Joseph Vitale's 1972 Triumph Spitfire Mark IV
The story of my Triumph Spitfire actually begins with a DeLorean. It was 1981. I was 9 years old and the much-anticipated DeLorean sports car had just hit the streets. Living in a suburb of Detroit, this was big news and there was a buzz about it. I was riding shotgun in the car with my mom when I caught a glimpse of one. I urged her to catch up with it and we did at the next red light. I gazed in wonder until the light turned green and we parted ways. I decided then that someday I would have one.
In the years that followed, I kept a watchful eye on the DeLoreans, tracking their availability and value. I came close to realizing my dream of ownership many times, but the planets were just never quite aligned for it to happen. Fast-forward to 2007, I now had a house with a three-car garage and spent several years bringing it up to par. I was ready. It was time.
I began seriously searching for a suitable DeLorean which fit my preferences and budget. In combing the for-sale ads and auction sites, I came across some other interesting vehicles for sale as well. Having many pitfalls and obstacles in my search for the DeLorean, I opened my mind to the possibility of purchasing something altogether different.
I was traveling by bicycle when I stumbled upon an old disheveled little convertible parked in front of a local business. It was harshly faded red with rusty wire wheels and only a hint of an interior. And although it looked pretty solid, it was in need of total restoration. But I liked it. In the Motor City, Detroit muscle dominates. One simply doesn’t see many cars like this on the road. And for me, this was part of its appeal. The tarnished chrome letters that spelled out “T-R-I-U-M-P-H” were still intact across the trunk lid, as was the script emblem which read “Spitfire 4.” I made a mental note of this and immediately hopped on the computer when I returned home to investigate.
What a cool and fun car these Spitfires seemed, and most could be had for a reasonable price! I spent a lot of time researching and learning about these wonderful “Little British Cars” and seriously entertained the thought of purchasing one. I had a particular fondness for the 1971-73 MKIV models and I fantasized about cruising along the lakeshore in a classy British Racing Green one, top down, with the wind blowing through my hair. But alas, I harkened back to my first love, the DeLorean, and in July of 2007, I purchased one from the original owner in the small scenic town of West Olive, Michigan.
A year later, in the summer of 2008, I began spending countless hours and thousands of dollars refurbishing the DeLorean. I was quite satisfied in having finally acquired my dream car, and yet I still often thought of that little British sports car. I casually tracked them in the online ads and gradually convinced myself that surely there must be room in my garage and budget for such a diminutive vehicle. I became more serious in my search and inquired on and even looked at a few Spitfires for sale, but all were too much of a divergence from what my original vision was. I was still hoping to find that British Racing Green 1971-73 MKIV model, with black interior, chrome wire wheels and no luggage rack.
I came across a newly listed ad on a popular free online classified site for a 1972 Spitfire. It sounded good but had only a brief description and, unusually, no accompanying photo. It was also a bit out of my price range but I decided to give the seller a call anyway. He started by assuring me what a nice vehicle it was, attesting to its roadworthiness and overall condition. My first question was to inquire on the color, to which he replied “Ferrari Red” with white racing stripes. So not only was it not British Racing Green, but it also had some kind of custom striping on it. I then inquired about the wheels to find out that it did not have the wire wheels I was hoping for, but rather the standard steel Dunlop J wheels. And although the interior was black and recently redone, it did also unfortunately have a luggage rack on the trunk lid (which the seller insisted made it look rather sporty). Of course, all of these things could be changed, but as with anything, it’s a matter of time and money.
The seller made quite a pitch for this car so, in spite of it not sounding like the one for me, I decided to take the 40-minute ride out to his house to see it for myself. A good friend of mine came along with me, as my interest in Spitfires had rubbed off on him. He is an excellent mechanic and had done a lot of work on my DeLorean, so who better to bring along to check out this car? I considered it to be an educational experience at the very least, and unless the seller was willing to come down on the price quite a bit there was no way I was going to purchase it anyway.
It’s funny how sometimes we think we know exactly what we want, when in reality, we really don’t know what we want at all until we find it. I was taken with the car from the moment I laid eyes on it. The bold red color, the racing stripes, the rally rims, the stylish luggage rack, which looked more like a spoiler — all the things I didn’t want were what captivated me about it. We inspected the car and it seemed to be everything the seller had promised. It was perfect but it was in excellent overall condition and ready to be enjoyed as is. Nervously, I made the seller the best (and only) offer I could and he graciously accepted it (after checking with his better half, of course). I gave him a deposit and one week later, almost a year to the day that I purchased my DeLorean, I closed the deal on the Spitfire and drove it home.
I’ll never forget the ride home. I had only ever driven a Spitfire around the block for a test-drive, and now I was going to take it on a major interstate highway. The sky turned dark just as we were getting ready to depart, so we put the top up. The seller told me in the eight years he owned it, the car had never been driven in the rain and the top pretty much stayed down all summer. My friend trailed me in his vehicle, and about halfway home, on the interstate, it began to downpour. It was a bit of a white-knuckled ride, but I made it home safe and sound, and the car was no worse for the wear.
In the days and weeks that followed, my friend and I immersed ourselves in the Spitfire. It was ironic that after spending so much time, money and effort getting my long-awaited dream car, the DeLorean, roadworthy, it now sat in the garage while we put all our attention toward the Spitfire. We worked out a couple bugs, tweaked a few things and addressed some issues, most notably, swapping out the front springs for a new set. It seems that at some point it had an incorrect set installed, so the car sat very high in the front (kind of like driving a boat). I would later replace the rear leaf spring and convertible top. But other than adding a custom sound system and taking care of some routine maintenance issues, nothing else major has been done to the car. It is driven and enjoyed.
My Spitfire is a real eye-catcher and I was amazed at the attention I got when I first started driving it. I was used to this with the DeLorean, but it was a bit unexpected with this car. Many people think it is a much more expensive and exotic car than it is. Friends and family were wondering if I had won the lottery — first the DeLorean and now this?! I can remember showing the car to a co-worker who said it looked like James Bond’s car and that he could almost hear the music of Xavier Cugat as he envisioned it purring down the road. I get this Bond comparison a lot, which is interesting considering that although it is a British car, Bond never drove a Triumph. I also once got an “Austin Powers” shout-out while cruising through upscale downtown Birmingham.
Another common comparison I get with the car is that it resembles an AC Cobra. A couple times, it was even mistaken for one! My favorite example of this was when I was at a local car event and parked right next to an AC Cobra with the exact same paint scheme — red with dual white racing stripes down the middle. I got out and started snapping a few pictures, when I thought it would make for an interesting photo if I were parked behind it instead. As I slowly backed the Spitfire up, a man suddenly approached my car, first hesitantly, then frantically with a look of dread on his face. It turned out he thought my Spitfire was his Cobra and that I was stealing it! I couldn’t believe it! I actually fooled the owner of the AC Cobra!
I can think of no other sports car that offers more bang for the buck. Few things in life deliver more than you put into it, and the concept of “the whole being greater than the sum of its parts” never rang more true than with this car. The return of its investment is priceless. In the six years now that I’ve owned my Spitfire, I’ve taken it to many car shows, cruises and on countless joyrides. I can remember reading and hearing about the notorious dependability issues of these cars and hearing people say things like “except to break down” and “Lucas was the devil” in reference to its electrical system. Knock on wood, I have been fortunate enough to never experience any major problems, and to this day the car has never left me stranded. It has really been a pretty dependable little vehicle. And yes, whenever the mood strikes me, I jump in and take it for a ride down the lakeshore — wind blowing through my hair and all.