Giovanni Michelotti would be responsible for designing all the most popular Triumph models sold in the 1960s and 1970s, but one of his more interesting ideas deserved more support than it received. The Triumph Italia was an Anglo-Italian custom project and combined one of the toughest British drivetrains with an elegant coupe body built by Vignale.
The idea came from Salvatore Ruffino, who was Standard-Triumph’s Italian distributor and saw a niche for an up-market sports coupe, using the Triumph TR3’s 100 bhp 1991 cc four-cylinder engine and chassis. In 1958, the TR3 was still a drafty roadster with side curtains and cut-down doors, and Ruffino thought he could sell at least 1,000 sophisticated units with unmistakable Italian flair. He approached a number of coachbuilders, including Zagato, Touring and Ghia, then met the young Michelotti and proposed a concept car for the 1958 Turin Motor Show.
Two prototypes were built by Alfredo Vignale. The first had a sloped nose and covered headlights. The second was Ruffino’s personal car. Michelotti redesigned the nose on the production car to look a bit like a Maserati 3500 GT, with an oval intake and open headlights. Vignale assembled the first 13 cars, all of which had detail differences. Ruffino leased a production line from Vignale in 1959, and Triumph TR3 chassis were delivered there to be steel-bodied. In all, 329 Italias would be built by 1963, with the last 30 having TR3B frames.
Ruffino had a verbal commitment that each of the 720 Triumph dealers would take at least one Italia, but it didn’t work out that way. Meanwhile, Standard-Triumph had financial and labor problems, and British Leyland took over in 1962. BL focused on Triumph and hired Michelotti (who created the radical Herald) to redesign the TR3. Michelotti obliged, using many of the styling cues he had applied to the Italia, like the hood bulge, door beltline that kicked up at the rear, windup windows and stubby finned rear fenders with vertical lights. In one stroke he had upstaged the Italia with a similar car that was 30 percent less expensive.
Ruffino persevered with the Italia 2000, removing Triumph mentions from the badging. In three years he built 323 LHD and six RHD units, and converted the original show car to RHD. Options were limited, but included Weber carburetors, overdrive, a telescopic steering wheel, radio, heater, leather interior, Borrani wire wheels and Nardi wood-rim steering wheel.
Between 30 and 40 Italias were imported into the U.S., but their $5,000 price tag was almost double the $2,675 price of a TR3. The Los Angeles distributor reportedly slashed $1,000 off the Italia’s MSRP, though buyers had to sign an agreement that they knew there were no body spares available in the U.S.
Survivor examples of this gorgeous but short-lived collaboration are cherished by their owners and there is an active club. Mechanical parts are no problem and the club has deduced which parts from Alfa Romeo, Fiat and Lancia models were used. Potential purchases should be examined closely for rust, and the rarity of body and trim pieces mean that it’s worth spending money for the best car available.