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Triumph TR2 – Record Breaker, History Maker

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By Chris Pollitt

Hunched down, sitting on nothing more than a cushion so as to ensure he was as low a possible, and peering over the steering wheel through the thinnest of aero screens, test driver and engineer, Ken Richardson pressed on. Working up through the gears, he engaged overdrive via the dash-mounted switch. He pressed his right foot as far into the firewall as he physically could. Eyes darted between rapidly approaching horizon and the gauges within the dash. Clenched hands gripped the wheel, Richardson computing and reacting to every movement that they encountered. Small inputs. Nothing too big, nothing to upset the balance of the speeding car. And speeding it was. All told, the Triumph TR2 prototype Richardson was piloting had recorded an official average speed of 124.899mph. It had done it. It had set the record.

Triumph, Triumph TR2, TR2, TR-X, 20TS, land speed, Jabekke, motorsport

Before you scoff and utter something about going faster on a track day, consider this – Richardson set that record in 1953. This was a time before HANS devices, before carbon composite safety cells, before plumbed in fire extinguishers and before supportive bucket seats and multi-point harnesses – in fact, as we mentioned, Richardson didn’t even have a seat! This was an age of man showing his mastery of machine or should we say showing a complete disregard for any notion of self-preservation. One of the two.

Triumph, Triumph TR2, TR2, TR-X, 20TS, land speed, Jabekke, motorsport

And what of the car? Well, that’s what we’re here to talk about. The Triumph TR2. A car that, thanks to elegant design and the publicity that came of its top-speed record run, would go on to be the foundation on which all Triumph sports cars could build. The TR2 put Triumph on the sports car map. Prior to this, Triumph offered ponderous, wobbly cars that were of benefit only by the virtue of being marginally quicker than walking. The Triumph brand was not one you associated with excitement.

Triumph, Triumph TR2, TR2, TR-X, 20TS, land speed, Jabekke, motorsport

Triumph did try to change that though, and as such it started to develop a new sports car in 1950, namely the TR-X. It was a beautiful, elegant and impressively technology-laden machine. The seats moved via an electro-hydraulic system, as did the windows and convertible top. It had on-board hydraulic jacks, the headlights recessed into the body, the rear wheels were enclosed with spats that followed the bodyline, it was a mightily beautiful machine. But, it was also prohibitively expensive to build, not to mention complicated. 

Mulliners refused to build it, as did Pininfarina and others. The project was dead before it started.

Triumph, Triumph TR2, TR2, TR-X, 20TS, land speed, Jabekke, motorsport

Triumph head honcho, Sir John Black, wasn’t to be deterred by the failings of the TR-X, and so pushed ahead with the development of the 20TS, a 2.0 sports car that Black hoped would thwart the efforts of Morgan, which he’d tried to buy earlier. Two prototypes were built and shown at the 1952 London Motor Show. The reception was less than dazzling. The engine was okay, as was the front end, but the squat back and tiny interior left people disinterested. Then, when Ken Richardson test drove it, his damning appraisal of “bloody awful” put the final nail in the new car’s coffin.

But what’s all this got to do with the low, long and sleek TR2 we’re looking at here? Don’t worry, we’re getting to it. But before we do, let’s take a look at the car.

Triumph, Triumph TR2, TR2, TR-X, 20TS, land speed, Jabekke, motorsport

The TR2 was a longer, more elegant machine than the dubiously-dimensioned 20TS. It has a long ail, featuring a useable boot. There was a comfortable space inside for two people, the car was built on an all-new frame with revised suspension and brakes, it was the complete package. However, Triumph had been through the wringer with its first two stabs at the British sports car market, so it needed to do something big, something ground-breaking, if it was going to push the TR2 out into the world under the warming glow of positivity. The reception at the 1953 Geneva Motor Show was good, but it wasn’t enough for Sir John Black. He wanted to stun the world. And stun he would.

Of the two cars built for Geneva, one was modified with a goal in mind – break the land speed record for a 2.0 production car. As such, the TR2 was fitted with aero screens, the bonnet was modified with more secure pins, an aluminium cover was fabricated to cover all but the driver’s portion of the cockpit, the rear wheels were enclosed into the bodywork, all to better aid aerodynamics. Sir Black, keen to get on with things, booked the Jabekke highway in Belgium for a day, and entrusted the driving to Ken Richardson.

Triumph, Triumph TR2, TR2, TR-X, 20TS, land speed, Jabekke, motorsport

Initially there were grumblings about the test, with Richardson stating that it would need to be over a couple of days or more to account for weather. Sir Black was having none of that and pressed the team to get on with it. And it was there, on one fateful day, that Richardson delivered an average top speed of 124mph, a speed that was verified there and then by the timing experts of the Royal Automobile Club of Belgium. And all in front of a gathering of motoring journalism’s movers and shakers. This was it; Triumph’s little car was in the spotlight.

And that’s the very car you’re looking at here. Now owned by Triumph aficionado and professional restorer, Glen Hewitt, the baby Triumph is now every bit the car it was back in 1953. And that’s where the story gets even more interesting.

Triumph, Triumph TR2, TR2, TR-X, 20TS, land speed, Jabekke, motorsport

To do this record-breaking run, Triumph obviously needed a car. The only TR2s it had were the show cars from Geneva, so as we explained earlier, one of the cars was lifted from show duties in favour of top speed glory. However, the Jebekke car was and still is more than it seems.

Used for further research and development for a few years, the car was later sold to a private owner, a Mr. John Hedger, who chopped in a Ford Pop against the Triumph. The TR went through a couple of other owners, who unfortunately ran the car down to the point of needing complete restoration. In 1976, the car was stripped bare and boxed up with a view to being restored, but that didn’t happen. At least not until 2015 when Glen Hewitt, the car’s current owner, finally managed to purchase it.

Triumph, Triumph TR2, TR2, TR-X, 20TS, land speed, Jabekke, motorsport

In doing so, Glenn knew he had something special, but little did he know just how special. As his company, Protek Engineering, set about the restoration they found strange things. The rear showed evidence of panels being riveted on, there was a lot of evidence of hand fabrication and there was even a cover plate for what it turned out was the mounting point for the single rear trailing arm as found on the 20TS. It was then that it dawned on Glen that the Jabekke car may in fact be one of the original TR2 prototypes, so a re-bodied 20TS if you will. And it makes sense. Materials were thin on the ground in the ‘50s, so Triumph wouldn’t have wanted to waste anything, so it would make perfect sense to re-purpose the 20TS prototypes.

Triumph, Triumph TR2, TR2, TR-X, 20TS, land speed, Jabekke, motorsport

Triumph, Triumph TR2, TR2, TR-X, 20TS, land speed, Jabekke, motorsport

This just adds further enigma and legacy to what is already an incredibly special car. Now restored after hundreds and hundreds of man-hours, and once again resplendent in its factory shade of Geranium green, it is now the perfect restoration. Not one inch has been missed, not one stitch ignored. It is a work of art, and deservedly so.

Triumph, Triumph TR2, TR2, TR-X, 20TS, land speed, Jabekke, motorsport

This car was and still is hugely important. It marks a turning point for Triumph that would serve to secure the company’s future for the following three decades, it’s a wheeled representation of British pluck and determination. The TR2 was, after the TR-X and the 20TS, the third stab at sports car glory, and for Triumph, that third try was, and most definitely still is, the charm.

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