The Triumph Dolomite development story – it started life as an upscale and technically interesting small saloon, but the Triumph 1300/Toledo/Dolomite ended up evolving in many fascinating and quite innovative ways.
We tell the story of this sports saloon which should have been the making of Triumph – but, instead, it ended up being left in production too long, and unreplaced. A sad end for a car with such obvious potential.
Triumph Dolomite: 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 – benefiting 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 Automotive 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 maximisation… 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, while achieving several important ‘firsts’ along the way.
Triumph 1300: a new car is born
Development of the Dolomite actually began in 1962, under the codename Ajax. Following the Triumph 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.
Setting out Project Ajax’s priorities
Webster needed to ensure that the new car possessed 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 seized upon by by Triumph, as it allowed for a short nose.
However, unlike the Mini/1100 arrangement, 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.
Styled by Michelotti
As with the larger Project Barb, 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 fitted 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 was 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 would replace the Herald was 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.
1965: 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 who 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 levels 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.
Developing the Triumph 1300
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, while 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 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.
Triumph Toledo hits the market
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.
Triumph Dolomite makes an appearance
While 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.
Working with Saab on the slant-four
However, Triumph had built up its 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 was 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…
Developing the new Triumph sports saloon on a budget
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, strikes 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.
So, by the end of 1971, the Triumph small cars 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
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 aficionados – 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…
Triumph Dolomite: the best is yet to come
With the formation of BLMC 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 new corporation. However, once corporate planning shook out, it became obvious that some careful rationalisation 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 smaller 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 over the years to meet customers’ needs.
A higher-powered development of the slant-four would provide the perfect engine to compete more effectively in motor sport. In response to this brief, Spen King’s team 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 2.0-litre version of the engine.
Developing the Dolomite Sprint
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 which would power the marque’s cars in a most effective way for many years to come – certainly, the Triumph 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 16-valve slant-four was so efficient, it was relatively easy for the Engineers to tweak it to produce more than 150bhp. The final figure was 127bhp, a very healthy figure, especially when viewed in the context of its 1973 introduction.
Another delayed introduction
Like the Dolomite before it, the Sprint (the name chosen early on during development) was subject to several delays. 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 four-cylinder engine, and its stylish GKN alloy wheels were also a first: it was the first mass-produced 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. This was 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-and-leather-trimmed interior, featuring very deep carpeting, and a dashboard with very full instrumentation.
Overall, the Triumph Dolomite Sprint proved to be an irresistible package for many.
Range rationalisation begins
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 rationalisation. 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 16-valve unreliability rapidly spread. Essentially, the Sprint possessed a complex engine and, because BLMC was cost cutting wherever the company 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 was 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 (who seemed to stick with it during the dark years), it could have been a lot worse for Triumph.
Triumph Dolomite range unified – about time, too
In 1975, the almost obvious rationalisation 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
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 future plans were in a state of flux. The essential issue in replacing the Dolomite lay with devising a car that did not directly compete with any existing models in the corporation’s range.
In 1972, 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. Michelotti duly delivered a restyled Dolomite – as per the original brief. The 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. It was then submitted as Michelotti’s proposal for the Triumph SD2 programme, alongside an in-house effort (below) and a slick five-door from Pininfarina.
As these plans were directly tied-up with the political fortunes of Triumph, it was some time before the SD2 would come into fruition. The promising SD2 concept was cancelled in 1975, due to lack of resources and internal competition from the Princess and ADO77 programmes.
Left to whither on the vine
The Dolomite continued in production and, because of the rationalisation of marques and models following the appointment of Michael Edwardes in 1977, it would not be replaced at all. Sales of the Dolomite had gently subsided, and the number one priority for Edwardes was to maintain the existence of BL, so 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 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.
It was originally planned that the Acclaim would be built at Canley, while wearing its Triumph badge as one of convenience. However, even this Triumph link was broken when it was decided to close Canley and regroup at Cowley/Longbridge – the Acclaim’s production facility was moved to Cowley.
Conclusion: innovation and style was not enough
So, 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, 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 – in many ways similar in spirit to the original Triumph 1300.
The biggest loss was the Dolomite Sprint. It 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 but, during the crisis-torn 1970s, this power unit was overlooked by product planners, who were having to constantly streamline BL’s range. The 16-valve engine went un-developed and, in the end, it was shelved when the Dolomite went out of production.
In later years, when Rover was 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, it might well have been Triumph that bought BMW in 1994.
Triumph 1300>Dolomite timeline
|1965||Michelotti-styled Triumph 1300 launched.
Front-wheel-drive four-door saloon of monocoque construction, employing the 1296cc four-cylinder engine carried over from the Triumph Spitfire in single-carburettor format.The engine is mounted longitudinally, with the gearbox and differential units mounted beneath the engine block and drive transmitted to the front wheels via a four-speed gearbox.
The car wins buyers from its competitors, partly by virtue of its generous specifications and an ‘air of perceived luxury’. It features all-independent suspension, adjustable steering column, ventilated upholstery, recessed window winders and door handles and front disc-brakes.
|1967||Triumph 1300TC launched.
Twin-carburettor version of the 1300 offering a marked increase in power output and performance, plus the added benefit of servo-assisted brakes.
|1970||Triumph 1500 launched.
While retaining the front-wheel-drive set-up of the 1300, the body features a restyled nose and tail, with twin headlights, horizontally-mounted rear light clusters and a larger boot. The interior is also restyled, featuring an entirely new design of dashboard. The engine size is increased to 1493cc but employs only a single carburettor. A retrograde step is taken, however, in the replacement of the independent rear suspension with a dead beam axle.
|Triumph Toledo also launched this year as a rear-wheel-drive, two-door saloon.
It features a similar frontal treatment to the 1500, but has single, rectangular headlamps and retains the shorter rear section of the 1300, albeit slightly restyled. It is powered by the 1296cc engine, transmitting its power via a four-speed transmission and Îliveâ rear axle. Some overseas markets receive the Toledo with the 1493cc engine.
|1971||Triumph 1300 and 1300TC models are deleted from the range.|
|Triumph Toledo four-door saloon launched.
Otherwise similar to two-door version.
|Triumph Dolomite four-door saloon launched, featuring a single overhead camshaft 1854cc engine jointly developed with Saab.
It employs twin carburettors and shares its bodystyle with that of the 1500, although it is rear-wheel-drive. Amongst other options, manual overdrive and automatic transmissions are available.
|1973||Triumph 1500 model deleted from the range.|
|Triumph 1500TC launched.
Visually almost identical to the 1500, but now rear-wheel-drive.
|Triumph Dolomite Sprint launched.
Based on the Dolomite, this was probably the most important model in the whole range, featuring the world’s first mass-produced 16-valve engine. This sporting flagship model employed a 2-litre single overhead camshaft engine. It was uprated over the Dolomite in many ways, and featured a comprehensive package of instrumentation.
|1975||Triumph Dolomite 1300 launched.|
|Triumph 1500TC now known as Dolomite 1500, featuring single rectangular headlamps. Also available as the Dolomite 1500HL, which features a higher level of trim and the twin-headlamp treatment first seen on the Triumph 1500.|
|Triumph Dolomite now known as Dolomite 1850HL and featuring an improved level of trim.|
|1976||Triumph Toledo model deleted from the range.|
|1979||Limited edition Triumph Dolomite 1500SE launched. Based on the single-headlamp Dolomite 1500, it features black coachwork, two broad stripes from front to rear incorporating the ‘SE’ motif, Spitfire-style wheels and a Dolomite Sprint front spoiler. The interior features silver-grey velour seats and matching carpets, with burr-walnut veneer on the dashboard and door-tops.|
|1981||The entire Triumph Dolomite range is deleted, to be replaced by the all-new Triumph Acclaim, developed in collaboration with Honda and based on the Honda Ballade.|
Estate car proposals
Why was there never an estate version of the 1300, 1500, Toledo or Dolomite? Well, it wasn’t for the want of trying. In fact, there were two separate attempts to give the car a tailgate, but neither was destined ever to reach the showroom…
|1969||Triumph 1300 estate
This mock-up was produced by Carbodies, the Coventry firm who were also responsible for manufacturing the Triumph 2000/2500 estate. However, the rear end of the saloon was also being re-modelled at this time, to produce the 1500, so the estate was seen as an expensive distraction and was taken no further.
This fastback three-door ‘estate’ was conceived in 1972, perhaps in response to BMW’s 2002 Touring. The car never saw the light of day, but its codename went on to acquire almost legendary status within the Leyland range…
Timeline contributed by Dale Turley, with additional information provided by Declan Berridge
Thanks to Declan Berridge for the source material for this development 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.