Mark Johnson's 1965 Triumph Spitfire
When I was a kid in the early 70’s, my aunt had a Triumph TR3. I would sit in it and pretend to drive every time my family went for a visit. I thought it was the coolest car ever.
Flash forward about 35 or 40 years. I had restored a tractor and a motorcycle and wanted to tackle a car. That TR3 instantly came to mind. As I started looking for one though, I found that they were out of my price range. I came upon an ad on Craigslist for a 1965 Triumph Spitfire that a guy had in Illinois. From the photos it looked pretty good. After making a deal with him over the phone, on New Years day 2012 I enlisted the help of my dad and we drove the 3 hours to check it out.
The car looked solid to me, being the newbie that I was, and I bought it for $800. The owner said it ran but it wouldn’t start at the moment. It did turn over easily, so I figured it wouldn’t take much to get it going.
When we got it home, after a few hours tinkering, trouble shooting and carb work, we got it started. It started and ran pretty smoothly, but had a bit of a rattle in one of the cylinders. Only after we got it running did I really start to check out the sheet metal by pulling the carpet out. Surprise! There was almost no sheet metal left in the floors and what metal there was, was full of Bondo. I knew nothing about body work and had a long learning curve ahead.
Over the course of the next five years I became extremely familiar with every square inch of that car. I came to depend on all the guys on the Triumph Experience forum. These people are selfless and helped me immensely by sharing their experience with me and encouraging me to press on. I learned to mig weld, fabricate and use a body hammer and dolly. I replaced both floor pans; inner, middle and outer sills; door skins; trunk floor; battery box; and other rusted areas that I had to fabricate. Then towards the end of 2013 progress slowed to a crawl due to the sheer amount of money it takes to restore a car (even a Spitfire). During this time my grandmother passed away and left me a little money which I used to kick start the project again. My grandmother was the human version of the word Spitfire. She was high energy, and always on the go and her favorite color was red. So I name the car "Margaret" after her. Her key chain with her high school class slogan "depression kids" hangs from the ignition.
Next I sent the block off to have the cylinders rebored. I straightened the frame, replaced all the rubber on the car, sandblasted and painted every part on the car that was possible. Then came the part that I had been dreading. I built a paint booth and learned how to paint base coat/ clear coat. This was a bigger learning curve than the body work for me, but they go hand in hand. If the body work is bad, the paint job will be bad. I still see mistakes in the finished product, but I can live with them. They remind me that I did it myself. Finally came the part I was looking forward to. Putting it all back together. That was a lot of fun and it was satisfying to see a big improvement in a short time after so many hours of doing body work, painting and sanding, sanding, sanding.
I bought probably 95% of my parts from Victoria British. When a problem or mistake arose, they were always quick to fix it and I appreciated that. I also need to mention my wonderful wife here. When I finally finished the car after almost 5 years of work and countless hours spent in the shop, she actually asked me what car I was doing next! (Wait a minute, was this project just keeping me out of her hair?)
I spent thousands of dollars restoring a car that I wished could have been a TR3. And when everything was said and done, I probably could have bought a TR3 for what I spent on the Spitfire. But I don’t think that I would have had the guts to tear into it like I did the Spitfire, and the things that I learned are probably more valuable to me than the car itself. Although driving it around is a lot of fun!