Blog : Forty years old and still brilliant

Carole Nash Classic Insurance Specialists

Keith Adams

British Leyland and BMC Show (44)

While wandering around Gaydon at the weekend and stumbling across this pretty Triumph Dolomite Sprint in the car park, it occurred to me that this superb compact sports saloon had just passed something of a milestone. That’s because, back in June 1973 and just weeks after the Austin Allegro was launched, the Triumph arm of British Leyland unveiled one of Britain’s most innovative post-war saloons. And 40 years ago this month, it went on sale in your local Rover-Triumph dealership for £1734.

Having a look around the Internet, it looks like a few people – and the Owners’ Clubs – picked up on the 40th Anniversary of the Dolomite Sprint, but it hasn’t gained as much publicity as, say, the Allegro’s birthday. I suspect that occasion was marked with much mirth in certain quarters of the media on account of its ‘square wheel’ and being ‘built by Red Robbo between strikes’. In case you’re wondering, I was being a tad sarcastic. No, the real reason for the Allegro’s notoriety over the similarly aged Sprint is simple – we can’t help navel gazing about our past failures.

The same could be said for the Dolomite Sprint, of course. By the time it was launched – late, by the way – it should have been nearing the end of its natural life. This clever single overhead cam 2.0-litre 16-valve power unit, which developed an impressive 127bhp, had been installed into a four door bodyshell that had effectively been around since 1965. Not only that, but this intrinsic age of the basic car could not be disguised – the seating position was positively upright, the interior cramped and the Michelotti styling, as pleasant as it was, looked out of sorts in the Origami ’70s.

Little did that matter. Simply put, the Triumph Dolomite Sprint was brilliant and quite unlike anything else that you could buy at the time. It was a triumph (forgive me, it’s late) of ingenuity and engineering nouse, centred on that wonderful power unit, which had been borne out of the company’s desire to expand its still-highly capable slant-four.

Autocar in its July 1973 Autotest commented: ‘MIRA’s high speed triangular circuit was lapped at 115mph in direct top with a peak of 117mph coming up on the downhill leg. More impressive is its 0-60mph time of only 8.7 seconds. The quarter mile coms up in a remarkably quick 16.7 seconds, while the 100mph mark is reached in 29.8 seconds.’

‘To grasp the significance of these results, it is necessary to compare them with time returned by rival models. In terms of maximum speed, the Sprint is more than a match for the Ford Escort RS1600 (113mph) and the Fiat 132 Special 1800 (102mph), both of which carry a similar price tag. More significant is its ability to trounce such expensive machinery as the BMW 2002 (107mph) and Alfa Romeo Alfetta 1800 (110mph).’

So the Dolomite Sprint could, er, sprint a little – but this pace didn’t come at the cost of tractability. It was highly geared, but would pull cleanly from low-revs, and would cruise very usefully on the motorway, thanks to the standard fitment of an overdrive on third and fourth. Inside, it was almost identical to the ‘cooking’ Dolomite 1850HL (itself a perky saloon), while on the outside, all that gave the 16V game away was a small chin spoiler, alloy wheels wearing chunky, low-profile rubber and a vinyl roof. So it was a Q-car supreme that cossetted its owner.

Trying to replace the Dolomite
Michelotti was tasked with trying to facelift the Dolomite in 1972. It came to nought.
Triumph Dolomite replacements (2)
…and we all know about the SD2 now.

The trouble was that this engine suffered indignity – rather like the Stag – of being beset with indifferent build quality as well as a drop-off in component material integrity. In both cases – as well as a lack of understanding from workshops when it came to the importance of coolant mixtures and regular fuid changes, this meant that Spen King’s engine gained a reputation for failure. Which is possibly one of the biggest tragedies to befall this most promising of Triumphs.

However, these teething problems were nothing compared with the lack of investment that came Triumph’s way during the 1970s. When the Sprint was launched, the Triumph range consisted of the Toledo/1500/Dolomite threesome, the 2000/2500, TR6 and Stag and all barring the range topping GT were still enormously respected, excellently engineered cars, with a discerning customer base, gilt-edged market profile and strong sales in export markets. Yet, aside from the TR7 and Acclaim (and six-cylinder SD1s if you want to be picky), no new Triumphs were forthcoming – and ultimately that meant the Dolomite Sprint committed the ultimate crime: to outlive its sell-by date. For years…

As we’ve seen, the Triumph SD2 was stillborn, lost in the post-Ryder morass of a BL that was grappling with the huge Austin, Morris and Triumph mid-market overlap and rapidly dimishing resources. In the end, Triumph was abandoned and all-but dead by the time of the launch of the Acclaim in 1981. Again, one can’t help wondering how good the SD2, complete with Triumph TR7/Rover SD1-style suspension and decent body engineering, would have been. As for the rather Fiat 132-esque stop-gap facelift penned by Michelotti (above), that might have kept things fresh, but probably not for very much longer than the original did anyway.

But we need not ponder on that; instead we should celebrate this brilliant car, which thanks to its fabulous engine, was able to give all of its rivals a bloody nose. And currently, rather like the Stag, the Dolomite Sprint is a little out of fashion – which is excellent news for anyone looking to buy one. Prices are relatively low (compare with an Escort RS to get a true idea of how much) and, if you buy a good one, you know that the issues should be sorted (head gaskets, rust).

Yes, let’s celebrate the Dolomite Sprint’s 40th birthday with a smile. Be proud of what our Engineers could achieve, despite everything, and try not to shed a tear for the greatness Triumph was achingly close to achieving…

Triumph Dolomite Sprint

Keith Adams

Keith Adams

Editor and creator AROnline at AROnline
Created www.austin-rover.co.uk in 2001 and built it up 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 Classics 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 unfeasible adventures all across Europe.
Keith Adams

54 Comments

  1. I’ve owned three Dolly Sprints — two I brought over from the UK to the USA. I have had nearly all models of Triumph.
    I can say, without a doubt, the Dolly Sprint is the best Triumph of them all. Robustly engineered. Superb handling. Brilliant engine. Comfortable, high quality interior. Classic looks.
    This Triumph has it all.
    And I view the Dolly Sprint as the template for today’s small luxury/sports saloons.
    The next logical step was the 16-valve engine on fuel injection and the five-speed LT77 ‘box in a reworked version. Now that would have been something.

  2. I was a dedicated dolly sprint owner, I’ve had a few including one abused by Bodie and Doyle in the professionals. Yes the engine was fragile, well ok the cylinder head gasket mainly but that was rectified with a Rimmers bros racing gasket set. Duplex valve springs stopped valve bounce at twin 45 webers helped make it quicker. Yes they rotted but as with all BL cars they needed TLC.

    I loved them….

  3. Top one – same colour as mine!

    Loved every moment of it until the crank snapped.

    Carpet and wood everywhere and that lovely lofty driving position. Felt like a solid body too.

    As Telly Savalas would have said “This is… my kinda` car”

  4. Never owned one – and never even been in one – but certainly wanted one in the early 80s; but back then I couldn’t afford them because they were still relatively new. They were cool without being flashy.

    But they have one unfortunate claim to fame which they can’t be blamed for but which can’t be overlooked. This is the model which started and invented the category of relatively small but powerful “driver’s cars”. In other words, this is the beginning of the BMW 3 and Audi A4 and similar annoyances. Before the Dolly Sprint you had old men’s cars like the Austin Cambridge, or you had little old lady shopping trolleys like the Minor. The Sprint was the first of what we now can’t get rid of.

    • @KC: I wouldn’t say that the Dolly Sprint was the first in it’s category – possibly in the UK. Alfa Guilia and BMW 2002 need a mention here, significantly predating the Sprint. The importance of the Sprint is the engine only I think, being the first mass produced 16v engine fitted to an otherwise humble saloon. Just look at the – slightly less powerful – Audi 80 GT launched in 1972 to see how dated the rest of the Dolomite was when the Sprint was launched.

      • Alexander,

        You might want to clarify that – the original blog does not imply that the Dolomite Sprint was the first car in this category and that you’re aiming this comment at KC (I assume you are, anyway). I do believe that the Sprint was a wonderful, innovative product, that was left to whither on the vine by a manufacturer that was mired in all manner of deeper, wider problems.

        • Keith,

          Indeed – David managed to sneek in between my answer and KC’s comment…

          I like to think that there are parallels between Spen King’s brilliant engineering work and Rover/Triumph and Ludwig Kraus when he was sent over from Mercedes to Auto-Union. Kraus had to fight hard for funds from VW – otherwise there would be no Audi today. The P6 and Range Rover show what could be achieved from Spen King and his development office with a clean sheet and some proper funding. Later projects sadly got in the middle of the BL merger and suffered from more or less serious lack of money. I do believe that Rover/Triumph would have been able to come up with something equally capable as Kraus EA827 engine and the Audi 80. The slant four is actually not far off, having been the main-stay for Saab for the decades to come.

  5. As I read this I began to smile as a friend of mine has just decided to sell his 1980 example finished in Vermillion Red, which comes up for sale in a classic car auction in Devon this weekend: http://ottervaleclassiccarauction.co.uk/ottervale/Early_Entries_%26_Catalogue.html

    He loves the car but with two classic MGs, a very low mileage 1992 Saab 900 XS and a classic Volvo all vying for his attention, something had to go. A very entertaining car to drive they are and they still look good.

    As you say Keith, the Dolomite Sprint has received little coverage of its important anniversary in comparison to the Triumph 2000 and other BL related models.

    I think there might be a photo of it in the STAR90 follow-up report showing it with its rare dealer fit feature of black bonnet stripes.

  6. My father had a 1500TC company car from 1976 to 1979, when he replaced it with a Dolomite 1500HL. Neither of these cars would stop in a straight line without constant steering corrections. This really wasn’t good enough for cars built in the 1970s. Our local garage managed to write off two Sprints after braking heavily during post-service test drives.

    Between rust, HGF problems, and dodgy brakes, Dolomites rapidly became a source of upgrade parts for Marinas in the mid-80s. Great cars on the drawing board, nice when new, but not a good ownership proposition after 3 or more years.

  7. On a lighter note, my dad once decided to demonstrate the adjustable steering column on our 1500TC to a family friend, while driving. Then there was a corner – it was funny, but scary, to watch him turning the corner with an unfastened steering column! “Don’t try this at home, viewers.”

  8. @Ken Strachan:

    The adjustable steering column was indeed quite a revolutionary feature for cars back then, particularly amongst British makes. I did not realise that under each front seat there was a weight-based sensor to detect whether the driver and their passenger were present and wearing a seat-belt. The system was quite innovative compared to the similar system used in the Austin Princess.

    The Slant Four engine was originaly designed by Triumph’s Engineer Lou Dawtry, with the inspiration for the four-valves-per-cylinder ‘Swift’ engine in the Sprint coming from the aero engines he designed for powering War-time piston aircraft such as the Spitfire. Admittedly, the lack of steel-lined thread sleaves in the aluminium head was not without its problems…

    A real shame that its design and quality-control were heavily influenced by BL, as the Dolomite Sprint really had the potential to become a truly great car. After all, look at what Saab achieved right up until 2009 with what several generations worth of the same engine design.

  9. I’ve had my Sprint for 10 years this year and love it. It’s been off the road for 5 and is currently undergoing restoration which I’m documenting over at the Triumph Dolomite Club site.

    It’s starting to look a lot more like a car now and I’m starting to get anxious to drive it again.

  10. Weight sensors weren’t infalliable, wouldn’t have been the first time I’d set a monitor down on the passenger seat and had lights flashing and bongs binging.

    Usually useful to seatbelt it up anyway.

  11. Always wanted one- to me, the styling is dateless, as the car looked just as fresh and crisp at the end of production as it did in the early 70s when the Dolomite variant debuted.

    No Triumph ever looked better in my opinion.

  12. 40? 48 more like, given that it is a mild rehash of the 1965 Triumph 1300. Given the Audi 80 and BMW 2002 where both in production from the 60s themselves, I hardly think the Dolomite provided any inspiration to their manufacturers. Doubt they even knew it existed.

  13. A major problem for Triumph in the 70’s was that the mid market was dominated by fleet purchase decisions. Dolomite and sprint would never be considered by a fleet manager so however good they were even with the planned update, the sales volumes would always be very low unless they could have opened up the USA market for JRT. However it is nice to dream that Dolomite could have been Britain’s answer to the BMW 3 series that sells over 500,000 units a year – if only! Our balance of payment problem would be solved. Please BMW do a Mini and bring out a new Dolomite based on the 1 Series platform and then a pretty Triumph Spitfire.

  14. @Simon W,

    Given BMW’s ideas for producing ‘retro inspired’ cars, a Bolomite would probably be the size of a 7 Series, and the Bitfire would most likely be based on an X5…

  15. Don’t just blame BMW for over-sized cars.
    I paid attention to a current Corsa for the first time today and it looks bigegr than a Mk1 Astra.

    @ Chris Baglin. Had to smile at that one, sir!

  16. there seemes a brief period when Triumph was making the cars that would later become the hallmark of BMW and Audi – alas this was overlooked by BL and not capitalised upon. We would see Rover follow a similar path in the late 80’s early 90’s when it too was close to producing a range that could have, if pushed, competed in the premium sector against the likes of BMW which was still not yet the powerhouse it is today. On this occasion it was BMW themselves who put paid to that – the Dolomite/Sprint always makes me annoyed because it was such a damn good car that was not followed up on. Like the Austin 11/1300 before it. Although considering that the Dolomite was in the same hands of a company that had a 10 year innovative and advanced best seller in the 11/1300 range and replaced it with the travesty that was Allegro, it’s really no wonder.

  17. Had a Dolonite Sprint back in the late 90’s, in the unusual colour of Maple Brown. It went like the clappers, still miss it now. Anyone know where GSB692N is???

  18. It’s only opinion I know but for me, even 40 years after launch there’s never been a better looking saloon car, (incidentally the first British saloon to have 16 valves and alloy wheels as standard), the only other car that comes close looks wise (apart from the other Dolly models) is the 2 thou range, especially the 2.5PI or the 2.5S, stunning cars.

  19. “When the Sprint was launched, the Triumph range consisted of the Toledo/1500/Dolomite threesome, the 2000/2500, TR6 and Stag”

    The Spitfire was also still available until 1980 or so.

    Dolomitemight be one of the few car platforms in history that went from FWD to RWD.

  20. Nicest interior of any small car bar none! I had a 1500HL – couldn’t afford a Sprint but always hankered for one. My 1500 was in the lovely Pageant Blue colour like the one in the top picture.

    I remember my mate’s Mk1 GTI 1600 being comprehensively thrashed down the A580 away from the traffic lights in pursuit of a Sprint which put it’s power down much better in the damp conditions. Oh how I laughed. He didn’t. With hindsight the Sprint may have been tweaked but it was FAST.

    Actually, I still hanker for one.

  21. For some reason the front end of the Dolomite reminds me of a top of the range BMW 3 series mark one. I do often wonder where BMW got the styling cues from and probably the Sprint was an inspiration behind high powered versions of the 3 series.
    Sad thing is it wasn’t quality that killed off the Dolomite, it was about the most reliable car BL made( not Japanese but acceptable enough for the time, but the other BL problem of overlapping ranges. It was more upmarket than an Allegro, but not a family car competitor like the Marina, and the pricing meant top models cost more than a Marina but were too small to take on the Cortina.

  22. Some car, always wanted one, now my son wants one and he has just started to learn how to drive! Has to be yellow and black, no other comes close. I’ve told this on other posts but my dad was told he was getting one as a company car and on the same day they changed their mind. I was so gutted. Therefore I never drove one, but drove other Triumphs such as the 2500pi’s. they were some vehicles too!

  23. You could also buy the lovely Triumph GT6 in 1973 (poor man’s E Type!)

    As they said back in the day…. “Triumph put in what others leave out”!

  24. @19 I think many of them probably did have more than 127BHP.

    I heard a story when I started working at Canley in the early ’80s that the Sprint was actually going to be called the ‘Dolomite Sprint 135’ right until nearly its launch but this was changed when the production engines wouldn’t always produce 135BHP on the dynos.

    Circular D-post badges with ‘135’ were even produced.

  25. You could also buy the lovely Triumph GT6 in 1973 (poor man’s E Type!)

    As they said back in the day…. “Triumph put in what others leave out”
    The Triumph Toledo TS (1.5 TC) 2dr would have been a great smaller offering from Triumph along with the Srint, however it sadly never launched…

  26. I know I said I liked the SD2 in another posting elsewhere on this site, but that 1972 Michelotti facelift of teh Dolomite is quite handsome! Had Triumph gone with that, and had teh cars been even half-decently screwed together, BMW’s similar offerings in the States would have had very strong competition.

  27. @ Chris Sawyer

    It’s ok, the Grammar and Spelling Police seem to have naffed off elsewhere these days….

  28. @John B:

    “I heard a story when I started working at Canley in the early ’80s that the Sprint was actually going to be called the ‘Dolomite Sprint 135′ right until nearly its launch but this was changed when the production engines wouldn’t always produce 135BHP on the dynos.

    Circular D-post badges with ’135′ were even produced.”

    There was also a special Sprint 135 badge for the middle of the radiator grille. A friend of mine bought one earlier this year and has it proudly on display alongside his Lledo Vanguards models. These Sprint 135 badges can occasionally be found at Triumph specific events such as the Triumph International Spares Day, held at Stoneleigh in March.

  29. I wonder how long the Michelotti facelift would have soldiered on until.

    Given its FIAT 132espue styling, I suspect until the demise of that model, or even the Argenta that of the Argenta that followed.

    As well as being mated to the LT77 ‘box, the 16c engined TR7 woujld have given the car more kerb appeal & upped its sales. The importance of this would have been felt no more than in the States where such a car would have meant that there would have been more people interested in the TR8 when it was launched.

    Who knows, a 16v engined TR7 could have saved it from premature death & ensured that the Triumph marque lived on beyond the Acclaim which, good car as it was, was really more of a Wolsely or Riley than a Triumph.

  30. Just purchased an 1979 straight 1850 – 8 valve.
    Been in a heated storage for over 15 years.
    Bought it :
    1. it came very cheap
    2. It is an originally Dutch delivered car (and that’s where I live)
    3. It is Green

    Been working on it with my brother, the steering rack was half dismantled under the car but the coupling was shot.
    LH sill need replacement.
    On and on I’ve been moaning how the Japs conquered the world.
    I mean, this is a car with a very simple engine configuration but it has not been built by people who made parts accessible.
    Everything is half an inch away from being easy to reach to being impossible to reach.
    Of course I’ve got to get used to it, but working on the exhaust manifold, the starter motor and the access to the waterpump are not as easy as it COULD have been.
    As I said before, on a FWD transverse engine car I can imagine, but htis, this could have been made much more cunning.
    All in all I must admit that nuts that have been tightened in 1979 come off beautifully, and for a car that has not been running for 15 year’s the old girl is doing all right.
    Another thing I forgot to mention us that when we picked it up, we almost got a complete Dolomite 1850 in parts.
    So now it’s on with rebuilding the master clutch cylinder and simply and stubburnly proceed with the process.

    She’s green, with a light brown interior and green tinted windows.
    She’s absolutely a girl.

    But the car the Dolomite reminds me of most is my old Alfa Giulia Nuova 1300.
    The same configuration and a sports saloon in the same category.
    Honestly I must say the built quality of the Dolomite is better, even in Holland parts are a dime a dozen, the dash is oh so British and bears resemblance to the Giulia’s.
    And oh disbelievers in Lucas parts ( me too!), all the electrics work.
    And the simple, old manually operated Philips radio with FM and MW, is the best and most clear mono playing radio I heard in years.
    What idiot ever introduced those self station seeking radios?
    And I guess the Dolomite is like the Philps radio, manual but crispy clear.
    Now let’s put some more elbow grease into the old girl

    Oh yes, I am still a certified idiot, who believed that just fixing the steering rack and the sill would put her back on the road, after an MOT test.

  31. I do remember my first car, a russett brown Dolomite 1850HL with affection. The wipers that accelerated with the car, ‘all systems go’ warning lights in that lovely wooden dash, the choke that tended to slide in all on its own. The fab overdrive (6 gears!)flicking the switch from 4+OD and the surge of acceleration handy for overtaking, in terms of handling the back end would twitch and slide so easily – I wonder how many ended there days wrapped around a tree like mine – oh and very, very strong body, although seeing the whole front of the car gone,the floorplan lift into the passenger compartment and the passenger door capping actually snapped on impact was quite a sober lesson!

  32. The slant 4 was designed for Saab. Saab took the design – a super little engine and rectified the principle fault. One set of head studs was perpendicular to the block face, one set were angled. Saab made them all perpendicular. Harry Webster insisted on retaining the angled studs when the time limit in the usage contract ran out and Triumph could use the engine they designed for Saab. It was his baby, he was not for turning. Head gaskets continued to fail ad nausea. It did not matter what coolant you put in it or how carefully the mechanic torqued down the head. Fact of life, during each heat cool cycle the gasket was scufffed up.
    Triumph’s reputation could not stand the 3 way hit of this, the Stag engine failures and the multiple failures on the TR7.

    I would be keen to learn of anyone with the Rimmer upgrade managing to get more than 40k out of one between replacement head gaskets.

    A great car to drive, a disaster to own as essential transport.

  33. @44, Tony Cooke,

    One thing I’ve long wondered, how easy is it to transplant a SAAB unit into a Dolly?

  34. Sadly Saab went the same way as Triumph. The main problem was they hooked up with General Motors and the quality went down the drain. Prior to this marriage from hell, they made very good cars like the 900 and 9000, which were tough pieces of engineering that GM wrecked with crud that was fitted to the Vauxhall Vectra, one of the worst cars ever made.

  35. The problem for Saab was lack of scale. As cars got more expensive to developed you needed more and more volume across different models to cover the costs. Saab didn’t have that.

    As for the dolomite, nice little car, but a word of caution if buying one. They rust , particularly at the front and many parts are getting rare and expensive. How does £300 for a steel wing sound? Similar amount for exhausts, now supplies of mild steel ones have run out.

  36. Car of the 70s and as a teenager from a Triumph owning family one remembers it fondly.
    Tony Dron driving it to the limits, the wonderful Leyland advert showing it in rally form and being driven by Bodie and Doyle in the Proffesionals!.
    First ride in one [year before I could drive] in 1977 my dad wasted a salesmans time taking on a prolonged test drive down the A30 in Basingstoke..boy didn’t it go!.
    I ended up with one some ten years later manual with O/D some came without and the added extra of the rare option the LSD!

  37. Had a Sprint in the mid 80s. The bottom end was a fragile thing, the head gasket let go and the rust…..
    It may have done 115mph when new – but that fragile engine always felt like it would let go any time you drove it hard.
    AND, they def. did not have more than 127bhp from std. production versions, or outrun 3 litre Capris.

  38. All the comparisons to the 3 series, both in terms of the headlight/split grille arrangement, and the RWD sports saloon layout.

    Ironically the Bavarians own the Triumph car brand.

    Is it feasible that they might use Triumph as a stepping stone brand between MINI and the 1/3 series?

    MINI style roadholding, but in a small saloon body – with an eye to both the Chinese market, and the US market (who may still have fond memories of TR4/5/6/7/8s). FWD with an extended MINI chassis, or a cut down 1/3 series RWD platform?

  39. Keith I think it’s a little unfair to say that the owners club had “forgotten” that it was 40 years ago, they did indeed celebrate the fact but at Gaydon were designated such a area away from the main arena they almost went unnoticed.

    Not the fault of the owners club, more short comings of the organisers of the event I feel?

  40. Sorry, just read the article again, I have got hold of the wrong end of the stick haven’t I.

    Again, my apologies.

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