Nick Truman - 1978 Mid Engined Spitfire.
I’ve also had a few Triumph Spitfires in my time, and I just love the shape of these little British classic cars.
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1978 Mid Engined Spitfire.
I live near Heathrow and I am a major petrol head and I love mid-engined cars having owned a 1977 Ferrari 308 GT4 and previously built a replica Zonda powered by a twin-turbo Jaguar V12. I’ve also had a few Triumph Spitfires in my time, and I just love the shape of these little British classic cars.
My build started in June 2019, I bought a VW Passat engine and gearbox and a Spitfire chassis on eBay for about £100. The engine is a 20v 1.8 turbo which as I understand produces about 170bhp but is easily tunable to produce lots of horsepowers, ample enough for a Spitfire. The idea was to fit the engine where the Spitfire’s rear differential would normally go, and it fitted perfectly. It was all a bit of guesswork at this time as I didn’t have a body, so I only had a rough idea of how much of the already cosy seating position I would lose and how far the engine would hang out of the back of the car. To mount the Audi driveshafts I acquired an Audi Quattro rear subframe, this was added to the rear of the Spit’s chassis. I used standard A4/Passat front driveshafts, and everything just went together, next was to fabricate a bit of strengthening, a mini spaceframe that would give rigidity to the rear end and also support the top of the rear suspension.
For the front end, as the spitfire chassis was bare, I decided to go big, I bought a pair of BMW M1 callipers, uprights and control arms, the whole lot only came to £50! Bargain, the BMW uses struts at the front. I wanted to maintain the Spitfires A-frame suspension, after all, it is a seriously good setup as used by lotus etc. That meant converting the BMW’s uprights to fit. 2 aluminium adapters were machined, these just drop into the upright and use a ball joint connected to the upper A-frame, so far so good. However, the steering geometry was way different from the Spitfire. The answer was to morph a BMW steering rack with a Spitfire one. Surprisingly the BMW’s track rod mated perfectly with the Spitfire’s steering rack, so now I could use all the standard BMW upright connections for steering. Where the engine would have fitted in the Spitfire a heavy steel frame is fitted, this braces the front and supports the fuel cell.
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At least I now had a rolling chassis.
Next was to source a bodyshell, I found one in Reading, as rotten as hell, had no doors, bonnet or components inside and every part had metal cancer. Over the next 3 months, all the rot was cut out, the only panels bought were the 2 outer sills, all the rest were made out of 1.2mm steel sheet, the neighbours must have loved the constant hammering and angle grinder noises. To make a mid-engined Spitfire, you have to lose the boot space, you have to lose the boot floor and inner wheel arches, this means the back of the car is now really floppy! Ironically the boot floor was probably the best bit of steel on the car.
To make lifting the body on and off easy, I used a Fiesta towing hook bang in the middle of the body tub, now it lifted easily with a hoist. So then I fitted it, and it did, it fitted perfectly. The only part of the passenger compartment that has gone was the small parcel shelf behind the seats and the transaxle, just hung nicely into the spitfire’s rear valance. Over the next few months, the body must have been on and off hundreds of times.
Now all the rot had been cut out of the body, it was time to prepare the chassis and running gear for the body’s final fitting. Obviously in a Passat, the engine and gearbox are in the front, so cooling is a simple case of 2 rubber hoses into a radiator, and gear changing is as simple as a rod from the gearstick to the gear selector on the gearbox. To sort the cooling 2 lengths of 1.5” aluminium tube run up the centre of the car, where the prop shaft would normally go. Flexible rubber radiator hoses connect the engine to the aluminium tubes.
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The gear selector was going to be a bit trickier, VW Golf gear selector has cables instead of the Passat’s rod selector, however, the cables are way too short to reach the back of the car. Two 8 foot power boat steering cables were used, these replaced the short VW control cables and ran to the back of the car. Turns out that 8 foot cables were too long, but they are in there now and I’m not taking it to pieces again to fit shorter ones, So if anyone out there is thinking of doing the same, go six-foot, would be perfect. One cable controls the front and back movement of the gear selector and the other does the left-right movement of the gear stick. Using 5mm ball joints the 2 cables connected nicely to the gearbox, and voila, we have gears.
The rear brakes are Audi Quattro and the front are BMW M1, the car had no master cylinder. The Triumph master cylinder is only a single circuit and only really good enough for rear brake drums and the small front discs, the discs on this car are huge!
A VW Passat master cylinder was used and mounted where the spitfire brake cylinder would normally go, I had to lose the servo, but if that’s an issue later on I can always fit a remote servo. The Audi brake cylinder is also duelled circuit, meaning I can have a different rear and front braking bias if I choose. The rear callipers and brake cylinders had to be completely rebuilt as it looked like they had been immersed in water for years.
Lastly, before fitting the body, engines complicated wiring had to be fitted. The Spitfire is so small, that the engine loom not only fitted, but the part of the loom that would normally run across a Passat’s bulkhead ran right up the Spit’s centre tunnel, just below the heater pipes.
Now time to fit the body tub for the last time.
A space frame chassis was made to strengthen the rear of the car, this is welded to the body and bolts to the chassis at the top of the rear shocks and onto the quattro subframe.
All the electrics in the car are straight out of a Passat B5. However a Passat has 4 doors, aircon, airbags, a convenience system and many more systems, all connected by a CAN-bus network, the spitfire has an engine and a dash, So to get the Passat’s wiring loom into the Spitfire is a bit like putting a ship in a bottle! Miles of the wiring had to be cut out, and what was left had to be adapted to fit a completely different layout. The next issue is that the Passat has an ECU, this by default will not let the car start if the key and its security transponder are not detected by a small device by the ignition column, the spitfire had none of this stuff. So with the help of my son, we worked out how to disable the immobiliser, and we did it. The ECU had to be reprogrammed to forget about evap systems, airbags and so on, the dashboard had to be programmed for the right mileage of the Spitfire going from its last MOT a decade ago.
Then turn the key and the engine burst into life and sounded epic.
The radiator I used is from a Fiesta 1.9 diesel, it fits nicely in the front at an angle. Air passes through the front Astra bumper through the radiator and up through a hole in the bonnet (which I bought for £25 off eBay).
The car is very wide now, the Passat is 6 inches wider than a little Spit and the BMW hubs are way wider than the standard Spitfire ones. As the spitfire’s rear wings were totally rotten these were cut off and a wider arch made, incorporating air ducts that will channel air into the turbo on one side and the intercooler on the other. For the front, wide wheel arches were fabbed from sheet steel. The car looks low and mean.
The wheels are BMW 17” Fox alloys, so to fit the rears, the 5 holes had to be slotted 5mm. The front wheels caused a lot of issues, as they are way wider and bigger than the 13” 155r13s the car originally came with. This meant to get any steering lock took required cutting away quite a lot of the body tub’s sills and bulkhead. I have fitted fully adjustable Gaz shocks and Canley classic adjustable upper wishbones, this has allowed me to get the front suspension just right.
For lighting I have used Alfa 156 rear lights, they wrap nicely around the car’s rear and give it a really wide look. For the front, I have used LED sealed units. These have halo lights, either white or orange. For the moment I am just using the white halo lights as sidelights.
The last “major” engineering job was to get the fuel gauge to work with the 20l aluminium fuel cell I fitted, the Audi/VW sensor uses totally different resistance range than the GM sender unit in the fuel cell. Thanks to the internet I found a chap who had designed some electrical wizardry that would convert the signal. The reprogramming the dashboard to tell it the fuel tank is only 20 litres and not 60 anymore. Now the dashboard tells me how many miles I can get on a tank load, about a 120 miles apparently.
The one thing I noticed when I drove the car was when it got hot the engine smoked badly. The K03 turbo was shot. So I bought a K04-015 turbo, this is much bigger, so now to match the turbo I had to upgrade the fuel injectors to 225bhp Audi TT injectors and the MAF to a 3” Audi TT MAF. I also fitted a large intercooler, this fits between the seats in the cockpit. While I was at it I fitted an aftermarket fuel rail and fuel pressure regulator and a 4 branch tube steel manifold that my son gave me for Christmas. Now the ECU needed sorting out, as the fuel and air were all wrong. A local “tuner” sold me a tune, it cost £320, but was rubbish, the car became undrivable, when you lifted off the gas and pressed the brakes the car would surge forward. So I decided to remove that tune and revert to the original, the tuner had gone on a long avoid a covid lockdown holiday to Pakistan, so I decided to do it myself; sadly I broke the ECU. Luckily a chap on a Facebook forum saved the day, he sold me an ECU and a custom map for my car for £100, so we were back up and running, now with a car-producing near 280 bhp.
To paint the car I wanted something striking, whilst out for a walk with my wife, Sophia, we saw 2 ducks, they had an amazing pearl green neck, so the colour was now decided. Custom Paints provided a perfect colour, a green pearl. The car was sprayed mat black and the green pearl sprayed over that, then many coats of lacquer.
The interior is trimmed with leather, stolen from a living room sofa we scrapped, and I had some carpets made, black with green binding. The seats are from a Mazda MX5 mk1, I paid £1 for them on eBay These cleaned up beautifully and I stained the centre section green, with black side panels
The car is very lively to drive, 280bhp in a car that weighs 685kg is always going to be a handful. The front is quite light, similar to an early MR2 or Porsche 911, and the acceleration is fast. If you push the accelerator too hard the rear wheels spin up in all gears, which is quite hairy.
Next on the to-do list are some wider rear wheels and tyres, adjustable rear shock absorbers and a limited-slip diff. Well Rome wasn’t built in a day
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