Spitfire: it's the way she shakes, rattles and rolls


Stephen Boden is restoring his gorgeous green 1978 Triumph Spitfire. He tells Oonagh Chasrleton about the car that stole his heart

Size does matter! But there are added benefits to squeezing into one of the smaller sports convertibles in the world - it barely reaches 3ft 9" in height.

With cabin design intended to accommodate folks up to 6ft 2", the only awkward part of Triumph Spitfire is getting in. This small, but incredibly sophisticated convertible has captured many a V-shaped heart and, while out visiting Stephen Boden and his Spitfire 1500, it came fairly close to capturing mine.

Boden, a Dublin-based electronics engineer with a healthy background in mechanics, has reached the final phase in the restoration of his 1978, four-cylinder Spitfire. "All the hard work has been done," he says, "sills, floors, wings. It just needs mechanical stuff now."

Bought 10 years ago for £2,500 on the road, he drove it primarily as a first car. "It needs a water pump and radiator immediately. It's also burning oil which could mean the valves are on the way out, or the piston rings." He is optimistic, however, that the convertible will be insured and on the road by the end of the summer.

Boden's classic convertible is one of several thousand built between 1974 and 1980. Designed by Giovanni Michelotti, who based his ideas on the Triumph Herald frame, drive train and suspension, the Spitfire was essentially intended for the small British sportscar market.

Competing well against MG Midgets and other relatively cheap sportscars of it time, the Triumph's main advantage lies in its easy handling characteristics.

These include an amazing road-level, karting-esque drive with max sophistication resulting in added attention seeking capabilities.

Originally, the Spitfire held a 1,147 cc four-cylinder upgrade of the Herald but modifications in the Mk III and Mk IV helped it to graduate to a 1,493 cc. Its rear-wheel drive with transverse leaf springs, front independent suspension and an anti-roll bar - and the steering is impact absorbing.

However, one still cannot visualise the "driving a cloud Citroën C5" experience. The Spitfire is very close to the road and you feel every uneven surface. You also get the sense that it relies heavily on the driver. It demands all your attention, but without doubt, attention that you are willing to give.

Stephen Boden's favourite feature is the soft top. Enthused by a passing squall as we drove, he excitedly jumped out and slid it over, wrench in hand and bolts turned in a jiffy. Again, fitted by himself like many other features both internal and external, the soft-top is the crowning glory of his pride and joy: "I love to get out in it on a cool Saturday morning when the sun is beaming down. I wrap up warmly, wind in hair, sun on the head, and when I used to time-keep out at Mondello, I would leave at about seven in the morning, roof down and no traffic, which is fabulous."

His first car, a Renault 4 inherited from his mother, has definitely led to greater things. If money was no object, he admits a hankering for a Ferrari, a Lamborghini or a "proper muscle car."

However, for the moment he is thrilled with the progress of his Spitfire project and its quirky personality. "I love the way it shakes, rattles and rolls. Whenever you go over uneven surfaces, everything rattles, but in different ways." Arguing that the car has never really let him down, he admits to one adventure just after purchase.

After a weekend trip to Galway, the alternator got stroppy, resulting in serious "battery boilage". Four stoppages and four "bonnet-raising, rotten-egg-stenched, gas clouds later", Stephen and wife Liz spent a total of two hours sitting on the roadside waiting for the battery to cool.

"The smell was horrendous," he smiles, "when you boil a battery like that, it smells completely like rotten eggs." He admits though, that it is a challenge to keep it going. "You have to keep your eye on it. The nice thing about it, however, is that with modern cars there is so much electronics, you can't work on them. With the Spitfire, you can get your hands dirty, strip it, fiddle with something, put it back together - there is enormous satisfaction in that."

AS A DRIVING experience, its overall handling is superb as a classic sports car. Being lightweight is also a definite advantage and you undoubtedly get the go-kart experience, as the steering is so direct.

With the average Spitfire doing 0-60 mph in some 13.2 seconds, it isn't the slowest poke on the road with a top speed of about 100 mph. The scrupulous interior and incredibly clean bodywork is also impressive, evidently the result of hours of tender loving care.