Period upgrade for Triumph's Herald, Spitfire, Vitesse & GT6.
The frisky on-the-limit handling characteristics of Triumph's small cars of the 1960s & 1970s are well known,
and drew criticism early on in the cars' lives as road testers grappled with the twitchy independent rear suspension fitted to Heralds and early Spitfires, plus pre-Rotoflex Vitesses and GT6s. Articles in the leading motoring magazines were illustrated with exciting photographs of a Herald or Spitfire switching into lift-off oversteer in the blink of an eye, the rear end jacked up in the air, the wheels exhibiting huge amounts of negative camber, requiring lightning-quick steering wheel corrections to keep the car out of the scenery. Hair-raising stuff, and likely to have caused many a "code brown" moment with drivers, passengers and passers-by alike. Cars equipped with IRS at the rear being tail-happy wasn't a new phenomenon in particular, but with Triumph's Herald and related derivatives being aimed at the mass-market, the startling cornering style of these cars when pushing on was bound to draw criticism.
Was the media criticism justified? Probably yes, although to be fair many owners driving in a manner becoming to British roads may well never have experienced the thrills of lift-off oversteer for themselves. Fortunately. After all, the Herald soon became a popular choice for driving instructors up and down the land, thanks to the excellent all-round visibility it offered, coupled with one of the tightest turning circles ever found on a mainstream road car.
Many years passed before Triumph themselves introduced notable improvements to their small cars' fairly rudimentary IRS design, and the Herald didn't get to see any of them. The Mk1-Mk3 Spitfires all featured the same basic (Herald-type) swing-axle design, but with the introduction of the Mk4 buyers instead would benefit from a modified, "swing-spring", version of the suspension, which went some way in taming the wayward tendencies of the earlier cars. Only the Mk1 GT6 and Vitesse featured the swing-axle design, for the Mk2 versions of both a much better design incorporating rubber Rotoflex doughnuts was fitted as standard. I remember chewing through a few of these on a much modified 2.5 Spitfire/GT6 I ran back in the 1990s, but that car handled brilliantly (admittedly aided by the engine being set back further in the chassis). In fairness I think the extra torque of the 2.5 over the usual GT6 2.0 engine probably did for the doughnuts, combined with being driven quite energetically. Early Mk3 GT6s would continue with the Rotoflex design, until the swing-spring was adopted for the later, final, examples.
Before these updates, throughout the 1960s, companies external to Standard-Triumph considered ways that they could improve on the basic swing-axle design, to make it safer en extremis, something that the factory should really have done themselves, especially given that the Herald's predecessor - the Standard 10 & Pennant - exhibited none of these handling intricacies. Shown below is the design dreamt up the designers of tuning kits at Speedwell Performance Conversions Limited, Chairman of which was none other than Formula 1 World Champion Graham Hill. Many of their after-market tuning goodies are featured here on OCC already. Named the "Speedwell Camber Compensator", the installation prevented the rear wheels tucking in sharply and losing grip either during high speed cornering, or when the driver backed off the throttle suddenly while negotiating a corner at above average speed. Were these kits successful? Despite running early Spitfires for quite few years, I don't remember ever stumbling across one of these installations, or reading about them anywhere. Given the lurid angles that I provoked with my first, fairly standard, Mk3 Spitfire, such a kit would have been of great interest. Anything to help keep a new driver's car shiny side up gets the thumbs-up from me.
An advert I found for the Camber Compensator, dating to 1965, describes it thus:
"The Speedwell Empi camber compensator gives really improved cornering and road holding. As the car corners, body roll results in a weight transfer from the wheel on the inside of the bend to the outside wheel. The camber compensator keeps the wheel on the road and improves both the stability and steering response. Traffic driving or fast cross-country runs are made more enjoyable and safer with this unique and easily fitted Speedwell component."
"Models available for the Triumph Spitfire, Vitesse, Herald 948, 1200 and 12/50. Price 140/-. 12 months guarantee. From garages, accessory shops, any branch of Halfords or direct."
According to Speedwell's Chairman, the compensator had - by this time - been installed on over 100,000 cars already.
Despite being a little lary when pushing on, I had a lot of fun behind the wheel of my standard Mk3 Spitfire. Driving the car in a spirited fashion, it was quite easy to provoke the rear wheels to tuck under and induce a swift dose of oversteer on demand. It was a strange thing to experience. Immediately before the back end would break away, you'd feel the car rising at the rear, as if someone had wheeled a trolley jack under the rear chassis and speedily begun lifting it up. While you were driving along. You'd find yourself instantly looking down the bonnet more than perhaps you'd like, warning that the rear was about to try and swap places with the front. Fun if you were expecting it, alarming if not. The much-modified 2.5 with its Rotoflex, Mk2 GT6-type, rear end, was a very different animal, much more predictable despite having nearly twice the power thanks to the tweaked engine lifted from a 2500S saloon. Fun times.
Further Triumph-related material here at Old Classic Car.
Heralds and Spitfires feature across the Old Classic Car site, as use of the site search (below) will demonstrate. Particularly relevant to the subject of this page are photos published on the Spitfire 4 (Mk1) period photos page. On there are several photos of a very sad early example that went off the road in Singapore and ended up in a monsoon drain of all things. Perhaps the camber compensator would have saved the Spitfire and its occupants from this near-disaster?