Romance and Speed
Driving a 1953 Triumph TR2
Words: Ardie Lopez
Photos: Jerel Fajardo
A master stroke in Standard Triumph’s efforts to produce a sports car was what this was: it had proper performance, had enough looks to attract buyers away from the offerings from Morgan and MG, and was more affordable than its more upscale rival from Austin Healey.
The car I’m talking about is a sublime roadster that eventually became Triumph’s best selling model during its time: the 1953 Triumph TR2.
Now I will venture further back than I has ever done, and probably get smitten in the process.
Geneva Motor Show, 1953
The attractive XK 120-aping bodywork of the Triumph TR2 –due in part to the modifications made to increase interior and boot space– that looked decidedly modern compared to the more vintage shapes that characterized the competition.
The TR2’s mildly beguiling shape had a purposeful athleticism in the pronounced flow of the front wings and the tapered rear that now boasted a relatively capacious boot –owners could now take the car for a bit of touring provided they learned to pack economically, especially if they had a companion with them.
That the car could do over 100 mph and cost less than a Jaguar was something of a revelation and some 8600 copies were built. It was the perfect instrument for Triumph to make a splash into the growing American sports car scene and was the quintessential model that established Triumph across the pond.
It was a warm day, just after lunch, when we arrived at the private garage. We’d already been there before to do a previz of the shoot –the garage was under renovation at the time– and now the time had come to finally feature the car. I was quite apprehensive about approaching the car; it looked so delicate and fragile in a way that only old things can beBut as I watched the car being maneuvered out of the parking bay, I realized that this was not the sort of car that you drove delicately because of its manual steering. The modern, heroic, performance-driving style of crossed arms and finger-light inputs do not apply to this raw machine from the dawn of the post war sports car.
I can recall the first time (quite a while back) I asked Eddie Salonga, the owner our featured British Racing Green roadster, if I could do a story on his carHis positive reply was enthusiastic and unafraid. His TR2 in particular is a fine example of this monumental effort in the stewardship and preservation of historical automobiles. He introduced a lot of interesting factoids about the TR2, the very first of which is the difference between the doors of earlier models: the earlier cars had doors that were so low they hit the curb when you opened them. After some one thousand cars had been made, they modified this by raising the shut line of the door skin above the rocker panel. These cars were called “small mouth, short door” models – ‘small mouth’ referring to the recessed grille appearing as a small gaping mouth.
The engine was powered by a four-cylinder motor and twin SU H4 carburetors that was good for upwards of 90bhp. The diminutive size of the TR2 a weight of 955kg meant that it was quite brisk –more than enough to keep up with moderns on real roads. But just as easily, you can conjure up the romance of open top motoring down a deserted English lane upon a lonely moor with nothing but the engine note bouncing off the clumps of heather and the occasional stone wall to disrupt the British equivalent of pastoral scenery –except a bit darker and wetter.
The engine bay itself is absurdly clean. Eddie’s attention to detail meant that not even the type of bolts used inside the engine compartment escaped the rigid specification of his standards. On the other hand, the interior of his car is not the pampered hide of a garage queen that is rarely driven with any form of aggression: while amazingly neat and straight, it shows the little signs of wear that indicate the car being used regularly (but you’ll have to look closely to notice). In fact, Eddie is actually contemplating whether or not to use his TR2 on a tour of the southern island of Cebu.
The gauges and other instrumentation look exquisite after the cold greys and blacks of modern equivalents. The steering wheel is a beautiful three-spoke affair with wiry spokes grouped by fours while the thin-rimmed wheel is a delight to hold. The low windscreen and the flowing bodywork rest on a set of wire wheels –not Boranis but British made. The overall picture is achingly British and you suddenly realize what a photogenic car the TR2 actually is. It is somewhere between handsome and pretty –with a very slight aspiration to elegance.
This TR2 was a surreal experience for me because I hadn’t had the chance to get behind the wheel of something nearly so old. The door, for instance, is a delightfully antiquated contrivance that you operated by pushing down a door pull that released the latch –on the inside. The door itself weighed almost nothing having no window glass, exterior handles, or any other mechanism to give it heft. Even the cut away of the door tops exposed you to the elements, further guaranteeing a thoroughly raw and exhilarating experience. The car is also quite low, the top of the windscreen being only 46 inches above the ground further amplifying the sense of speed once underway.
Getting in was a study in classic sports car entry: ingress backwards, butt first, then swing your legs over the sill and settle into the deep and comfortable bucket seat which was devoid of headrests so you feel quite exposed.
I was finally going to get to drive the car.
The engine started quite uneventfully with a slight cough that transitioned to a cheerful burble once it settled into an easy idle. I depressed the clutch which felt a disconcertingly gummy, but you eventually learn to ignore it because it was quite potent; gear changes were slightly clunky due to the lack of synchromesh but I astonished myself by acclimatizing to the system quite easily and discovered that there was a sweet spot to changing gear –or you could just shift to the opposite ratio before slotting into your preferred one if you don’t want the hassle of feeling for the gate.
I recall letting the revs rise as I eased the throttle down into the floor, ever apprehensive of the fact that the car might suddenly give me a big scare if I was naughty –there was unmistakable torque. But somehow, I managed not to upset it and to my surprise, discovered that this car is not the fragile concourse limpet that I thought it might be. It’s a raw animal that clearly wants to be pushed and driven with the same energy you would astride a stallion at the height of a foxhunt, with your quarry in sight –in my case, the upcoming corner. I could feel the muscles in my jaw tighten as I anticipated the imminent entry at speed that would characterize the advent of a heroic exit as I attempt to skillfully downshift as smoothly as I can (while Eddie wasn’t looking) and settle into the correct gear.
At least, that’s what I had really intended to do. What happened instead, was my courage giving out and the preservation of this rare automotive gem –as well as my own urgent sense of self preservation– took the better of me so that I bravely lifted off the throttle and instead decided to do a fast, sweeping turn, carrying as much speed as I dared while trying to look as unafraid as possible –grip was surprising. The unassisted steering is really talkative but takes monumental effort to operate –you do a sort of shuffling motion when turning the wheel instead of just crossing your arms when you make a turn. It’s that heavy. Or I’m that out of shape. No, it’s probably just heavy.
The throttle is a delightful example of responsive, well-oiled British engineering –with a very faint but delightful hint of woodenness in the pedal feel. You get an organic sense of connection to the power plant. And it just loves to be revved. There is a great range of control when it came to inputs –an odd contrast to the vein-popping steering. The car actually sounds like a small, tight hot rod –with a touch of finesse.
Once I got to the end of the lane, carrying significant speed, I decided to try the brakes… which seemed to have vanished. I suddenly felt my body jolt as adrenalin made me 300% stronger and I pushed the middle pedal into the floor –apparently, the steering isn’t the only aspect of the car that is not power assisted. Once the brakes bit (more adrenalin) they turned out to be excellent at stopping the car, robust and seemingly unbreakable in a sturdy, mechanical sort of way. My confidence began to grow. And the car’s charm finally began to worm its way into my heart. I was finally getting it at last, not just as a sports car made by Standard Triumph in 1953 but in the context of the present day with all the new fangled inventions that were strictly in the realm of science fiction over sixty years ago. Given enough time and the right sort of road, I could easily imagine how this car could be driven briskly –even savagely– by a skilled driver; the TR2 is unmistakably a man’s car.
After that exhilarating drive, I got out of the car, or tried to: I found myself jammed between the wheel and the seat, stuck fast as it were. My pitiful struggles to wrench myself free of the cockpit were painfully embarrassing, made even more so by the fact that Eddie was standing right beside the open driver’s door, watching in pity. Having had enough, he reached down and mercifully pried me out of his TR2. Whatever dignity I may have had piloting the handsome TR was completely destroyed by the time I was standing up.
But, I was electric with exhilaration, my star struck eyes reflected the romance and nostalgia of this fascinating roadster from the past –one more victim of just another of Coventry’s ‘triumphs’. If Eddie continues with his efforts in the preservation and stewardship of these historic machines, I won’t be the last.