As we commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Triumph Dolomite Sprint, which takes place next week, it’s a great time to delve into the intriguing story behind this enduring – and undervalued – British classic.
Contrary to popular belief, the Dolomite Sprint was not a sleek, eye-catching design in the way its more glamorous imported rivals were, but a traditionally-styled masterpiece crafted by the renowned designer Giovanni Michelotti, and the pinnacle of the Dolomite, Toledo and 1300/1500 model range.
Arriving in the eye of a storm
In the early 1970s, the automotive industry was witnessing a transition in design philosophy. Sleek, wedgy, futuristic lines were becoming the norm, as car manufacturers sought to embrace the avant-garde aesthetic of the era.
However, Triumph embraced none of this with the Dolomite Sprint, choosing to retain the more traditional appearance of the 1300/1500/Toledo which had been around since the mid-1960s. This might have been down to the development of the forthcoming Triumph SD2, but would prove to be a great recipe for its future classic status – even if it meant that the Dolomite Sprint would end up looking rather long in the tooth as it campaigned throughout the 1970s.
At the heart of the Dolomite Sprint’s design was the esteemed Italian designer Giovanni Michelotti. Best known for the Triumph Stag and TR line of sports cars, Michelotti had already left an indelible mark on the automotive world. With the Dolomite Sprint, he’d unwittingly left us with a car that embodied a sense of elegance and sophistication while remaining faithful to the traditional design cues that enthusiasts cherished.
The Sprint’s engineering brilliance
It’s not all about the styling, though, and it’s important to acknowledge the engineering brilliance that underpinned the Dolomite Sprint. Under the bonnet was an advanced 16-valve engine featuring cutting-edge technology and power for its time.
This engine delivered impressive performance and punchy acceleration, reinforcing the Sprint’s status as a Q-car. The higher-powered development of the slant-four would provide the perfect engine to compete more effectively in motor sport – and back in 1971, Triumph kicked off its plan to develop a competition-focused version of the Dolomite (later known as the 1850HL).
To create this road-going touring car, 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 many of the benefits of that more traditional 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. No wonder it won a Design Council award.
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 throttled-back figure was 127bhp, a very healthy output, especially when viewed in the context of its 1973 introduction.
A delayed introduction
Like the Dolomite before it, the Sprint (the name had been chosen at an early stage of the model’s development) was subject to several delays. It duly appeared in the autumn of 1973, and was greeted by buyer and press enthusiasm.
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.
Maximum power was 127bhp and propelled the Dolomite Sprint to a top speed of 119mph via a 0-60mph time of 8.7 seconds. These impressive numbers made it one of the fastest four-cylinder production car of its day and a match for the Alfa Romeo Alfetta, BMW 2002 and Ford Escort RS.
The Dolomite Sprint’s engine was a testament to British engineering prowess, offering an exhilarating driving experience that few cars could match. And 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.
Was this peak Triumph?
The Dolomite Sprint epitomises restrained elegance to this day. Its proportions were well balanced, with its stylish quad-headlight grille, a well-defined beltline and a gracefully sloping roofline. It incorporated subtle details, such as the discreet Sprint badges and chrome accents, which added a touch of sophistication, without being at all shouty about its performance.
Inside the Dolomite Sprint, driver and passengers were treated to a comfortable and functional experience. The cabin featured plush seating upholstered in high-quality materials, along with a well-designed dashboard that placed all essential controls within easy reach.
Attention to detail was evident throughout, with carefully crafted switchgear and tasteful wood veneer accents. The Sprint’s interior was a testament to the notion that classic design need not compromise on modern comfort. And check out the carpeted surround for the gearstick and those Leyland embossed pedal rubbers!
Finally, it lived up to Triumph’s ambitions for it on the racetrack. The model scored well in the British Touring Car Championship, with the cars of Andy Rouse and Tony Dron winning the Manufacturers’ title in 1974 and Rouse the Drivers’ title in 1975. Dron nearly won it again in 1977, only losing it to a tyre failure in the final race.
Of course, the contemporary view was coloured by the Sprint’s unreliable engine (spoiled by downgraded materials used in production models), and a 1960s upright body that fell out of fashion in the design-led 1970s. It remained in production until August 1980, by which time, it was clear its clever engine was never going to meet its potential, being shoved into the sidings in the chaos of post-merger British Leyland.
A lasting legacy
The Triumph Dolomite Sprint’s appeal has stood the test of time, though, thanks in large part to the timelessness of Michelotti’s design, punchy performance and appealing interior. Enthusiasts guaranteed the Sprint’s classic status early doors, appreciating its blend of traditional styling and excellent performance at a price that’s far lower than its aforementioned rivals from Alfa Romeo, BMW and Ford.
As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Triumph Dolomite Sprint, it is vital to recognise its contributions to the classic car scene. A band of dedicated specialists support it with excellent parts supply, and solutions for its basic engine unreliability. Even the best examples are seriously affordable for what the Sprint offers, too.
Its enduring popularity is a testament to its restrained design, clever engineering and universal classic appeal.
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