British roadsters don’t get much more classic than the Triumph TR2/TR3, with its sweeping fenders, diminutive size, and wind-in-the-hair experience. These were the first sports cars from Triumph, which would become one of the key manufacturers to introduce the whole sports car concept to Americans. The series began with the TR2 in 1953, followed by the TR3 and its two sub-series, widely known as (but never badged) the TR3A and TR3B. There’s not a whole lot of difference among them. The TR3, which came out in 1955, evolved the TR2 styling slightly. Key differences were a larger grille that was flush rather than deeply recessed and bigger carburetors. The TR3A added outside door handles and a wider grille. The TR3B was briefly sold alongside the new TR4, and some of those cars used the TR4 powertrain.
The TR3 packs a lot of style in a small package. These Triumphs feature great, down-swept bodywork and faired-in headlights that could almost make them a poor man’s Jaguar XK120. Bruce Iannelli, owner of the bright red 1959 TR3A you see here, has had this Triumph since 1996. Reflecting on the design, he says: “I like the extension of the headlights, how the eyes bug out in the front of the car, how it’s all connected — it’s very smooth.”
With these cars, the styling isn’t just something you admire from the outside; it’s integral to the behind-the-wheel experience, as well. The cut-down doors, padded along the top, make for perfect elbow rests. Combined with the delicate, chrome-framed windshield, they create a real out-in-the-elements experience, almost like riding a motorcycle. “An old English sports car has an aura of old movies about it,” says Iannelli. “When you get into it, you can almost smell the age.”
Once under way, you can definitely smell whatever is in the air around you: freshly cut grass, roadside pine trees, puddles evaporating off the pavement.
That sensation of being in the elements extends to top-up motoring. The TR3 features side curtains — roll-up windows wouldn’t arrive until the TR4. Weather protection is not the car’s forte. However, when folded, the top drops behind the seats and beneath the bodywork and thus does not mar the TR3’s clean lines. Rather than erect the convertible top, many owners use a tonneau to cover the cockpit, in classic roadster style.
During the height of the British sports car invasion, there was a hierarchy of nameplates. Triumphs were considered more bare-bones than MGs or Austin-Healeys. The TR3, however, offered a lot more performance than the comparably priced MGA. Whereas the MGA had a 1489-cc four-cylinder making 68 hp, the Triumph had a 1991-cc engine fed by
twin SU carburetors to produce between 90 and 100 hp. (A 2138-cc version became an option in 1959 and was fitted as standard to late-series TR3B models.) The four-speed stick could be supplemented by an electric overdrive operated by a switch on the dash; from mid-1955 it worked in second through fourth gears and allows for more relaxed cruising at high speeds. Triumph advertised these TRs as genuine 100-mph sports cars, and they enjoyed much success in rallying.
Marque expert Mike Cook, author of Triumph Cars in America, notes that, unlike other British sports cars of the day, the TR3 “is still eminently drivable. It’s got plenty of performance for modern traffic.” The TR3 stops as well as it goes, with its front disc brakes (from 1957) — one of the very first volume production cars so equipped.
The minimalist TR3 was also a fuel-economy champ. In a 1956 fuel-economy challenge between a TR3 and an airplane (guess who won?), traversing the length of Britain from north to south and on to London, the TR3 managed 36 mpg (U.S.). Today, the TR3’s fuel efficiency is welcome, but the car’s simplicity may be a greater factor in favor of ownership.
Unlike modern cars, the TR3 is not about isolation. Indeed, what makes it such a novel experience is the direct relationship between man and machine, and between machine and pavement. The huge steering wheel has a thin rim but conveys plenty of information about what the narrow tires are up to. The stubby shifter has a solid, mechanical feel as it snicks through the gears (watch out for that unsynchronized first). At the same time, the curved front seatbacks hold you snugly in place. There’s even a tiny rear bench seat — too small to carry people, it makes a handy parcel shelf.
In a day when American cars were growing ever longer, lower, and wider, insulation from the world outside was the ultimate luxury. British sports cars like the TR2/TR3 offered a different — and innately appealing — take on motoring. They still do. The Triumph TR3 is an excellent way to discover what the fuss was all about.
2.0L (122 cu in) OHV I-4, 90-100 hp, 117-120 lb-ft (est.)
2.1L (130 cu in) OHV I-4, 105 hp, 127 lb-ft
TRANSMISSION 4-speed manual with optional overdrive
FRONT SUSPENSION Control arms, coil springs
REAR SUSPENSION Live axle, leaf springs
BRAKES F/R Discs/drums or drums/drums
WEIGHT 2100 lb
1953–55 (TR2); 1955–57 (TR3); 1957–62 (TR3A); 1962 (TR3B)
83,656, including 8636 TR2s, 13,377 TR3s, 58,309 TR3As, and 3334 TR3Bs
$26,000–$38,000 (TR2); $27,000-$40,000 (TR3); $28,000–$41,000 (TR3A); $30,000–$43,000 (TR3B)
These Triumphs offer the unfiltered British roadster experience, with style that belies their diminutive size. Performance that’s better than many of their contemporaries makes them enjoyable on the road even today. Simplicity and widespread parts availability help keep them on the road tomorrow. Speaking of tomorrow, TR3 prices have been quietly sneaking higher but have yet to really skyrocket, leaving plenty of appreciation potential.