The cars : Triumph Dolomite (Ajax) development story

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

Harry Webster with an early Ajax styling model...
Harry Webster with an early Ajax styling model…

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

The compact, front wheel drive Triumph 1300 proved an instant hit with customers - a replacement for the Herald, it was not.
The compact, front-wheel-drive Triumph 1300 proved an instant hit with customers – a replacement for the Herald, it was not

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

Following their successful conversion of the Triumph 2000 into estate form, Carbodies were asked to prepare an estate version of its smaller brother. This running prototype was the result, but sadly, it was not pursued by the company.
Following its successful conversion of the Triumph 2000 into estate form, Carbodies were asked to prepare an estate version of its smaller brother. This running prototype was the result, but sadly, it was not pursued by the company

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

The Triumph 1300 grew up into the 1500: thanks to a new front end and longer tail, the upgunned car remained popular with buyers looking for a compact luxury saloon.
The Triumph 1300 grew up into the 1500: thanks to a new front end and longer tail, the upgunned car remained popular with buyers looking for a compact luxury saloon

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 simplified rear wheel drive Toledo model of 1970, allowed Triumph to lay the Herald to rest following a long and distinguished career. The rear wheel drive drivetrain would outlive the more advanced arrangement found in the more luxurious 1500.
The simplified rear-wheel-drive Toledo model of 1970, allowed Triumph to lay the Herald to rest following a long and distinguished career. The rear-wheel-drive drivetrain would outlive the more advanced arrangement found in the more luxurious 1500

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

The 127bhp 16 Valve Dolomite Sprint may have looked handsomely understated, but it proved to be a very effective sports saloon. The car was a testament to the ingenuity of the Triumph design team, at that time, led by Spen King.
The 127bhp 16-valve Dolomite Sprint may have looked handsomely understated, but it proved to be a very effective sports saloon. The car was a testament to the ingenuity of the Triumph Design Team, at that time led by Spen King

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

Michelotti's facelifted Dolomite was to keep the range relatively fresh until replacement plans could be drawn up, following the demise of the SD2.
Michelotti’s facelifted Dolomite proposal was eventually submitted as one of the Triumph SD2 proposals, alongside Pininfarina and an in-house effort. It lost out…

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.

By rights, the Triumph SD2 should have replaced the Dolomite range in 1977, but due to the financial crisis, which led to the Ryder Report in 1975, the project was cancelled.
By rights, the Triumph SD2 should have replaced the Dolomite range in 1977, but due to the financial crisis, which led to the Ryder Report in 1975, the project was cancelled

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

Year Event Picture
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…

Year Proposal Picture
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.

1972 Project Sherpa

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

Dolomite 1850HL in a traditional rural setting (picture supplied by James Sergeant).
Dolomite 1850HL in a traditional rural setting. (picture supplied by James Sergeant)

Thanks to Declan Berridge for the source material for this development story.

Keith Adams


  1. All the money which was wasted on Allegro, Marina, Princess and, later, on Maestro and Montego should have been ploughed into Rover and Triumph, bulding low(ish) volume, high margin cars. The company would still be here today. Indeed, if Tony Benn had kept his nose out and not brokered the BL/BMC merger, that is exactly what would have happened.

    • Yes Paul that’s about the agreed consensus regarding what was BL and the trail on the taxpayer they became.
      Triumphs were good, no doubt about that, but they had the same problem that BMC had, lack of investment in modern machinery which made the whole of BL un-competitive against the likes of Fiat, Renault and VW by the mid 1970’s.
      I don’t think reducing BL (by just deleting the BMC side of it) to a low volume producer of Rovers and Triumphs would have made BL a solvent operation.

      The last chance for both BMC and Leyland to have gotten serious investment in modern machinery was probably at the time of the merger.

      As is noted in other articles on this site regarding the nationalization of BL in 1975, there was a lack of investment going back over 20 years. If BL were nationalized in 1968 at the time of the merger and Renault-style got Government cash for modern machinery then it could have been a different story.

  2. He must have been incredibly naive to think that the stronger company (Leyland) could drag up Bc instead of the other way round.

  3. My dad was going to get a Sprint as a company car in the late 1970’s but there was a problem with the brakes and it didn’t happen. (He got hand me downs so we got a new car every six months or so, which was great for me as it helped with my car education).

    Not getting the Sprint was a real regret, it was the yellow version with the black vinyl roof- awesome! My son wants one once he passes his test in 2013. A good choice! If we can afford the insurance.

  4. A damned shame this excellent range of cars were left to die and their factory became a massive playing field in Coventry. I really wish the Leyland side of British Leyland had more say than BMC and money was spent on updating the Dolomite rather than developing junk like the Allegro, which should never have got off the drawing board.
    All through the seventies, as horror stories developed about the Austin Morris range, the Dolomite seemed largely immune and the cars had a loyal following due to their high quality interiors, powerful engines and decent quality. Had Triumph become the dominant brand in British Leyland, rather than Austin Morris, I think the story would have been different.

  5. Had a ride in a couple of these but cant remember if they were Toledo’s or Dolomite’s. A colleague’s father bought a Dolomite Sprint though and that was nice. I think they were one of the first mass market cars with alloys as standard? One of the better ranges from Triumph/BL.

  6. It’s a crying shame that Triumph didn’t produce a 4 wheel drive version of the Dolomite….years ahead of the Audi Quattro, it could have been a real winner. Easy too, given that the body shell had been modified to take either front or rear wheel drive, so why not both? Yet another “if only”

  7. The Dolomite was, in fact, two separate models. The 1300 / 1500 was based on the shorter bodyshell (based on the earlier 1300) with single square headlights (aka the Toledo). Both of these had a single carburettor engine installed. The single carb 1500 put out 65 bhp, same as the FWD 1500.

    In contrast, the 1500 HL had the same iron engine as the 1300/1500 but with a twin SU setup (71 bhp) and in the longer bodyshell (based on the earlier FWD 1500 and RWD 1500TC) with 4 headlights. The 1850HL (91bhp) had the 8V alloy slant 4 and the Sprint got the 2 litre slant 4 (127bhp) with 16V head. All these 3 had essentially the same interior.

    The interior treatment was also markedly different with the HL models having the full suite including rev counter whilst the non-HL models made do with the simpler (and cheaper) two dial setup. The cheaper models also made do with more basic seats and had no centre console round the gearlever etc.

    I owned a 1500FWD (Teal Blue) and a 1500HL (Pageant Blue like the one above) at various times. My favoutite was the 1500HL which combined the Sprint interior and “continental” style dials with 32mpg economy and sensible insurance for a 22 year old. The 1500 FWD had horrible (read non-existent) synchromesh on 2nd gear but mine had covered when I sold it on. It then ran round for at least another 12 months before I suspect it failed the MOT on rust in the front chassis mounts.

    Looked after, the Dolomite was easily capable of 100,000 miles and definitely rusted a lote less than the equivalent Ford / Vauxhall / Rootes comtemporaries.

  8. Owned a Sprint for some time .

    It was a very pleasure car to drive with its overdrive , speed and road holding .

    Just a pity that there were some top side engine problems which required new head studs etc to put things right , which was the case with mine .

  9. I can remember seeing a fair about of Dolomites as daily drivers until the mid 1990s.

    Problems I’ve heard of they can suffer from are the crankshaft bearings giving trouble, & the rear suspension getting bouncy at 50-60 mph.

    I wonder if many Sprints had their engines transplanted into TR7s?

  10. Given how the Saab B/H engines turned out, maybe Triumph should have collaborated more with Saab on develop engines (along with cars) and taken a leaf or two out of Vauxhall plans for its own Slant-4 engines (including Diesels).

  11. Back in 1980 I worked at a B.L, Unipart dealers in Wigan and loved every moment of it. I passed my driving test at 17 and got a second hand 1500. Drove around in it with a leather jacket on thinking I was Bodie. Now at 50, when I look at the images of the 1500 the memories come back with a bang. I loved the light cluster on the dash, and so did my mates.

  12. The above article forgot to mention a ‘warmer’ version of the 2-door bodyshell was planned, to be called the ‘Toledo TS’ which very nearly went into production.

    It would have had a few ‘sporty’ ad-ons and used the 1500 engine in the tune that later found itself in the Dolomite 1500/HL.
    If they had ever launched it with a few extra instruments over the basic Toledo I’d have had one like a shot…

    • Have read some say the Toledo TS was to powered by the same 71 hp (DIN) 1493cc engine as in the Spitfire 1500, while others suggest the 1493cc engine was to either be further uprated via some more powerful race-spec Spitfire engine for motorsport or make use of the 80-86 hp 1709cc Slant-Four used in the Saab 99,

      Elsewhere there is a related story not long after the formation of British Leyland where MG’s Abingdon Competitions Department had been asked to look at every corporate possibility in the search of an ideal competition car for their future. Peter Browning, the department’s manger asked for a Marina to be fitted with a twin-cam version of the 1709cc Saab engine, this engine to be designed and built in small quantities by Coventry Climax. This request was refused by Lord Stokes, and a modified request for a twin-cam engine to be fitted in a Toledo also received the thumbs-down. In a period where the likes of the formidable Ford Escort RS1600 were reaching maturity during the 1970s in saloon car racing and rallying.

    • It appears the Triumph Toledo TS was intended to use the same 66.5 hp 1493cc engine as the 4-door twin-carb Triumph Toledo TC, the latter not available in the UK market based on the following British Leyland Chronicles post.

      Seems 0-100 for the 4-door Toledo TC was 16.5 seconds though no clue how much quicker the 2-door Toledo would have likely been compared to the 4-door. Surprisingly yet also unsurprisingly the 66.5 hp engine was detuned a bit for the Toledo as opposed to the 71 hp Spitfire 1500, nevertheless it would likely be the case that both 2/4-door Toledo models would have been outperformed by the 70 hp MG 1300 / Austin 1300 GT from 0-60 (in 14 seconds) or the unbuilt MG-badged 83 hp tuned twin-carb 1275cc version of the Austin Victoria (that would be potentially comparable to the 82 hp Simca 1100 Ti).

  13. Given the success of the BMW 02 range,I wonder why Triumph didn’t offer a 2 door 1850 or Sprint,when both the body and engines were easily interchangeable. BMW 2002’s and Ti’s are sought after now, and a 2 door Sprint would have given even a Ti a run for it’s money. It would have been faster than an Escort RS 2000 as well as being more refined and tasteful.

  14. It looks like 2 or 4 doors, front ones are the same. Am I wrong? Do we know how many were built, year on year?

  15. I find it surprising that the Toledo made it into production. That’s not to say it was a bad car, but with its unique 2 and 4 door body and only one engine option it must have been relatively expensive to produce in relation to the numbers sold.
    I can understand that pre-merger that Triumph would have been looking to replace the Herald with somthing to compete against the upmarket BMC 1300s but its development should really have been abandoned in 1968 allowing Triumph to move upmarket into the area where BMC was weakest. In the end it just became competition for Wolesley and Vanden Plas 1300s and a more expensive alternative to the Marina.
    Was it just Harry Webster trying to protect the Triumph brand or produced to appease Trimph dealers? If Triumph really felt the need for a competitor in this market it would have been better to keep the old 1300 running for another couple of years or transfer the drivetrain into the new 1500 body.

    The other surprising thing about the Triumph range was the opportunity missed by the omission of an 8 valve 2 litre Dolomite. It would have provide a more compact alternative to the Cortina 2 litre without the complexity and high insurance costs of the Sprint.

  16. Some point out that ADO16 would have formed a suitable basis from which to develop a supermini and IMHO the same can also be said of the Triumph 1300, with the latter being shortened / downscaled to sit between the Mini and ADO16 as a proper supermini replacement for the Herald (whilst potentially allowing the Triumph 1300 to feature RWD from the outset).

  17. Had Leyland not merged with BMC, I reckon this car could have had a far brighter future and the Triumph brand could have been seen as a rival to BMW, which the Dolomite Sprint was compared to. It’s likely that the successors to the Dolomite would have been big rivals to the 3 series and Triumph as a very successful producer of sports cars and sporting saloons. Also the works at Canley would still be around and mass car production in Coventry a reality.

    • Yes there is no doubt that the merger with BMC ultimately killed Triumph and almost Rover (Land), whereas had resources gone into developing an integrated Triumph / Rover brand i.e. Triumph covering the 3/5 series sectors and Rover 7 series sector (sign of how BMW succeeded that you can use their range to segment the exec market) they could be with us today.

    • People say that Triumph should have been a rival to BMW but the reality is that in the 60’s BMW was not that big a deal. They had some decent cars and others not so much. BMW evolved intowhat we know as BMW in the 70’s and 80’s in part moving into a slot being vacated by Rover and Triumph as they failed to up date or replace the P6 and 2500. The 3500 was a whole class up from the 2500/P6 and really only replaced the 3500 version of the P5.

      • BMW was a very minor player over here until the 3 series and the cars were rare and expensive. It wasn’t until the 3 and 5 series appeared and Triumph faded away that sales took off for BMW.

  18. Back in the mists of time my brother in law decided he wanted to put a Dolomite Sprint engine in an MGB. He had owned a couple of Sprints and had previously converted an MGB to V8 status. Later he built a Caterfield with a Hyabusa and he liked to tinker.

    I was chatting to him over a beer one day and he mentioned that he had been given the number of a guy who apparently knew a lot about the Sprint engine and he had called him. He said the guy had been very friendly and interested in what he planned to do and they had chatted for about an hour. I asked him who it was and he said “some bloke called Spen King”! I almost spat my beer out. My brother in law had no idea who he had been talking to.

  19. I often womder why the original Rover 200 wasn’t badged as a Triumph, as it had all the attributes of the Dolomite, it was a small, upmarket saloon, with the Vitesse being a worthy successor to the Sprint, and handled and drove well.

    • Yes, I thought the successor to the Acclaim would also be Triumph badged in 1984. It was only during the press launch of the Rover 200/SD3 in Northumberland, that the cars were revealed as Rover’s. Gaffer tape was placed over badges & nameplates to disguise that fact to the public

    • I understand they did a survey, and it turned out that people associated Triumph brand with cheap shorts cars and Rover with quality cars so they reckoned they could use Rover (as they did) to get the price premium they needed due to their relative low volumes.

      • I imagine they felt that still they had too many brands, and it was pointless keeping Triumph for a single car, whereas with XX coming up they could have a range of Austins and a range of Rovers (no pun intended!)

        They still had MG so didn’t need the Triumph brand for any future sports cars either

        • Part of the slimming down of the volume cars business of British Leyland that saw Morris go at the same time as Triumph. Morris had no brand image by 1984, almost everyone considered it to mean unsophisticated rwd cars, and Triumph’s image was fading by 1984 as the sports car range had been phased out by 1981 and the Acclaim was a redbadged Honda.

  20. Should the Triumph 1300 have remained RWD from the outset?

    Though have doubts as to how feasible it was, it would have definitely been interesting if the RWD Triumph 1300 spawned more potent variants, whether via 1.6-1.7 Slant-4s or even a 1.6 I6 (the latter as a stop-gap for the former).

  21. A real shame that Michelotti proposal never made it into production, as surely that would have bought a few more years before a more comprehensive replacement would be required?

  22. On the subject of the later Triumph 1296-1493cc engines used in the Dolomite / Spitfire / etc. Forgetting about how the following What-If scenario could even happen for a second, in terms of further development potential what would have been the effect had the Triumph engines not been a victim of cost-costing upon the formation of BL to create the “floppy crank motors” whether in:

    – Not featuring a heavier crankshaft with larger diameter yet narrower bearing and other elements shared with the 6-cylinder engine in order to rationalise machining operations.

    – Not downgrading the steel used in the crank from EN40B to the far inferior EN16U.

    – Not featuring recessed bores which would have avoided the safe over boring of the engine to being limited to a mere 20thou.

    Would the above have allowed a properly-developed Triumph 1296cc engine to viably grow beyond the 1493cc limit of the “floppy crank motor” to a displacement limit closer to 1600cc, particularly due to the safe over boring limit of the engine no longer being an issue?

    Additionally would such an alternate revised Triumph engine have further benefited with featuring a 5-bearing crankshaft and other experimental developments tested on the A-Series (e.g. A-OHC, etc)?

  23. Were there any comparison tests done at the time (1973) between the FWD 1500 and RWD 1500TC?

    It would have been interesting to see how they compared in terms of space and how they drove (handling, steering, gearchange quality etc).

  24. I rode as a passenger in an 1850 Dolomite (RWD), the rear axle was quite sensitive to road camber, by example, on completing an overtake on a country road, by crossing the crown in the centre of the road and steering the car back to the straight,, the rear would readily sideslip before settling down if you were not careful with the steering wheel, therefore fairly safe and predictable, but still “not right”. New dampers and springs on the rear did not make any difference to the behaviour, the tyres were Dunlop which are usually adequate , further investigation ceased, we took it as a characteristic of the model, perhaps we should have measured the geometry of the rear wheel settings for compliance with factory specifications

    • I remember reading about someone who had a second hand Dolomite, which had a habit of porpoising at the rear between 50 & 60 mph.

      In spite of attempting to adjust the rear suspension many times nothing seemed to cure it.

  25. Is there any truth to claims of there being some common DNA between the Ricardo design and a number of Coventry Climax’s 4-cylinder designs including what appeared in the Imp beyond them being Slant-Fours?

  26. This is the one the press seemed to ignore in their regular Leyland bashing in the seventies and a car that seemed to continue selling to a loyal market right to the end in 1980. I always thought the Dolomite exuded the sort of class you’d never find in a sporting Escort and even the base models were quite nice inside with the wood dashboards and cloth seats. My favourite isn’t the Sprint, but one of the last models: the 1979 Dolomite !500 SE with its black and silver paintwork, velour seats and wood door cappings. When one was on display at my local dealer, it always looked the real deal and being a 1500, it combined the right combination of performance with economy.

  27. Always wondered if the Toledo/Dolomite and Hillman Avenger could be directly compared against each other beyond approximately sitting between the Escort and Cortina? What advantages did the Toledo/Dolomite have over the Avenger and vice versa?

    One was a design of the 1960s (due to be replaced by a larger successor that never came to be in Bobcat/SD2) and the other was a design of the 1970s, with the former being viewed as more rough around the edges against the opposition (e.g. Sprint vs 02 Ti/Turbo, etc) whereas the latter was not properly developed due to problems with parent company.

  28. The Dolomite was a more upmarket car than the Avenger, with a classier interior and bigger engined versions, and was priced higher. Both probably catered to the same market, but the Avenger was a more mass produced car and didn’t have the same quality feel as the Dolomite. However, the Avenger didn’t have a troublesome range topping model like the Dolomite Sprint and the Dolomite didn’t rust as quickly as the Avenger. Both cars by the time they were phased out did have one thing in common: they were sixties designs that were becoming old fashioned.

  29. Both also had scope for being converted to FWD by way of the 1300 and stillborn supermini projects in the case of Triumph, along with the Avenger estate based stillborn FWD C6 proposal by Rootes.

    The RWD Sunbeam was technically still a C-Segment car in spite of being sold as a supermini (leaving aside the Lotus Sunbeam) and even though FWD would have improved practicality, question remains if it could have been scaled down further into a proper supermini like Triumph managed with the 1300 supermini project or what Chrysler Europe managed with the stillborn Horizon based C2-Short.

    Get the impression the Avenger overall had more room for improvement and longevity over the Dolomite, which was due to be replaced by the larger Bobcat/SD2. As more sophisticated features planned for the C180 by Chrysler UK like rear suspension and gearbox could have eventually filtered down to the Avenger in better circumstances, given the 180 was essentially an upscaling of the Avenger.

  30. In some ways the Dolomite was a little closer to the Hillman Hunter, especially the larger engines examples.

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