Small but perfectly formed
THE Dolomite development story is one of the most interesting and unusual ones that you will come across on this website – benefitting from several twists and turns along the way. Although development started normally enough, things moved in the most interesting way once the car was long into its production cycle – and two of the UK’s most gifted engineers had a hand in keeping the car at the top of its game. Several later developments allowed the car to become an excellent example of product planning, and platform maximization… something later cars from BLMC could have well benefitted from. If all this sounds rather far fetched, remember that when the Dolomite went out of production in 1980, it had essentially enjoyed a 15-year production run, whilst achieving several important “firsts” along the way.
A new car is born
Development of the Dolomite actually began in 1962, under the codename Ajax. Following the Herald’s slow sales in its early years, Leyland management identified that the replacement of this car should be investigated. Harry Webster soon knuckled down and worked on defining the best package with which to replace the older car. The overriding climate within Triumph was one of boldness and adventure (given the injection of cash and management impetus from Leyland, following the 1961 takeover), and having cast more than a cursory glance at the products of BMC, front wheel drive was considered the best package to go with a new small car. Harry Webster was careful to ensure that the product was absolutely right, and drafted out several proposals on how Ajax should be packaged, and investigated each one carefully.
Webster needed to ensure that the new car posessed the traditional Triumph virtue of a tight (31 feet) turning circle, and because of this, a longitudinal engine location pretty much chose itself. The undeniable packaging advantages of siting the engine over the gearbox, as pioneered by BMC, were siezed upon by by Triumph, as it allowed for a short nose. Unlike the Mini/1100 arrangement, however, it was Webster’s preference for the gearbox not to share the engine oil. This allowed for longer oil change intervals, and alleviated some of the problems encountered by BMC with their transmission-in-sump-layout.
With the layout chosen, the matter of the engineering of the new car rapidly fell into place. The 1300cc engine, as used in the Spitfire was chosen as the new car’s power unit. Engineering had a familiar feel too: Similar to the Barb, a monocoque structure was chosen, which was allied to double wishbone front suspension and semi-trailing arms at the rear.
As with the larger Barb project, Giovanni Michelotti was drafted in to style the new car, and was given the unenviable brief of drawing up a style that could best be described as a “small Barb”. However, in his usual, efficient manner, Michelotti drew up a design, which fit in with the “Triumph” school of styling, but without any of the truncation that could affect a design, compromised with a limiting brief, such as this.
As was the case with the Triumph 2000, project Ajax was developed quickly, but unlike the the larger car, the marketing brief for the new car changed during its development. The cost of developing the new front wheel drive car were escalating somewhat, but thanks to the Herald’s improving popularity (helped in no small part by the introduction of the up-gunned 1200cc version), the need to replace it became less and less apparent. By 1964, any pretence that Ajax was to replace the Herald were finally dropped, when the proposed specification was enhanced massively, and the planned two-door version was dropped.
With the strategy decided, the new car underwent final testing and development – whereupon the name, “Triumph 1300” was chosen. Given the critical acclaim bestowed on the Triumph 2000, the name really chose itself.
Triumph 1300 is launched
In September 1965, the Triumph 1300 was announced to the press, and shown to the world. Like the larger car, customers and the press, alike, were impressed with what the 1300 had to offer. The specification was lavish for its day, and the styling perfectly complemented its larger brother. In fact, as launches go, the 1300’s passed off extremely well, even if the car did not go on general sale until January 1966 (a carbon copy of the events that unfolded during the 2000’s launch).
The Triumph 1300 soon picked up a willing clientele that appreciated its compact size, allied to its high levels of equipment, high quality fixtures and fittings, and exemplary road manners. It also had to be said that the Triumph carried with it a slightly sporting cachet, and because it was priced at a premium compared with other 1300 saloons, it did not go head to head with the mainstream versions of the BMC 1100.
All was not rosy for Triumph, though. The all-new mechanical layout posed certain servicing problems, and also led to a higher than expected level of unreliability. There was also the issue of costs: with its front-wheel-drive packaging, the 1300 was not a cheap car to build. With the issue of replacing the Herald raising its head again, the facts were that it would prove impossible to down-price the 1300 enough in order to appeal to buyers of the Herald. Understandably, the company was keen to maintain its presence at that end of the market, but because there not enough budget to run to a new entry-level car, a two-pronged attack would need to take place.
There had been a slight move upmarket by the 1300 in 1967, when the TC version was launched, but it was felt by Triumph that the concept could quite easily afford to be positioned higher (where the it could be priced at more of a premium). At the time of the launch of the Twin carburettor version of the 1300, plans were laid out to upgrade the car significantly. Under the codename Ajax III, plans were drawn up for a front and rear end facelift, whilst the Spitfire engine, which had recently been expanded to 1500cc (for export markets) would be squeezed under the bonnet.
However, in replacing the Herald, Triumph came up with the ingenious plan of simplfying the 1300. This was executed by converting it to rear wheel drive and a live rear axle (as this arrangement was significantly cheaper to build) and using the existing engine. Under the codename “Manx II”, a short-tailed version of the original car was penned by Michelotti, and the two-door body was brought back into service. This may have seemed like an illogical solution (and it certainly makes charting the Dolomite family’s history complicated), but it was a plan borne out of necessity. Spen King oversaw the conversion to rear wheel drive, which was considerably easier than it could have been thanks to the in-line engine layout, and the built-in ability to be converted to four wheel drive, something that Harry Webster had been very keen on.
So, essentially, the 1300 range had been split in two.
The range grows up…and down
In 1970, these cars were launched onto the market – the 1300/TC had now become the 1500 (although the original car hung on until 1971), and had been duly treated to the now customary Michelotti facelift. At the front, the grille/headlamp arrangement was a much bolder four headlamp affair. At the rear, the tail was lengthened (allowing for more boot space), which gave the new car a look very similar to both the Stag and the Innsbruck. A new Innsbruck-style dashboard was also incorporated, which like its predecessor, used a great deal of wood. Power was up, thanks to the extended engine (although it was only offered with a single carburettor), but the original 1300’s independent rear suspension layout was replaced by a cheaper “dead-beam” arrangement. Why was this seemingly retrograde step taken? Spen King oversaw this change, and felt that felt that the IRS arrangement of the original did not offer enough advantage (and one or two inconsistencies) to justify the cost. Despite this, the 1500 remained a tidy handling car, and an almost sporty drive, which endeared it to the marque’s now-loyal customer base.
The cheaper car, named the Toledo, was given a similar look to the 1500, but it was easily identiable thanks its single rectangular headlamps and the shorter rear end style of the original 1300. Inside, the interior was a much more humble affair, and equipment levels had been pared accordingly. Triumph marketing pushed the Toledo for all it was worth as the car that Herald owners should trade-up into. It has to be said that the five year old body style of the Toledo was not a barrier to sales (although it failed to make a big impact), and in marketing the car, Triumph did not seem disadvantaged by this older body style.
The cost of producing two separate bodyshells was negated because much of the body-in-white was common between the two. Also, the Toledo body was pressed in Speke, whereas the 1500 was pressed in Coventry. This was a situation that would be simplified later on in the Dolomite’s life.
Dolomite makes an appearance
Whilst the 1300/1500 strategy was being formulated, further exciting plans were drawn up for the range. It had been patently obvious from day one of the 1300’s production run, that it was a car that was crying out for larger engines and plusher levels of trim – this was a compact luxury express, and what buyers wanted was power to match the smart looks. The 1500 had been a step in the right direction, but thanks to a ready-made and in-house engine, there was further upward expansion available…
Back in 1964, and thanks to an introduction by Ricardo engineering, the Swedish carmaker Saab had approached Triumph with a view to design and build them a new engine for their upcoming range of cars. The inline-four that Triumph designed was interesting because it was devised from the outset to be canted over some 45 degrees, when installed in the car. This arrangement offered packaging advantages for any car that used it, by allowing a lower bonnet line. Because the funding came from Saab, the arrangement between the two companies was that Saab would have exclusive use of the engine for several years.
Triumph, however, had built up their future engine strategy around their own version of this “slant-four” power unit (which Triumph could develop as they saw fit, following the “exclusivity” period). Its inclined angle had facilitated a straightforward conversion (if not, assembly) to a V8, and the intention was for the company to use derivatives of these two engines in all their future models. Certainly, the slant-four had already provided sterling service for Saab, and once Triumph were able to use it, logic dictated that it should be used in a mid-range model. Thanks to a clever piece of product planning, the slant-four engine was shoehorned into the existing long-tailed 1500 bodyshell (little money was available for anything else) and the package was planned by Spen King. Triumph’s version of the slant-four displaced 1854cc, and when mated to twin-Stromberg carburettors, produced a handy 91bhp. When mated to the Toledo’s rear wheel drive driveline, and allied with stiffened suspension, the new version of the Ajax/Manx theme was developed into a rather handy sporting saloon…
During 1969 and 1970, this new car was developed… and the marketing department decided to name the car “Dolomite” (thereby resurrecting a pre-War name) so as to differentiate this new car from the existing models. In fact, the Dolomite was ready for introduction by late 1970, but because of mounting industrial strife, the launch was put back until 1971. Disappointingly, stikes at Canley and Speke ensured that Triumph could not build up enough Dolomite stock…. Magazine editors were forced to hold back their road tests (performed in the autumn of 1970) for publication until after the new embargo date. It was all a little sad, especially so, given Triumph’s keenness to get the Dolomite onto the market.
Duly launched, the Dolomite did impress – and sales quickly took off. The 100mph potential of the car, and its sporting handling made it a popular choice with Triumph afficionados – it seemed that the compact luxury express was a concept that had legs! Despite the fact that the basic body design was over six years old when the Dolomite was launched, many people in the press favourably compared it to the sporting saloons put out by BMW. Had they known what was around the corner, they would have been even more excited…
So, by the end of 1971, the junior Triumph “range” consisted of three very different models, which shared essentially the same bodyshell:
- Triumph Toledo, short tail, rear wheel drive
- Triumph 1500, long tail, front wheel drive
- Triumph Dolomite, long tail, rear wheel drive
The best is yet to come…
When British Leyland had been formed in 1968, the general assumption was that, as it was the car company that had given Donald Stokes a successful passage through the 1960s, Triumph would be the favoured marque in the corporation. However, once corporate planning shook out, it became obvious that some careful rationalization would need to take place. The Rover-Triumph group became the Specialist Division, and Triumph became relegated to the marque that provided the group’s “small” cars – essentially the Dolomite and its replacement would represent Triumph’s fortunes within the corporation. Thankfully, it was an excellent car, and had been carefully developed (first by Harry Webster, then Spen King) over the years to meet customers’ needs.
Once the logical decision was taken to use the slant-four engine, the sporting Dolomite was born, and it was obvious that customers would want a much more powerful version to match the sports saloons produced by the company’s competitors. Also, a development of the slant-four would provide the perfect engine to compete more effectively in motor sport. In response to this brief, Spen King devised a plan to extract more power. With co-operation from Harry Mundy and the engineers at Coventry Climax, a 16 Valve cylinder head was designed, which would sit atop a two-litre version of the engine. Ingeniously, the 16 Valves would be actuated by a single camshaft, long rockers across the head were used to actuate the second bank of valves. The arrangement was clever because it negated the need for an expensive twin camshaft arrangement, and would offer all the benefits of the multi-valve layout. At a stroke, Triumph had developed an engine that would power the marque’s cars in a most effective way for many years to come – certainly, the SD2 was conceived with a fuel-injected version of this engine very much in mind.
Development posed interesting problems, simply because of the fact that the 16V slant-four was so efficient, it was relatively easy for the engineers to tweak it to produce over 150bhp. The final figure was 127bhp – a very healthy figure, especially when viewed in the context of its 1973 introduction. Like the Dolomite before it, the Sprint (the name chosen early on during development) was subject to several delays – but it duly appeared in the autumn of 1973, and was greeted by buyer and press enthusiasm, alike. The Dolomite Sprint was noteworthy for using the first mass-produced 16 Valve 4-cylinder engine, and its stylish GKN alloy wheels were also a first: it was the first British saloon to wear alloy wheels as standard.
Despite the ageing body (which continued to do so very gracefully indeed), the Dolomite Sprint was soon carving a niche for itself in the sports saloon sector – thanks in no small part to its 0-60mph time of 8.7 seconds and a healthy 116mph maximum speed. Unlike most other sporting saloons of the day, this was married to a luxurious wood-lined interior, featuring very deep carpeting, and a dashboard with very full instrumentation. Overall, the Dolomite Sprint proved to be an irresistable package for many.
At the same time, the increasingly isolated front wheel drive Triumph 1500 was finally replaced by the 1500TC, which featured the same rear wheel drive drivetrain as the Toledo and Dolomite/Sprint models. It made a lot of sense to do this, given the cost benefits of such rationalization. So, in what surely must be a precedent in modern motoring history, an entirely front wheel driven range was reverse-engineered into a rear driven range! And all, some eight years into the production run.
However, the goodwill built up during the launch of the Dolomite and Sprint models, soon faded away as tales of 16V unreliability rapidly spread. Essentially, the Sprint possessed a complex engine, and because BLMC were cost cutting wherever they could at the time, components used for its internals were skimped on. Overall build quality also slacked off, as the work force increasingly fell prey to their militant leaders. It was all very sad, because the poor fortunes of BLMC as a whole were rapidly dragging the reputation of Triumph down with it. The company that were seen as technological pacesetters, producing appealing cars, during the 1960s was beginning to look a little jaded. Had it not been for the Sprint’s glamour and the loyal army of Dolomite fans (that seemed to stick with it during the dark years), it could have been a lot worse for Triumph.
In 1975, the almost obvious rationalization of the junior Triumphs took place: Dolomite became a range of cars – encompassing a newly-launched 1300 version (the Toledo hung on until 1976), whilst the 1500 model was re-christened the Dolomite 1500. The original became the Dolomite 1850HL. All of a sudden, the range had a more ordered feel to it, all sharing the same body and (largely the same) running gear:
- Triumph Dolomite 1300
- Triumph Dolomite 1500 and 1500HL
- Triumph Dolomite 1850HL
- Triumph Dolomite Sprint
Essentially, this was how the Dolomite range remained until its demise in 1980, but had history been different, the SD2 would have taken its place, and not meant that the Triumph name went to seed in the way that it did.
Replacing the Dolomite
Of course, Triumph management knew that the matter of replacing the Dolomite would need to be addressed sooner, rather than later (as it was getting on in years, but still actively being developed), but because Triumph was now a small part of BLMC, future plans were in a state of flux. The essential issue in replacing the Dolmite lay with devising a car that did not directly compete with any existing models in the corporation’s range. As these plans were directly tied-up with the political fortunes of Triumph, it was some time before the SD2 would come into fruition. As this website relates elsewhere, the promising SD2 concept was cancelled in 1975, due to lack of resources and internal competition, but it did not stop Canley investigating the idea of facelifting the Dolomite in order for it to stay fresh enough to survive until the launch of the LC10 family of cars in the early 1980s.
Michelotti was tasked with giving the Dolomite a new set of clothes, with the instruction that his design should use all of the Dolomite’s underpinnings. In his customary efficient way, Michelotti duly delivered the restyled Dolomite. The new car closely resembled the Fiat 132 in style, with its squared-off grille and square-rigged four-door style. The proportions of the new car closely matched those of the Dolomite, but the detailing was more 1970s Euro-standard: the C-post even sported a characteristic BMW-like kink at its base. One full-size model was built – based upon the Sprint model – and it looked extremely promising. However, Board approval for the car was not forthcoming (there was no money, basically). The Dolomite would have to soldier on unchanged…
The Dolomite continued in production, and because of the rationalization of marques and models following the appointment of Michael Edwardes in 1977, it became increasingly clear that it would not be replaced at all. Because sales of the Dolomite had gently subsided, and the number one priority for Edwardes was to maintain the existence of BL, the focus of attention was well away from the Dolomite, which was a niche product. Because of the death of the SD2/TM1 projects, and the slow start of their Austin-Morris replacement – LC10 – there would be no new car to supplant (not replace) the Dolomite until 1982 at the earliest. As the tooling at Canley was old and extremely worn, production could not be envisaged after 1980. In order to fill a gap in the entire Austin-Morris range, Michael Edwardes brokered the deal with the Japanese, which would lead to production the Triumph Acclaim. Although not a direct replacement for the Dolomite (it was seen as more of an additional model to supplant the Allegro and Ital, which were suffering from a bad drop-off in sales). It was originally planned that the Acclaim would be built at Canley, whilst wearing its Triumph badge as one of convenience. However, even this Triumph link was broken, when it was decided to close Canley (as a car plant) and re-group at Cowley/Longbridge – the Acclaim’s production facility was moved to Cowley.
So, because of a series of bad events, leading to range rationalization, the Dolomite was replaced by the Acclaim. The Anglo-Japanese car ushered in a new era for Austin-Rover, which allowed for some interesting cars in subsequent years. However, in 1981, when it was launched – at the time of the death of the Triumph TR7 – it seemed that this was all that was left of the Triumph marque. And it was not a bad car, by any means – the Acclaim was fleet of foot, reliable and well-built. It was also extremely compact and well specified. All virtues of the original Triumph 1300. However, it may have served as a replacement for the low-end Dolomites, but in no way did it offer anything for 1850HL or Sprint customers.
In fact, the Dolomite Sprint was one of the major engineering successes for BL during the 1970s, showing that a little ingenuity could go a very long way. It was a marketing success as well as a critical one, but during the crisis-torn 1970s, this power unit was overlooked by product planners, who were having to contantly streamline BL’s range as sales contracted. This 16V engine was never developed – it was never used in any other BL production cars (the O-Series engine was used universally, as it had represented a bigger investment), and in the end, it was shelved when the Dolomite went out of production.
In later years, Rover were in a position to think about producing more specialised (Honda-based) models, the luxurious and compact car concept was re-investigated. However, by then it was too late… the marque perfectly capable of delivering these cars – Triumph – was dead. Many of its potential buyers had by this time, turned to that other producer of fleet compact sporting saloons: BMW. Had the Dolomite, Stag and Innsbruck been properly developed and replaced, perhaps it might have been Triumph that bought BMW in 1994. Stranger things have happened!
Thanks to Declan Berridge for the source material for the story
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.