For several years Triumph built sportscars with highly reliable engines, which shared their basic construction with the engines used in the Ferguson tractor. But towards the end of the Fifties, they manufactured a more exotic twincam engine for their assault on the famous 24 hours of Le Mans. So exotic in fact that it received a name…
Well, it probably wasn’t just because it was exotic that it received a name. After all, with both Jaguar and Alfa Romeo producing their own twincam engines it was already a well-known concept. Even their nearest opponent, MG, had built their own twincam based around the sturdy B-series engine. All of their twincams could even be found in road going production cars, which of course immediately lent the cars an air of motorsport. That’s what two overhead camshafts could do for your image back then.
Triumph’s engine was actually constructed directly for motorsport and was used in Le Mans for three consecutive years. 1961 turned out to be Triumph’s year as all three cars completed the race and they managed to win the team prize. It wasn’t just the engine that was special though. While the car was called the TR-S, thus indicating that it was related to the rest of the TR-range, they were in reality pure prototypes engineered purely to compete in the grueling Le Mans race.
Equally, the engines were prototypes as well, and were thus constantly being improved and changing specification over the years. Therefore, the few engines which were made often differ in various details. Triumph did momentarily consider developing a road-version of the engine, which would have no doubt lifted their image significantly (this was while the TR3 was still in production), but sadly for us classic car enthusiasts, nothing came of it. The TR3 with the later 2.2-litre version of the old pushrod engine produced a healthy 100 hp and heaps of low-down torque. The race-spec engine with twin overhead camshafts produced around 150 hp at Le Mans – just for comparison. We can only guess what a road-version of the twincam would have managed.
All the twincam engines were 2-litres, and another constant similarity was their forged crankshaft. The crankshaft on the pushrod road-engine was its weakest point once you started to modify them. The twincam also had much stronger connecting rods, though it did share the same wet-liner construction of the cylinders as the road-engine. Still, the road-going pushrod engine and the Le Mans twincam engine don’t share so much as a single engine component. Restoring one of these elusive twincams today must be quite the task! To the best of my knowledge, there is currently only one fully functioning TRS in the world – naturally owned by a Brit and last experienced at Goodwood Revival.
But the twincam never made it into mass production and was never offered to the public either. Despite its Le Mans success (bear in mind, they won the team prize – not overall, as the best placed TRS came in ninth), I reckon most people have forgotten about its very existence. Which I suppose is quite understandable seeing as Triumph didn’t really bring anything new to the whole twincam concept. Except for one thing: It is the only engine in the world nicknamed after a pair of breasts.
I kid you not! Triumph’s twincam prototype bears the name “Sabrina”, and was named after the period glamour star Norma Ann Sykes – or rather her artist name, Sabrina. Her indisputable talent measured all of 41 inches, and when equipped with a then so popular torpedo bra, the visual similarity with the front cam covers of the twincam engine is rather obvious. The Triumph engineers clearly had a good laugh when they nicknamed their project, and then the name stuck.
It’s the small and bizarre stories like these which I feel are so important for our nostalgic automotive world. They are all too easily forgotten – but they shouldn’t be. Especially not when breasts are involved. Do you know of any other engine with a quite as inspiring name?
This fabulous promotional movie from Standard Triumph illustrates the three TR-S’s long battle through the 1961 Le Mans. It’s certainly worth watching for the excellent period footage, the truly genius commentary and not least as a reminder that Le Mans Classic is only just around the corner again.