A word on Spitfires re-imported from the US
In the days of Triumph Spitfire production, North America was a major export market for all British car makers. About 45% of all new Spitfires ended up in the US.
While most early models (MkI, II and III) were almost identical in Europe and the US, North American legislation dictated that later US cars increasingly differed from European models. Changes involved lowering compression ratios, single instead of twin carburettors, various foolproof safety measures and all manner of equipment for meeting ever more stringent emission requirements. This meant more weight, which had to be moved by an engine with considerably less power. A deadly combination for a sports car.
This buyers guide is about late Euro-spec Triumph Spitfires only. When hunting for a Spitfire in Europe, you may come across one of the many cars recently re-imported from the US. You may find that a pre-1974 non-Californian US Spit still has reasonable performance. However, the last Spitfires made for the US market were pretty anaemic affairs, hardly sportscars in the proper sense of the word. If you must have one, go ahead, but don't say I didn't warn you. Unless it's very cheap or has been properly converted to Euro-spec (which is rare, since it involves an engine transplant), you're almost always better off with a real European-spec car.
A-hunting we will go
There are still many cars out there. Some are genuinely good cars, many only look good, some are utter rubbish throughout. Once you start looking seriously, you'll be surprised how many you'll find and how much difference in quality there is.
First thing to do is check out the market. Scout the internet. Check the many ads in newspapers, classic car publications and the club magazine. The best and least overpriced cars are often found among club members. Another reason to become a club member first.
Buying this sort of car is of course an emotional matter. After all, nobody in his right, rational mind would spend good money on an old, comparatively fragile little car with no proper roof and only two seats. Therefore, it is always wise to get a second set of eyes and brains to help you avoid doing stupid things. It is all too easy to become blinded by a beautiful, shiny body and a freshly valeted interior.
After you have a list of cars to check out, equip yourself with notebook and pen, old clothes, a torch and a small magnet. A mobile phone may come in handy, too. Don't rush, take your time checking out the cars.
Okay, you've found a car you like. Now the fun starts. Get out your fine comb and go over the car very methodically. Carefully write down any faults you find.
Do check that the car really is what it's supposed to be. Some cars may look like 1500's, but are actually 1300cc MkIV's with 1500 bits stuck on, or MkIV's with 1500cc engine transplants. You may also find ex-USA cars that have been 'done up' to look like Euro-spec Spits. Avoid being conned by knowing your numbers. I have made an identification page with chassis/commission numbers for Spitfires MkIV and 1500. You will also find paint and trim codes there.
It's no sin to buy a mongrel (in fact I wouldn't mind a Spitfire with a GT6 or TR6 engine myself), but it's always good to know what a particular car really is.
Roll the car out into full daylight and check the body for paint blemishes, scratches, worn patches, ripples and dents. Remember: good, full resprays are labour intensive and therefore expensive, partial resprays cost slightly less, but are often difficult to get right, especially on metallic paintjobs.
Visually inspect the front and especially the rear of the windscreen pillars - a known rotspot on Spitfires, as the side window rubbers are notorious for trapping moisture. Pull the rubber strips off the back of the windscreen pillars and thoroughly check for rust.
Visually inspect the outer sills - tap them and listen for changes in sound, indicating filler. Use the magnet you brought. The car has a separate chassis, but contrary to popular belief, the sills provide the main strength of the body on a Spitfire. Replacing them is an expert job. Outer sills should be made up of two parts, front & back, with a joining groove just ahead of where the door opening kicks up. Sometimes this groove has been filled - try to find out why.
Run your fingers along the insides of the rear wheelarches. Large amounts of underseal or filler here are suspect.
Panel gaps should be even, especially around the front and rear of the doors. If the top of the door is (almost) touching the rear wing, the strength in the sills may have gone or they were replaced without proper precautions to prevent the body from sagging. Either way, the sills will need replacing, which is a major job.
Use your magnet on the wheelarches, sills, the front and rear of the windscreen pillars, front and rear valances and any other places you suspect may have been 'fixed' with a layer of filler. Wherever the magnet loses adhesion, there's trouble.
Note for those in NW-Europe: quarter valances (the bits under the front bumper that carry the side lights and indicators) get the full battering from spray and salt and are prone to rot. Original steel replacements were unavailable for a while, so many Spits have glassfibre items these days. These are not original, but they don't rot, either.
Check the bumpers. These are expensive to replace or replate. If the car has plastic bumpers, it's a late American model and to be avoided.
The chromed plastic beading (stainless steel on early MkIV's) on the windscreen rubber is hard to install properly, so is often missing. If present, check that it is complete and properly installed.
Early (pre 1977) Spitfire 1500's had full chrome door handles and mirrors. Chrome door handles can be badly pitted. This is not a problem, but doesn't look nice.
It's hard to spot a 'bodged' engine bay if you're not familiar with Spitfires. It helps to bring someone along who already owns a good one. It may also help to study the engine bay pictures in our original sales literature, although you'll find preciously few cars with engine bays as clean and original as those on the pictures in the sales brochures.
There should be cardboard side valances on either side of the engine. Many Spitfires had them removed at some time, which is no big problem. The cardboard side valances ahead of the radiator should always be present, though. If these are missing, not enough cool air will pass through the radiator, causing the car to overheat.
The bottom of the battery box is a known rotspot. Try to find out its condition - lift out the battery if you're not sure.
Open the oil filler cap on top of the engine rocker cover and look inside. Nice, clean rockers should be visible. White sludge indicates head gasket trouble. Shiny black goo tells you the engine has been neglected.
Open the radiator cap and look inside. There should not be any oil traces in the coolant.
Check all rubber hoses for cracks and other damage.
Now for an important test. Have a helper sit behind the wheel and press the clutch pedal. Look closely at the crankshaft pulley while the pedal is being pressed - if the pulley moves noticeably forward, the crankshaft thrust washers may have fallen out and are now lying at the bottom of the sump. This needs to be rectified as soon as possible. If the car has been running like this for some time, the engine block may be scrap. Either walk away or haggle like crazy.
With the bonnet open, inspect the chassis ahead of the front suspension for any creases or twisting. If you find strange things here, the car is likely to have been in an accident. Draw your own conclusions.
Pay attention to the chassis outriggers just ahead of and under the bulkhead. These take the full battering from road spray thrown up by the front wheels and have often rusted quite badly. Replacement is possible without taking the body off the chassis, but it's a fiddly job.
Front SU carburettor - there should be a mirror image of this one right behind it
All European Spitfire 1500's came with two S.U. HS4 carburettors. If you encounter one with a single or twin Zenith Stromberg carbs, it's probably an American model and to be avoided. If you find one with a single or twin dual-choke Weber carbs, it's been tuned. Expect plenty of power, short engine life and large fuel bills. Note that the 1500 engine does not stand up well to more than mild tuning.
Note the Bowden cable running from the throttle pedal to the carburettors - it actuates the throttle shaft between the carburettors. Check for play in the shaft bearings in the carb bodies by trying to move the shaft up and down. If there is any noticeable play in the axles themselves, this spells a potentially expensive repair bill. The car may be running lean and the air-fuel mixture could be impossible to get right.
Note the choke cable running to the carburettors. Check that the choke operates on both carbs. Check the choke axle for play in its bearings.
Check that the float chambers are properly attached to the carbs and that the fuel lines are not cracked or otherwise damaged. The black plastic knobs on top of the float chambers are used for topping up the oil in the carb dampers and do not need to be tightened firmly. If they don't easily unscrew, this could be an indication of a clueless owner. Check for oil in the dampers - ask the seller what he uses to fill them with. Any answer in the region of 'engine oil' to 'automatic transmission fluid' is fine, as long as it is given without hesitation, indicating he knows what he's doing.
If you really want the car, get it up on a lift and thoroughly check the underside. If it's a private sale, try to stop on your test drive at a place that has a lift. If you show up in a Spitfire, many of the smaller garages will let you use it for a small fee.
Get out your torch and check the brake lines. Check that the body and chassis members are free of holes and major rust and are not buckled anywhere. Original shock absorbers are oil filled and should not be 'weeping'.
An engine with a slightly oily bottom is no problem, but it should not be dripping. The same goes for bellhousing, gearbox and differential.
Check the propshaft for play - especially the universal joint at the rear. Check the outer drive shafts for play, especially the universal joints.
The center pipe of original-spec exhausts is attached to the car at the front and the rear. Check that all attachments are present.
Sit behind the wheel and turn it slightly. Resist making childish 'brumm-brumm' noises, but do check the wheel for excessive play.
Operate the handle at the outer front bottom of the seats to slide them back and forth on their runners. Get out of the car, operate the handles at the outer bottoms of the seat backs to move them forwards and pull the handle at the rear outer bottom of the seats to tilt the whole seat forward - you can now inspect the mounting frames for rust.
Lift the footwell carpets to ascertain the state of the floor panels. If the carpets are glued to the floor, suspect rust in the floor panels. If they're not, check for rust anyway. Try to check the inside of the sills by raising the side carpets.
On 1500's, check that the centre armrest and kneepads are present on the propshaft tunnel. MkIV's came without these, but many had them retrofitted.
Some clueless owners are known to have removed the centre dashboard support altogether, since it can be a pain to remove and refit when doing maintenance on the gearbox and clutch. This support is a light alloy casting and it must be present to prevent the scuttle (the part over the bulkhead to which the windscreen, dashboard and the front door hinges are attached) from shaking to bits.
Look at the dashboard. Early MkIV dashboards were black plastic, later cars had wood. See if everything is where it should be - use original sales literature to be sure nothing funny has been done to it.
Look under the dashboard. There should be a moderately organised mass of wires running back and forth. If it looks very messy or if you can see a lot of modern splicing thingies and electrical insulation tape, consider the car bodged. Write it down as a haggling point.
Many owners/dealers do not know how to properly lower a Spitfire top. For proper operation of the convertible top, check this page, which will open in a new browser window.
Raising and lowering the top should be effortless and require no great amounts of force, although putting the windscreen locking levers in their places on a cold day may take some persuasion. When raised, the hood fabric should be taut and free of ripples. It should follow the contours of the side windows.
Check the hood fabric for tears and repairs. Check that all press studs, both inside and out work. Broken studs are easy to replace. The plastic rear window easily fogs and scratches if not well cared for - check that you can still see out of it.
Original hoods were made of PVC. There are very cheap (and sometimes nasty) PVC replacement hoods available, but you may also find cars that have been treated to 'double duck' or even mohair hoods.
Check the hood frame - it should be straight, symmetrical and have the original rounded nuts, bolts and nylon washers in its moving bits. There should be two black plastic covers on each of the hood frame sides. New hood frames are unavailable, but used and reconditioned items can easily be found.
When lowered, the hood is covered with a hood bag. If the hood bag is difficult to fit, the hood may not be folding properly.
Some cars have a so-called tonneau cover. This is used for covering the open cockpit when the hood is lowered. If present, check that it's the correct type by fitting it to the car. On a 1500, there should be little pockets in the cover for the steering wheel and both headrests.
That vast opening bonnet should be in good condition. Check inner wheelarches for bad repairs.
The original rubber lips clipped to the rear of the inner wheelarches, which rub against the bulkhead when the bonnet is closed, are often missing. No big problem, but you do need them if you often drive in the wet and you want to keep the top of the bulkhead clean.
There should be two short pieces of rubber on the rear lip of the bonnet. If they are missing, the bonnet lip may be rubbing on the scuttle panel, resulting in damage.
The rear corners of the bonnet are supported and located by two adjustable rubber cones, to be found just above the chromed bonnet catches. These cones don't last very long and quite often have broken off. Take this as a sign of sub-standard maintenance.
If the bonnet is often opened carelessly, cracks develop in the front corners, near the headlamp assemblies. Fairly major job to put right.
Check for rust in the panel joints on the sides of the bonnet. Some just spray over the rust or fill up the joint. If the paint is pitted or bubbling here, there's bound to be rust underneath, which can only be rectified by careful gritblasting. You'll probably end up having the whole bonnet resprayed.
The bootlid on a Spitfire MkIV or 1500 is almost (but not quite) flat. Check that it closes nicely, with even gaps all round. Inspect the rubber seal on the boot opening for damage. Check the inside of the rear lip of the bootlid for rust - this is where they tend to go first. The rear trim strip should line up with the V-shaped trim strips around the tail lights. Original bootlid locks had little rotating flaps over the keyhole - most have now been replaced with flapless items.
Inside, the boot should be free of rust. Take out the spare wheel (if present) and check for holes in the bottom of the boot. There should be two 1" (2.5 cm) rubber plugs in the rear valance. There should be a black piece of hardboard keeping the fuel tank out of view. If it's not there, now is the time to check the fuel tank for outwards signs of rust. If the piece of hardboard is present, there should be a white plastic boot lamp in the top centre of it. The white plastic has often melted. The switch for this lamp is behind the left hand bootlid hinge.
Check that the black plastic covers on the insides of the rear light clusters are present and that thee are no loose wires.
Open the doors, both from the outside and the inside. Close them. This should be a smooth operation, as should locking and unlocking the doors. The door should not drop noticeably when opened. If it does, grab hold of an open door and try to move it up and down. There should not be much play. If there is, check the door hinges and the integrity of the A-pillar.
If you hear a loud click! from the hinge area when fully opening the door, do not be alarmed. This is the sound of the end of the door checkstrap engaging in its socket. The clicking sound shouldn't really be that loud, but "they all do that" and it's not really a problem.
Now open the door again and examine the side, where the locking plate is. Does it foul on the door frame? If it does, this may be an indication of weak sills (which are structural items) or even a weak chassis. Walk away if you don't trust it.
Look at the underside of the doors. The drainholes should be clean and open.
Wind up the side windows. Now wind them down again. This should also be a smooth operation. Are there any scratches on the window?
Wheels and suspension
The great thing about the Spitfire front suspension is that you can inspect all of it by just opening the bonnet. This always amazes safety inspectors, especially the younger ones.
So, open the bonnet and firmly grab a wheel. Rock it back and forth and check for play in the top and bottom turning points. If not oiled regularly, the bottom 'trunnions' wear out. This is a safety check failing point.
Standard tyre size is 155 SR-13. Wider, boy-racer tyres do not improve ride nor roadholding and the fronts may rub on the inside of the bonnet on full steering lock.
You've turned the car inside out, you still consider it as a potential purchase and you think it's safe to drive. Now's the time to really check it out. Before you drive it, remember to raise the roof! I know it's not cool to drive an open sports car with the top up, but that's the only way to hear all the knocks, whines and rattles of things that shouldn't knock, whine and rattle.
Start the engine, preferably from cold. Initial rattling from the engine is not uncommon, but should stop within a few seconds from startup. If the car has an oil pressure gauge, check that it reads at least 50 Psi @ 1000 Rpm when cold and no less than 30 Psi @ 1000 Rpm when hot.
Carefully engage first gear and drive away. Changing gear probably is not as smooth as you're used to from a modern car, but should be effortless once you get used to it. Occasional jumping out of gear need not be something to worry about, but can be a point of negotiation with the seller. Excessive gear whine generally spells trouble. Regular crunching of gears indicates worn synchro rings - a complete gearbox rebuild may be necessary.
Overdrive, if present
Once in third or fourth gear, with the engine doing about 2500 revs or more, flip the little switch on top of the gearshift, without touching the clutch pedal. The drop in engine revs should be almost instantaneous. If it takes longer than two seconds, the gearbox oil level may be low, the overdrive's oil filter may be dirty or there may be a problem with the solenoid. Solenoids are expensive.
Engaging overdrive should be smooth and without a bang. If you don't notice any drop in revs when throwing the overdrive switch, the overdrive does not work. This need not be a serious problem. But you did check under the car that it had one, didn't you?
Exploded view of final drive shaft
While driving along with the top raised, listen for unwelcome noises from the rear. A Triumph Spitfire is not a quiet car by any standard, but there should be no excessive rumbling, whining or knocking.
Whining from the back comes from a worn differential. This'll cost you money to put right. Proper overhaul of a worn differential is beyond the average DIY'er. Whining from the front indicates a worn gearbox. Both noisy differential and ditto gearbox may go for thousands of miles/kilometres before they need seeing to, but as you don't know how long they have been noisy like this, consider them replacement items.
Rumbling noises may indicate worn wheel bearings, which usually means an exchange of drive shafts, since removing the rear wheel hubs on a Spitfire is not an average DIY job.
Knocking is usually caused by worn universal joints in the final drive shafts. Not unusual at all, parts are not expensive, a bit of a job to put right, but can even be done at home.
While driving at speed, put your hand on the propshaft tunnel. If you can clearly feel vibration, the propshaft may be out of balance, or its universal joint may be worn. Either way, something needs to be done about it. Not overly expensive, but removing the propshaft involves removing the seats and carpets.
Steering should be direct and free of play. If the straight line tracking seems unsure, suspect rear radius arm bushes, shock absorbers and/or front suspension bushes. Try out steering locks left and right - be amazed at the ridiculously small turning circle. If a tyre rubs, chances are oversized tyres have been fitted.
The brakes on a standard Spitfire are not power assisted. Even though a 1500 Spit only weighs about 800 Kgs, stopping needs more force than what most drivers are used to these days. Bearing this in mind, a Spitfire should still be quite safe on the road. The car should pull up straight and the brake pedal should be firm, when applied. A brake pedal that (slowly) sinks to the floor indicates leaking seals in the system. A 'spongy' brake pedal that does 'firm up' when the brakes are suddenly and forcefully applied indicates a worn brake master cylinder. All brake faults are easy to remedy, but make the car unsafe.
General feel and roadholding
Spitfires are old, comparatively cheap cars, so don't be surprised by noises you'd never have believed a car was capable of producing, especially when driving over rough road surfaces. Compared to modern cars, which tend to insulate the driver from the road, you'll pretty much feel and hear every bump and hole in the road in a Spitfire. It should however still feel pretty 'tight' and together, track straight and not wander about on bumpy roads.
Okay, so now you have checked everything, written it all down, compared that with what you wrote down about other cars you saw. Are you sure you want this car? Does the price sound reasonable to you, compared with other cars? If so, use any faults you might have found to haggle down the price. You'll need the money to rectify the faults.
A word on common accessories
Overdrive - definitely the accessory to have on any classic British sportscar. Very practical, reduces engine noise, wear and fuel consumption. It makes any Spitfire a much more usable car. We retrofitted our own Spitfires with overdrives and would not want to be without them.
Wire wheels - nice to look at, but not original to Triumph Spitfire 1500's. They are a bugger to clean and maintain. Splined hubs can wear out quickly and are expensive to replace. Few garages and tyre centres these days have the proper tools to balance wire wheels. Beware of cheap and potentially dangerous 'pram wheels', which do not have centre locks but are simply bolted on. In my personal opinion, wire wheels are not worth the trouble, however nice they may look to some people - do not pay extra for them. You can't see them while you're driving the car, anyway.
Hardtop - nice to have, but only if you live in a variable climate and you plan to use the car all year, which not many people do these days. My Spitfire came with a nicely restored, original hardtop and it has hardly moved from its spot since I bought the car. Beware: original steel hardtops are heavy and unwieldy. Unless you are blessed with Herculean qualities, installing and removing is definitely a two person job.
Oil pressure gauge - Always good to have. Many well cared for Spits have been fitted with one. Do not rely on its accuracy, but it gives a reasonably good indication of oil pressure.
Luggage rack - These are the things you see mainly on bootlids of MGB's and Mazda MX5's/Miata's. They are also available for Triumph Spitfires and here's why I think they suck: one variety is attached to the bootlid with bolts, which requires drilling holes in an otherwise perfectly good bootlid. Another type has four plastic feet and is attached with clamps and turnbuckles on the bootlid sides, effectively pulling the flat bootlid into an arc. Both ruin your bootlid. Some of these racks drive you mad by producing awful wind noise at speed. If you need to cart around lots of luggage, buy another car. If you think it looks cool, please think again. I personally think it makes the car look like a moped.
Halogen headlamps - The original Lucas headlamps are... well... original. But not much good in the dark. If you plan to also use the car in low visiblity conditions and at night, H4 halogen headlights are a sensible and easy conversion.
Stainless steel exhaust - Standard mild steel exhausts rust, even more on cars that are driven infrequently and mainly short distances. Stainless steel exhausts do not rust, ever. They may crack sometimes, but are easily welded again. Prices aren't silly and well worth it, in my view.
Oil cooler, Kenlowe fan - Spitfire engines have fairly marginal cooling systems, which in most cases have not improved over time. Modern, lower octane unleaded fuels require timing adjustments that make the engine run even hotter. Therefore, it may be sensible to have an oil cooler and a Kenlowe cooling fan. The oil cooler keeps the lower end of the engine at a lower temperature. The Kenlowe fan, if properly installed, will enhance the flow of cool air through the radiator. Which only makes sense if the radiator is in good condition. If the original engine driven cooling fan is removed at the same time, some increase in power and/or economy may be achieved.
Oil cooler assembly
I can really only speak for the Netherlands, the country I live in. There are about 1,500 to 2,000 Spitfires still on the road here and the number is rising steadily due to imports, mainly from the US and in smaller numbers from Italy, France, Belgium and Germany. Strangely enough, prices have also been rising steadily over the last few years. It's not a bad market.
Going rate in Euro
Rough, incomplete, not running
Scruffy but running, not safe to drive
Road legal, but mechanically tired and 'not nice'
Good, well maintained cars
Very nice cars, perhaps even concours
Add 500-800 for cars equipped with overdrive
It's not easy to put a price on a Spitfire, as it depends on so many criteria, like the condition of the car, time of year, location and how successful a seller is in finding a mad buyer willing to pay way over the odds.
This is a very rough price guide, based on my own experience in the Netherlands. You may get lucky and find a bargain, or struggle to find an acceptable car at these prices in your area. Market prices tend to rise and fall with outside temperatures. Prices at specialised dealers are generally higher - on sunny days, some dealers get away with selling cars for twice their actual value.
If you think I bought my Spitfire the way I describe it here, you're wrong. I made many classic mistakes, but I had a lot of luck.
I got a second chance at doing it right when Jacob wanted a Spitfire of his own. We went about it more or less the proper way. We took our time, were methodical in our approach and resolutely walked away from overly shiny but decidedly tired cars. This paid off handsomely, since the Spitfire he finally bought was very good value and almost perfect from the start.
So here's your chance to avoid the mistakes I made. If this buyers guide was of any help to you in finding a good car, please let me know. Good luck!
Last update: 9 September 2007
Copyright ©2000-2007 by Eric Kieboom