Fortify Your 1500: Improving 1500 Spitfire and Midget Engines

[Editor's Note: This article originally ran in the March 2013 issue of Classic Motorsports. Some information and prices may be different today.]

Story by Tim Suddard • Photography as Credited

While often lamented, Triumph’s 1500cc, four-cylinder engine is still owned and loved by thousands of enthusiasts. Almost 100,000 of these engines were used in the 1973-’80 Spitfires, and nearly as many were used in MG Midgets sold from 1975 and later.

Right off the bat, this larger engine delivered more torque than its predecessor. More torque, as we know, helps produce better acceleration numbers. 

But there were some problems. Detractors complained of durability and drivability issues.

These engines were known to be delicate, especially if over-revved. The three-main-bearing design did not lend itself well to hard use. Thrust washers needed to be maintained, or crank walk would destroy them as well.

The biggest problem with these engines, however, had to be the single, emissions-era Zenith Stromberg CVcarburetor. To save money and meet the ever-stricter U.S. emissions standards, American-market versions of this 1500 were fed by just one carb, not the dual SU setup found on earlier Spitfires. 

While adding main bearings and redesigning thrust washers is not an easy feat, at least one of the engine’s problems can be addressed: without much headache better carburetion. 

Some enthusiasts opt for a Weber DGV down-draft or single side-draft 40 DCOE setup. These are both good solutions, but we went with an even easier fix on our 1973 Spitfire. 

In England, Triumph Spitfire 1500s were sold with dual SU carbs. A nifty-looking, dual-inlet air cleaner wrapped in a black crackle finish was part of the package. The factory paired these preferred carburetors with a free-flowing, cast-iron exhaust manifold that emptied into twin pipes. These SU carburetors may be older technology, but they have served many owners very well through the decades. They’ve even won countless SCCA championships. 

For about $400, we sourced a set of these carbs, the proper intake manifold, a factory European exhaust manifold and a downpipe from Quantum Mechanics. This firm finds these parts overseas and imports them for American enthusiasts. Because these parts are designed by Triumph to fit the cars, the swap is a snap and the results are nothing short of remarkable.

Starting Simple

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The first step is buying the right parts. The key here is getting the entire setup, including the linkages. Ideally, you’d also get carburetors that aren’t worn out. Remember, these parts may be nearing their 40th birthday, so go with a reputable dealer.

In our case, Quantum Mechanics sold us a brand-new downpipe to match the European exhaust manifold. Because our carburetors didn’t exhibit any throttle shaft wear, we didn’t need to have them rebuilt. To truly rebuild SU carbs, you must send them to an expert; replacing those throttle shaft bushings requires specialized equipment. 

Our carbs did need to be freshened, though, and we did that ourselves. We also redid the air cleaner with the original black crackle finish.

As always, once we test fitted the manifold, we sent it to Swain Tech Coatings to be coated. Every time we use this miraculous product, we’re impressed with how it knocks down exhaust temperature and holds up for years, looking like new for a long, long time.

Not-So-Complex Carbs

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Freshening a carburetor is not as scary as it sounds, and companies like Quantum Mechanics supply the necessary kits. The process is mostly a function of carefully cleaning, disassembling and reassembling each carburetor while installing new gaskets. The idea is to remove all the accumulated junk, especially from critical areas like the float bowl and jets.

A shop manual is a good idea, but we have a little cheat: Just disassemble one unit at a time, and use the other as a 3-D shop manual of sorts. 

Make sure to clean and lubricate your throttle linkage, too. You don’t want anything to be bent or stuck, as this will affect your car’s operation.

Going Continental

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After refreshing the carburetors, the next step is simply to replace the intake and exhaust manifolds with the European-spec pieces. The exhaust manifold goes on first, underneath the intake manifold. Use new gaskets and properly clean all mating surfaces. Bolting on the new carburetors is easy, and since this is a factory setup, the throttle cable will perfectly join the existing system. 

The American exhaust system from the downpipe back will need to be replaced, however, as it won’t mate to the European-spec downpipe. For about $200, we had a local muffler shop fabricate a new system. 

Don’t let this step scare you. The Spitfire’s exhaust system is epically simple, and any competent shop can build you a nice system. To avoid offsetting the soon-to-be-realized power gains, make sure the new system is not too restrictive.

Numbers Game

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Theory is great, but how much does this swap really help performance? Before the swap—and with the original single-carb unit properly tuned—our Spitfire produced 49 horsepower and 66 lb.-ft. of torque at the rear wheels, as measured on a chassis dyno.

Remember, these cars were optimistically rated at about 70 horsepower at the crank. By the time you factor in a driveline loss of 15 to 20 percent, our low horsepower reading looks pretty accurate—maybe even a bit impressive. 

Our initial zero-to-60 testing was just as depressing. This measured sprint took us an alarming 14.7 seconds to complete—not very sporting for a sports car.

Perhaps our biggest issue was simply the original setup’s drivability. Like so many other emissions-era carburetors, ours caused the car to surge and run lean—especially at highway speeds. 

After this simple swap, our Spitfire was transformed. The leaning and surging had vanished. Measured engine output had improved nicely: We posted 65 horsepower and 78 lb.-ft. of torque during our next visit to the dyno. an improvement of nearly 25 percent. And real-world performance? Our zero-to-60 times dropped by more than 2 seconds. 

If there’s any drawback, it’s the legal ramifications. As always, check your local emissions laws. In some states, this kind of modification is a no-no. In others, these cars are too old to require routine inspections. If you’ve got the okay from Johnny Law, a straightforward swap to dual SU carburetors can net you a more fun and agile driving machine.

What's The Damage?

The cost for this setup is only about $400 to $500, depending on the source and condition of the parts. Budget a day to do the work, plus the cost of modifying your exhaust system, the carb-freshening kits and the paint and cleaning supplies. All in, you could easily complete this job for about $700 if you do the work yourself.

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TR8owner
TR8owner HalfDork
7/1/18 4:24 p.m.

I was always much more partial to the 1296cc Spitfire engine than the 1500. Maybe because its the one I raced back in the day, but it always just seemed better balanced than the 1500 for some reason. As for the MG Midget, I preferred the 1275. Had one on the street will all the competition Cooper S parts. It went like stink. Always seemed like a sacrilege putting a Spitfire engine into a Midget.

clshore
clshore New Reader
7/13/18 8:59 a.m.

In reply to TR8owner :

The 1300 Spitfire and MG motors shared quite a lot; iron block, 3 main bearing crankshaft, similar bore & stroke, similar cylinder heads, similar carbs, similar power.

But the US emissions regs sucked away both torque and power. A larger motor was needed.

The MG motor was incapable of being enlarged, just getting it to 1275 had required engineering handsprings (offset conrods? Really?).

But the Spitfire could be easily stroked to 1493 cc to regain some performance.

Given that MG and Triumph were both owned and built by BLMC, choosing the Spitfire motor for both was a no brainer. At least the MG stayed 'all British'.

79Midget
79Midget
3/25/20 1:49 p.m.

I did the SU conversion source from Quantum Mechanics along with a 5 speed transmission also sourced from Quantum.  It has transformed the Midget into a nice little cruiser.  I tried the Weber DGV for a while but the SU's are more responsive plus I get better gas mileage ( the 5 speed helps).   I replaced the original exhaust header with a Pacesetter which increased the pipe diameter to about 2" but have learned there are better ones available.  I was not aware of the header from the UK.  I also experienced the thrust washer failure which ruined the crank so my advice is to keep your foot off the clutch as much as possible.  All in all, even though there are more desirable sports cars out there the 1500 Midget has been a fun car to have owned for the past 18 years.

murphmi
murphmi New Reader
9/1/21 9:28 p.m.

I remember reading a brief article in Road & Track back in the 70s that with the two SU setup, there's a problem that at higher RPM the mechanical fuel pump doesn't deliver enough gas, causing fuel starvation. The solution is an electric fuel pump in the trunk, and bypass the mechanical pump. But not just any pump--SU carb float valves will allow gas by if it's under too much pressure, so you need a low-pressure pump or pressure restrictor in the system. 

The problem with the thrust bearing is serious, and every Spitfire (or GT-6, or TR-6) owner should know how to check crank end play. I know I was able to replace the thrust bearing in my TR-6 by dropping the pan and removing the rear main bearing cap, but can't remember if it the same on the Spitfire. A fair amount of work, but nothing too technical, and it saves the engine. And oversized washers are available if there's wear on the crankshaft. And it's easier/cheaper than replacing the crank and rebuilding the engine!

spitlist
spitlist New Reader
8/6/22 12:46 p.m.

Tim mentions the Weber DGV as a suitable alternative carb.  It might be suitable for some situations but the Spitfire (MG Midget) configuration is not one of them.  The downdraft sends the mixture down to a flat surface in the intake manifold where it splatters and pools rather than smoothly reaching the head.  This is due to the manifolds available for that adaptation.  Sidedraft carbs are the best alternative, especially twin Weber DCOEs.  Single DCOEs on the 8 port heads suffer from uneven fuel distribution between the inside two cylinders and the outside two owing to the unequal runner lengths of the available intake manifolds.

wspohn
wspohn SuperDork
8/7/22 11:35 a.m.

Inferior steel in the crankshaft, narrow bearings and thrust washer inadequacy posed issues for the 1500 and on top of that the single carb is a negative, as your test showed  A competitor in my race group used to refer to his 1500 as "Mr Floppy" (referencing the crank, which precluded using high rpm).

There is nothing inherently wrong with a properly designed 3 main bearing engine. A frind ran a Ginetta G4 with a 3 main Ford MAE - 3 main, 9500 rpm red line (albeit with a short stroke)

swampyankee
swampyankee New Reader
8/8/22 8:19 a.m.

I built a 1500 engine for my '72 Spit back in the day. Similar upgrades but I milled .125" off the head, sourced a pair of SU's from a '67 Spit, and installed a header from Victoria British. Those upgrades transformed my previously 1300 powered car, and it did well at club autocrosses. 

porschenut
porschenut HalfDork
8/8/22 8:31 a.m.

Still slower than my prius, these are tractor engines from the 50s.  Sold my spit last year and it was one of the few cars I never regretted selling.  Thanks for the article though it just reinforces my decision.

wspohn
wspohn SuperDork
8/8/22 11:26 a.m.
porschenut said:

Still slower than my prius, these are tractor engines from the 50s.  Sold my spit last year and it was one of the few cars I never regretted selling.  Thanks for the article though it just reinforces my decision.

 

That is not true but often repeated. The Triumph SC (small car) engines were never derived from tractors.  Both BMC (B series engines) and Triumph (the Vanguard/TR wet liner engine) also used the engines in all sorts of different applications - main vans, boats and tractors, but they weren't designed for agricultural use in the first place.

porschenut
porschenut HalfDork
8/8/22 11:45 a.m.
wspohn said:
porschenut said:

Still slower than my prius, these are tractor engines from the 50s.  Sold my spit last year and it was one of the few cars I never regretted selling.  Thanks for the article though it just reinforces my decision.

 

That is not true but often repeated. The Triumph SC (small car) engines were never derived from tractors.  Both BC (B series engines) and Triumph (the Vanguard/TR wet liner engine) also used the engines in all sorts of different applications - main vans, boats and tractors, but they weren't designed for agricultural use in the first place.

My apologies.  Guess 3 mains and a thrust bearing that falls out were state of the art back then.  

wspohn
wspohn SuperDork
8/9/22 11:14 a.m.
porschenut said:
My apologies.  Guess 3 mains and a thrust bearing that falls out were state of the art back then.  

3 main engines were definitely more common but Triumph had a lock on using only half the thrust washers other manufacturers (like MG) did in that period - a definite shortcoming,

I raced both 3 and 5 main bearing MG engines and the 3 mains were dealing with slightly less drag and seemed a bit stronger and quicker revving, but bearing life when run to high rpm was better on the 5 main engines - they didn't get around to making 5 main versions until 1965 and Triumph never did go with 5 mains for their 4 cylinder sports car engines.

This guy does a good job of outlining the issues with the 1500:

http://triumphspitfire.rickbaines.com/weaknesses-of-triumphs-1500-engine/

porschenut
porschenut HalfDork
8/9/22 1:43 p.m.

My spit was a 79, and when I compare it to the other tech available at the time it just looks sad.  Yes I know it was built from parts in the 50s and the design never changed.  There are some things I liked about the spit but not enough to keep it around. And the engine was a huge part of that.

clshore
clshore Reader
8/21/22 9:51 a.m.

In reply to wspohn :

Triumph had a lock on using only half the thrust washers

Yeah, except for Mazda, Ford, GM, Toyota, Mercedes, Nissan, Honda, etc.

The big issue with Spit motors was not wear on TW, it was preventing them from dropping.
Pinning them with a couple of 4-40 flathead brass machine screws is a simple effective solution.

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