While wandering around Gaydon at the weekend and stumbling across this pretty Triumph Dolomite Sprint in the car park, it occurred to me that this superb compact sports saloon had just passed something of a milestone. That’s because, back in June 1973 and just weeks after the Austin Allegro was launched, the Triumph arm of British Leyland unveiled one of Britain’s most innovative post-war saloons. And 40 years ago this month, it went on sale in your local Rover-Triumph dealership for £1734.
Having a look around the Internet, it looks like a few people – and the Owners’ Clubs – picked up on the 40th Anniversary of the Dolomite Sprint, but it hasn’t gained as much publicity as, say, the Allegro’s birthday. I suspect that occasion was marked with much mirth in certain quarters of the media on account of its ‘square wheel’ and being ‘built by Red Robbo between strikes’. In case you’re wondering, I was being a tad sarcastic. No, the real reason for the Allegro’s notoriety over the similarly aged Sprint is simple – we can’t help navel gazing about our past failures.
The same could be said for the Dolomite Sprint, of course. By the time it was launched – late, by the way – it should have been nearing the end of its natural life. This clever single overhead cam 2.0-litre 16-valve power unit, which developed an impressive 127bhp, had been installed into a four door bodyshell that had effectively been around since 1965. Not only that, but this intrinsic age of the basic car could not be disguised – the seating position was positively upright, the interior cramped and the Michelotti styling, as pleasant as it was, looked out of sorts in the Origami ’70s.
Little did that matter. Simply put, the Triumph Dolomite Sprint was brilliant and quite unlike anything else that you could buy at the time. It was a triumph (forgive me, it’s late) of ingenuity and engineering nouse, centred on that wonderful power unit, which had been borne out of the company’s desire to expand its still-highly capable slant-four.
Autocar in its July 1973 Autotest commented: ‘MIRA’s high speed triangular circuit was lapped at 115mph in direct top with a peak of 117mph coming up on the downhill leg. More impressive is its 0-60mph time of only 8.7 seconds. The quarter mile coms up in a remarkably quick 16.7 seconds, while the 100mph mark is reached in 29.8 seconds.’
‘To grasp the significance of these results, it is necessary to compare them with time returned by rival models. In terms of maximum speed, the Sprint is more than a match for the Ford Escort RS1600 (113mph) and the Fiat 132 Special 1800 (102mph), both of which carry a similar price tag. More significant is its ability to trounce such expensive machinery as the BMW 2002 (107mph) and Alfa Romeo Alfetta 1800 (110mph).’
So the Dolomite Sprint could, er, sprint a little – but this pace didn’t come at the cost of tractability. It was highly geared, but would pull cleanly from low-revs, and would cruise very usefully on the motorway, thanks to the standard fitment of an overdrive on third and fourth. Inside, it was almost identical to the ‘cooking’ Dolomite 1850HL (itself a perky saloon), while on the outside, all that gave the 16V game away was a small chin spoiler, alloy wheels wearing chunky, low-profile rubber and a vinyl roof. So it was a Q-car supreme that cossetted its owner.
The trouble was that this engine suffered indignity – rather like the Stag – of being beset with indifferent build quality as well as a drop-off in component material integrity. In both cases – as well as a lack of understanding from workshops when it came to the importance of coolant mixtures and regular fuid changes, this meant that Spen King’s engine gained a reputation for failure. Which is possibly one of the biggest tragedies to befall this most promising of Triumphs.
However, these teething problems were nothing compared with the lack of investment that came Triumph’s way during the 1970s. When the Sprint was launched, the Triumph range consisted of the Toledo/1500/Dolomite threesome, the 2000/2500, TR6 and Stag and all barring the range topping GT were still enormously respected, excellently engineered cars, with a discerning customer base, gilt-edged market profile and strong sales in export markets. Yet, aside from the TR7 and Acclaim (and six-cylinder SD1s if you want to be picky), no new Triumphs were forthcoming – and ultimately that meant the Dolomite Sprint committed the ultimate crime: to outlive its sell-by date. For years…
As we’ve seen, the Triumph SD2 was stillborn, lost in the post-Ryder morass of a BL that was grappling with the huge Austin, Morris and Triumph mid-market overlap and rapidly dimishing resources. In the end, Triumph was abandoned and all-but dead by the time of the launch of the Acclaim in 1981. Again, one can’t help wondering how good the SD2, complete with Triumph TR7/Rover SD1-style suspension and decent body engineering, would have been. As for the rather Fiat 132-esque stop-gap facelift penned by Michelotti (above), that might have kept things fresh, but probably not for very much longer than the original did anyway.
But we need not ponder on that; instead we should celebrate this brilliant car, which thanks to its fabulous engine, was able to give all of its rivals a bloody nose. And currently, rather like the Stag, the Dolomite Sprint is a little out of fashion – which is excellent news for anyone looking to buy one. Prices are relatively low (compare with an Escort RS to get a true idea of how much) and, if you buy a good one, you know that the issues should be sorted (head gaskets, rust).
Yes, let’s celebrate the Dolomite Sprint’s 40th birthday with a smile. Be proud of what our Engineers could achieve, despite everything, and try not to shed a tear for the greatness Triumph was achingly close to achieving…