Thursday, 24 January 2013

The Fall and Rise of a Spitfire (Part 2)

A lot of good stuff seemed to happen after I dumped left the Spitfire with its caring new owner in 1992. I got married, moved into a bigger house that had - luxury of luxuries - its own driveway and garage. For a few years I was happy enough driving around in extremely competent modern cars.

Then one day I realised that I'd stopped driving for fun. On a nice evening or during the weekend I'd often jump in the Spitfire and drive somewhere just for the sake of it. But I had no interest whatsoever in doing that in our modern cars. Ever since I've known my wife she's had a company car, which means that we've always had the fallback of one sensible car that we can rely on without it needing any outlay from us. Also, I knew from my visits to Orkney that my old Spitfire was still there. Robert had only got as far as separating the tub and chassis, and had made some repairs to the chassis. Can you see where this is heading...?

Then, in 1999 my parents decided to move from Moffat to Orkney. I found myself hiring a Luton van to move their possessions. I'm really not sure what was going on in my head, but at some point I found myself wondering if the Spitfire - which I knew to be in bits - would fit in the back of the empty van for the return trip! I reckoned it would, and a phone call confirmed that it was mine again if I wanted it.

Packed up and ready to come home, September 1999.

Next thing I knew I was unloading it into our garage. I'd have laughed out loud if anyone had predicted this back in 1992. And it would have made far more sense just to buy a decent roadworthy Spitfire that I could have driven straightaway, but I've never been one for always taking the easy road. As stupid as it may seem, after a seven-year break, it felt like unfinished business.

The original plan to restore it myself as a fairly standard 1500 went out of the window in next to no time. I'd always had a hankering for a GT6 but didn't want to forego the soft top - so why not drop a six-pot in it? I'd always wanted one in dark blue or BRG - so why not change the colour? Maybe I'd use it a lot for track days and hill-climbs - so why not make it a 2.5 and tune it up a bit? This is going to be an awful lot of work - so why not get someone to do it for me? A few chats with Chic Doig later he was rebuilding a very non-standard Spitfire for me! Other than building up the rolling chassis, which I did in our garage (after Chic Doig had painted it), Chic Doig did all of the work.

Rolling chassis finished, April 2001.

Engine build / bench test, May 2001.

Replacement tub, Californian import, May 2001.
The original tub turned out to be a total basket case!

Engine mounted in chassis, June 2001.

Bodywork, June 2002.

In March 2003, it was all done and back home:

It ended up with a 2.5 straight-six bored out to 2.7 with TriumphTune Sprint 90 camshaft and Stage III head, triple Weber 40s; GT6 turrets and front suspension with 330lb springs, 1-inch anti-roll bar, 4-pot vented front disks, GT6 drums on the rear; close ratio gear set in a 3-rail box, J-Type overdrive and 3.63 diff with Quaiffe LSD. Tyres were 185/60-13s on 5.5 inch AlleyCat slog mags. The seats are Mazda MX-5 and the paint is a metallic BRG.

So, on the whole a fairly standard 6-pot conversion -- but, in my opinion, very well put together.

I ended up spending a lot more on it than I originally planned, but I don't regret it one bit! It goes like stink and handles well. It's comfortable and great fun to drive.

The only significant change to the car since 2003 was the replacement of the 6-2-1 manifold and wheelbarrow twin exhaust with a bespoke Gareth Thomas 6-3-1 manifold and exhaust system in 2008. It improved performance and reduced the noise levels considerably - the noise reduction was something I'd specifically asked for and it was achieved by fitting a centre silencer and a bespoke rear box.

The intention I had of using the Spitfire for track days and hill-climbs has never really come to anything. Nowadays, it's used purely as a road car - for touring mostly. With this in mind and now that it's been back on the road for nearly ten years I've been taking stock and plan to experiment with a few things this year to see if I can make it a better road car.

Firstly - tyres. The 185/60-13s have always given a very harsh ride and while they've worked extremely well on the few occasions I've had the car out on local sprint circuits I've come to the conclusion that I don't like them for normal road use. When the last set of 185/60-13s all decided to wear out at the same time in September last year I replaced them with 165/70-13s. I've not done a lot of miles since the 165/70-13s were fitted, but the ride quality is definitely much improved and the rear suspension works much better. I also plan to try out 175/70-13s on a set of Weller Sport 13 x 6 inch wheels I acquired last year and will make a decision regarding which I want to keep later in the year.

Secondly - if I have a criticism of the handling then it is that the Spitfire has a tendency to yump excessively on B-roads. I've got a pair of higher-rated progressive front springs which I'm going to fit to see if they improve matters.

Lastly - seats. The MX-5 seats are exceptionally comfortable and they also served a purpose in 2003-2005 when I was having some lower-back problems. However, the driving position is wrong - just slightly too high and slightly too far forward - and I've never quite been able to get used to it. So I'm currently renovating a pair of late Spitfire 1500 recliner headrest seats and I'll be fitting them in the next month or so to see how I get on with them. I managed to acquire a good pair of seat frames on eBay and with Dave Kent's help managed to get them up to Scotland eventually. I'm just waiting for new foams and leather covers to arrive from Park Lane Classics.

Other than the above the plan is to use the Spitfire as often as we can and get as much enjoyment out of it as we can. We're keeping our fingers crossed for better weather than we got last year!

Wednesday, 23 January 2013

The Fall and Rise of a Spitfire (Part 1)

The combination of two week's intense hibernation over Christmas and New Year and the very cold weather we're having at the moment has completely stalled progress on the Saloon. I'm quite a bit behind where I wanted to be by now and I really must make an effort to catch up.

However, I have managed to procure a few more panels for the Saloon. Thanks are due to Dave Pearson who has come up with an OE N/S sill strengthener (middle sill) and I'll be collecting it when we're down at Stoneleigh. That means I will have managed to acquire a full set of N/S OE sills. O/S inner and full outer sills arrived today from Rimmers (their January "VAT-free" pricing sale helping considerably with these).

Anyway, with not having much to say about the Saloon I thought I'd witter on about our Spitfire for a bit...

For as long as I can remember I've been a "Triumph man"! Growing up in the '60s and '70s for me Triumph cars, especially their styling, always stood out from the crowd. Eventually I settled on hankering after a Spitfire or GT6 - the GT6, especially, was a stunning little car back in the day (and it still is).

But owning a car of my own was always out of reach until I (eventually) graduated from University and started working full-time in 1985. The first thing I did when the monthly wage packet started coming in was to go looking for a Triumph. I'd decided that I wanted a convertible so I went looking for a Spitfire. After a few false starts, including a huge disappointment over a beautiful 1980 Delft Blue 1500 that I missed by a matter of minutes, I found a nice-looking 1978 Inca Yellow 1500 in seemingly good condition nearby in Leith, and the deal was done.

I still have that car to this day - although, it has to be said, there have been a few ups and downs along the way!

Somewhere in Fife, July 1986.

Back then the Spitfire was my daily driver, and at the weekends and during holidays it was going all over Scotland - from Orkney to the Borders on a regular basis. I loved it!

It wasn't long before mechanical niggles started to appear. Back then I know absolutely nothing about working on or maintaining cars. But I had a run in with the local BL main dealer after they completely botched the first job I asked them to do on the Spitfire and at that point I decided it would be easier (and cheaper) if I maintained it myself! So, I bought myself a workshop manual and just got on with it! Rear wheel bearings, differential, gearbox, overdrive and - yes - a trunnion collapse all needed sorting in the first three years.

I wouldn't get away with doing this in the living room nowadays!

What was more worrying, although I didn't really appreciate it at the time, was that after a few months I noticed that some of the paint was starting to peel off revealing what appeared to be another layer of paint underneath. I wasn't savvy enough at the time to figure out what was going on, but being older and wiser nowadays I like to think that I would I spot a blow-over immediately! The reality was that the underlying condition of the car was really very poor. Just how bad it was wouldn't really become apparent for another couple of years when I decided to strip the paint off the sills to see what was there and found substantial amounts of filler, chicken wire and newspaper. I patched it up as best I could.

I also started to experiment with "improvements". All the usual stuff, most of it straight out of the TriumphTune catalogue - engine tweaks, “performance” manifold and exhaust, lowered and stiffened suspension, alloys wheels and low profile wide tyres. It was a mixed bag - some of it worked, some of it didn't. The handling definitely improved but the performance didn't to any great extent.

On the old road to the Broch of Gurness, Orkney, 1987.

1988 was a watershed year. Driving from Dunfermline to Kirkcaldy on a wet Saturday morning in July I lost the car on a bend on the coast road close to where the Seafield Colliery used to be. The car spun through 360 degrees and ended up wrapping itself around a lamp post on the other side of the road. The O/S rear wing was very badly damaged. The car was taken to Chic Doig’s place. But for the TSSC agreed value insurance it would have been written-off. It was problematic because other non-accident damaged parts of the car were in such poor condition that it didn’t make sense just to repair the accident damage. So a deal was done with the insurance company – they would pay for the repair of the accident damage and I would pay for the other work that was needed. Repairs to the O/S rear wing, O/S sills, boot lid, boot floor, rear bumper and rear suspension were covered by the insurance company while I paid for repairs to the N/S sills and a fibre-glass GT6 bonnet and fibre-glass front outriggers.

Getting fixed at Chic Doigs, 1988.

Chic Doic did a great job and there’s no doubt that without their help the Spitfire would have been a  goner. But for reasons which I’ve never really been able to articulate properly I was never really happy with the car after that. It just didn't feel right somehow.

I had bought my first house in 1988 and it was in need of some renovation and I was generally very busy with work throughout the late 80s. As a result I had very little time or money to spend on the Spitfire. It was still my daily driver and by 1990/1991 it was starting to suffer quite badly. The engine, in particular, was needing constant repairs to keep it going. Cylinder head gasket, piston rings and big end bearings (twice) were all done with the engine in situ. The second big end bearing change was done in late 1991, outside, in freezing conditions, lying on the ground on snow and ice! The floors, A- and B-posts and parts of the chassis and outriggers which hadn't been touched when the Spitfire was repaired after the crash in 1988 were also starting to deteriorate. At this point I really needed to stop using it as my daily driver, take it off the road and sort it properly - but I didn't have the time, the money or the inclination.

By 1992 I was thoroughly fed up with the constant tinkering that was needed to keep the Spitfire going. It was still going downhill. The last straw came when I took the car for an early MOT pre-inspection to see where things stood and was told that it would fail quite badly with a number of structural problems being identified. I had had enough - it had to go. I happened to mention this to my sister's partner in Orkney who had always had a hankering for a Spitfire and out of the blue we agreed a deal - he'd take the Spitfire off my hands with a view to restoring it, and for the payment of a small nominal sum he'd let me have a very solid VW Scirocco he happened to have lying about at the time.

So, in July 1992 I set off for Orkney on what I thought would be the last journey I'd ever make in the Spitfire. It went well, it made it all the way to Rousay without missing a beat. I handed it over to Robert and at that point in time I didn't want or expect to see it ever again.

The "last journey" - my late father took this picture of me driving
the Spitfire off the Orkney ferry, St Ola, in Stromness in July 1992.

And that, or so I thought, was that...