So You Think Your Car’s a Lemon?

So You Think Your Car’s a Lemon?

© David Burton 2008

The Triumph TR-4

     Here’s another oldie of mine. The events reported here occurred in 1962 and 1963. Hopefully, no one has had similar problems in the last few years. Anyway, read it and weep (or laugh). Most of what you read below was written in 1963 (with minor updates this year).

     Back in April of 1962, I decided that my old ’51 Plymouth was beginning to show its age. My father had bought it second hand around 1953 and I had taken over driving it when he died in 1956 and when I was a sophomore in college. The running gear of the car was still in good shape (I had rebuilt the engine, transmission and brake system about two years previously. In addition, I had installed a new clutch, oil pump, and cooling system, along with new tires.), but the body was beginning to deteriorate rapidly.

     Being a young eligible bachelor, I decided that in keeping with my carefree life, the new car was going to be a sports car. Checking my bank account, I found that I wanted to spend under $3,000 (Don’t laugh - remember this was 1962 when a VW Beetle cost somewhere between $1,250 and $1,800 brand new.) This did however narrow the field of available sports cars considerably. I checked with friends who owned Triumph TR-3 sports cars and found that they were more than satisfied with their cars. I knew that the TR-4 had just gone into production and after examining the modifications which had been made (full synchronous transmission, slightly higher horsepower, rollup windows, larger trunk, wrap around bumpers and other minor changes), I decided that the TR-4 looked like a good buy.

     So, off I went to the Triumph dealers and after visiting about a half dozen dealers and bargaining about the price a bit, I found a dealer that offered the car at what I thought was a reasonable price. Before making the deal, I phoned the Better Business Bureau to determine whether any complaints had been made against the dealership (In 1962, the were no PC’s and no Internet.). Finding no complaints, I returned to the dealer, plunked down my check for the car (well under my $3,000 limit) and merrily drove off, the proud new owner of that fine example of British pride and workmanship, the Triumph TR-4.

     I had so much fun with my new toy that I was back for my 500 mile service within a week and my 1,000 mile service within two weeks. It was at this second visit to the service department that my troubles commenced. The mechanic had not greased the car when I returned to pick up my car. As I waited for the lubrication to be completed, I noticed fluid dripping from the left side of the engine. I sniffed at a dab of the liquid and found that it was gasoline. Together with the mechanic, I lifted the hood and searched for the leak. The culprit turned out to be a short length of a rubber-like hose that was used to connect the fuel pump to the carburetor line. The hose had become porous either through decay or chemical action and was slowly but steadily dripping gasoline. The mechanic told me that they didn’t stock a replacement part (how often I was to hear those words) but that he would order a new length of the hose for me. He assured me that the hose that was there would hold out until the replacement arrived. Who was I to question the wisdom of this technical genius? So off I went - - - a total of four blocks until the car stalled with symptoms quite reminiscent of vapor lock. Can you imagine my chagrin? Here I was, the owner of a two-week old TR-4, stalled in the middle of traffic. My old Plymouth never had the indecency to treat me in such a fashion. Swallowing my wounded pride, I pushed the car to the side of the road and trudged back to the dealer. I was able to find a salesman and another mechanic who drove back to my stranded vehicle with me. After fifteen minutes of learned examination, the mechanic announced triumphantly that the rotted rubber-like fuel line was at fault. (How clever of that fellow!) He proceeded to whittle off the half inch of the hose that was doing the leaking, replaced it and sent me winging homeward, my faith in the TR-4 and the mechanic somewhat restored.

     The next few difficulties that I encountered were of a minor nature, although one of them could have been much more serious. While looking under the hood one day, I spotted fluid around the brake and clutch master cylinders. The fluid was readily recognized as hydraulic fluid and a quick look in the Brake system reservoir showed a lower than normal fluid level. The car was dutifully returned to the service shop where my mechanic stopped the leak by tightening the fitting between the brake line and the master cylinder. Next, the trunk prop broke when a cotter pin sheared off. The mechanic quickly remedied the problem and in his haste installed the prop backwards. I fixed the problem myself by pulling out the prop and replacing it correctly.

     Shifting gears in the TR-4 had been troublesome ever since the car was purchased, but I attributed this to the newness of the car and assumed the trouble would disappear as the gears wore in. One bright and sunny afternoon, one of our charming young secretaries asked for a ride in my new car. Being a gallant young man, I invited her to drive the car. The invitation was eagerly accepted. It quickly became apparent that the pretty young thing could not shift the gears in the car and it was necessary for me to change gears from the co-pilot’s seat. In addition to the excessive force required to change gears, shifting could not be accomplished without grinding. Once again, I trundled off to the service department, explained my troubles to the mechanic and told him that I felt the clutch was not completely disengaging. The mechanic adjusted the clutch and the shifting troubles were somewhat alleviated. The gears still ground when quick-shifting, but at least a diploma from the Charles Atlas school of muscle building wasn’t required to go from 1st to 2nd gears. I tried to get the mechanic to eliminate the grinding problem, but he said that there was nothing he could do about it. Several months later, I took the TR-4 to another Triumph dealer for an estimate of various repairs to parts that had been defective and I asked the head mechanic to try and find out why the shifting trouble was present. He reported back that one of the synchronizer rings in the transmission was defective and would have to be replaced. My confidence in Triumph workmanship and the Triumph mechanic was, by this time, quite low. The transmission problem remained until I eventually traded in the car with a "frozen" transmission.

And then the rains came

     After about a month of driving my car, I noticed some water seepage into the tunk after rainstorms. I asked the mechanic to fix the leaks and I commented that the water appeared to be entering the trunk through holes between the trunk and the rear wheel wells. He said that this was impossible and proceeded to glue down the gasket around the trunk lid which was loose.

     About two months after this episode, we had an exceptionally heavy rainstorm and I had to drive the car through several deep puddles of water. The day following the rain, I noticed that the floor matting was soaked with water. I opened the trunk and found five gallons or more of water inside the trunk. A set of road flares was ruined and a set of tools along with the car jack were already stating to rust.

     As I once more drove the car back to the Triumph dealer, I had occasion to apply the brakes suddenly. I received a surprise. The water in the trunk sloshed forward, past the cardboard petition that separated the trunk from the car interior, and poured over the jump seat and floor matting. I later found that two rubber plugs in the car floor were missing and, to add to the mess, water had obviously also entered the car interior through the unplugged holes when the car was driven through the puddles. The mechanic puttied the holes between the trunk and the fender wells, through which the water had entered (and through which he had earlier said that water could not possibly enter). I also asked him to please replace the missing rubber floor plugs.

     The floor matting took nearly two weeks to dry out (the matting couldn’t be removed unless the seats were unbolted from the floor) and I kid you not when I say that dead fish smell better than wet TR-4 floor matting. The rubber plugs were not installed until two months later and then the Triumph dealer wanted to charge me 24 cents for them. A few weeks later it rained once more and I again found water seeping into the trunk. I then gave up, bought a gallon of automobile undercoating and sealed the trunk interior myself. I had to repaint the trunk interior and I had to clean the rust off the tools and jack then repaint them.

How to "improve" the performance of your TR-4

     At 6,000 miles, my car was given a “special” going over by the Triumph dealer’s service department. They supposedly rotated tires, changed transmission fluid, etc., and , best of all, they “tuned the engine”. For this service, they presented me with a bill for $46.26 (remember, this was 1962). Well, at least you get what you pay for (but not always). This was done on Tuesday. On Friday of the same week, as I was driving home, the car began to cough, sputter, and buck. I managed to get the car home safely and on Sunday I took a look under the hood. I checked the points for pitting, looked for broken push rods and checked the compression for burned valves. All were O.K. The spark plugs were found to be badly fouled with carbon, so I cleaned and re-gapped them. The following Monday, the car was still running rough so I brought the car back to the dealer and told him of my troubles. That afternoon I got the car back in the same condition in which I had left it in the morning. The following day, I brought it back again, The mechanic changed the point gap and gave the car back to me in essentially the same condition as I had left it. For the third straight day, I brought the car back. I told the mechanic that I was sure the carburetors were causing the trouble. When I picked the car up, the mechanic said he had re-adjusted my valve clearances. He didn’t touch the carburetors and the car was still running very rough. My gas mileage, which was about 24 MPG prior to the “tuneup”, dropped below 19 MPG and remained there ever since. On some weeks, the mileage dropped to 16 MPG.

     I brought the car back to the service department on the order of ten times in the next three months to try and have the carburetors fixed but I never could get them to do any work on them. (On occasion, I was even charged for having the problem “fixed”, when, in reality, it was not.) As the weather grew colder, the choke (manual) began acting up and was defective until the day that I finally got rid of the car - a year after buying it. If too much choke was applied, the spark plugs fouled; if not enough choke was applied, the engine stalled during acceleration. The happy medium was never found. Driving the TR-4 when the engine was cold was quite an experience. It required the right hand on the manual choke control at all times and the right foot always on the gas pedal. Try that sometime and see how well coordinated you are. Engine stalling after deceleration was quite frequent. I finally asked another Triumph dealer what could be done about the carburetors. He replied that they would have to be taken apart and rebuilt (there were two SU carburetors on the TR-4). All that I could say at the time to those of you wanted to buy a TR-4 was to “make sure your dealer has a decent service department before you let them tune your car.”

     I considered rebuilding the carburetors myself and wrote to the Triumph people asking for their service manual. They wrote back that the manual was being written and that they would send me one when it was finished. When I finally traded it the TR-4 for a Volvo, some 12 months after buying the TR-4, the manual still had not been sent to me. (I wondered what the mechanics were using for their repair manuals.)

Quick service on replacement parts

     Soon After I purchased my TR-4, the Triumph parts depot was moved from my home state of Massachusetts to New Jersey. I asked the Triumph dealer if there would be any delay involved in getting replacement parts because of this change. He assured me that all parts could be obtained in “2 or 3 days.”

     The rainstorm that flooded my trunk also shorted out one of my fuses. The TR-4 used 35 amp fuses which are not a common size for American cars, so I asked the Triumph dealer to replace the burned out fuse and to get me a box of fuses to keep in the car. The dealer had no fuses in stock so I went without my license plate lights and horn for a week (highly illegal) before I finally got mad and complained to the salesman who had sold me the car. He pulled a fuse out of one of the TR-4’s on the showroom floor and gave it to me. The box of fuses that I ordered didn’t arrive for over a month (some 3 day service, hey?).

     Since the TR-4 was equipped so it could be started by a hand crank, I ordered the crank kit to keep in the car for those emergencies when the engine wouldn’t crank over with the electric starter. The crank kit arrived 2-1/2 months after I ordered it (maybe they had to ship the parts from England).

     Parts for defective window mechanisms (I’ll tell you about the windows a little further on) were on order for over 3-1/2 months, while a hood release cable and some chrome trim were on order for over 2 months. I shuddered to think what would happen when a really essential part in the car would break, but then the dealer had assured me that replacement parts could be “obtained in 2 or 3 days.”

Roll up the window - let’s have a barrel of fun

     When I was considering the purchase of a TR-4, my friends told me that one of the advantages of the TR-4 over the TR-3 (and several other sports cars of that era) was the fact that it had roll-up windows as compared to the sliding window type. They assured me that the roll-up windows would be water-tight and much more convenient than the older sliding types.

     About five months after obtaining my TR-4, I stopped to talk to a friend I met on the street. After my friend left, I tried to roll the right window back up. The window tilted forward in its track, ran up against the windshield post and then jammed completely in a half open position. Since it was raining quite heavily at the time, I stuffed a plastic raincoat in the open portion of the window and drove home. The following day, I was back at my home away from home, the Triumph dealer’s service department. When I came back for the car in the evening, I found the window had been placed back in its track and was now closed. I also found out that the window could only be rolled half way down and the mechanic had managed to put a pretty fair sized scratch in the window glass. After fuming and fussing for a while, I dragged out the Triumph salesman and showed him the window. He agreed to replace the glass and told me to come back and see the mechanic about fixing the regulator mechanism. The following day, I got hold of the mechanic who admitted that the window really needed a new regulator mechanism. After about a month’s delay, otherwise known as a “2 or 3 day delivery period on replacement parts,” the mechanic installed the new glass and regulator mechanism but said that the front window track would have to be replaced. He did not replace the window handle in order to keep the window from being used with the defective window track. Some 3 months later, I was still driving the car around with the window in the same condition while the mechanic told me that he was still waiting for the necessary replacement parts.

     A month after the right window broke, the left window came out of its track in much the same manner as the right window. A trip to the mechanic for “repairs” left the window about two inches out of its track with another faulty regulator mechanism. For the next two months I waited for the replacement parts to repair the left window. When it rained, the water would come in through the two inch space between the window and auto top. Heating the car in the New England winter was a problem, with the wind whistling in through the opening. Also, whenever the window was raised, it would chip paint off the windshield post and it would frequently jam in the half open position. When I complained to the Triumph dealer about the defective windows, he said that the windows were considered to be “commercially acceptable.” I later found out that this sort of trouble had occurred to other TR-4 owners.

”There’s a hole in the bucket” and open the hood Richard

     My TR-4, as I have mentioned previously, was quite efficient at letting water into the trunk and cab and then keeping it there. Unfortunately, the engine and cooling system appeared to be just the opposite. About seven months after the purchase of the TR-4 (and some 9,000 miles later), the engine began leaking oil, and the radiator developed a leak. Attempts at having the Triumph dealer’s service department fix the oil leak were fruitless so that every morning, as I left my driveway, a bright shiny puddle of oil was left on the driveway to mark the spot where my car had stood.

     In addition to the leaky radiator, the cooling system was bothered by a thermostat that wouldn’t close (try driving your rag-top car in winter with a thermostat that is always wide open. It’s a chilling experience) and a broken fan belt. The dealer charged me for these two items and I tried unsuccessfully to be reimbursed under the warranty on the car.

     The last straw, insofar as the Triumph dealer’s service was concerned, came during one of the last of my frequent visits to his repair department. The car had been left at 8:30 in the morning for numerous repairs. When I returned at 5:30 in the afternoon, none of the repairs had been started. The car had just been greased and the oil drained from the engine when the mechanic found that he couldn’t open the hood of my car. The hood cable release mechanism had jammed tight. As I watched in horror, one of the mechanics took a foot long screw driver, inserted it between the hood and the right fender and began to pry, much as one would operate a pinch bar. When this failed to release the hood, he went at the hood release mechanism in vengeance, eventually managing to break that. Finally, the mechanic had to unbolt the hood hinges from underneath the car in order to release the hood. After filling the engine up with oil, the mechanic closed the hood. Before driving off, I pulled on the hood release to make sure everything was O.K. The cable came off in my hand - the mechanic had forgotten to reattach the hood release cable so he had to go through the whole process of opening the hood one more time. When I asked to have the damaged hood release and piece of bent up chrome bead trim replaced (where the screw driver had been used in an attempt to pry open the hood), I was told that it would be taken care of. To this day, I’m still waiting.

In general

     My experience with my Triumph TR-4 was most disillusioning, to say the least. For a car costing nearly $3,000 (in 1963 dollars which is probably close to $40,000 in today’s dollars), the quality control was unbelievably bad, the service (if it could be called that) ranged from disgustingly poor to abysmal, and the delay involved in obtaining replacement parts utterly ridiculous. Screw, knobs and handles simply fell off and portions of the interior trim were never properly fitted.

     Certain parts were improperly designed, e.g., the windows and the heater. It turned out that the heater fan was much too weak to be effective. To force air through the heater, the air scoop vent had to be opened so that the ram pressure of the oncoming air, when the car was moving, drove the air in. The Triumph owner’s manual claimed that the air scoop vent could be closed and air in the car could then be recirculated by the fan. I quickly discovered that the amount of air circulation obtained in this manner was negligible and that the car could not be heated in this fashion. More cold air leaked into the car than was circulated through the heater when the air scoop was closed.

     The gas economy on the car was disappointing (even in the days before the Arab oil embargo of the 70’s and today’s $4 a gallon prices). Since the fateful “tune-up” of the car, the gas mileage dropped to well below 20 m.p.g. In addition, the gasoline required to keep the engine from knocking was high test. I briefly tried regular gas, but found that unless I changed the engine timing by several degrees, it knocked. This all boiled down to a rather uneconomical gasoline cost of 1-1/2 cents per mile in 1963. Today, this would translate into a per mile gasoline cost of just under 30 cents per mile. In comparison, my 1999 Toyota Corolla currently has a per mile gasoline cost of about 12 cents per mile.

     The road handling properties of my TR-4 were not exceptional. The rear end had a disconcerting habit of breaking loose on turns. It took a bit of practice to get used to this and to anticipate when it was going to happen. It must be admitted, however, that once the owner got the feel of the car and learned to anticipate when the rear end would break loose, correcting for it was generally not too difficult. The TR-4 could attain speeds of well over 100 m.p.h. I only tried this once on an open stretch of the Massachusetts Turnpike.

     The car was fairly stable in crosswinds and, when the windows were working properly, the cab was wind tight. The brakes were fairly even except when they got damp. They would then grab violently. A few seconds of brake “dragging” quickly eliminated the problem, however.

     The performance of my TR-4 on snow and ice was much poorer that I had hoped. On several occasions, I was unable to traverse snow or ice covered roads that other vehicles had little or no trouble on. My previous car, a 1951 Plymouth sedan, did considerably better on snow and ice that the TR-4.

     I had the engine refuse to start one cold morning (-5 deg, F). Using the hand crank was totally ineffective, because, with a 9:1 compression ratio, I just couldn’t crank the engine over fast enough to get it started. I finally had to have a service truck come out and start the car with a jumper battery. Freezing of the door and trunk locks was frequent and I even had the windshield wiper linkage seize up. This happened after the mechanic had broken my hood release, so I couldn’t open the hood to free up the linkage.

     Several letters and phone calls to the Triumph representative in New York, the Triumph distributor in New Jersey, and the Triumph dealer in Boston, concerning the many difficulties described above proved futile. One year after purchasing the TR-4, I traded it in for a new Volvo sedan (about the same price as the TR-4). By then the transmission had basically seized up so that I was only able to drive in one gear. Nearly all of the problems that I had experienced during my one year of ownership remained unresolved when I got rid of the car.

  30 June 2008 {Article 44; Whatever_13}    
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