Over 50 years later, an American road test of the Triumph TR5

Photography by John Webber

Time to right a half-century wrong as we officially welcome Triumph’s elusive TR5 PI to the USA. This is the event, you may recall, that did not happen in 1967, an oversight that still troubles Triumphistas of a certain age. 

To them we say fret no more, your wait is over. And to compensate for this lengthy delay, we present a singular TR5–one with an impeccable provenance–recently imported to these shores.

This car, CP 2, was the first TR5 PI built on Triumph’s production line. It appeared at the 1967 British International Motor Show held at Earls Court, London, served as a press tester, and starred in a Movietone News film: “You’ll need less than a thousand pounds and a continental motorway to really appreciate this sports car Triumph.” This car has served as a template for TR5 restorations, and its history has been preserved in a stack of documents. 

However, the TR5 wasn’t Triumph’s only introduction that year. While the rest of the world enjoyed the fuel-injected TR5–its 150-horsepower engine was said to be good for 120 mph–the U.S. only received the similar-looking TR250. Its low-compression, carbureted engine, also a 2.5-liter inline-six, could only muster 111 horsepower, limiting top speed to 107 mph. 

[Triumph TR250 vs. Triumph TR6]

Naturally, this didn’t go down well. Car and Driver snarked, “To pay an extra $500 for a nearly-identical but slower car doesn’t make much sense.” Other writers grumbled that the 250 was only marginally faster than the venerable TR4 and panned the slow throttle action of its emission-compliant Stromberg carburetors. 

Meanwhile, in the U.K., testers loved the TR5 and wrote glowing reviews: “Tremendous performance from fuel-injected engine,” and “This magnificent power plant is the answer to the enthusiasts’ prayer.” 

The intertwined lives of the TR5 and TR250 were to be short, as they were the models Triumph built to keep markets primed for the soon-to-come TR6, a worldwide 1969 release. 

Perhaps the Rolling Stones said it best: You can’t always get what you want. In this case, though, Kevin O’Hara finally found his British-spec Triumph TR5.

In late August 1967, the production line hummed at the Canley, Coventry, factory as it completed TR250 CD 381. But the TR5’s introduction loomed–the Earls Court show was less than two months away–and Triumph needed TR5s.

So the company interrupted the works and turned the next six scheduled TR250 builds into TR5s. According to the build sheets, next on the line, CD382, was destined to become a Conifer Green TR250 with a black interior. It was instead built into CP 2, this very Valencia Blue TR5, and was recorded as the first production model. This particular Triumph was in the right place at the right time. (A month earlier, Triumph’s project development department had converted a TR4A into TR5 CP 1.)

According to the British Motor Industry Heritage Trust, CP 2 was built on August 29, 1967, equipped with right-hand drive, disc wheels, overdrive and a heater. It soon joined Triumph’s press fleet wearing registration plates LHP 289F.

Motoring journalists considered press cars fair game. Some road tests ran long; one driver logged 2084 miles in four days. A journalist for Motor Sport magazine wrote: “Indicated 112 mph best achieved, then ran out of road.” Autocar bragged, “With a tail wind on a French autoroute we saw an indicated 127 mph on a speedometer which read 60 mph at a true 62 mph.” 

But CP 2 caught a break, apparently missing some of the press mayhem. In a 1997 letter to a former owner, Roger Ferris, the U.K. TR Register’s TR5/250 registrar, speculated that CP 2 became a “customer relations/high-profile demonstrator,” possibly because of its status as the first production car. 

This comparatively posh assignment marked the first in a series of events that have enabled this car to survive unmolested. It still wears its original engine, transmission, differential and chassis and body plates–possibly the only remaining press car to do so.

By early 1968, TR5 production had ended, and the TR250 was winding down as well. Triumph was gearing up to introduce its new, restyled TR6 and no longer needed its TR5 press cars. 

CP 2, then less than 6 months old, was sold to a Standard Triumph employee who lived “in the shadow of the factory.” Fate had smiled again. That employee was to be the first of six mostly long-term owners–the current caretaker is the seventh–and each contributed to this car’s preservation. If there is a Triumph deity, it has watched over CP 2. 

Remarkably, it has been driven, parked for a time, had parts replaced and repaired as needed, had paint retouched and records retained. Multiple early production features remain intact, and it wears its 68,229 miles exceptionally well. Ministry of Transport records in its file show that it was driven about 18,300 miles in the past 30 years; some years’ travel added only 20 or 30 miles.

Enthusiasts had high hopes as Triumph touted its new petrol injection: “First British production sports car with petrol injection.” “Originally developed for the world’s top racing cars.” “The most efficient and economical fuel system there is.” 

True enough, Lucas had been developing PI since the early 1950s, and in 1957 a petrol-injected D-type Jaguar won the 24 Hours of Le Mans. By 1965, many top contenders in European racing used variations of Lucas injection. 

When PI worked, owners loved it. But as they rolled up miles, problems arose. The Lucas pump, mounted on the left-side inner fender, overheated and cavitated, causing vapor lock. After building 20 or so cars, Triumph relocated the pump to the boot.   

Addressing potential problems, Triumph issued “Primary Check Cards” that detailed troubleshooting tips. CP 2 wears a windshield sticker (unreadable from behind the wheel) that warns, “DO NOT DEPRESS ACCELERATOR DURING A COLD START.”

Owners complained that idle was often erratic, that throttle response was “instant on or off,” and that they sometimes “ran out of petrol” when a quarter-tank remained. Dealerships, not familiar with the system, struggled to diagnose problems and often created their own.   

Deserved or not, PI’s reliability became a much-discussed issue. As TR5s aged, some frustrated owners found it easier and cheaper to install carburetors. 

Today, purists insist that a properly fettled and maintained system works fine. A group of specialists provides service, parts and advice on the web, they say, and an active owners group exchanges tips on tr5pi.com. They happily embrace the system’s quirks and remind doubters that PI is the soul of a TR5. Without it, a TR5 becomes, well, a TR250.

Orlando attorney Kevin O’Hara’s passion for Triumphs started with his dad’s 1963 TR4. “I was 4 years old,” he says. “I loved that car. I helped Dad every time he washed it. I was tiny, so I washed those hubcaps with their little world globes.”  

Kevin and his dad enjoyed many adventures in the Triumph, including trips to Sebring. However, as the years passed and the family grew, the TR4 was sold. Decades later, Kevin searched, and when he couldn’t find it, he found and restored another TR4 as a Father’s Day present. When his dad died, the roadster remained in the family and has now passed to Kevin’s son Patrick. 

Kevin bought his first TR250 when he was 17 and drove it through college, law school and into marriage. “I must have put 250,000 miles on that car,” he recalls. “If you were a broke student and drove a British sports car, you learned how to work on it.” But as time passed and his family grew, he let it go. Naturally, he regretted it and later bought the one you see here.  

 He spotted his first TR5 at a Florida speed shop around 1978, a left-hand-drive model that a returning serviceman brought into the U.S. “The minute they raised the hood, I saw that fuel injection and fell in love,” Kevin recalls. “I wanted one badly.”

But life intervened, and he wouldn’t find his own for 40 years. “Because there are so few in the U.S.,” he explains, “I finally started looking in the U.K. and other European countries. I first noticed CP 2 a couple of years ago and understood its importance, but I figured they wouldn’t sell it to anyone out of the country. It was offered by an agency for a good while, but later the owner advertised it.” 

Kevin started a dialogue about importing it, and that process was to take a year. “I had to convince him that I would preserve CP 2’s condition. I was very fortunate to work a deal for it,” he says, “because it’s not only the first production car, it’s the same color as my 250.” 

Along with that happy circumstance, these TRs share another distinction: CP 2 kicked off TR5 production, and his TR250 was built during the last week of production. “I call them bookend cars,” he says.

You’re not seeing double: In addition to the TR5, Kevin O’Hara owns a matching, U.S.-spec TR250. Call it two takes on a favorite flavor.

Let’s be clear: No enthusiast today grouses about the TR250. All that sniping about its federalized engine faded decades ago. It’s a sought-after classic worthy of any garage and is priced accordingly. Still, any TR5 PI is considered the Holy Grail, especially in North America, where fewer than 20 running examples are known. 

So it’s not that often–never before?–that I find myself with a TR250 and a TR5 to play with, although Kevin warns me that this comparison may not be quite fair. “My 250 is essentially a new car,” he says, “with added power and suspension improvements. The TR5 is a sweet old ride that’s never been restored, with all the charm of your favorite chair in the den.”

How does he compare them? “They drive much alike, and I’m adjusting to the right-hand drive. The TR5’s fuel injection is noisy compared to the 250’s carbs, and its idle is not as smooth. It’s hard to tell the difference between 110 and 150 horsepower without running them hard, which is something I avoid, but the TR5 has much better throttle response as you run through the gears compared to the 250.”

The TR250 is lively, wants to run, and rewards with a satisfying bellow from its Ansa exhausts. With its suspension upgrades, it’s planted, agile and stays flat in the turns, while its PI cam and reworked carbs deliver plenty of grunt. You could drive this TR anywhere with confidence in classic style, and on long drives the overdrive is a delightful rpm saver. This is a sparkling, fresh TR250 enjoying its new lease on life.

I feel worthy to be the first writer on American soil to drive CP 2. In 1967, I drove a stout but shabby TR3 and followed the TR5/TR250 flap and shared the sting. So more than half a century later, here I am, and since we’re both vintage, I won’t thrash CP 2 like it’s 1967. 

As Kevin commented, CP 2 does feel as welcoming as your favorite chair and serves up an entertaining drive, accompanied by the whir of the injection pump and spiced by a whiff of gas–um, petrol. It feels more vintage than the TR250; the steering is heavy but lightens up at speed. It’s solid in curves, if a bit soft, and creaks over rough pavement. The clutch is light, the brakes are firm, and the shifter clicks nicely (a bit awkward in the left hand) through the gears. The right-hand drive forces my feet into unfamiliar territory, which adds to the experience. This old press car still pulls fine. Given a suitable stretch of road, it just might be able to do it again. 

Triumph’s press cars, of course, never sported Silverstone wheels, and Kevin tells me that the long-outdated tires on its original steel wheels were not safe for our driving session. He plans to reinstall the refurbished steelies and their Rostyle hubcaps (described in a period review as “rather silly”), even though they’re not his favorites. “I’ve chased them often. With my old TR250, one used to fly off every time I hit a rail crossing,” he says. 

His goal is to enjoy CP 2, maintain it as needed, show it when possible and continue to research old photos, documents and films to ensure this car stays true to its original build. He says he may even devise a way to return that balky Lucas PI pump to its original location, despite the heat soak problems, as well as correct a few low-production oddities under the bonnet. 

CP 2 enjoyed bright lights and admiring crowds at the Earls Court show and starred in that promotional film while playing its part in introducing the TR5 to the world, so it probably wasn’t all that impressed by its low-key American debut. Still, we did attract a few interested onlookers; most had no idea what it was (“Is that an MG?”) or the importance of this long-delayed event. Triumph fans, however, may have felt a shift in the Force: Triumph’s first production TR5 PI finally made it to America. Look for it at an upcoming show. 

Thanks to Roger Ferris, the U.K. TRRegister’s TR5/250 registrar, and Pierre Marchand, TR5 owner of Quebec, Canada, for their assistance.

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wspohn SuperDork
10/17/23 12:57 p.m.

The federalized TR6 put out a whopping 104 bhp vs. the home market version was 150 bhp.  A friend had imported an injected TR6 so we had a chence to evaluate the differece - it was laughable! I don't know what the story as as to why the injected version couldn't be passed by the US - one would think that in general it would be easier to attain required emissions with an injected car than with carbs.  Possibly BLMC simply lacked the funds to certify the injected model over here based on expected sales.

Performance difference:

the (injected) Triumph TR6 manages to cover the 0-60 mph sprint in 8.2 seconds and the standing-start quarter mile in 16.3 seconds. Maximum stated speed is 192 km/h (119 mph).

On North American cars the figures were 1/4 in 17.9 secs., 0-60 in 10.7 secs and 109 mph top speed.

Tht's not to say that the TR6 we got was a waste of time - it was certainly better tan nothing and was a good looking car despite the shortcomings in straight line performance and handling (they botched the rear spring rates on the IRS suspension a tad). 

They were still fun to drive.  I had a really nice one behind me on a long, long hill on a British car club run once. He pulled out to pass and I floored it. Sadly for him, he thought that I was driving an MGB - I wasn't, I was driving my six cylinder MGC that I had reworked to 175 bhp.  The only way he could have told that it wasn't an MGB was by the hood bulge but of cours he never got to see that until we stopped.  The MGC had a GPS verified top speed of 130 mph (and more, as it was still pulling when I ran out of road) devil

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