Of the 20-odd makes of cars that competed in this year's Le Mans 24-hour hassle, only three were in the original spirit of this classic—that is, true production-type machines available to the public in almost identical form. And of these three—two British and one German—the Triumph TR2 most closely approximated the type of sports car that can be used all week on shopping trips, then raced at weekend with a reasonable chance of success.
When, therefore, Triumph Competitions Director Ken Richardson offered me No. 28 for a road test, I grabbed at the chance. No. 28 works team TR2, driven by Bobbie Dickson and Ninian Sanderson, finished 14th over-all and fifth in its class at Le Mans, running faultlessly throughout the 24 hours on one set of tires. It averaged 84.5 mph, put in several laps at over 92 mph and several times topped 120 mph in overdrive fourth on the long Mulsanne straight. "At that speed," Richardson told me, "you could steer it with one hand and light a cigarette with the other." From my experience with No. 28, there is no doubt this statement was true, for the positive smoothness of the TR2's cam and lever steering couldn't be bettered in a $10,000, hand-built sports-racing car.
From the standpoint of the budget-conscious competitions enthusiast, the $64 question is this: Precisely to what extent do No. 28 and its two teammates vary from the absolutely stock TR2 available at your local dealer? Here is the answer: all three cars were equipped with 1¾ inch SU H6 carburetors in place of the usual 1½-inch type, boosting the output from 90 to 92½ hp at a low 5,000 rpm—only 200 rpm above the normal engine peak. No. 28 had disc brakes all round; No. 29 and No. 68 had them in the front only, by way of an experiment. If these brakes pass all the rigorous tests set for them, they probably will be available as optional production extras on future TR2s. Aside from this, all three cars had their folding tops removed and were equipped with plastic racing windshields such as any enthusiast can fabricate at home. In almost every other respect these cars are identical with TR2s coming off the production line at the rate of 25 per day. Not even the mufflers were removed. The only other differences are that the Le Mans cars have 62-spoke wire wheels of greater strength than the normal 48-spoke wheels available as a production line option. Logically too, they are equipped with a 31-gallon gas tank in place of the usual 15-gallon job.
When I took over No. 28, it was still running on the single set of tires used at Le Mans, and the treads were good for several thousand more miles. "Nothing's been done to this car since it returned," said Richardson. "We haven't even removed the cylinder head for a checkup."
With a full tank, No. 28 weighed 2,128 pounds—78 pounds more than the go-to-market model—resulting in a slightly inferior power-weight ratio, but that detracted nothing from its extraordinary eagerness. "You can safely wind it up to 6,000 rpm," said Richardson. "Don't spare it in any way. We beat the devil out of these cars up and down the road all day long for durability tests. If anything breaks, don't worry; we'd like to know."
I took him at his word, beginning with a series of murderous acceleration tests in which I slammed the clutch home at 3,000 rpm from a standstill and took off with spinning wheels and smoking tires. The TR2's four-speed gearbox has always been a joy, but the Laycock de Normanville electric overdrive now available as a production feature makes a world of difference. By flicking a steering column switch on or off you instantly have the use of seven speeds—the normal four plus overdrive second, third and fourth, providing a 25% higher gear ratio. By using certain simple little tricks which can be learned in five minutes, momentary use of the overdrive when upshifting through the gears makes a big difference to acceleration times. For instance, going from zero to 60 mph you never need to use third. Instead, after a crash upshift from first to second, you flip in second overdrive at around 4,200 rpm and stay with it. Using normal first, second and third gears for this test, the best I could get was 11.4 seconds; but by calling in second overdrive—the intermediate gear between second and third—we clocked 9.9 seconds to 60. This, for a fairly heavy, pushrod two liter car is really going.
On the zero to 70 mph test, best results were obtained by using first, second, second-overdrive, then flicking off the overdrive during the upshift into third. Best figures obtained in this manner were: 0-30 mph: 3.2 seconds; 0-50: 7.4 seconds; 0-60: 9.9 seconds; 0-70: 14.8 seconds; standing quarter mile: 18.9 seconds. These figures compare favorably with those of many costlier sports cars with larger, more powerful engines. Maximum speed possible under test conditions was 100 mph (4,000 rpm in overdrive, 5,000 rpm in normal fourth), but this was reached so easily that I had the clear impression the car is good for the 120 mph claimed by Richardson.
When biting deep into fairly sharp turns at high speed, No. 28 showed a marked tendency towards understeer common to all TR2s—that is it tended to head for the apex of the curve rather than its inner radius. However, the car is so tractable and responsive that you quickly get used to making the proper allowance. Certainly this quirk is far less dangerous than the oversteer of some rear-engine jobs.
No. 28's disc brakes suffered from the pre-operative squeak common to all brakes of this design, but their power was slightly unnerving. You can lock all four wheels at 60 mph. The stopping figure of 27 feet, 9 inches from 30 mph told nothing since the wheels locked solid and the car simply slid to a stop.
To sum up No. 28 and all TR2s, this is a true sports-racing car of astonishing performance with versatility, comfort and finish far above its basic price tag of $2,500. Not the least surprising thing about it is the amount of luggage space available for a long trip. Utilizing the space behind the seats as well as the trunk, three good-sized suitcases can be carried, plus a typewriter, a holdall bag and a couple of topcoats.
When the TR2's bug-eyed headlamps have been removed and the front slightly redesigned, it will also be a handsome car.
STRIPPED FOR ACTION, TR2 has plastic windscreen and tonneau cover which, with streamlined bellypan, helped it clock 124 mph in trials on Jabbeke Highway in Belgium.