My First Sports Car
By Mark Vander Eyk
After finishing my freshman year of college in 1966, I needed a car to commute to my summer job pre-wiring new homes and apartments for Michigan Bell Telephone Company. I always admired the Triumph TR3 and dreamed of getting one someday. One of our neighbors had been in the Air Force for three years and upon his discharge bought a new British racing green TR3. Another neighbor had their grandson living with them while he attended Wayne State Medical School and he drove a red TR3. When I came home from school in the spring, I started looking for a car in the Royal Oak Daily Tribune and found a 1960 TR3A for sale. My father and I went over to take a look at it, much to my surprise it was owned by one of my fellow Dondero High School alumni. The car had a fresh coat of bright red paint, appeared to be in good condition and drove well, so we bought it for $700.
When we got the TR3 home and looked it over more closely, there were a few things that needed attention. The first thing we noticed was that there were some wiring problems (i.e. when you switched the left turn signal on, the right one would flash, etc.). Behind the front apron there were a number of plug-in wiring connectors. I believe the previous owner must have done some disassembly when the car was painted and did not get everything put back together correctly. The problem was solved by driving the car down the street and parking it next to the neighbor’s TR3, so we could compare and match up the wiring. Also, the lower driver’s seat cushion was pleated leather and a couple of the panels were worn through at the fold. My father took the cushion to the local shoemaker and he replaced the defective panels with new matching red leather. Lastly, there was a trip to Sears to purchase a new set of “sports car” tires. During that first summer I continued to make further improvements to the TR3. The wimpy little rubber shift knob was replaced with a more substantial genuine walnut version with a blue and white Triumph badge embedded in the top, plus a set of Lucas “flamethrower” driving lights were added.
The TR3 turned out to be an exciting choice for a first car. It handled well, had good braking and performance was spirited with a 4 speed manual transmission and a 100 BHP 4 cylinder engine. Most of all, it was great fun to drive. It was classic British motoring; wind in the hair, rain in the face and bugs in the teeth. There was a full set of instrumentation to monitor with a large speedometer and tachometer directly in front of the driver. In the center of the dash were fuel level, coolant temperature, oil pressure and voltmeter gauges. Looking back, the TR3 had many quaint and quirky features. First of all was the low cut doors; you could literally pick-up your morning paper from the driveway without getting out of the car. There was a pop up cowl vent in front of the windshield, a starter button (common now), manual choke, side curtains, and the interior door releases were cables in the door pockets you pushed or pulled on. The TR3 did have a radio that someone installed along the way, but reception was so poor it was essentially useless. The road, wind and exhaust noise did not help the situation either. The radio sat on top of the transmission tunnel without a bracket and was only held in place by the wiring. Occasionally, on a hard turn it would slide part way off onto the driver’s or passenger’s foot. Contrary to “Lucas lore”, my TR3 was very reliable. I drove it to and from work for three summers, one winter at college, many weekend trips to Caseville and even a jaunt to Mid-Ohio for a Can-Am race. It never let me down.
There was a tubular framework that the convertible top snapped over and it folded down into the jump seat area when not in use. The side curtains fastened to the inner door panels and had sliding Plexiglas windows. The TR3 had a tonneau cover and that is all I used most of the time, seldom putting the top up and side curtains on. If it was cold you put a stocking cap on your head and cranked up the heat under the cover. When it rained the cover shielded most of the passenger compartment, so if you just kept moving briskly you did not get too wet. Although the heater had a couple of manual doors that could be closed off in hot weather, you had to turn the heater cock off on the engine to really keep the passenger compartment comfortable.
Sometime during that first summer the muffler gave out. I remember taking the TR3 up to a small Fiat dealer/sports car repair shop on Woodward Avenue for repair. I do not recall if we had any discussions with the repair shop about what to replace the muffler with or if we just left it up to them. When I came back to pick the TR3 up, it had a new Fisher Abarth exhaust system with twin chrome tailpipes that sounded fantastic! I grew up in Royal Oak near the Grand Trunk and Western railroad. Whenever I went to or from my girlfriend’s house (and now wife-Rene), I had to pass thorough the railroad viaduct on Catalpa. My routine was always the same; stop at the stop sign, turn right and then go through the viaduct wide open throttle in 1st gear. That Abarth exhaust would bark so loud I am sure it could be heard a mile away.
By the third summer, I was entering my last year of college and had visions of landing a big bucks job and ordering a new 1969 Chevrolet Nova SS. The TR3’s body was starting to rust through in a few locations. That summer I was working 9 AM to 9 PM six days a week at a boat store in Detroit. So, I spent most of my summer Sundays patching up the body with Bondo. One of the boat store customers owned a body shop and offered to paint the car for $100 if I did all of the disassembly and preparation work. So, at the end of the summer the TR3 had a new bright red paint job and I sold it soon after for $900.
In the mid 70’s I had the craving for another TR3 and found one advertised locally. The car was in primer and had all of the trim and lights removed. The owner had trouble locating the title, but I still gave him a deposit and took the car home while he searched for it. After a couple of weeks it became obvious that there was no title, so I returned the car and by then he could not seem to find my down payment money. I told him I was going to keep the trim pieces and lights as collateral until he could come up with the down payment. Never heard from him again! I would not mind getting another TR3 to keep my Porsche company in the garage. I still have the driving lights, repair manuals and collateral.