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...

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