I recently received e-mail from a reader in Australia, looking for advice on what to look out for when purchasing a car like mine. After I replied, I realized that this is probably good information to share with others, even though there are certainly other good sources on the Internet for much of this information. This advice is geared towards purchasing a complete, running, solid example of the marque, rather than a basket case or a restoration candidate. I'd like to help you make certain that the car you've found is as sound on the inside as it appears on the outside. First off, do your homework. Call for a couple of free Spitfire parts catalogs. They provide wonderful exploded diagrams of the cars and identify a lot of parts for you. Victoria British and Rimmer Bros. are a good place to start. Happy reading!
If I were starting all over again, I don't think I would have bought the car long distance as I did. The paid inspection was worthless. I hired a "professional car inspection" company that subcontracts out to insurance adjusters -- good in theory, but murder in practice. I also know that these cars are increasingly hard to come by. So if you must buy long distance, try to contact a local friend, relative or Triumph club in the area that might have a member willing to look at the car for you, or perhaps even someone on the Triumph list or Spitfire list who will give it a throrough visual inspection. If you're lucky, they might even be willing to take 35mm or digital photographs for you. Offer to reimburse them for their time and trouble.
My best advice to you is to ensure that the body is sound -- no rust-through anywhere -- particularly the outer sills (rocker panels), floors, A-pillar supports (what the doors bolt on to) , windshield frame (check under all the rubber) etc. Things like the boot lid are fairly easy to replace and the mechanicals can be rebuilt, but getting the bodywork done professionally (even though the panels themselves are available and relatively inexpensive) is very costly. That is, provided you are actually able to find someone willing to do the job! The worse off the body is, the less likely you will be to find a body shop that will touch it.
Look out for cheap repair shortcuts, too. I nearly bought a Spitfire with replacement floor panels that the owner had merely pop-rivited in. This repair MUST be welded in place to assure structural integrity.
They don't call Chicago and Michigan the "rust belt" without good reason. Try and find a California, Nevada or Arizona Spitfire to purchase if you can. The dry, arid conditions in these indigenous desert regions are much kinder to car bodies than their snow-driven counterparts. The roads aren't salted, either. Watch out for California coastal area cars however. Salt air and sheetmetal don't mix.
Make certain that you take a look under the carpets to inspect for rust in the footwells and under and behind the seats. If there is some light surface rust, you can use this as a bargaining point and can repair and seal this area yourself quite easily and inexpensively. However, if you can see cracks in the sheetmetal or holes through it like the example shown here, this is going to be a major repair. Push on the floors with your fingertips. Does it feel thin and flimsy? Or solid and stable? My "paid" inspector told me these floors were fine -- and this is after I'd wire-brushed and vacuumed out the debris!
Trouble spots for rust on the Spitfire include the windshield pillars behind the rain gutters (peel back the weatherstrip rubber and peer in there to see if there's any rot or not); the strengthener/filler "D" panel (between the nose and wheel arch right behind the headlights on the bonnet); the rim of the wheel wells in the bonnet where the outer well is welded to the inner wheel well; the outer rocker panels and filler panels between the outer sills and the bulkhead, right behind the tires) footwells and "A" panel supports; and the front outriggers on the frame.
Be sure to look UNDER the car as well. Check as much of the frame as you can. Is it straight? Is there any rust? While you're on your back, check the bottom of the doors for rust. Do they close easily? If you have to lift them to close them properly, you'll need to replace the hinges, or at least swap the top and bottom hinges because the hinge pin has probably worn (the top hinge receives the most wear). Check under the rear valance for rust-through and thoroughly inspect the trunk floor while you're at it.
A small amount of negative camber in the rear wheels is normal.
Excessive camber like this /------\ means that you'll need a new leaf spring, however. The only other remedy for too much negative camber is the fitment of air-adjustable shocks, but I don't recommend them.
In 1967, the first model year for the Mk3, the brakes were still a single-line system (1968 and beyond employed the dual reservoir brake master cylinders). Check around the M/C for leaks. What kind of shape are the brake lines in? Are they corroded? With a single line system in particular, the condition of the entire braking system is critical.
In taking the car for a test drive, familiarize yourself with the shift pattern first. It's like an "H" that is slanted towards the right like this: H The gearbox on the Spitfire Mk3 is non-sychromesh in first, which means that you cannot downshift into first gear while the car is in motion. The gearbox is identical to the Mk1 and Mk2 gearbox, but features the addition of a back-up light switch.
You should be able to move through the gears relatively smoothly with no grinding. The rear end (differential) should be quiet. If you hear a light thumping or clunking noise from the rear only when you let your foot off the gas and coast, the car needs new U-joints on the rear axels.
Does the car continue straight when you take your hands off the wheel? It should track straight and not drift to one side or the other. The steering should be tight also, requiring little effort to turn the vehicle and the brakes should provide straight, even stopping power. Though the Spitfire does not have servo-assisted power brakes and non-power rack and pinion steering, both braking and steering should inspire confidence and be labor-free.
Check for previously repaired damage in the lower front valance -- easy to spot with the bonnet up -- and around the wheel arches. Stock wheel arches on the exterior have a flattened outside edge to them. Mine are rounded and pretty -- indicating plastic or fiberglass filler.
Check the entire body carefully, paying special attention to the lower side of the panels -- like under the rear bumpers. See any bubbles in the paint? Once when I was younger, naive and more trusting, a Swiss doctor assured me that the bubbles in the paint on the Porsche I was buying from him was the result of poor paint prep and was nothing to be concerned with. I think I recall him saying there may have been some oil on the surface when they painted. WRONG! Bubbles in the paint are a certain indication of rust -- and there's probably a lot more than you can see.
Take a flashlight and look into the boot carefully for rust-through and evidence of damage repair or rust on the inside of the rear wings.
As for the engine, check for water in the oil and oil in the radiator. You can easily spot water in the oil by removing the valve cap after the car has been running (careful! it will be warm or even hot). Look at the underside of the cap. If it has a white, creamy looking substance like hand lotion in there, you're looking at expensive repairs. Rusty-looking water in the radiator is also a sign of neglect and potential trouble.
Check the compression of the cylinders... They should all be within 10 PSI of each other. 140-160 PSI is considered very good, but don't let something a little less than that discourage you, so long as there's no more than 10 PSI between the highest and lowest cylinder. For example, 145, 154, 144, 150 would be considered absolutely fine.
How do all the panels line up? There should be very narrow, even gaps between the doors and the B pillars, the doors and the bonnet and the bonnet flaps and the sills and the rear bonnet edge and the scuttle panel -- all no more than about a 1/4". (sorry, I don't know the metric equivalent).
This example showing Sue Hunneybell's RHD Spitfire (aptly named "Baby Blue") demonstrates perfect alignment of all body panels, including the relationship between the bonnet and front lower valance. Someday I hope my Spitfire looks this good...
There should be no obstructions to the drainage hole towards the front of the sills on the bottom.
From inside the passenger compartment, check the bottom of the battery box for rust through...
Don't concern yourself with the condition of the interior trim if it's ragged. You can replace literally all of it as your time and budget allows with very nice, new materials -- nearly all of them affordable and available. The seat rails should slide and be complete with the rear edge clip rail that mates with the clip on the back of your seat.
The bottom line though -- make certain that the body and frame are structurally sound!! Everything else can be replaced or rebuilt! Of course, you'll want the drivetrain to be mechanically sound also...
The 1296cc engines that were fitted to the Mk3 series is considered among the most robust of the range. Have a friend step on the clutch pedal while you observe the large nut on the lower front of the engine. If you see this nut move, the engine is going to require new thrust washers -- and a lot more than that if you let this situation go unchecked. Bad thrustwashers are more of a problem for the later 1500 engines than they were for the earlier motors, however, so it's unlikely you'll see a problem. When the engine is running, check for smoke. Black smoke indicates a too-rich fuel mixture -- blue smoke indicates worn cylinder rings -- white smoke indicates water in the fuel system and perhaps a blown head gasket even a cracked engine block.
Check the wiring harness carefully and make certain that everything electrical works -- turn signals (front and rear), parking lights, brake lights, headlights, tail lights, reverse lamps, gauge lamps, horns, etc. The fuse panel is found on the top bulkhead (LHD side in the engine compartment) and contains three fuses.
The owner may be reluctant to allow examination of the spark plugs, but try to see them if you can. They can reveal a lot about the general running condition of the motor. They should appear dark-powdery grayish brown -- and dry. Check the ignition wires and distributor cap for cracks.
Look under the car for leaks. Oil in the front might be the oil pan seal, timing cover seal or valve cover seal. Oil leaking towards the center is probably from one of the transmission seals, oil in the back is the differential. If the casing of the differential is dry and the leak is coming from the front of the diff where the drive shaft connects, the pinion seal needs replacing -- which is not nearly as big a hassle as replacing the case seal, which requires removing the differential from the car.
Peer into the gas tank and look for rust or debris on the bottom. It should be clean. This is easy to do in full daylight or with a flashlight.
Check the front wheels for loose or worn bearings by grasping the wheel with both hands and gently rocking back and forth. Anything more than 1/16" of play could spell trouble. Or, it may just mean that the front bearings need to be tightened down a little! There should also be very little to no play whatsoever in the steering rack.
Familiarize yourself with the basic suspension components and make certain all parts are attached!! I've seen Spitfires with missing anti-roll bars in the front lower suspension and missing trailing arms on the rear suspension!
Here's the best reason in the world not to buy a car over the Internet:
Pretty pictures like the ones that grace this website.
A digital camera in the hands of an amateur photographer and halfway competent computer graphic artist can make a car with lots of hidden body problems look as good as this fine example of the marque, which happens to be my own car. From this photo, you are unable to tell that:
there are rust bubbles in some spots of the paint
there are other areas of slightly cracking paint
there is slight rippling on the bonnet panels near the latches
the sill end caps are rotted and need to be replaced
the floorboards were the same ones illustrated above (I have since repaired them in lieu of, or until steel replacements can be fitted)
the engine shelf is a mess with undercoating which was wrongly applied there
the chrome is pitted and needs to be redone on the bumpers and mirrors
See there? And for your information, the picture was not retouched in any way, except for the background mountains and sky which were from a different picture I took one morning and pasted in. Same with the picture of my Spitfire "taking flight" at the top of this page. To further illustrate my point, can you see the rust bubbles forming on the lip of the trunk lid? No!
I repeat, the ONLY way you can buy a Spitfire long distance is to find a Spitfire enthusiast who lives in the area of the car in question who will thoroughly inspect it for you, provide an honest, objective appraisal and perhaps take some close-up digital pictures to e-mail you. But nothing takes the place of crawling around one of these cars in person with your flashlight and some basic tools in hand.
For other outstanding suggestions on what to look for and buy a Spitfire in general, check out the Vintage Triumph Register's buyer's checklist and general Triumph buyer's guide. Lots of good reading there.
Any other suggestions? Let me know!
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