The Triumph Stag might have looked like an absolute winner in the American market – it had glamour, style and panache, and yet it failed miserably.
Chris Cowin recalls the launch and subsequent belly-flop in North America. It’s a sad tale…
Spring of 1971: The American Stag ….
Working for British Leyland in the USA must have seemed glamorous in early 1971.
In March 1971, executives travelled to Palm Springs for the press introduction of the impressive V12-powered Series III Jaguar E-type priced at $6950 (for the convertible) – together with the V8-powered Triumph Stag which, at $5773 (including the optional hardtop), wasn’t much cheaper.
These were expensive cars – when an MGB cost $2875 and a Triumph Spitfire $2649. (and a TR6 $3275). The Triumph Stag took British Leyland’s Triumph dealers – who were used to retailing affordable sports cars to young guys (mostly) – into a whole new market sector, and one many dealers weren’t comfortable with.
But the Stag had been developed with the US market in mind, right down to details like its neatly integrated side marker lights – with a seductive combination of V8 power and a four-seat convertible body, what could possibly go wrong? Sadly, just about everything did – and, although the USA was intended to be the principal market for the Triumph Stag, it absorbed less than 3000 of the 26,000 cars built.
Three years? Who knew…
After less than three years on sale it was withdrawn, which allowed British Leyland to avoid making changes required to meet federal regulations for 1974 and beyond (so we never saw a Stag with impact bumpers) – but was an admission of defeat.
What was the problem?
These issues can stir a lot of emotions so it’s probably best to quote directly Michael Cook – who was responsible for marketing Triumphs to Americans at the time. As he writes in his book Triumph Cars in America: ‘Everything about the Stag was new including the overhead cam, 3.0-litre V8. As Stags went out to customers and we started to learn about reliability, the news was not good.
‘Over the years Triumph had tried to sell certain cars that were unsuited to the United States. The Triumph 10 (Standard 10) and the original 948cc Heralds were really short on power. Heralds and the 2000 sedan (marketed during 1966-67) had reliability problems.’
Problems. Nothing but problems…
Cook continued: ‘But, prior to the Stag, purchasers and dealers had never been presented with a car that could not be fixed! The Stag had more electrical systems than other Triumphs and had problems with all of them. The 1971 Stags all had wire wheels (standard in the USA as illustrated) with attendant truing and balancing problems.’
‘Poorly-assembled Stag V8s overheated, warped cylinder heads, and leaked coolant. The first item on the dealer pre-delivery check list was pouring a can of Bar’s Leaks into the radiator! The list of recalls included the possibility of the throttle jamming wide open, the fuel filler hose splitting, and failure of the U-joint in the steering column.’
It has to be said some of the problems in service could be attributed to inexperienced mechanics (which better training might have resolved) with the use of inappropriate coolant being one issue – but there were build quality issues with Stag reaching right back to the sand-casting of the engine blocks.
As Spen King was quoted as saying when interviewed (much later) about these issues: ‘They were built wrong, I’m afraid.’
A British lack of understanding of the US market
It wasn’t just quality and reliability that handicapped the Stag in the USA. Not for the first time the British car industry had built a car to match imagined American taste – which rather missed the mark – as had other cars over the years stretching back to the Austin Atlantic.
In Britain, a four-seat V8 convertible was close to unique, but in the USA it was something still offered in 1971 by all the domestic manufacturers in various flavours, from Ford Mustang to Ford LTD – often at a much cheaper price, and with more power.
The ’71 Mustang convertible started at just $3322 and, if you ticked the right box (and paid a bit more), it came with a 5.7 litre (351 ci) V8. Even the magnificently flamboyant “boat-tail” Buick Riviera (a Coupe) with its 7.5 litre (455 ci) V8 had a base price ($5253) that undercut the Stag. In those pre-Oil Crisis days, the Triumph’s (relatively) good fuel consumption counted for little.
In marketing terms, the ‘Unique Selling Proposition’ of the Stag was not so unique Stateside, and its price steep. Some German rivals had the premium cachet to pull off such premium pricing but, in 1971, in America, Triumph did not. And if automatic transmission and air conditioning were added, a Stag was a $6000 car.
A mismatch of styling
The Stag’s styling with its integral roll-bar (required for rigidity) did not meet with universal acclaim in the States. US manufacturers were still building big, bold, body-on-frame convertibles without roll-bars which some saw as symptomatic of creeping and unwanted regulation. Style is everything in this segment, and the Stag struck some as a rather gawky conversion of a pre-existing sedan (which in a sense it was), sharing many styling cues with the humble and commonplace Spitfire Mk IV. (The bigger Mk2 2000 and 2.5 PI sedans with similar Michelotti styling were not sold in the USA).
With British Leyland shifting relatively huge quantities of other Triumphs in America (Spitfire, GT6 and TR6) the Stag could only claim so much attention.
Although later models were lightly revised (cooling problems were mostly resolved, the wire wheels were replaced with GKN Kent alloys) – it had become a ‘problem child’ which most dealers would have been relieved to see withdrawn after 1973.
Clearing the decks
More Stags might have made their way to North America if it had been marketed in Canada – where British cars had something of an easier ride and other Triumphs not marketed in the USA (such as the 1300) had been offered in the past.
However, British Leyland Canada (as I was told by a former executive) decided not to import the Stag, having evaluated the vehicle and concluding it would struggle to find buyers at the intended price.
The sorry story of the Stag in North America cast a shadow over the whole project. Intended to be an export winner, in reality most Stags stayed in the UK with only 6780 of the 25,877 built exported – another parallel with the Austin Atlantic.
Help from the little brother
With exports disappointing (though Australia took quite a few) production of the Stag, which continued until 1977, fell far below early forecasts of 12,000 annually. But, to puncture the gloom a little, production of around 12,000 cars annually was being achieved by the Triumph TR6 over broadly the same timescale as the Stag – with the success of the TR6 in the USA (which took most of them) being the reason total production (1969-76) was almost four times greater than Stag.
They got some things right.
Spen King oversaw the later stages of development of the Triumph Stag as Rover and Triumph were amalgamated into British Leyland’s Specialist Division. He was interviewed by Keith Adams of AROnline in December 2002 and didn’t mince his words.
Keith asked: ‘I presume that the V8 Stag engine didn’t really come up with all those problems in testing anyway?’
CSK: ‘No, a lot of the trouble was they were made wrong, I’m afraid. Which was down to the state of bloody mindedness in the workforce, which in Triumph was pretty serious.’
Keith Adams: ‘Canley?’
CSK: ‘Yes. And the other problem was that things started getting made in Liverpool. There was an even more bloody-minded workforce there and they didn’t train the people there to do the job properly before they did them.’
Though final assembly of the Stag was at Canley, bodies were manufactured, painted and trimmed at Speke No 2 (Liverpool) – better known as the (initial) TR7 factory. They were then moved south in dedicated transporters, a process which continued until production ended in 1977, after which the Stag body-in-white and trim area lay unused until Speke No 2 was closed down in May 1978.