In-house designs : Triumph SD2
The SD2 was the logical next step in the rejuvination of the Specialist Division’s range of cars. The plan had been kicked off in 1969/70, when Rover and Triumph produced their own big car proposals; of which the Rover version, penned by David Bache, was chosen over the Triumph Puma, as penned by William Towns amongst others. When the Solihull design team won out in the internal design competition, they went on to create the Division’s first car, the SD1. The formula was a simple yet successful one – marry David Bache design with simple, yet well-honed Spen King engineering to produce a state of the art car… It worked, because the SD1 was a landmark car – both for the company, and the opposition of the time.
The SD2 was conceived as the much-needed replacement for the Triumph small-car range, which at the time, comprised of the Toledo/1500TC/Dolomite 1850 and Sprint. These cars, which dated back to 1965, occupied an interesting market niche, somewhat above the Austin-Morris range in terms of cost, but not so much in size – in modern terms, these cars would be referred to as “premium” products, and Rover-Triumph were keen to capitalize on their popularity and produce an up-to-date interpretation of the theme. SD2 was also designed with rationalization very much in mind – BLMC’s small specialist saloon cars, although outwardly similar, were a mixture of engines and transmissions – and their continued existence was proving to be a drain on the company’s finances. Finally, and most importantly and as Malcolm Harbour – manager of the SD2 programme – put it, “the original concept of the SD2 was approved in May 1972 by the Triumph management, and the whole idea of having a replacement for the Dolomite ranges in the upper medium sector, fitting in that niche in the market, as complimentary to SD1”.
Technically, the SD2 followed a similar path to the SD1, inasmuch as the suspension system was conventional: McPherson struts up front and a live rear axle at the rear controlled by two trailing arms and a Watts linkage. The initial engine options for the SD2 were limited to the Dolomite Slant-four in 1854cc and 2-litre 16-valve form, mounted on a front subframe for improved refinement. This engine range was soon expanded following pressure from the marketing department, who considered that the upmarket little SD2 would not form an effective direct replacement for the Toledo and 1500TC. The 1500TC power unit was therefore chosen as the power unit for the entry level model, and in order not to jeopardise the car’s chances in export markets, the SD2 1500 would only be available in the UK.
However, the slant-four engine was not the original proposal put forward by Triumph engineers: right at the dawn of the programme, the six-cylinder overhead camshaft engines that were currently in development for the SD1 were also considered as a suitable base for a smaller power unit. As Harbour related, “there was a very apt proposal within Rover-Triumph to make four-cylinder versions of that engine.” Prototypes were built and it was this that would have powered the new car had the programme gone to plan from the outset.
The “miniature SD1” theme, as Harbour put it, continued with the car’s styling. The Solihull design studio led by David Bache produced a rather formulaic scaling down of the larger car. There were many appealing features on the SD2, most notably its front-end styling treatment that gave the car a sleek modern appearance, and the treatment of the front wheel arches and bumpers was especially neat. Where the SD2 was let down was at the rear, where the semi-concealed rear wheels and rather heavy plastic appliqué aft of the rear side windows jarred with the rest of the car. Be that as it may, the SD2’s styling was granted corporate approval in September 1973, and at that point, looked set fair to make it into production.
If the photographs of the SD2 looked rather less than flattering, the design did work rather better in the flesh, so to speak. According the Harbour, the style of the SD2 was not just worked on within Solihull: “There was one model design produced in the Solihull design studio by David Bache’s group, but there was also a competing style that was produced by Pininfarina. There were many people including myself who rather liked the Pininfarina style: it was slightly less controversial than the final SD2 style, with a very pronounced swage, and the cowelled wheel arches, and there was quite a lot of discussion with management about which was the way to go, but in the end they chose the in-house style”.
As the project progressed, it ran into increasing financial difficulties. Firstly, the engine range was revised so that the O-Series engine in 1.7 and 2-litre form would be used, in order to bring the SD2 in line with the Austin-Morris – the 16-valve version would continue right at the top of the range, but only to be built in relatively small numbers. This was actually a very sound and rational decision to make, given the fact that the programme had been capped with a £20million limit. Other problems concerned the cost of the gearbox/axle assemblies and whether they could be shared with the ADO77 project that was being drawn up at the same time in Longbridge. The SD2 programme continued through 1973 and 1974 and even though elements of the design were given corporate approval, final sign-off for production was never given.
Management nervousness over the SD2’s chance of success was echoed within several internal documents that pointed to its production cost being too expensive to make a profitable return. They also made several unfavourable comparisons with the Opel Ascona and Audi 80, which led to a further examination of how further costs, could be taken out of the SD2. Continuing evaluation of the programme and its implications came to a head on the 16th September 1974, when the Director of Product Planning, John Bacchus held a meeting of the management team behind the SD2 in order to address the fact that it looked like the car would not return a favourable profit. The idea was to continue with the SD2 but wherever possible, make as many savings as possible – the engine choice was fixed with twin-carburettor versions of the O-Series engine, and after much deliberation on the matter of the gearbox, the plan was to use the 77mm gearbox as used in the SD1. Production targets were also dropped in order to give Rover-Triumph the option of selling the car for more, thus raising its profitability.
Much discussion ensued, and it seemed that in the face of increasing internal resistance, it seemed that only Spen King continued to have faith in the concept of the SD2. When the collapse of BLMC followed in December 1974, and with the Ryder Report then recommending rationalization across the range, it was inevitable that the SD2 was doomed. Even though there were last minute attempts to revive the project, by suggesting far reaching component sharing with the ADO77, the programme officially died in the spring of 1975.
Under the auspices of the Leyland Cars regime and in the spirit of increased inter-divisional partnership, the SD2 was replaced by the TM1 project (for Triumph-Morris). TM1 was formalised as a proposal to the Product planning department in September 1975 and the reasoning behind its creation was described in the document: “the case for commonality has remained a strong one, even though in the UK the current models compete in largely different market sectors. Moreover, recent events have made it clear that resources do not exist to develop two separate models in reasonable time.”
As this was a hastily conceived plan, there was no time to start with a clean sheet, so the joint Triumph-Morris car would use the SD2 as its starting point. This evidently made sense given the fact that several SD2 prototypes had been built, whereas the ADO77 appears not to have made it beyond the clay model stage. Even so, there was an increasing feeling within the company that the rear wheel drive package – no matter how well developed – was not the ideal solution with which to mount an assault on a middle market that was rapidly moving towards front wheel drive. Malcolm Harbour stated that the argument had been voiced within BLMC many times and rear wheel drive was possibly the way forward for a Triumph car company that was, “positioning itself against BMW, but there was not really the volume to justify it.”
Spen King knew this, as did Gordon Bashford who, since the middle of 1975 had been working on what would become the LC10. Sensibly, the TM1 programme that would have produced a four-door Morris and a five-door Triumph was quickly passed over in favour of the new front wheel drive model.
Was the SD2 a missed opportunity for British Leyland? Indeed it was, but Rover-Triumph were always going to be constrained in developing the car because of their lack of the so-vital off the shelf 2-litre engine and gearbox that could have been used without any significant debate within the company. Also the cost factors involved in developing a new rear wheel drive platform were prohibitive, especially within the climate of austerity that was prevalent in the company at the time. Given a more favourable climate, the SD2 might have seen the light of day – and given its five-door layout, well-honed chassis and interesting range of engines it would have been an interesting car indeed. On the road, the car promised much, and according to Malcolm Harbour, the prototype that he drove around the lanes of Shropshire under cover of darkness was a genuinely entertaining car.