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In-house designs : Triumph SD2

Keith Adams

The Triumph 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 – that resulted in the Rover version, penned by David Bache, being chosen over the Triumph Puma, as penned by William Towns among 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.

Replacing the Dolomite

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 was keen to capitalise 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, 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 was of having a replacement for the Dolomite ranges in the upper medium sector, fitting in that niche in the market, as complimentary to SD1.’

What lay under the skin

Technically, the SD2 followed a similar path to the Rover 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 2.0-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.

Triumph engine decisions

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.

Rover SD2
An alternative six-light proposal for the SD2 – in some ways preferable to the final four-light version shown at the top of the page. According to Spen King and Malcolm Harbour, the Pininfarina proposal for the SD2 was an infinitely preferable design, but it was rejected in favour of the in-house design (Picture supplied by Ian Nicholls)

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.

Questionable looks

If the photographs of the SD2 looked rather less than flattering, the design did work rather better in the metal, 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 2.0-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.

Financial difficulties

This was actually a very sound and rational decision to make, given the fact that the programme had been capped with a £20 million limit. Other problems concerned the cost of the gearbox/axle assemblies and whether they could be shared with the ADO77 project which was being drawn up at the same time in Longbridge. The SD2 programme continued through 1973 and 1974 but, 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 16 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 beancounters strike

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, 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 rationalisation across the range, it was inevitable that the SD2 was doomed.

Over by Spring 1975

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.

Rover SD2
The above picture c.1972 shows the two SD products together for evaluation and comparative purposes. It has to be said that, in this photograph, the styling does not look quite so ill-balanced as the two others, but compared with the SD1, the SD2 is still not quite so well-proportioned

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.

Towards a front-wheel drive future

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 its lack of the so-vital off-the-shelf 2.0-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.

What do you think?


Rover SD2
The SD2 viewed from its best angle: the front. The overall package was very appealing, and it could be argued that had BLMC produced it, it could have put them to the forefront of the emerging premium car market. However, the project was scrapped, and with it, the idea of an up-to-date Triumph range of upper medium cars

Rover SD2
Bold Triumph badging for the new car, even though it was a Specialist Division effort, and it may say ‘1500’, but its actually a 2.0-litre…

Rover SD2
Triumph engine looks lost under the bonnet: prototype uses fuel-injected version of the 16V slant-four found in the Sprint

Rover SD2
Dashboard shows much design commonality with the SD1. Steering wheel design and instrumentation look particularly appealing, as do the multi-coloured auxiliary switches

Rover SD2
Rear legroom looks tight – especially when viewed alongside that of the front wheel drive LC10, which replaced it

Triumph SD2

News : New Triumph SD2 image emerges on Motorgraphs

Keith Adams

Keith Adams

Editor and creator AROnline at AROnline
Created in 2001 and built it to become the world's foremost reference source for all things BMC, Leyland and Rover Group, before renaming it AROnline in 2007.

Is the Editor of the Parkers website and price guide, formerly editor of Classic Car Weekly, and launch editor/creator of Modern Clsssics magazine. Has contributed to various motoring titles including Octane, Practical Classics, Evo, Honest John, CAR magazine, Autocar, Pistonheads, Diesel Car, Practical Performance Car, Performance French Car, Car Mechanics, Jaguar World Monthly, MG Enthusiast, Modern MINI, Practical Classics, Fifth Gear Website, Radio 4, and the the Motoring Independent...

Likes 'conditionally challenged' motors and taking them on unfeasable adventures all across Europe.
Keith Adams

43 Comments on "In-house designs : Triumph SD2"

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  1. Tim Wellington says:

    Yep, the SD2 was another surefire winner and therefore destined to be totally overlooked by the BL bosses who couldn’t pick a winner if they were standing next to be finishing post presenting the gold, silver and bronze medals.

    The SD2 was a smart, roomy, practical, quality car which would have sold by the bucket-full to discerning buyers looking for quality family transport or a versatile company car – or just about any other permutation that could be devised!

  2. KeithB says:

    Sadly, when compared to the SD1, this car just does not tick any boxes for me. I’ve tried liking it but it just doesn’t have anywhere near the same impact as its larger sibling.

    I have always thought that the Dolomite styling should have been evolved in the same way as BMW, Jaguar and Mercedes-Benz did with their ranges. The Dolomite had the makings of a genuine 3 Series rival which may well have still been in production today.

  3. Paul T says:

    I think that there is always a risk when basing the design on a stylish ‘big brother’ and I think that has affected the overall design of this car. The SD2 is a poor, if well-intended, attempt to shrink the SD1.

    That being said, I am sure the SD2 would have sold well enough considering what the opposition was at the time.

  4. Will says:

    I reckon that, as a fwd family car hatchback, the SD2 was way ahead of its time and could have been British Leyland’s alternative to the similar Citroen BX.

  5. Simon Woodward says:

    I think there is a hint of the Lancia Gamma around the rear of the SD2 and that’s not a bad thing. The SD2’s in its raw prototype guise here but, with a few tweaks, I think it would have been a worthy successor to the Dolomite range. Will’s BX observation is spot on.

  6. Mark says:

    A good looking car for when it would have come out

  7. Darran says:

    Is it me or does it look like a Citroen XM

  8. Mikey C says:

    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.”

    Several million rwd BMW 3 series later…surely, as around that time the rwd SD1 and TR7 were being developed, there were enough common parts to make the programme viable?

  9. daveh says:

    I have seen a model of the Michelloti effort in Classic Car mag when it did a special on Triumph – looked far better and would have probably sold in large numbers. Shame BL were run by a bunch of muppetts and built by striking staff.

  10. ben says:

    shame it came to nothing could have helped BL a lot

  11. Eamonn says:

    And we got the boring looking Acclaim 🙁

  12. didierz65 says:

    I agree with#2, a slightly bigger Dolo was a better bet. The Michelloti re-jig was akin of the 3-5 beemer, classy and svelte. This sd2 looks ungainly, front reminds me of the lada samara, side is heavy and it’s small inside. Definitely not the upmarket model they were aiming at!!! On the other side, it would have been a great replacement for the marina and princess.

  13. Ian Nicholls says:

    It appears the real reason for the SD2’s demise was financial , following the damage caused to BLMC’s coffers by the 3 day week in early 1974 .The company needed to cut spending to stay afloat and stave of its creditors .
    The SD1 , SD2 , TR7 , TR8 and Lynx were all part of Rover Triumph’s expansion plans . Without the SD2 , Triumph had only the sportscars built at Speke .
    It was announced in April 1976 that all car production would end at Canley in 1980 .
    Was the cancellation of the SD2 a mistake ?
    Quite possibly yes , but even if it had gone into production at Canley , if would have been built by a strike prone workforce led by Eddie McGarry who seemed to think the world owed them a living whether they stayed at their work stations or not .

  14. rovereab says:

    I think the styling would have been helped if the swage line curved up at the rear to reflect it curving down at the front. This perhaps combined with the bottom edge of the rear windows/C post curving up would have improved the styling IMO.

  15. Paul H says:

    Rover-Triumph where constrained in developing the car because of the lack of a so-vital 2 litre engine and gearbox off the shelf – How so? They had the O series and the still current Triumph slant 4 along with the newly developed 77mm gearbox. Throw in TR7/SD1 suspension and the whole mechanical package was handed to designers on a plate. Amazing they managed to get themslves so tied up in knots over what should have been a relatively simple job with a car that effectively designed itself.

  16. Keith Adams says:

    ‘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.’

    It’s all there. During the programme, engineers, designers and planners didn’t think of this as a BL car, but a Triumph – so a Triumph powertrain solution was sought before going down the ill-fated O-Series route.

    You’re right about the ex-Saab slant-four from the Dolomite and used in the TR7, of course, but they initially wanted a new engine, which was to be a four-cylinder version of the PE166 straight six that found its way into the Rover 2300 and 2600.

    It’s all so logical now, but for different divisions within a sprawling ill-considered corporation struggling to maintain their identity it wasn’t always so clear cut.

  17. Paul H says:

    You can say that again!

  18. paul says:

    What say Triumph designed a modular floor pan, for TR7, Lynx and SD2, sharing crash structures and all drive train components. The PE166 engine be co-ordinated with the Austin/Morris O series, creating a modular 4 / 6 cylinder range, with parallel valves for A/M, inclined valves for Triumph / Rover, etc. Shared components, shared development costs. Maybe even share platform component with A/M for a new Marina?

  19. paul says:

    Any chance of pictures of the Pininfarina and Michelotti proposals for SD2?

  20. dontbuybluemotion says:

    That interior looks straight out of a 1980s Renault, even the Beige/sandy Colour scheme, its all a strange but intriguing concept though still not sure it represents a Triumph, perhaps it they bolted the SD1 suspension to the Marina, then gave it 2 slightly different makeover’s (Michelotti /Pin farina/ Ital etc?) it may have stood a chance, instead of spending a few £££ on the ITAL body changes.

  21. Boo says:

    Re; Comment No.2 “I reckon that, as a fwd family car hatchback, the SD2 was way ahead of its time ”
    It was RWD (mentioned several times in the article and obvious from the pics). Chrysler were doing FWD family size hatchback at the same time with the Alpine, Renault had been at it for ten years with the 16, and BL themselves 6 years with the Maxi.

  22. Pedro the Parrot says:

    God, what a bunch of duffers. Talk about not seeing the wood for the trees!
    A new Triumph had to be rear wheel drive, fuel inj slant 4 2litre, derived from the Dolomite. Throw in some decent development and build quality and price it just below the 3 series- job done.

  23. Pedro the Parrot says:

    What was happening here (and so often happens in Britain) is that two utterly opposed aesthetics were in opposition;
    a Euro box, front wheel drive socialist Renner type thingy, and Triumph, maker of conservative, RWD gents carriages.
    In hindsight we can clearly see which direction should have been taken.

  24. Bryan says:

    Not mentioned is that the Princess was under development at the same time as SD1 and SD2 – compare the legroom of the Princess to the SD2. Today it’s almost incomprehensible that the Princess didn’t get a hatch, and the SD2 didn’t get a boot.

  25. Roderik says:

    Dear all,

    I was rather supprised to find this picture of a Rover (sic!) SD2 on the BMIHT-site. Is new to my eyes and looking rather good I’d say, with clear contempary Italian overtones (Giulietta, any one??), so I guess this is either the Michelotti proposal or the Pininfarina’s. Very nice to’ve finally seen it!

    • Adrian Werner says:

      A much more stylish, elegant design than the in-house one…

    • Jemma says:

      Hmm, a cross between Accent LCII (shape), Fiat 131 (taillights) and Marina (handles) with a SD1 swage.
      Have to say this does look better than the other one, that kind of looked pregnant.

  26. mark says:

    It does remind me of the 70/80s style Citroen. The one they took over from BL when BL didn’t want it

  27. Glenn Aylett says:

    By 1977 British Leyland was quietly abandoning Triumph. The TR7 had been a disaster, the 2000/2500 models were replaced by six cylinder Rovers, and the company wanted to steadily phase out Canley and closed the Speke plant after a huge strike in 1978. It was clear the cancellation of the SD2 was game over for Triumph, as by the end of the seventies they were producing the elderly and soon to be scrapped Dolomite and Spitfire and only had the TR7, which was struggling to shake off a terrible early reputation. I think under Edwardes by 1979, the company was moving towards Austin for small and medium cars, Rover for executive cars and Jaguar for luxury cars. Brands like MG, Vanden Plas, Triumph and Morris were in the process of being killed off.

    • Graham says:

      By 1977, it was 2 – 3 years after the SD2 had been killed by the Ryder plan.

      Had the Pre – Ryder plan continued then you would have had Stag, TR7 (Coupe, Roadster & GTE) and SD2 as the Triumph range in the late 70s. So in the earl British Leyland period Triumph was seen as an important brand (it had still a strong following in the USA).

      The period you refer to is post Ryder when it became the TM1 which still showed some commitment to the Triumph brand, which the TR7 was part of as well.

      But yes in the Edwards period the TM1 was quickly canned in favour of the LC9/10, which along with the LC8 the only car anywhere near production when Edwards arrived after the failure of the Ryder Plan.

  28. T martin says:

    Dreadful looking car. Looks like a combination of a small Volvo and a Citroen, both hideous. The interior reminds me of a Renault 9 interior, cheap, nasty and very plasticky. Thank god they never built this monster, it would have been a disaster. The only thing going for it is the front of the car. As someone mentioned earlier why not develop the dolomite into a BMW brasher at the time.

    • Glenn Aylett says:

      Notice as well the front seats are fully fabric, but the rear seat is a mixture of cloth and vinyl. Also the dashboard looks cheap and resembles that of an Austin Ambassador. Somehow the SD2 looks botched and would have struggled with such a strange interior and a Citroen GS type body.

      • Jemma says:

        I suspect the two sets of heater controls, different seats, 1500 grille plus 2000 engine etc were tests of different grades/trims. I wonder what would happen if someone like Rimmers borrowed that fi manifold for a while & made some kits for Sprint Dolomites… Another 15hp I’d imagine.

    • Richard Davies says:

      The problem with trying to take the fight to BMW with the Dolomite was it was a design dating back to 1963, not to mention the low number of crankshaft bearings which seemed to the the Achilles heal of many Triumph engines.

      • Nate says:

        There was the Triumph Bobcat project, which was conceived to replace the Dolomite predating the Triumph SD2 project and allegedly resembled a downsized version of the Triumph Puma prototype, however little else is known about the Bobcat.

      • Jemma says:

        I seem to recall the Sprint’s problem was the munchies when it came to cheaper camshafts that had a poor finish, not unlike tuned K series apparently (although those have problems with out of balance cranks mashing themselves to bits too).

  29. David W says:

    Once you take the wood away you are left asking what tells me this is a premium car rather than a mass market car. Visually, the interior and exterior of the SD2 miss the mark. It may be that it would have been very comfortable and refined but if there are no visual clues may potential purchasers would not have found out.

    I have a thing about refinement in small and lower medium cars at the moment having stepped out of my XJR recently to try something smaller and more upright that might suit my wife’s back problem. We were both left a bit disappointed.

  30. maestrowoff says:

    SD2 as designed was hideous, but the IDEA of a RWD Dolomite replacement is entirely correct as BMW have showed with the 3 series

    One issue that hasn’t been commented on so much here, is the badging. If SD2 was to be a junior brother to the SD1, a visually identifiable member of the same family, then calling it a Triumph doesn’t make much sense; it would be like having a DKW 80 and Audi 100 in the same range, instead of badging them both Audi.

    IF, on the other hand you want to keep Triumph saloons, and align it more with the TR7 etc, then separate styling to the SD1 then makes more sense, e.g. the Italian proposals

  31. Glenn Aylett says:

    That interior is hideous and cheap looking. The Dolomite had a fantastic interior with wood on the dashboard and the warning lights arranged in a circle, the dashboard for the SD2 makes that of an Ambassador look good, not forgetting the weird seats in the back. I’d think the SD2 would have been far better with a Dolomite dashboard, velour or leather seats, and wood cappings on the doors. Thank goodness it never made it into production.
    However, I do feel sad for Triumph as the Dolomite was a good looking car that never really had the reliability woes of other British Leyland cars and was loved by its owners. Yet by the end of the seventies it was an old design and the suits were determined to kill off Triumph, and the brand ended assembling a Honda( still a good car and very reliable, but not a real Triumph).

  32. Graham says:

    The thing I find is hard to understand that having designed the SD1, how do you end up with this as an SD2.

    Surely logic would have given you something looking like the Cavalier Mk2 5 door, which adapts the SD2 style to the 100inch market far better than the SD2.

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