The cars : Triumph Herald/Vitesse development story

The Triumph Herald burst on to the scene in 1959, replacing the Standard 8/10 and totally reinventing the image of its maker at a time of great change.

Keith Adams tells the story of this popular small family car with the sharp Michelotti styling and a famously tight turning circle…

Herald – the new standard bearer from Triumph

Alick Dick, the Chairman of Standard-Triumph, laid down plans for the company’s next new small car in the mid-1950s. Codenamed Zobo, it was to replace the Standard 8 and 10 and was tasked with attracting younger buyers who had been deserting the firm in droves, put off by the older car’s staid image and austere styling.

It was a tall order, but by taking the decision to move towards the Triumph marque name, it was eased considerably. However, the subsequent success of this car was down to more than its marque change. Thanks to the combined efforts of a small team of gifted Engineers and Designers, a car emerged from Coventry that captured the hearts of a new generation of buyers.

However, as appealing as the final product was, when it emerged in 1959, there had been a few problems along the way.

Project Zobo: problems with BMC

Development of the new model had been hampered by the fact that Standard-Triumph’s bodywork supplier, Fisher & Ludlow, had been taken over by the BMC in 1953. No longer would the company enjoy being able to design and plan new models without its significantly larger compatriot having prior knowledge of what was in store.

Alick Dick was not surprised when BMC Chairman Leonard Lord advised him that, when existing contracts had expired, Fisher & Ludlow would no longer supply Standard-Triumph with car bodies.

Rival, Pressed Steel, was then approached, but its order books were full, and that left small body builders whose production capacity was simply not large enough to cope with the demands placed upon them by building the new small Triumph.

A (not-so) radical body solution

The problem was solved by Standard-Triumph’s Chief Engineer Harry Webster, who suggested that instead of using the monocoque construction originally planned, Zobo should have a separate chassis onto which would be fitted body panels manufactured by smaller body builder.

It was a clever, but simple solution to a very real problem. In addition to that, the rest of the technical package chose itself. Webster decided on an independent suspension setup for Zobo: a rear swing axle arrangement with transverse leaf springs, something that would cause problems for owners later on.

The only other major component to worry about was the engine, and that was a 948cc power unit carried-over from the outgoing Standard 10.

Introducing some Italian styling

Giovanni Michelotti

All that remained was the styling. Walter Belgrove had been Triumph’s Chief Stylist since the 1920s, but had left the company in 1955, and the remaining members of the team were unable to come up with a suitable design. Harry Webster decided to investigate the idea of employing an outside stylist and went to Italy to meet Giovanni Michelotti (above) at his styling studio in Turin.

Michelotti agreed to style Zobo, although the forward hinged bonnet and wing section was the work of the Triumph Styling Department. This was the start of a very productive relationship with Michelotti that would last into the 1970s. All that remained was a name for Zobo and it was christened Herald after Alick Dick’s boat.

It was launched at the Royal Albert Hall in London on 22 April 1959, beating the Mini and the Ford Anglia to the market, and allowing it to make quite a splash. However, it was not cheap, and that initial high cost did stunt sales of the new car.

Triumph Herald 1959

What the press said

Motor Sport magazine was very impressed with the Herald and, in a comprehensive report in its July 1959 issue, William Boddy concluded: ‘Summing-up, the Triumph Herald is a refreshingly new approach to the problem of providing an up-to-date small car at a competitive price.

‘Clearly the Coventry Engineers concerned started with a clean sheet of paper, and the result is the most fascinating British car that has appeared for a long, long time. The enthusiast is going to like the Herald on account of its excellent controls and very high standard of roadholding and general control. With the less-critical user, he is going to find the very small turning circle and absence of grease points a boon and if he craves more performance there exist many tuning specialists ready to provide this.’

In standard single-carburettor form the 34.5bhp Herald was from quick, though, and didn’t represent great value for money. The Motor magazine measured it at 70.9mph for its maximum speed, with a 0-60mph time of 31.1 seconds. Fuel consumption was competitive, though, as 34.5mpg.

A case of constant development

The development of the range soon ensured. In March 1960 the four-seater convertible was launched. Powered by a twin-carburettor version of the Herald’s 948cc engine, it was usefully quicker, and unsurprisingly, the up-gunned power unit found its way into the saloon in February 1961. That version was badged the Herald S and was subsequently billed by Triumph’s PR literature as an economy model.

Model development didn’t stop there. In April 1961, Triumph unveiled the new Herald 1200 range, which comprised a saloon, coupe and convertible. The 948cc engine had been bored out to 1147cc, and that upped power to a very acceptable 40bhp.

Top speed was now a motorway friendly 75mph and the 0-60mph time was now measurable without the need to resort to a sundial. These new uprated Heralds featured a collapsible steering column, walnut veneer fascia and a heater/de-mister unit, making them rather easier to live with. In May 1961, the estate model was added, and five months later, front disc brakes were offered as an optional extra on all models.

Sporting off-shoots

In October 1962, the Herald-based Triumph Spitfire was launched. It was a lightweight development of the Herald, which ultimately outlasted its parent car by nine years – an impressive achievement.

The final new Herald body variant was the much sought-after Courier van which also found its way on to the market in October 1962. However, it didn’t hang around long, being summoned for early execution two years later thanks to its low sales caused by its high price and less than commodious loading bay.

And still the developments of the Herald were rolled out: the Herald 12/50 appeared in March 1963 but was only available in saloon form. The 1147cc engine was tweaked to produce 51bhp, and a new gearbox, front disc brakes, heater, windscreen washers and a new grille all came as standard on the car.

How to maximise a platform

In October 1966 another Herald derivative appeared, the 1998cc Spitfire based GT6.

The Herald 12/50 lasted in production until October 1967, when it was replaced by yet another upgraded version, the 13/60. The 13/60 used a four cylinder 1296cc overhead valve engine (shared with the Triumph 1300).

Fitted with a Stromberg carburettor it produced a healthy 61bhp at 5000rpm, about the same as the 1980’s 1275cc BL A-Plus engine. Top speed was now up to just over 80mph. The 13/60 was available in saloon, convertible and estate versions, and all models featured a two-spoke steering wheel, a re-styled fascia with better sited controls, re-designed seats and increased legroom for rear seat passengers.

Triumph Herald production figures
948cc (1959-1962) 76,860 (including Herald S)
948cc Coupe (1959-1961) 15,157
948cc Convertible (1960-1961) 8262
1200 Saloon (1961-1970) 201,142
1200 Coupe (1961-1970) 5319
1200 Convertible (1961-1970) 43,295
1200 Estate (1961-1970) 39,819
12/50 (1963-1967) 53,267
13/60 (1967-1971) 82,650
Total 510,614

And now for the Vitesse

Triumph had continually improved the Herald to cater for all tastes, but it was evident from the earliest days, that the car was no ball of fire; and so in 1962 a re-engineered version appeared to cater for the more sporting motorist. This emerged as the six-cylinder Vitesse 1600.

The Vitesse shared its chassis with the Herald, albeit with reinforced components and suitably beefed-up and body construction. The engine was a new six-cylinder overhead valve unit, which would subsequently find a home in a number of other Triumphs. Another distinguishing feature over and above the Herald was the twin headlamp set-up, which were angled seductively, giving the higher-powered car an easily identifiable front-end.

The Vitesse had a suitably lavish equipment list – standard front disc brakes put it near the head of the class, while the optional overdrive massively improved high speed cruising. Like its lower powered brethren, the Vitesse was available in both saloon and convertible forms. Top speed was now up to around 89mph, while the 0-60mph time was slashed to 17.5 seconds.

Two-litre power for the Vitesse

In 1966, the 1600 was replaced by the Vitesse 2-litre, which used the same 1998cc six-cylinder engine used in the Triumph 2000 saloon and the GT6. The 95bhp engine was fitted with twin Stromberg carburettors, and was mated to a stronger gearbox. Improved brakes were fitted, and that finally turned the Vitesse into a highly capable car for all reasons.

With the additional power on board, a top speed of 95mph was on the cards, while a positively sprightly 0-60mph time of 12.6 seconds meant it could keep up with far more expensive machinery.

The Vitesse Mk2 duly arrived in 1968, and that was further upgunned to 104bhp. Finally the Vitesse was a 100mph car… Most importantly, though, the rear suspension had been revised to improve handling and make cornering a far safer pass time.

Triumph Vitesse production figures
1600 Saloon (1962-1966) 22,814
1600 Convertible (1962-1966) 8447
2-litre Mk1 saloon (1966-1968) 7328
2-litre Mk1 convertible (1966-1968) 3502
2-litre Mk2 saloon (1968-1971) 5649
2-litre Mk2 convertible (1968-1971) 3472
Total 51,212

Replacement comes in many forms

The writing was on the wall for the Herald/Vitesse cars with the 1300 (below) and Toledo waiting in the wings to replace them. First to go was the 1200 saloon in May 1970 followed by the 13/60 saloon in December. The convertible, estate and Vitesse met their end in May 1971.

In a sense the cars were obsolete when they were introduced in 1959, but somehow Triumph had turned project Zobo into a success, finding buyers when there were more technically advanced cars on the market.

In a sense the 1960s was the high point of the Triumph marque and the onset of the 1970s would spell doom for the brand as the marque was dragged through one industrial dispute after another.

The Rover-Triumph story: Triumph 1300 is launched in 1965.

What lessons learned?

All production of the Herald and Vitesse cars ended in 1971, but not before they made their mark on British Leyland boss Sir Donald Stokes. The Leyland Group’s first experience of car making had been with Triumph – Harry Webster and his team had shown to the Leyland board that it could develop a popular mass market car and make a profit from it.

The basic Herald platform had been continually improved to cater for customers needs and had evolved into the Vitesse, Spitfire and GT6, cars for which Triumph could charge a higher price and therefore make more profit on.

This compares with BMC, and its myriad platforms and factories. Is it any wonder that upon the formation of British Leyland in 1968, Sir Donald Stokes installed Harry Webster as Technical Director of the former BMC, Austin-Morris, and tried to radically change the approach to product development at Longbridge?

Triumph Vitesse

Keith Adams


  1. Well, given that these cars – and especially the Vitesse – were closely related to the Spitfire and GT6, it surprises me we don’t have a development story for those yet – even more so when you recall that the GT6 was in direct competition with the MGB GT… Any chance of the Spitfire and GT6’s story in the future? 🙂

  2. I have had a Herald for 2 or 3 years now and it broken down twice in the last 6 months because it’s been standing so long and everything needs replacing. But we it is running it sound’s brilliant and I still love if if we are stuck on the biggest hill near us with half a mile of traffic behind it. There is something about these cars that is just so loveable. Please check out my website! Thanks

  3. Can we add the 948cc coupe to the Triumph Herald figures? The first production cars made were coupes. 1959-1961 there were 15,157 made. Thanks

  4. The Herald S was not powered by the twin carb SU. The Herald S was a stripped out single solex car car, with a very basic level of trim. It wasn’t a particular success. Herald S cars had the suffix SP on their commission plates.

    There was a twin carb Saloon, yet it had no external markings or branding claiming this fact, these cars did have a different prefix GY as opposed to G for single carb saloons on their commission plates. These cars did sell much better up to the launch of the 1200cc car.

  5. I had a Herald 1200 Convertible which a guy let me have cheap in the mid 70’s as it looked a complete mess – the red paint was faded to a flat brick dust colour and the interior was filthy. However, six tins of T Cut and a vacuum later I had a really smart car which was fantastically reliable over the next few years. I eventually let my Dad have it and it soldiered on for many years after that.
    I remember it was quite ‘sporty’ , sounded lovely and once mastered the handling and road holding were very good too. You did have to be using the gas hard out of the bends though – throttling back was too just too exciting.

    • I know this is a bit of a thread revival but checking out the rego of that Vitesse in your photo it is one of the rare NZ assembled cars. It has the prefix 3 on the chassis number

  6. Did Triumph ever investigate building a PI / Petrol Injection version of the Vitesse 1600 engine (roughly putting out about 90-103 + hp instead of the existing 70-82 hp)?

    Always wondered why the 1600 Triumph I6 was only used on the Vitesse 6 and not developed for use in other applications such as the Spitfire and 1300 / 1500 / Toledo.

  7. Austin improved the A series engine to A. could the TRIUMPH 6 cylinder 2.000cc be improved like wise to get the 25 mpg up to 32 wallet friendly mpg,

  8. I was looking at a piece where it was against a viva 2,300 with 25 mpg average shorly classic car people can inprove on this with new type bits fitted ,

  9. When you follow this link, you will see a road test, take a look at the Herlad, lets be honest, the back wheel and suspension geometry on the Triumph Helard dosent look to clever. It reminds me of the 1960 Chevrolet Corvair with its rear suspension folding up under the car

    NSU 1200 – Renault 1100 – Triumph Helard 13/60 & Volkswagen Beetle 1302 S Group Road Test 1969

    • Unusual in the post WW2 era, but not in the 1930s when there were quite a few. MG and Wolseley ranged between 1087??, 1271 and finally about 1450cc. Rover had several in the 1.5 litre range, some with 3 SUs . Riley had a 1.5 litre 6 cylinder as well as a similar sized 4 . Crossley used a 6 cylinder version of the Coventry Climax IOE engine . There were also sidevalve Morris engines which were 6 cylinder versions of the Morris 8 engine of IIRC 1377cc which were fitted to a rather neat little tourer, and I am pretty sure Singer did a 6 pot version of their 972cc 4 cyl ohc engine

      • Back then I presume there were issues in making cylinder sizes too big?

        These days turbo 3s and 4s dominate the marker, indeed hardly any 6 cylinder engines smaller than 3L seem to exist, and they are turbocharged top of the range models

  10. The smaller the engine the greater the friction counts against efficiency. That’s why you don’t see small capacity engines bigger than 3 or 4 cylinders.

    In the past, efficiency was not the by word it is today. That is why you don’t see 2L V6 like the Fiat Dinos of the 60s or the Ferrari V12s of 1500cc in the 40s/50s.

  11. Interested to find out more about a short-lived Zobo precursor project known as Zeta, basically a rebodied Standard 10 with the chassis modified to feature independent rear suspension and whether it was to be built from a unibody or separate chassis?

  12. A curious little known Herald and Spitfire variant was the Brabham Herald / Brabham Spitfire, which were both powered by the 1216cc Coventry Climax FWE unit.

    Another would be plans for the related Triumph Spitfire to be powered by a 80 hp 1709cc Slant-Four engine that later appeared in the Saab 99, when it was apparently the case that the engine was not ready unlike the 1296cc engine with some claiming it was not feasible to fit the Slant-Four into the Spitfire.

    • Brabham never converted a Spitfire, they did do an Austin Healey Sprite. However, soemone in teh USA was looking to try and do an FWE engine into a Spit

    • A friend fitted an 1850 slant four into a Mk.1 Spitfire in the pate 1970s, and he found it very simple, even working in a single garage at home – apparently it went straight onto the existing engine mounts, with an early Dolomite 3-rail (i.e. Vitesse) gearbox behind it. I rather like the idea of a slant 4-engined Herald

  13. In Easter this year I saw a lovely condition white Herald Convertible at Matthewsons Garage in Thornton le Dale Yorkshire… similar to the photo above on this page. My brother also owned an identical one in the early 1970’s. They looked great with the roof down.

    • Not exactly a thing of beauty, is it? I can understand why Triumph didn’t bother, when the estate car was selling well

      • Would agree to some extent, yet it is worth noting the conceptually similar Innocenti A40 Farina Combinata went on to significantly outsell the regular Innocenti A40 Farina by the time production of both variants ceased in the late-1960s,

  14. My milling instructor at the Rolls-Royce training school in Derby had a Vitesse 1600. He replaced it with an MGBGT, but his wife liked the Vitesse so much that he bought it off him.

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