In the years immediately following World War II, Standard Motor Company of Coventry sought not only to rebuild its peacetime auto production, but to redefine the family sedan for the post-war era.
Sir John Black met with his designer Walter Belgrove and a plan was put into place to bring in a streamlined expression of family mobility. Belgrove openly copied the design of the 1942 Plymouth sedan, at the ‘suggestion’ of Sir John, who instructed him.
“Belgrove, the best-looking Yankee car is the Plymouth and the best place to study one is outside the American Embassy in London! I suggest you take yourself off to Grosvenor Square. The place is swarming with embassy vehicles… come back only when you have got all you want, and don’t get shot.”
And so, the new sedan was born, the Plymouth’s design modified only for fitting Standard chassis and engine specifications. The sedan was named, after much consultation with His Majesty’s Navy, the Vanguard, after a famous battleship launched late in the war.
Much of the early production of the Vanguard would go overseas as the UK sought to increase industrial exports, particularly to Australia, while a steady demand for the car arose back home. Finally released for domestic sales in 1950, the Vanguard sold well in its homeland.
With the Vanguard now firmly established at home and abroad, Standard set its sights on replacing the 2000 Roadster and creating a sports car to compete with Jaguar in the forthcoming decade. Like the Vanguard, the design was to be a fresh start, a complete break from the past. Once again, Walter Belgrove would be the designer.
The design that emerged some months later was indeed different from what we would consider a classic Triumph shape. The car, called simply the Triumph roadster (and later, the TRX), was a streamlined, bullet-shaped three-seat convertible with a sleek aluminium body with concealed headlights, and wheel covers at the rear.
In contrast to the jaunty, open, wire-wheeled affairs of previous Triumph roadsters, The TRX had a more of-a-piece look that made it seem more like the fuselage of an airplane than a sports car. With lights that appeared from behind shutters, power windows and a power convertible top, it seemed a futuristic transforming robot-car.
The TRX was built on a Vanguard chassis and mechanicals. It has a three-speed transmission and a then-revolutionary Laycock de Normanville overdrive unit, which engaged from a switch on the steering wheel. To operate all the power features, electric motors were placed in between the aluminium panels. All those motors made the TRX heavy for its size, and a second carburettor was thus added to the engine to boost the horsepower a bit.
The interior sported an electrically powered bench seat that, theoretically, could seat three. Instrumentation was placed at the centre of the dashboard. Bakelite knobs and controls tuned the radio and the primitive climate control. The fabric top was controlled by a button-activated electric motor, which would lower the top into a recess behind the seat and cover it with a metal plate.
A small trunk was placed behind the passenger compartment. However, the petrol tank was placed at the extreme rear, immediately behind the bumper, which meant luggage would have to be lifted over the tank to be placed in the trunk.
The placement of the tank was not only inconvenient, it was extremely dangerous; even a minor rear-end collision could have resulted in a fuel spill and fire. The fuel tank location did, however, balance the weight of the car, which resulted in better handling, albeit at a potentially disastrous cost.
The TRX was presented at the 1950 Paris Motor Show and then, later, at the Earl’s Court Motor Show. The sleek little roadster garnered a lot of attention. Princess Margaret, who toured the show, reportedly swooned over the car… but the overall reaction was mixed. It seemed a bit too futuristic, yet at the same time a bit of a throwback to the Art Deco era.
At the same time, engineers and accountants were poring over manufacturing plans and costs. The innovative aluminium body and all the electrics were proving expensive to manufacture. Initial estimates put the cost of a basic TRX to be £975.00, easily making it Triumph’s most expensive car, even more than the Renown Saloon. Belgrove travelled to Italy to speak with Touring and Pininfarina about manufacturing the car, or at least the body, but no agreement could be reached with either of the storied Carrozzeria.
In the end, Standard and Triumph had to move on. The next roadster prototype, revealed in October 1952, was the 20TS. It was more traditionally styled and used many existing Triumph parts, mostly from the Mayflower. But, it too had its problems; the cockpit was tiny and the trunk was almost non-existent. Meanwhile the handling was difficult at best. Racing driver Ken Richardson was brought in to test the car and after the first run he pronounced it “a death trap,” later telling Sir John Black, “Frankly, I think it’s the most bloody-awful car I’ve ever driven.”
Sir John responded, in a rare moment of automotive executive humility, by asking Richardson to join the team in designing a proper successor to the 2000 roadster.
The 20TS was lengthened and restyled, with more passenger room, trunk space and properly tuned suspension. The fruit of their efforts debuted at the 1953 Geneva Motor Show. It was the TR2, and this time Triumph got it right. Produced from 1953 to 1955, the TR2 was an instant classic, popular on both sides of the Atlantic. The TR2 was succeeded by the equally popular TR3, which was produced from 1955 to 1962.
The TRX was quickly forgotten in the wake of the success of the TR series. It was an interesting and expensive experiment. Even now, some have a difficult time placing it in the Triumph family tree. Was it really a proto-TR? Some purists do not believe it should even be classified as a true roadster because of the bench seat (three humans on board being one too many for a roadster) and all those electronic doodads. They believe it should be classified as a cabriolet or a touring car.
Roadster? Cabriolet? Tourer?
Whatever it was, the TRX just seems to have wandered just a little too far from the Triumph brief. Still, it’s fun to consider an alternate ‘Buck Rogers-style’ history for the TR series. The TRX could have been the first in a futuristic series of streamlined roadsters, radio-controlled bubbletop coupés, and transformable, winged, jet-powered touring cars.
What would we have named such gleaming machines streaking down the motorway?
Perhaps… Spitfire? Now there’s a name…
If you’d like a walkaround view of the TRX, check out this video from an auction a few years back: