Classic cars

‘TR’ for Tow Rig? This Triumph Was a Strange Sight in ’78

by John L. Stein
15 February 2024 2 min read
‘TR’ for Tow Rig? This Triumph Was a Strange Sight in ’78
Photo by John L. Stein

In the 1970s, my collector-car aspirations didn’t bother with classified ads or dealerships. Instead I applied hunter-gatherer tactics, or perhaps more humbly, scrounging. Enter a certain 1964 Triumph TR4A, spied in 1978 in an alley in Seal Beach, California, and purchased for $600.

Its maladies included low compression and worn rear wheel-hub splines, creatively shimmed by the previous owner with feeler-gauge blades. Luckily, Los Angeles still had viable wrecking yards, and visiting one produced a pair of useful hubs for $15. Once installed, the TR4A not only started and ran, it drove.

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The Triumph’s original British Racing Green paint sprouted rust where the fenders joined the centre body section, so a driveway respray was in order. But when I asked for BRG at the automotive paint store, the clerk mixed up an eye-popping chartreuse. I sprayed one fender this way before a friend interceded. “You do not want a tree-frog green Triumph,” he said. I agreed and forked over $40 for another gallon of the expensive, but correct, stuff.

Scroungers may find vehicles … or vessels … needing rescue at any time. Soon, my buddy found a banana-yellow Hobie 14 catamaran and trailer, which we split for $950. Summer was shaping up, and clearly the newfound Triumph, boat, and I needed adventure. This required building a scrap-metal trailer hitch at Vintage Racing Services, where I worked at the time. Surprisingly, the Triumph towed the lightweight Hobie just fine.

Droning along Highway 395 toward California’s Lake Tahoe, all it took was a glance at the mast soaring above the car to confirm that the boat was still attached. Later, in the hot desert, the temperature gauge climbed as the worn engine burned through its oil; I only had to add three quarts over 450 miles to see us through.

After a long day aboard a slow train, old Kingsbury Grade awaited us on the California-Nevada border. Defined by steep inclines and many switchbacks, climbing it in a little old 104bhp car while towing a boat proved a challenge as the blacktop reached 2248 metres. At the summit, the Triumph’s humble tractor mill was so starved for oxygen that it could barely sustain 15mph. Not to be outdone, the charge light soon illuminated, and the TR stumbled into the Tahoe Basin hot, wheezing, and running on total-loss electrics.

Compared to battling the Triumph through the desert and mountains, sailing the little yellow Hobie on the lake, which Mark Twain called “the fairest picture the whole world affords,” was pure bliss. Except, naturally, one hull leaked terribly.

It’s a wonder no one drowned.

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