They Don’t Have to be Expensive

Posted September 30, 2020

By Dean Larson

Let’s be real, if money were not a factor, we’d all have way more cars in our collection than there are sunny days in a year. But for most of us, a more realistic goal is one or two project cars that we can afford, and also the tools, shop space and time to keep up on the maintenance. And then there’s registration, insurance, repairs and not to mention the occasional slap on the wrist from the local constabulary. It all adds up doesn’t it, and you begin to understand why some people don’t even bother (just kidding). The 16 year old in me wants to believe that cheap driving thrills are still out there though, so I set out to find something anyone could buy and tinker with on a slim budget, let’s say $2,000, and I think I knocked it out of the park.

My background is mostly in trucks and Japanese imports, with some fiddling on muscle cars as well, but I decided to go a different direction here for a couple reasons. Trucks I’ve done, and still do enough with them day-to-day, and I satisfied my import tastes over the years with several hot Hondas, but these are still solid options. I love muscle cars as well, but pickins are slim for rust-free cars here in the Midwest. Mostly, I was ready for something different though, and I’d been keeping my eye on small British sports cars for the last six months or so for the right deal.

Forget about Austin Healeys, Jaguars and any other high-profile sports cars; on this budget, you’re largely limited to later Triumphs and some MGB and MGB GTs. But even that’s a tall order, because these cars are very susceptible to the tin worm, and I’ll be honest, most of what you’ll find for under $2,000 is pretty rusty. So that’s why I didn’t hesitate on this 1980 Triumph Spitfire 1500 for the low price of just $1,500. The ad said it was a clean car overall, but had carburetor issues and wasn’t drivable. Feeling about due for a risky purchase, I grabbed cash and a trailer and took a scenic fall drive up to Iron Mountain, Michigan.

Needless to say the Triumph isn’t perfect, but I wasn’t scoffing at the little things for the price. As a bonus, the car ran well enough for me to drive it onto the trailer — much to the seller’s surprise.

So what do you really get for $1,500? Well the car seems really solid, and its damn near rust free. I did find a small hole on the driver’s rocker panel forward of the rear wheel, along with some other imperfections in the body, but not bad for a car that’s lived its whole life between Wisconsin and Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. The underside is still painted yellow for heaven’s sake, and there’s only 59,000 miles on the odometer. I just received my carburetor rebuild kit and new floats from Northwest British parts to hopefully address the Zenith-Stromberg carb’s running issues, not bad at just $70.

The elephant in the room is of course the large impact bumpers installed on ’79 and ’80 models, and they are indeed elephant sized, but an enterprising fellow could swap them for early bumpers easy enough. And they likely contributed to the rock-bottom purchase price. Additionally the seats have been chewed up by some sort of rodent and a shoddy aftermarket audio system has been installed. All things to address in due time.

Thus far I’ve only driven the Triumph to the end of the road and back, and the car kept stalling out from the ailing carburetor, and shaking petrified corn pieces out of the sun visors — these were some busy rodents…

I know as far as Spitfires go, this is pretty much the worst one, but I’m still pretty stoked on it for the low entry price. I mean what do you really buy for $1,500? I'll be tearing into the carburetor as soon as time permits and doing a general tune-up. It shouldn’t be too difficult to get the car running for a few extra bucks and make a solid weekend driver for under a couple grand. But it’s British, so I’ll inevitably run into some snags along the way. Wish me luck!

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