleaning, the Spider would stay if I liked it as much as I thought I did. I would send it off to the body shop and have it restored in time for show season next spring. If not, I would have a roadworthy TR7 Spider with incredibly low miles. I could sell the car at a good profit to someone who could give it a paint job and have a show car. Now none of this could be done before winter set in. The car was going to need more extensive and expensive repairs than I bargained for.
When I thought about it about to do with the car, I realized that with a little patience and a lot of elbow grease, I could add a very rare and interesting TR to my collection. There couldn’t be too many Spiders with lower original mileage, I thought. Also, there are not many Spiders left. Based on the cars I’ve seen for sale, most of the surviving Spiders no longer have their original upholstery or their unique decals. And these special trim parts have not been available for at least 15 years. Though the TR7 isn’t the most desirable TR in the series, the Spider has won a following because of its looks and low production is now quite collectible.
I made a list of all the spares I needed to make the car healthy. First, I hit eBay. Then I called the usual suspects in the used TR parts business. Next, I perused the catalogs of The Roadster Factory, Rimmer Brothers, Moss Motors and Victoria British. I ordered as many new parts as possible and bought the rest used.
As with my TR7 V8 conversion, I was on mission. And in two weekends, I did a complete brake job, rebuilt the clutch hydraulics, installed a good used fuel tank, a good used engine wiring harness and a used ignition lock. I also had the radiator recored. The electrical problems took two days to track down and correct. Whenever something goes wrong in a classic British sports car, the first thing many people do is blame Lucas. Even I do that, though I know better. The TR7 Spider’s electrical problems were not due to manufacturing or quality defects, but owner misuse, abuse and neglect. For instance, there were two peeled wires under the dash that had been used to power something. The wires were touching each other causing a fuse to blow, which knocked out half a dozen electrical components.
Strangely, the high and low beam headlights on both sides were burned out. When the lights didn’t come on, I blamed Lucas and figured there must be a bad switch, ground or relay. I spent hours checking connections, fuses, wires and relays. Only on a whim did I check wires at the headlights themselves and found that they were getting the required voltage. Later, I replaced the springs, shocks and struts, bringing the total parts bill to around $1000.
Now I am feeling pretty good about having a mechanically excellent TR7 Spider, now with 13,600 miles for just $2,500. Another $2,500 will bring a concurs quality paint job. I made tracings of the decals and I am having them reproduced on the original 3M red reflective material. The interior cleaned up well thanks to Richard’s Connew’s advice on upholstery care.
After completing my TR7 V8 project this summer, I never fancied myself owning a TR7 again. And yet there is something about the TR7’s styling that really makes it come alive with the Spider’s unique colors and trim. I guess you could say I have been bitten by a Spider.