Keith Adams gives the Internet’s most detailed account of the Triumph SD2. What it should have looked like, what lay under the skin and, ultimately, why it was cancelled so late in its design programme.
Tragedy out of Triumph
The Triumph SD2 was the logical next step in the rejuvination of the Specialist Division’s range of cars. The plan had been kicked off in 1969/70, when both sides of Rover-Triumph produced their own big car proposals – that resulted in the Rover version, penned by David Bache, being chosen over the Triumph Puma, as penned by William Towns among others.
When the Solihull Design Team won out in the internal design competition, they went on to create the Division’s first car, the Rover SD1. The formula was a simple, yet successful one – marry David Bache design with simple, yet well-honed Spen King engineering to produce a state of the art car… It worked, because the SD1 was a landmark car – both for the company and the opposition of the time.
The SD2 was conceived as the much-needed replacement for the Triumph small-car range, which at the time, comprised of the Toledo/1500TC/Dolomite 1850 and Sprint (above). These cars, which dated back to 1965, occupied an interesting market niche, somewhat above the Austin-Morris range in terms of cost, but not so much in size.
Replacing the Triumph Dolomite
In modern terms, these cars would be referred to as ‘premium’ products, and Rover-Triumph was keen to capitalise on their popularity and produce an up-to-date interpretation of the theme. The SD2 was also designed with rationalization very much in mind – BLMC’s small specialist saloon cars, although outwardly similar, were a mixture of engines and transmissions – and their continued existence was proving to be a drain on the company’s finances.
Finally, and most importantly, as Malcolm Harbour – manager of the SD2 programme – put it, ‘the original concept of the SD2 was approved in May 1972 by the Triumph management, and the whole idea was of having a replacement for the Dolomite ranges in the upper medium sector, fitting in that niche in the market, as complementary to SD1.’
In the concept submission document for the Triumph SD2, the car was described accordingly: ‘The product strategy of replacing the Triumph small car range by a compact saloon, positioned a little up market, but fitting logically below SD1 was to complete the rationalisation of the corporation’s range of specialist saloon cars, and was planned to bring with it considerable rationalisation of component and facility usage.’
What lay under the skin
Technically, the SD2 followed a similar path to the Rover SD1, inasmuch as the suspension system was conventional: McPherson struts with coaxial coil spring and 28.6mm-bore cartridge-type damper up front, with single lower link and anti-roll bar. The front subframe would be shared with the TR7, to which the lower suspension linkage, steering rack and engine would be mounted.
At the rear would be a a live rear axle at the rear controlled by two trailing arms and a Watts linkage. Drive torque reactions would be absorbed by an extension of the axle-nose coupled to a crossmember. There would be 25.4mm-bore telescopic dampers mounted forwards of the axle, coil springs mounted on top of the axle.
The engine range was soon expanded following pressure from the Marketing Department, which considered that the upmarket little SD2 would not form an effective direct replacement for the Toledo and 1500TC. The 1500TC power unit was therefore chosen as the power unit for the entry-level model and, in order not to jeopardise the car’s chances in export markets, the SD2 1500 would only be available in the UK.
However, the slant-four engine was not the original proposal put forward by Triumph Engineers: right at the dawn of the programme, the six-cylinder overhead camshaft engines which were currently in development for the SD1 were also considered as a suitable base for a smaller power unit.
Triumph engine decisions
As Harbour related, ‘there was a very apt proposal within Rover-Triumph to make four-cylinder versions of that engine.’ Prototypes were built and it was this that would have powered the new car had the programme gone to plan from the outset.
The ‘miniature SD1’ theme, as Harbour put it, continued with the car’s styling. The Solihull Design Studio, led by David Bache, produced a rather formulaic scaling down of the larger car. There were many appealing features on the SD2, most notably its front-end styling treatment that gave the car a sleek modern appearance, and the treatment of the front wheel arches and bumpers was especially neat.
Where the SD2 was let down was at the rear, where the semi-concealed rear wheels and rather heavy plastic appliqué aft of the rear side windows, fitted to the top-of-the range models, jarred with the rest of the car – the standard six-light entry-level model (above) was much cleaner. Be that as it may, the SD2’s styling was granted corporate approval in September 1973 and, at that point, looked set fair to make it into production.
Italian designs rejected in favour of in-house style
If the photographs of the SD2 looked rather less than flattering, the design did work rather better in the metal, so to speak. According the Harbour, the style of the SD2 was not just worked on within Solihull: ‘There was one model design produced in the Solihull Design Studio by David Bache’s group, but there was also a competing style that was produced by Pininfarina.
‘There were many people including myself who rather liked the Pininfarina style: it was slightly less controversial than the final SD2 style, with a very pronounced swage, and the cowelled wheel arches, and there was quite a lot of discussion with management about which was the way to go, but in the end they chose the in-house style.’
As well as Pininfarina’s proposal (above), Michelotti’s 1972 Dolomite facelift submission (below) was also presented as a Triumph SD2 styling idea. It was a conservative effort, very much in keeping with the existing car, but with a very European feel. In light of the more forward-looking alternatives, it was easily rejected.
According to the SD2 concept submission document, ‘The vehicle style was given corporate approval in September 1973, and details of the proposed model range, with the information then current on the vehicle specification, the facilities plan, the market implications, and the financial status were set out in an interim submission made in December 1973.’
Triumph SD2 programme details
By November 1974, the Triumph SD2 product plan was looking very complete. According to the internal document, there would be four engine options: 1.5-, 1.7-, 2.0-litre twin-carb, and 2.0-litre 16-valve (all the slant-fours would be ‘cost reduced’).
At this stage, they were all Triumph-derived (so the Dolomite 1500 overhead-valve for the entry-level, a 1.7-litre version of the slant-four, and the TR7 engine and Dolomite Sprint engines). As we’ll see, that became a moveable feast as the British Leyland rationalisation programme, post-Ryder Report, began to take hold.
According to Triumph SD2 product planning document (above), sales would have been modest, but presumable highly profitable. Anticipated volumes for 1979/80 would have been 83,000 per year, with the car being offered across Europe (except Sweden), and all BL’s overseas markets, aside from Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, which all offered their own locally-produced alternatives.
Promising early tests fuel optimism
The development programme had been capped with a £20 million limit, which resulted in the limited range, and reliance on carry-over parts, and the new platform would be used elsewhere in the Rover-Triumph model line-up. Other problems concerned the cost of the gearbox/axle assemblies and whether they could be shared with the ADO77 project,which was being drawn up at the same time in Longbridge.
Management nervousness over the SD2’s chances of success was echoed within several internal documents that pointed to its production cost being too expensive to make a profitable return. They also made several unfavourable comparisons with the Audi 80 and Opel Ascona, which led to another examination of how further costs could be taken out of the SD2.
However, the internal documents also pointed to a potentially positive performance in the marketplace. ‘The market position of the SD2 should be enhanced by the performance of the 1800cc and 2000cc versions, and by excellent handling. The suspension is of a similar design to the SD1, which is producing quite exceptional results in ride and handling,’ claimed the document.
The programme comes under scrutiny
Continuing evaluation of the programme and its implications came to a head on 16 September 1974, when the Director of Product Planning, John Bacchus, held a meeting of the management team behind the SD2 in order to address the fact that it looked like the car would not return a favourable profit.
The timing of the SD2’s development and introduction was described as thus:
- December 1974 (end): Finish BIW engineering
- October 1976: Start pre-production
- June 1977: Start volume production
- October 1977: Launch (2.0-litre models)
- January 1978: UK launch (O-Series models)
- March 1978: European launch (O-Series models)
The main issues at the time were that the car was described as being overweight, and that the engineering changes required to accommodate the O-Series engine would add extra time and resource to the programme, which was already under pressure from elsewhere within British Leyland.
However, there was much positive language being used about the programme internally: ‘The SD2 will be extremely well-priced (the anticipated list prices were below those of the Alfa Romeo Alfetta, Audi 80, BMW 3-Series and Lancia Beta), and it’s well placed to maintain the loyalty of a high proportion of the current Triumph owner body in the UK.’
In addition, the internal memo, titled, ‘Concept submission for a minimum investment programme‘, stated: ‘The SD2 is positioned in what is predicted to be the most rapidly growing market sector during the next 5-10 years. In addition, Rover-Triumph believes that the compact specialist nature of the SD2 means that it is the best position to complement the less expensive compact cars and the larger front-wheel drive cars manufactured by Austin-Morris.’
Where would the Triumph SD2 be built?
Given the desire to keep investment to a minimum, the SD2 would be built at existing BL facilities. The idea was to use what was essentially the same set-up for body build, paint, trim and assembly as the Dolomite. The breakdown below gave the company a capacity to build up to 1950 SD2s per week – room for expansion over the initial volumes.
- Body build: Liverpool Wood End
- Prime: Tile Hill
- Final Paint, Trim and Assembly: Canley
It was a set-up that would compromise the introduction of further body styles, updating facilities and most importantly, if the SD2 was a substantial success, there was no upward movement in the production volumes. It was anticipated that it would cost £20m to get these three sites ready for the SD2 – although, as the document stated, ‘this investment could be avoided if Stag production ceased before September 1976. The future of the Stag is at present under review…’
How profitable would the SD2 be?
According to the internal documents from September 1974, based on the production plan, the SD2 was going to be very profitable for BL. So much so, that if UK and European sales were disappointing, the shortfall could be made in the USA, maintaining required production volumes of 50,000 per year.
‘It is sensible to assume that Level A profitability is a target level of achievement, which is not conservative enough for financial appraisal,’ said one internal document. ‘At the other end of the spectrum, Level E profitability probably does not present a real case. The most reasonable level for a conservative financial appraisal lies somewhere between these two extremes, and is probably in the region of 25%.’
Compared with the Austin-Morris ADO71…
Interestingly, in justifying the continued development of the SD2, an internal comparison called Comparison of ADO71 and SD2 was produced. It came up with some very interesting contrasts between the two seemingly rival cars.
- Name and Franchise
Different marque name and, in the UK, different franchise
- Body style/concept
ADO71 is a medium family saloon competing mainly with cars such as the Ford Consul/Granada and Vauxhall Victor, while SD2 is a compact specialist car, which is fairly unique among UK products
- Overall size
ADO71 is 8in longer than SD2. However, ADO71 is in general competing with rather larger cars and its overall length is very much a function of its transverse front-wheel drive layout. Visually, SD2 appears much more compact than the ADO71
Although SD2 provides a substantial improvement over the current Triumph small cars, it is not competitive with the ADO71, which for instance, offers 5in extra rear legroom. ADO71 also has a large boot, which is a prerequisite in its class. SD2 has a rather smaller boot, but offers the important advantage of a fifth door and folding rear seats.
- Mechanical layout/concept
ADO71 has a transverse engine, front-wheel drive layout with Hydragas suspension, and power steering on some derivatives. SD2 has an inline engine with rear-wheel drive through a live rear axle.
SD2 will have a considerable emphasis on performance, assisted by the low-drag shape, and the excellent speed and acceleration of the 2000 derivative. Considerable effort will go into reproducing the outstanding road behaviour of the SD1.
At the time of the production of this document, Rover-Triumph planners clearly acknowledged the overlap between the Dolomite and the Allegro/Marina, and concluded that the upward movement of the SD2 would, ‘complete the realignment of the Rover-Triumph range and move it away from directly competing with Austin-Morris.’
The model range anticipated for the late-1970s would look like this: Mini, Allegro, SD2/Marina, ADO71, SD1 and Jaguar at the top. The document continued: ‘The SD2 also provides an important step forward in the long-term rationalisation of the corporation’s car range. Its floorpan, suspension and major components will provide a suitable basis for the Marina replacement at some future time.’ That, of course would come to pass, even if the TM-1 project never actually made it into production.
The accountants strike
The idea was to continue with the SD2 but, wherever possible, make as many savings as possible. Without being able to expand slant-four production, the powertrain choice was revised to incorporate a 1.8-litre twin-carb version of the upcoming O-Series engine alongside the 2.0-litre slant-four, now described as ‘not cost reduced’.
After much deliberation on the matter of the gearbox, the plan was to use the LT77 gearbox as used in the SD1, alongside a BW three-speed auto, which could be offered across the entire range. Production targets were also dropped to 50,000 per year in order to give Rover-Triumph the option of selling the car for more, thus raising its profitability.
Much discussion ensued and, in the face of increasing internal resistance, it seemed that only Spen King continued to have faith in the concept of the SD2. When the collapse of BLMC followed in December 1974, and with the Ryder Report then recommending rationalisation across the range, it was inevitable that the SD2 was doomed.
Over by Spring 1975
Even though there were last-minute attempts to revive the project, by suggesting far-reaching component sharing with the ADO77, the programme officially died in the spring of 1975.
Under the auspices of the Leyland Cars regime and in the spirit of increased inter-divisional partnership, the SD2 was replaced by the TM1 project (for Triumph-Morris). TM1 was formalised as a proposal to the Product Planning Department in September 1975 and the reasoning behind its creation was described in the document: ‘The case for commonality has remained a strong one, even though in the UK the current models compete in largely different market sectors. Moreover, recent events have made it clear that resources do not exist to develop two separate models in reasonable time.’
As this was a hastily conceived plan, there was no time to start with a clean sheet, so the joint Triumph-Morris car would use the SD2 as its starting point. This evidently made sense given the fact that several SD2 prototypes had been built, whereas the ADO77 appears not to have made it beyond the clay model stage.
Towards a front-wheel-drive future
Even so, there was an increasing feeling within the company that the rear-wheel-drive package – no matter how well developed – was not the ideal solution with which to mount an assault on a middle market that was rapidly moving towards front-wheel drive.
Malcolm Harbour stated that the argument had been voiced within BLMC many times and rear-wheel drive was possibly the way forward for a Triumph car company that was, ‘positioning itself against BMW, but there was not really the volume to justify it.’
Spen King knew this, as did Gordon Bashford who, since the middle of 1975, had been working on what would become the LC10. Sensibly, the TM1 programme that would have produced a four-door Morris and a five-door Triumph was quickly passed over in favour of the new front-wheel-drive model.
Was the SD2 a missed opportunity for British Leyland? Indeed it was, but Rover-Triumph was always going to be constrained in developing the car because of its lack of the so-vital off-the-shelf 2.0-litre engine and gearbox that could have been used without any significant debate within the company.
Also the cost factors involved in developing a new rear-wheel-drive platform were prohibitive, especially within the climate of austerity that was prevalent in the company at the time. Given a more favourable climate, the SD2 might have seen the light of day – and, given its five-door layout, well-honed chassis and interesting range of engines it would have been an interesting car indeed.
On the road, the car promised much and, according to Malcolm Harbour, the prototype that he drove around the lanes of Shropshire under cover of darkness was a genuinely entertaining car.
What do you think?
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.