Saturday, October 30, 2004


Where it All Started

TR7 ACL0012809U began as a retirement plan -- not mine, of course. After a long career with the Canadian Meteorological Service (now Environment Canada), my uncle S. Van Gordon was looking for a car to enjoy trips to the golf course and errands around town in the beautiful summers of Winnipeg Manitoba. He was an true anglophile when it came to cars and swore by a series of Rileys, Austins and a much loved Rover 3500. He was sure his latest acquisition would hold up the strong tradition of English automobile reliability!

It's hard to imagine now the enthusiasm in the mid 70's for "the shape of things to come." British Leyland, for all its faults, exercised tremendous marketing savvy for the product launch and were for a time one of the largest automotive advertisers in North America. I had been following the spy photos of the new Triumph for years as I labored on my rusted out MGB. We all believed this new car was going to leave all those stodgy old cars in the dust so I was thrilled to hear Uncle Van had ordered a new TR7. But alas, I lived in Toronto a thousand miles away from Winnipeg and could only hear about the car.

In fact, "hearing" was replaced only with "seeing" the next summer when my Uncle and Aunt showed up on a road trip to the east coast. This car was SO green, Java Green to be exact and to this day one of the rare colors for a TR7. It was even more radical looking than the pictures. I dropped every imaginable hint that I would like to test drive this car but the closest I could get was the passenger seat as my Uncle demonstrated the shift points at 3000 RPM. It was clear that a twenty-something sportscar wannabee was not getting near this baby!

Years passed, my Uncle aged and I grew up, married and had children. The MGB had long been replaced with a sensible Volvo but I still bought the occasional Road & Track to dream by. Fortune took me to Winnipeg in the summer of 1990. To my astonishment, the phone rang one day and Uncle Van asked if I wanted to "borrow" the Triumph while I was searching for a second car. I was over within the day to see the car for the first time in years. True the green was much faded and the suspension was jello-like but it had always been stored under cover and, of course, never rev'ed beyond 3000 without cause!

It had run 55,000 miles.

This particular Triumph did share the well-known woes of the early cars. Bits of trim fell off at speed and various interior switches failed in the early months and were repaired in regular trips to the dealer. Paint on the front left wing simply flaked off and panel fitment was pretty shocking. Twice the electronic ignition module cooked in the summer heat and was replaced. The third failure took place outside of warranty resulting in a dreadful bodge. Some helpful mechanic wedged a set of MG points inside a now butchered distributor. Timing was set permanently. Years later it took a 5 pound slide hammer to pry the contraption loose. To my uncle's credit, he was fastidious about oil changes, never abused the vehicle and most important, garaged it through the long Canadian winters.

The car required the expected things. A new battery, a new rear bearing where it had been flatted out. New seals in the clutch hydraulics and a fuel pump were all that was needed to get the car back on the road. My uncle's parting advice was to keep an eye on the coolant. He was so right and topping up coolant was a regular as topping up the gas tank. But no matter -- driving it was a joy greatly heightened by all the years of waiting.

In late 1993, my Uncle was tidying up his affairs and asked if I might want to assume ownership of the car. You know the answer. It came with only one request: that I would not turn around and sell the car at the first opportunity. It was an easy promise to make but not quite so easy to keep. The mid 90's came with career and life changes that took the TR7 off the road except for occasional illegal forays around the block to remember good times and hope for things to come. Fortunately prices for early TR7 coupes were so low then, that there wasn't much point in selling the car for grocery money! There's a photo I keep of me and the car together in the middle of that decade. It reminds how far we both have come in the years since! These things are not measured in miles.

As for the car, in the last 10 years it has gained another 30,000 miles and proven great fun punctuated by regular breakdowns due to overheating. Those stories about early TR7 cooling problems are quite true. At first I simply topped up the reservoir bottle each time I gassed up. At the time I had no idea what the leak was and let myself be talked into a head gasket job. I learned long after that though there may have been a gasket replaced by the shop, there was little else done right on the job. The leaks simply continued and next overheating breakdown was chalked up to water pump failure. I chose the later 12 vane pump to replace the 6 vane original and learned then the original leak was only a pair of 50 cent O-rings! Even so, it seemed to have little effect on the problem. The next time the car overheated the 'new' head gasket well and truly blew. When I did the next head job myself, I realized and that by re-using the stretched head studs, the previous shop had pretty well guaranteed head failure. Having the head rebuilt and all associated parts replaced was pricey but well worth it to know the job was done right. A 4 row radiator to replace the stock 3 row version has finally tamed the overheating problems.

The original suspension was pretty soft and early on in my ownership I dropped in new gas shocks and poly bushes all around. This tightened things greatly but overall handling became quirky in tight corners. The bushes have proved to be too harsh to my liking and a future project will be replacing them with up rated rubber. At the same time I'm going to replace the springs with an up rated set that will lower ride height by 1 inch. You can see from the photo how high the ride is on the stock 175-13/70 tires. The exhaust was replaced a few years ago with an aftermarket Monza system. It sounds great but I found the fitting brackets with it didn't match very well the existing TR7 ones.

Other work along the way includes a rebuilt alternator, a new solenoid, starter relay and a replacement distributor from a 77 TR7. Wishing to avoid any 70's electronics I replaced the internals of the distributor with a Pertronix Ignitor module [very much recommended] and a flashy chrome sport coil.

The interior PAA is a somber black on black and it boasts a shockingly ugly Federally mandated steering wheel pad. Other signs of an early interiors are the nylon cord seat covers in either black or tan and the lack of a built-in door light found on the later models. The photos do not do the 2000 respray project justice. It is a tremendous color and always attracts stares.

Build date: October 1975
VIN: ACL0012809U
Paint: HAB
Trim: PAAB
Body: T010326CG

Thursday, October 28, 2004


No Respect Tour

It was unofficially dubbed the "No Respect" tour by wedge enthusiasts in the Tyee Triumph Club. As a participant, I can say there was no end of pride as a dozen wedges showed up for a 9 AM run in Auburn WA. Cars ranged from a well appointed '77 Coupe to an '81 PI from the last months of production. Almost half were original TR8s or TR7s converted to V8 power. One TR7 Spider had tallied 180,000 miles and sported a remarkable and easily visible 1/8 inch end play in the thrust bearings! It was ready to run. Another member had converted his left-hand drive TR7 to V8 AND right-hand drive along with full UK spec bumpers. He does remember to stay on the right side of the road! We're not sure what the neighbors thought about 12 sportcars starting up in the street on a quiet Saturday morning. For us it was a symphony.

The procession wound its way up a local valley past a salmon hatchery and several wooded lakes toward Black Diamond WA. Long sloping curves gave everyone a chance to take in the sight of nothing but wedges behind and ahead as far as the eye could see. Organizers Larry Ingersoll and Tom Wadell drove the lead and chase cars keeping in touch by CB radio for the sake of any navigationally challenged drivers.

At our first rest stop at the Black Diamond Bakery a stray red Miata [MX5/Eunos] happened into the mix. Utterly confused by the surrounding British hoard, she yipped away to a safer parking area.We wound through a series of small towns out of Enumclaw and Buckley, culminating in a curvy stretch of road that doubled as a "Volcano Evacuation Route." It was good to know in the event of a real emergency all those bloated SUVs would never make the curves thus ensuring the survival of nimble cars like the TR7/8. Thank you Mr. Darwin.

We gathered at a scenic overlook for the group shot of all the cars. The group shot of the people was fine too but most agreed the cars were much better looking and, for the most part, better preserved.

The return leg of the tour brought us to the L&M Firehouse where we all ate the western Washington equivalent of pub-grub -- micro-brews and platters of things entirely deep fried. All in all, we did better mechanically than gastrically. No [serious] breakdowns occurred and though we joked about our Lucas electrics, I believe everyone's turn signals functioned. True, we did put those Federal battering ram bumpers to good use once to push a misfiring spider into a shady spot for some work on the plugs and a few drivers watched the temp gauge as closely as they did theroad. But the day was tremendous and full credit goes to the Tyee club for organizing a great event.


Sparkplug Roulette

The weekend of October 8-10 was certainly intended to be the perfect getaway in the 1981 PI. Clear, hot, dry and a destination in the scenic Columbia Gorge of Washington State. The specific draw was the final event on SOVREN (Society of Vintage Racing Enthusiasts) calendar the Maryhill Loops Hillclimb.

Here are some of the cars and here is the marvellous closed 2 1/2 mile course:

The beloved navigator drove with me and we booked into a couple of very fine B&Bs in anticipation of taking the backroads to the Loops on Sunday AM. We awoke Sunday to the sound of Sportscars buzzing past the B&B toward the races. Imagine an alarm clock that makes you WANT to get up right away!

We packed up the heretofore perfectly running wedge and started up. There was a stumbling misfire and that unmistakeable clicking sound of arcing plug wires.

Now, please understand: I always play such things calmly for the sake of the beloved navigator. She places an undue emphasis, at least in my mind, on automative details like starting the first time. The 1981 PI had been a perfect gentleman in this regard; so much so that she will drive it from time to time. Not so, the 1976 Java Green which once stranded her across from the State Mental Facility in Tacoma. This didn't bother me but as a professional Psychologist by trade, she felt that some of the people offering help had many more screws loose than the car did. And were at least as unreliable.

So back to playing things calmly for the sake of the beloved navigator ...

I popped the bonnet and saw sparks arcing over to the throttle cable. "Got it!! Won't be a minute and we'll be on our way" I said aloud. Silently I muttered, "Odd as hell ..." Fixing this made no difference. Cylinder #1 would NOT fire and the others didn't seem to be doing much better. I pulled the plug, cleaned, re-gapped, and replaced a plug wire. No joy. Lots of spark, lots of gas -- but no engine power. I began to suspect the worst: PI ECU meltdown. I took grim comfort that being 200 miles from home didn't really matter. These things were totally unfixable in the city too.

Then I hit on a brilliant plan. We shall limp along the 20 miles to the races! The pits would be littered with tools and expertise and, failing that, a friendly tow back home. We made it 10 miles before the smoke billowing out of the engine bay rendered my assurances to the beloved navigator a bit hollow. Perhaps when I suggested she undo her seatbelt and get ready to exit the vehicle, she came to the conclusion that my brilliant plan wasn't.

We stopped in Lyle Washington and considered our options in the parking area of the only gas station in town (closed). Time was short and we were stuck. You need to understand that public transportation anywhere in the USA is a bit dicey and in this part of the state practically non-existent. We learned if we left almost right away, hitched to the bridge, crossed into Oregon and caught the daily Greyhound, we might catch the last train in Portland to Seattle -- and arrive home only 12 hours later. Not bad for a 250 mile trip!

This we did and finally crawled into bed in the small hours of the AM. The beloved navigator agreed to share the same bed with me; though I suspect it may have been the sheer exhaustion rather than admiration of my manly skills of car repair.

The next day I was gamely plotting how I might get a truck to drag my sick wedge home and how, if the ECU was cooked, it might be time to drop in a V8. It was then the guy at the gas station phoned up and said "Your car's ready, when do you want to pick it up?" I mentioned that I was practically in another timezone from him and it would be a few days. I screwed up courage to ask "What was wrong?" "Well," he said "it was pretty weird. I figure some complete idiot was at the thing." I nodded in agreement. "Spark plug wires. They were all out of order. Just made it 1-3-4-2 and it purred like a kitten."

Here's what I figure. I am an idiot. Wedge owning is prima facie evidence of this condition. Owning two puts it beyond dispute. But I am not THE idiot that played the spark plug shell game under the bonnet. I don't usually lock the car on the grounds that a dedicated thief will get in AND slash the top in the process. Hence leaving it unlocked. I never figured some local 'Prince of Dorkness' would use the opportunity to pop the bonnet and play roulette with the distributor wires. True, I should have caught the problem right off but I am just so accustomed to the wedge breaking itself on its own -- I never clued in.

All's well that ends well. We took the train back to Portland and Bingen WA this weekend, hitched a ride to Lyle where the honest mechanic had left the keys under the seat along with the bill. $40 -- a small price for an idiot to pay to get his car back safely. And to transport the beloved navigator back home without further incident.


Will of the Triumph - Part II

You wouldn't think there is any connection between my two previous postings in "Behind the Scenes" -- almost being deported by the Immigration Service and nearly being incinerated by a 70's British Sportscar; but evidently the universe thinks otherwise.

One fine August evening I was coming back into the USA with a perfectly running TR7 and a freshly minted "Green Card" in hand. I was thrilled to see the sign saying "Wait Estimate: 30 minutes." I could expect to breeze through immigration AND have the car run flawlessly as it had now for two years. But a few cars before the customs booth odd digestive-like noises bubbled up from the engine bay and it simply died. My son got out to push and we both endured the catcalls of a hundred SUV drivers (oh, the disgrace of it !!).

Finally, at the head of the line -- he jumped back into the seat and with benefit of starter motor alone we crept into the inspection lane. My new green card did its magic and the officer waved us through. I told him the car was not likely to move on its own and the officer was kind enough to ask some nearby armed men to push us into the area normally reserved for drug dealers and admitted environmentalists. Thankfully someone told the guards I was merely an idiot British car owner rather than a malefactor so we escaped latex gloves.

We learned several non-automotive things while there.

1) Don't try to smuggle a $100K car into the US by saying a buddy lent it to you.
2) Don't look even vaguely Arab even if you are Puerto Rican.
3) If you don't speak English, people will shout at you in English.

I suppose you're wondering about THE CAR ???

Vapor lock. The fix is to let things cool down so I applied cold compresses to various affected areas to help speed the process. I also ran out to a local gas station to get some starting fluid. After 40 minutes, I no longer howled in pain when touching engine parts so I figured things might start. For good measure I doused the inside of the manifold with the starting fluid. By the way, this last detail matters.

There was somewhat more success than I planned. Most people know that sudden movements, screeching tires and especially explosions are bad etiquette for international borders. This applies most strongly when there are men with guns. But when your car is backfiring like a bazooka and you dare not slow the thing down anyway --- it's best not to worry about niceties.

It was then I grasped the deeper connection between my two adventures in Behind the Scenes.

Green Card -- Green Car = disaster. Co-incidence? I think not.

Tuesday, October 26, 2004


Will of the Triumph - Part I

A bit of trivia. What was the last mass production British sportscar sold in the USA? Hint: this car is credited with rendering oxymoronic the words 'dependable British automobile' ? Answer: the Triumph TR7. I am custodian of just such a vehicle. It, like some child with a personality disorder, has been in the family since 1976.

Don't get me wrong. A British sportscar is loads of fun and I've enjoyed mine thoroughly. It's just the GID [Greatest Inconvenience Detector] that is built into each chassis. If you are driving 4 blocks from home on a beautiful day or are in no hurry to get anywhere, the TR7 is dependable joy. Venture more than a hundred dollars tow away, travel with someone whose respect you value or be foolish enough to leave your cellphone behind -- it will take full advantage. It knows ...Expected misbehavior includes one of a) Odd noises, usually of the grinding variety; b) Random failure of some component designed by Lucas Electric, AKA "the Prince of Darkness;" or c) Overheating.

Such a perfect automotive storm occured last year on top of Snoqualmie Pass while driving with my older brother. It did all three. To make the day memorable as well as expensive it blew the head gasket bigtime and limped home dripping bodily fluids [its, not mine] from several incorrect orifices. Fortunately a head gasket is a $20 item. Unfortunately to get to that $20 part requires removing and replacing several hundred dollars of OTHER parts and finding special tools made by unionized dwarves with an attitude.

I can report after a one year campaign to tame the beast I have achieved complete domination in the 'head' area of the car. It drives, it does not leak and now simply runs 'hot' instead of overheating outright. The cost of repairs has exceeded what I see to be the actual worth of the car on eBay but that is no matter. It knows I'd never auction my troubled child online nor attempt to replace it. You'd think it would be grateful.

Last Sunday I washed and waxed the car in preparation for the photo you see in this story. It was sunny and I was going only blocks from the house to shoot the photos. Suddenly, but, dare I say, not unexpectedly, smoke began to puff from the glove box. Burning rubber announced a visitation by Prince Lucas. Immediately I jumped out and began searching for the cause. Nothing made sense until I reached in my pocket. My cellphone was sitting on the shelf back in the garage.

It knew -- and I could swear it smiled.

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