The Dolomite was a clever little car which seems to have found its place in the affections of Britain’s motoring enthusiasts. Significantly, over 80 per cent of those that voted for the Dolomite, specifically chose the 127bhp Sprint model…
Introduced in 1971, the Dolomite was merely a clever evolution of the 1965 Triumph 1300, and yet it found a ready market with buyers who appreciated the idea of a luxurious and slightly sporting car in a more compact package. It would go on to become the template for the “junior executive” car we all know and love to this day…
Triumph over tragedy
SO what makes the Dolomite so special? Let’s look at the facts: it was a 1971 addition to the small/medium Triumph range of cars, one which had been established in 1965 with the arrival of the front wheel drive 1300. The Dolomite was not so much a new car, but an evolution of an old one. Technically, it wasn’t even that clever: it used the Spen King designed rear wheel drive platform introduced with the Toledo, and was powered by a homebrewed version of the slant-four engine originally developed for Saab during the 1960s.
So it was a “parts-bin special”.
As is often the case with big ideas, the sum of the parts greatly exceeded by what is achieved, and this is very much the case with the Triumph Dolomite. For one, it opened up a new and exciting market for Triumph. Secondly, it allowed the company to go head-to-head with the likes of BMW, Saab and Mercedes-Benz and introduce a touch of good old fashioned British class into the proceedings.
The evolution of the Dolomite has been charted before on this site, but essentially it comes down to this: Triumph launched the compact front wheel drive 1300 in 1965. This was upgunned to become the 1500 in 1970, and logically, it retained the front wheel drive drivetrain of the older car, but smart new front and rear ends, penned by Michelotti. A cheaper version of the car, called the Toledo, was also launched. Envisaged to replace the ageing Herald range, it acquired a new, more simple, rear wheel drive drivetrain.
IN 1971, and in simple terms, the Toledo drivetrain was mated to the 1854cc slant-four engine, and clothed in the body of the 1500. Confused? You should be…
The Dolomite’s evolution was not a straightforward one.
In 1973, the front wheel drive 1500 was replaced by the… rear wheel drive 1500TC (same car, different transmission) and this was joined by the technically fascinating Dolomite Sprint.
It is now that the story gets really interesting. Before Spen King had been spirited away to become the Technical director of BL’s Specialist Division, he had headed up the project to extract more power from the slant-four engine, first used in the Dolomite back in 1971. The idea had come about as Triumph’s outlook became increasingly sporting during the early 1970s: the Stag was doing great things in the GT class, and the TR range of cars continued to sell well. What was needed was an uprated Triumph engine, which could slot into the Dolomite bodyshell, in order to produce performance comparable to the more exotic sports saloons offered by BL’s rivals.
Thus, the Dolomite Sprint was created.
It is interesting to note that over 70 per cent of the Dolomite votes received were specifically for the Sprint model. If anyone needed a reminder of how clever a piece of niche engineering the Sprint was – this pollprovides it. The 16 valve power unit pushed out a healthy 127bhp, which endowed the stately little Triumph with quite racey performance: 0-60mph in 8.7 seconds, and a top speed of over 110mph. Not to be sneezed at back in 1973. So, the Dolomite was fast, but that was only part of its armoury – it also posessed a luxurious olde-worlde interior. The dashboard was a prime slice of walnut, and the door cappings matched. The exterior looked smart, too, thanks to the smart Michelotti styling; a nice finishing touch being the addition of a nice set of alloy wheels (a first for a British family saloon).
And although they may not known it at the time, Triumph had created the template for the compact sporting exec – a car now typificed by the 3-Series BMW and Volvo S60.
The Sprint soon became tarnished by an image of unreliability, synonymous with the company at the time, and as a result, it allowed the opposition to come in under the radar and take sales that were there for the the taking. And rich pickings they were, too. BMW, Saab and Audi were the main beneficiaries during these painful years. Still, the Specialist Division had a plan up its sleeve: the SD2. A modern five-door incarnation of the Dolomite, taking the best that was available to the corporation at the time. The TR7 running gear, a range of engines topped by the Dolomite 16V, and suspension tuned by Spen King. The interior was as versatile as the SD1’s too. It was bound to be a winner.
Alas, it was not to be. The money run out before BL could get it into production. SD2 was washed away by LC10 (Maestro/Montego) and with it, an important market share was lost. The company briefly regained it with the Rover 200/400, but this was not a sustained success story.
The Dolomite was not a perfect car by any means. The driving position was far too sit-up-and-beg, and its running gear deserved a much more up-to-date body. But on the whole, it was well-regarded and had a largely loyal customer base. In the early days, it was also responsible for a massive change in the public’s perception of Triumph. It could have done so well, and led on to great things, but in the end, it withered and died. Effectively, it was the reason Triumph prospered, and in the end, it was there to see its death.
What a tragedy.
The car to replace the Dolomite: SD2. It had it all – performance, practicality and a prestigious badge, all it lacked was style. And the blessing of the BL Board…
The memory of a particular press advertisement has stayed with me for over 25 years. By today’s standards it was a model of simplicity – a line-up of six mid-range cars side-by-side at the top of the page, and the simple question: “Which car will reach the bottom of the page first?”. The car in question was the Dolomite – not the Sprint, but the 1850HL. This was BL at its most bullish (certainly until the jingoistic launch of the Metro the following year), sending out a clear message to anyone contemplating the purchase of a competing BMW, Mercedes-Benz, Saab, Alfa or Renault: you’d be better off with a Triumph.