Blog : As the Triumph Dolomite Sprint’s 50th birthday approaches…

Triumph Dolomite Sprint Competitions

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.

Triumph Dolomite Sprint test track

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!

Triumph Dolomite Sprint interior

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.

Triumph Dolomite Sprint advert

Keith Adams


  1. So having lavished huge amounts of engineering development time and money creating this award winning engine with huge future development potential Leyland stuck it in an old sit up and beg body. A body derived from the 1965 Triumph 1300 cobbled to make it RWD, and then sat back and forget about it! Why didn’t this engine form the basis of future 2 litre power units. Why didn’t it go into the SD1. Why didn’t Leyland spend the money thrown away on the O series on a modern transaxle to allow this engine to go into transverse applications – The Princess, the Maestro, the Montego. Why didn’t Leyland work with Saab to jointly develop future derivatives. Why didn’t Leyland behave like any other sane, rational car manufacturer!

    • All good points but the problem was that like so much of British Leyland it was conceived before the merger of not only with BMH but also Rover. This meant that they were only tooled up for Triumph’s expected volumes and not those of British Leyland. Also it was necessary for the B Series tooling and production line to be renewed for the Marina and it was this tooling and production line which was used for the O Series. Then you have the other issue, consolidating engine production meant closing down factories which meant lost production to disputes. This is one of the key reasons a new straight 6 was developed for the SD1, instead of using the E6 or a straight 6 derived from the Triumph slant 4 etc. Because it was necessary to give Canley a big slice of the SD1 pie so they could end production of the Triumph 2000/2500.

  2. I thought that the restyle of the Triumph 1300 into the 1500 was one of the better refreshing of an existing,the introduction of the new grille with twin headlights and longer boot gave the car a more balanced look. Whether the reversion to rear wheel drive in the 1500TC and Dolomite was a good move is open to debate but the Dolomite Sprint certainly was an elegant and desirable car a lot better value than the BMW 2002 with it’s cramped accommodation and those awful Mk 1 Cortina like tail lights. The real question is why wasn’t the move to put the 16 valve engine in the TR7 proceeded with,prototypes were made but BL cancelled it at a late stage,was that another own goal?

    • I suspect two reasons

      1: It meant adding an engine that had a reputation for poor reliability to a car that already had a reputation for poor quality and reliability.

      2: They did not have the money to adapt it to US emissions regulations and with no dealer net work to speak of in Europe for a car of limited appeal to the European market it would be restricted to the weak UK market.

      Thus it was hard to see how they would be able to sell it in the numbers and price to make it profitable.

  3. This car looked so good on paper and should have been an absolute winner. Sadly, like Alfa Romeo cars, its build quality let it down. BMW models might have been more expensive, but most owners were happy with the quality and reliability. It’s not about price – it’s about value.

  4. Would the Dolomite have benefited from carrying over the 2000/2500’s semi-trailing arm rear suspension?

    About the Dolomite generally, one nagging question that has bothered me is why its styling looked rougher as it were against the Austin Apache/Victoria when both are placed next to each other?

    Both were styled by Michelotti and both were designs that dated back to the 1960s, yet Michelotti’s ADO16 rebody looks much fresher IMO and appears another element that would have benefited the Dolomite more than Austin.

  5. I always thought the idea and much of the design behind the 16-valve head was down to Triumph engineer Lou Dawtry rather than Spen King. I believe the original plan was to called the Dolomite Sprint the “Sprint 135” – grille badges were produced in anticipation of the engine producing 135bhp – although as there was no guarantee of each engine delivering this, it was called “Sprint” instead, with no reference to its engine output.

    Its a car that really should have been a winner but, frustratingly, wasn’t. A friend of mine bought a 1980 example 11 years ago and had its bodywork restored. It really was a cracker, with good mid-range acceleration and an engine that loved being revved; unlike the A and B Series engines. It also had decent handling for twisty roads and could also be civilised for longer journeys from Devon up to the Midlands. Sadly, it was later found that a previous owner had cross-threaded one of the spark plugs in the head, which because of its design meant there was a high chance of damaging the head when trying to remove it. No-one wanted to work on it – a downside of a lack of Triumph specialists in the Exeter and East Devon area then – and so my friend followed the advice of an MG specialist (who had cut his teeth on the B Series engine) and sold it on. He still regrets parting with it, especially as it was also a real head-turner in Vermilion with black bonnet stripes.

    • Your friend was poorly advised by people who don’t know Triumphs I am afraid. The reason heads are such a problem on slant engines is one set of cylinder heads bolts are at an angle. So if they seize on the head, you can’t remove it.

      However that is only really a problem with the 1850 engine and the 2.0 litre 8v unit fitted to the TR7. Sprint heads don’t tend to seize and are easy to remove. Your friends car could have been repaired quite easily.

  6. The Dolomite Sprint was the car used by Bodie and Doyle in the first series of The Professionals as it suited the show’s image and the car still had plenty of kudos.

  7. I was working for BL in the mid 70s. Many of my colleagues chose a Dolomite Sprint as a Co car …… Most were unhappy with the car. The engine went off tune rapidly and the cars spent a lot of time in the Co workshop.

    Of course, the BMW 2002 with Ti, Tii and turbo were hugely popular because the £ was strong and the DM weak. They probably were influential in the development of “hotter” cars ?

  8. I remember years ago being surprised that Triumph didn’t use the 16 valve engine in the TR7, though some owners had transplanted them in from a Sprint.

  9. For all its flaws, Triumph had a product for a growing segment, the sporty junior exec market, yet BL managed to throw it away, only slightly recovering some share with the SD3 216 Vitesse.

    Baffling why it wasn’t replaced, but also baffling why the hideous SD2 was considered a potential replacement, instead of a conventional saloon.

    • The Dolomite was an ageing design by the late seventies, even if it still had a loyal following, and British Leyland wanted to reduce its overlapping car ranges and introduce commonality between cars to reduce costs. ( The Dolomite used engines that were unique to it and built in smaller numbers than the A and O series). In general, Triumph was seen as a surplus brand and reliability issues with the Sprint, TR7 and Stag had tarnished its image. It was decided in the early eighties, that Rover would be the premium brand and MG versions of the M cars would be the sporty brand.

      • Between the Dolomite and TR7, that’s a decent number of engines. And SAAB managed to redesign it into a reliable unit, surely something Triumph/BL could have benefited from.
        Whether Triumph or Rover badged, the point is that BL had a junior exec saloon, which they didn’t replace, whereas BMW stayed in that market and made a fortune out of the 3 series, a sporty boxy rwd saloon.

  10. Quality was a big issue, a neighbour had a blue Dolly Sprint that went back and forth to the dealer (Kenning in Shrewsbury) and various tyre places trying to sort a filling-loosening vibration at speed. After about 3 months of this they replaced the rear axle and propshaft which were sent back to the factory, where it was revealed that the studs on the hub were eccentric to the bearing bore.

    The Sprint was shortly afterwards replaced by an Opel Manta.

    I always thought that the Sprint head design, extended to fit the 6 cylinder PE166 and that bored out to 3 Litres and fitted with fuel injection from Bosch, could have made a nice rev hapay 200Bhp that would also have been fuel efficient and much better than the old pushrod V8 for use in the SD1 and Range Rover.

  11. Even the cooking Dolomites could suffer from similar problems, according to an Irish bangernomics buff. His Dolomite had a similar vibration between 50 & 60 mph that was impossible to sort out even after doing all sorts to the rear suspension, though it was a bearing failure & rush that killed his Dolomite.

  12. A great car that didn’t quite hot the mark. Why, because it was built badly! And BL’s penny pinching by downgrading materials. Early cars were much better. Keith’s article says it aged badly, but then the 002 didn’t look exactly fresh in the 70s? And would you count an Escort in the same class?

    I think the slant four engine was wasted by BL, as SAAB would go on and prove, as was its V8 derivative. SAAB reportedly built their own V8 which was highly reliable but it never got produced as the fuel crisis kicked in, so we got the Turbo instead.

    • Totally agree, Dave, the Sprint, the Princess and SD1 had the potential to be great cars and you could forgive British Leyland, the Allegro when they brought out desirable cars like these. Problem was, no matter how great a Dolomite Sprint was to drive and how much it was praised by the motoring press in the way the Austin Morris products never were, the shine would wear off when you were stuck again on the hard shoulder with a roasted cylinder head. Also the comrades at Canley didn’t help matters with a long, damaging strike in 1974.

  13. The Triumph Dolomite Owners Club deserves a mention for their sterling efforts to ensure the right spare parts are available to keep these cars on the road.

  14. My father ran a 1500TC and a Dolly 1500HL as company cars. Neither ever stopped in a straight line. This unfortunate characteristic led our local garage to write off two Sprints on test drives after servicing!
    As for the styling, the AA Drive magazine likened the upright Dolomite body painted yellow with triple go faster stripes to “a vicar in drag”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.