Marques : Triumph Story, part two
Triumph: the winner that never was
THE Triumph car company, like Rover, was a genuine British success story of the 1960s. From the low-point of being declared bankrupt in 1939 – and being picked up by Standard in 1945, the Triumph name had forged ahead. So much so, that from 1959 onwards all new Standards would be called Triumphs – and all because Harry Webster had devised an interesting and technically diverse range of cars.
During the Fifties, the Standard Motor Company led a reasonably successful existence, with the added bonus of a lucrative tractor building operation for Ferguson shoring up the company’s profits. However, the company was still quite small compared with giants Austin and Morris and because sales volumes were nothing special, funds to develop the next generation of cars would be increasingly hard to come by. Because of this stagnation on the market, the company began seriously looking at forming an alliance with another UK carmaker – the intention of Standard’s managing director, Alick Dick was to drive the company forwards. Several potential suitors were approached; including Rover and the Rootes Group, but neither one offered a satisfactory solution to the company’s problems.
Standard falls into disuse
However, the fortunes of Standard turned rapidly downwards in 1960 – domestic sales were crippled by a budgetary credit squeeze and exports sales of the sports cars also took a turn for the worse. From the prosperous days of the Fifties, where Standard were looking to buy-out other companies, the company eventually became mortally vulnerable to the predatory advances of the Lancashire-based truck-builder, Leyland. Why Leyland decided to take-over Standard Triumph International in 1961, can only be put down to one factor: its truck building business was going from strength to strength and the desire for expansion into the potentially profitable world of car manufacture proved irresistible.
Within Standard Triumph International, it was the Triumph (rather than Standard) marque that seemed the ideal vehicle for the successful truck maker to make an impression in the car industry. The loser in the takeover upheavals was the Standard nameplate – The division that Standard had built up – Triumph – now seemed to match the car-buying mood of the moment. Incredibly Standard had now been renamed Triumph (a process that was underway before the Leyland takeover). Within a short period of time – the Standard name was dead.
Harry Webster played his part in the Triumph renaissance, being, as he was, responsible for the TR line of sporting convertibles – but that was the beginning: for Triumph, the planets aligned perfectly and the combination of Harry Webster and Giovanni Michelotti produced the excellent Triumph Herald, launched in 1959 – a car that proved to be exactly the right product at the right time for the company. The Herald was first conceived in April 1956 as a replacement for the Standard Eight – codenamed Zobo, the new car was unusual for being designed from the outset to be built around a backbone chassis, rather than the increasingly usual monocoque. Also, from the outset, the Standard design team decreed that the Zobo should have all-independent suspension.
The Standard Ten engine displacing 947cc was the intended power unit for the Zobo, but Harry Webster soon identified that it would not be man enough for the job of powering the heavier new car. Webster soon worked out how to increase the capacity and power of the engine – realising 1300cc, but as Webster recalled, “Alick Dick decided to upgrade to 1147cc after launching the original 947cc version in the first instance, and keep the 1300cc up our sleeves”.
Anglo-Italian design for success
With the format of the car’s mechanics set, the intention was for the styling to be just as unconventional. Out went Standard’s existing stylist, Walter Belgrove, following a feud with technical director Ted Grinham, and after some difficult times at the Canley styling studios, in came Giovanni Michelotti. By September 1957, the Italian was commissioned to produced proposals for the Zobo: a saloon, coupe, estate car and convertible – and within three months, just before the Christmas closedown, the first car, a coupe was presented to the board. Harry Webster recalled the event; “We got it into the styling studio and put it on the turntable. Then Alick Dick and the rest of the board turned up. Everyone thought it was superb. Afterwards, we all went down to the canteen and got gloriously drunk.” Their optimism was justified – the Herald was a success.
The Webster-Michelotti alliance would prove to be a lasting one – but in the beginning, their next car was styled internally at Triumph, used a separate chassis and the basic model was powered by a 1.6-litre engine. Initially, the make-up of the car, known as Zebu, mirrored that of the Zobo: separate chassis and advanced styling, but the first incarnation replete with reverse rake rear window was cancelled by Alick Dick because of its resemblance to the upcoming Fords Anglia and Classic. Standard’s precarious financial situation did not help either, so it was, therefore, an inevitability that the project was cancelled – only to be resurrected after the Leyland takeover in 1961. The resurrected car, nicknamed “Barb”, styled by Michelotti and enjoying monocoque construction would go on to be launched as the Triumph 2000 in October 1963.
Whilst the development of the Standard Vanguard replacement had been underway, Rover had also been working on their P6. During the Standard/Rover merger talks of 1959, it was proposed that if the merger was successful, development of these two cars could be pooled – how different the executive car market of the late Sixties could have looked if the merger had proved successful. As it was, these two cars went on to pretty much create a new sector of the market between them, proving to be fierce rivals throughout their lifetime.
The 2000 was followed into production by the 1300 saloon – a clever little front wheel drive car, again clothed in a stylish Michelotti body and engineered by Harry Webster. Pitched slightly upmarket from the Herald, the Triumph 1300 immediately carved itself a handy niche in the market, offering up a compact, but luxurious package, which would prove to be popular with buyers in the UK and Europe alike. This technically interesting package would go on to live a long life – and the basic Triumph 1300 body shell would form the basis of a range of cars in later life, but as we shall see, this promising car would be passed over by the company, time and time again.
With these two sporting saloons, Triumph created an enviable reputation for themselves – and this success led to a desire to push further upmarket. As a result of this ambition, in 1965 the most famous post-Leyland Triumph was conceived.
Enviable niche products
The Stag was the next major project – and although the Leyland-BMC merger overtook it, and caused continued delays, the company pushed forwards with its introduction. In 1966, many people say the perfect opportunity to clear all of the car’s upcoming problems could have been solved when the company absorbed Rover – and its sensational all-aluminium V8 engine. Despite what Spen King was told by his engineers, it would fit under the bonnet – but sadly, it was never to be, as the the company never possessed the production capacity to meet Rover and Triumph’s demand for V8 engines…
Triumph had also worked hard behind the scenes – before it was fashionable to talk in such terms – on some very interesting niche products. An estate version of the 1300 saloon was produced for Triumph by Carbodies – and like the 2000 estate, it did not major so much on carrying capacity, but on style. The idea never saw production because the budget that this car would have taken up was more sensibly spent on the introduction of the facelifted saloon model with its longer tail – and the expansion of the range. Whether the 1300 estate would have sold in any great numbers is open to debate, but it certainly pre-empted the trend towards “lifestyle” estates such as Rover’s own R8 Tourer by many years. Earlier, Triumph had also investigated a five-door version of the 2000 saloon called the 2000GT. This car, cast very much in the mould of the Rover SD1, was first evaluated in 1963 as an alternative to the estate version, also under development at the time. Carbodies got as far as producing a running prototype of the 2000GT before technical difficulties killed off the project – and Triumph questioned its marketability, anyway – but the existence of these two cars certainly demonstrate that there was some very original thought going on at Triumph.
The company had also been hard at work on the replacements for the GT6 and TR5 models: Following hard on the heels of the Stag, project Bullet and Lynx were to spearhead Triumph’s attack on the sports car market – the closed Lynx model and targa-topped Bullet were both in the early stages of development at the time of the formation of BLMC – and although the Bullet did eventually go into production (in a much modified form) as the TR7, it was considered a corporate sports car, not a Triumph sports car. The very promising Lynx, however, was dropped as a result of post-merger rationalisation – there was only room for one new BLMC sports car. The Lynx name was not buried, though …
In the aftermath of the launch of the Stag, and even allowing for the loss of the upcoming Lynx sports car, Triumph possessed an enviable range of cars, which were viewed as something quite special: sporting, luxurious and above all, stylish: in modern terms, something akin to BMW. The sporting saloon image that had been fashioned out of the Mk2 Triumph 2000/2500 (restyled to echo the Stag) and Dolomite was only heightened by their family resemblance to the Stag. In fact, by 1972, the range looked unstoppable.
In the climate of post merger within BLMC, the position of Triumph would also have looked very good indeed: their new technical director was the gifted Spen King; there was still that inventive streak within the Triumph technical department; best of all though, BLMC’s chairman, Donald Stokes had his first taste of the car industry through Triumph, and it was the company that added to Leyland’s prosperity. In short, Triumph had the inside track and a lot of advantages.
From the jaws of victory…
Bullet and Lynx together in miniature – a sensible sports car strategy had been built around these cars and the Stag. The Triumph plan would have worked in isolation – once MG came on board, there was no room for all three.
So what went wrong?
As with the case of Rover, Triumph suffered in the confusion that followed the formation of British Leyland in 1968 – the disparate group of companies when brought together, produced a huge and overlapping range. Triumph, it seemed, were affected more than anyone else by this:
- Triumph 1300: clashed with Austin-Morris 1300
- Triumph GT6: clashed with MGB GT
- Triumph Spitfire: clashed with MG Midget
- Triumph 2500: clashed with Rover 2200
So as far as British Leyland’s accountants were concerned, at the time of the merger, most of Triumph’s range could justifiably be described as being surplus to requirements. That was a simplistic view of the situation of course, and the reality is that Triumph’s reputation was very strong with enthusiastic motorists who demanded something a little special. Although it terms of size and price, the Triumph 1300 and MG 1300 might have been quite similar, they appealed to very different drivers.
Following the merger, it became very apparent that Austin-Morris was in a bit of a mess and the money that had been rolling in from the successful Leyland truck operation, as well as Rover and Triumph was diverted into turning around the beleaguered volume division. Product strategies were devised rapidly, with the priority being placed on the rapid replacement of the ADO16 and ADO17 to the detriment of the ageing Triumph 1300/Dolomite. The ongoing sales of the small Triumph were healthy, and ongoing development led to the superb Dolomite Sprint, but the truth is that it was by now a 1965 design and it was falling behind newly emerging opposition from Saab and BMW at an alarming rate.
Serious work on the P6/2000/2500 clash only began in 1971 and although the car was conceived to replace the products of both marques, the decision was made early on to call it a Rover. Triumph, it seemed were already beginning to lose out – and when the SD2 Dolomite replacement was shelved in favour of an Austin-Morris model as a result of the Ryder Report, the future for Triumph (or should I say, lack of it) was sealed.
The product itself may have been respected, but the flagship car, the Stag, soon began to suffer from some fairly serious reliability issues. Traumatic as it is to relate, the Stag rapidly acquired the reputation as a car that would last for 30,000 miles and then blow up. Of course, some trade reputations were unjustified, but in the case of the Stag, they were not. A basic and fundamental weakness in the timing chains meant that they could stretch and jump a link or two – leading to disastrous consequences. The only prevention against this catastrophic fault involved changing the timing chains at a regular 20,000 miles, which severely limited the car’s image as a serious long distance cruiser.
The obvious answer of adapting the Stag to use Rover V8 power was expensive, and BLMC could not justify the cost, given the low volumes involved – the Stag would be allowed to wither on the vine.
The Dolomite Sprint also suffered from similar woes – original pre-1974 Sprints used a beautifully cast nitrided crankshafts, which ensured engine longevity. Within a year of launch, BLMC accountants ensured that a stock item replaced this expensive item. The result was increasing unreliability.
Within little time, the two engines designed to ensure Triumph kept up with their continental rivals had earned a reputation for fragility – and with it, the Triumph image began to wane.
In a way, both Rover and Triumph suffered terribly, following the formation of BLMC. In simple terms, both companies had bright futures before them – Rover as the producer of solid upper management-type cars and Triumph as the innovative producer of sporting saloons. A modern analogy would be that Rover was the “British Mercedes-Benz” and Triumph, the “British BMW”.
Within Leyland, there would have possibly been room for both companies to prosper, once the P6/2000 clash had been resolved – and possibly, Rover and Triumph would have gone on to great success during the ‘seventies and into the ‘eighties. But within BLMC, the situation changed radically: Jaguar remained at the pinnacle of the combined range, Rover were shifted downmarket in order to avoid direct competition. Triumph was left in no-mans-land, being squeezed between Rover and Austin-Morris. Jaguar, Rover and Triumph were placed in BLMC’s Specialist Division in 1971, but the truth of the situation was that that the parent company could not afford to maintain all three marques – not whilst Austin-Morris were in such dire straits.
The end result was Triumph died in 1984 – the date that marked the launch of the Rover 213: a car that in concept, deserved a Triumph badge.