Alongside the contemporary MGA, the Triumph TR3 is the ‘other’ popular British roadster from the 1950s.
Simple and reliable, the TR3 could reach 110 mph and sold very well to customers who – fortunately – only had performance in mind.
Besides that, the TR3 offers no real comfort, and its weather equipment lets water leak inside the windscreen when the car is driven in the pouring rain. That said though, comfort is not the primary criteria you consider when purchasing a TR3. On a sunny day, being able to completely remove the sidescreens makes for an interesting driving experience too!
In period, sales climbed each successive year, peaking in 1959-60 – by which time the TR3A was the production model – at which time around 70 TRs were being built each working day. That was a remarkable figure for a sports model, and the TR3/3A range remains popular to this day. The TR3A was introduced in 1957, bringing a whole host of extras, including an optional 2.2-litre engine. The ‘A was then replaced by the much more civilised TR4 in 1961, marking the end of the side-screen era.
Driving a TR3 is an invigorating experience. The power to weight ratio is good, and the 2-litre engine is flexible enough to pull heartily from fairly low speeds. Heavy traffic can be negotiated at 20-30mph in top gear, while the car will even move off from a standing start in second gear. At the same time, it is only really above 2000rpm that the engine produces its real power.
Once on the move, the gearbox is a delight to handle, through its central stubby, short-throw lever. When the side-screens are removed there is plenty of elbow room, but space is restricted a little when they are in place. The steering itself is reasonably fast, at 2½ turns lock to lock, and includes an inch or so of free play at the rim. The ride in general is quite good. The short wheelbase and shock settings produce a certain amount of pitching over big bumps, but smaller irregularities are nicely absorbed. On the whole, the standard suspension setup offers a decent balance between ride and road-holding prowess. Post-1956 cars feature disc brakes at the front, meaning they stop pretty sharply too.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR
1 The principal value of any TR is in its bodyshell, so check this both closely and carefully. Rustproofing was poor on the production line, so most survivors have been restored at least once by now. That’s ok providing the work has been done well, but unfortunately that isn’t always the case, so make sure everything lines up. If the body has been removed from the chassis at any point, it may have twisted out of true, so check all panel gaps – ideally they should be both tight and even.
The chassis should also be straight, so get the car on a ramp and have a good poke around underneath. Outriggers can rot badly, much like any of the car’s steel parts, but everything is available. Oddly enough, the bonnet and spare-wheel boot lid are the two areas least affected by rust, but check the rest of the bodywork carefully. Floorpans are particularly prone to rot.
2 TR engines are renowned for their longevity – 150,000 miles between rebuilds is possible, providing regular servicing has been undertaken. The important thing to check is oil pressure, with 50psi being the desired figure once the engine is good and warmed up. The tell-tale signs of wear are straightforward – rattling and blue smoke under acceleration. Rattling indicates the main bearings are on the way out, while blue smoke suggests worn cylinder bores and/or piston rings. Tappets can also get noisy over time, though adjustment to quell the racket is possible.
3 All side-screen TR’s used essentially the same four-speed manual gearbox. If overdrive is fitted to a TR3, it should be of the Laycock-de Normanville A-type variety, operating on second, third and fourth gears. Gearboxes are tough, but high-mileage examples will be suffering from wear. The synchromesh will give up eventually, but the first things to go are usually the layshaft bearings. If this has happened, you will hear a chattering noise at tickover in neutral, then silence when the clutch is dipped.
4 Thanks to a worm-and-peg steering setup, TR3 handling is wonderfully vintage, if a little vague. Steering box leaks are common, so if the oil level isn’t checked regularly, then rapid wear is inevitable. Lots of play means the box is worn.
5 TR3 suspension is uncomplicated and durable, though problems can occur. Chief of these is trunnion wear due to insufficient lubrication – LM grease needs to be pumped in at the front every 1000 miles. At the rear there may be broken/damaged springs or lever arm dampers, but they are a relatively cheap and simple fix. A complete suspension rebuild isn’t beyond the average home enthusiast, as the work is straightforward and costs are manageable.
6 A TR3 should be sitting on 4.5 inch wide steel wheels as standard, though wire wheels were an option. The latter have many potential issues, such as worn splines and broken, loose or just plain rusty spokes. You need to feel for play against the hubs and check for spokes that aren’t under tension. Some owners have also fitted wider TR5 and TR6 steel wheels.
7 The TR’s interior trim is simple and easily replaced if it is in poor condition. Costs will obviously add up though, so assess what needs attention and take into account what it’ll cost to put it all right. It’s much the same story with exterior trim.
The Triumph TR series of sports cars was designed to provide maximum performance at minimum cost. Triumph found success with the TR2, so the introduction of the TR3 was a natural progression. The frontal styling change to the egg box grille was a simple change, though many more important but less obvious upgrades occurred during the TR3’s life. The engine first benefited from the high port head, then the change to 1¾-inch SU carburettors, resulting in a power boost to 100BHP.
Engineering development, assisted by the works competition programme, continued to the point where the TR was refined into arguably the most reliable, rugged and competitive sports car available in the late 1950s. To this day, the TR3 still manages to accomplish that objective in an exhilarating manner. Find a good one, and you won’t go far wrong.