Opinion : The Triumph Stag and its US misadventure

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…

Triumph Stag in the USA

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After less than three years on sale it was withdrawn, which allowed British Leyland to avoid making changes required to meet federal regulations for 1974 and beyond (so we never saw a Stag with impact bumpers) –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.’

Oh dear…

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

Triumph Stag in the USA

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

Triumph Stag in the USA

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 what 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.

Triumph Stag in the USA

Chris Cowin

32 Comments

  1. Likely making things even worse for the Stag’s woes was the USA’s anti-pollution controls.

    • @ Leon B USA, which killed off the Volkswagen Beetle in America and nearly brought down Volkswagen once its main export market had gone. Thankfully for tyhe Stag, it never had the awful American bumpers that made imported cars look very stupid.

      • MG had to raise their cars’ height to meet new headlight regulations and, as there was no spare cash to redesign the front, plastic blocks were inserted into the suspension springs, totally ruining the handling. Mandatory rubber bumpers killed the beautiful styling and, although a dreaded ban on convertibles luckily never materialised, the unfavourable £-$ exchange rate sealed MG’s loss of US sales and subsequent demise.

  2. The legacy of the Stag in the states was long lasting……….advertisements foolishly stated the improved safety of the T bar. Consequently every serious injury or fatality with the companies non-T bar vehicles – many later MG products, resulted in out of court settlements with BL and it’s later company formats. I assume this only ended in 2005!

    • Knowing the US reputation for litigiousness, I can’t imagine every such case would be settled out of court, so I’d be interested if you could point me towards some examples cited in legal journals. If not, I’ll just call it another BL myth.

  3. My main memory of the Stag was that one came to a quick stop when turning left off Holland Park Avenue, and I ran into it with my Hillman Minx. Its driver was a solicitor or barrister, but he was very pleasant about it, and I willing paid for the minor damage to be repaired. Just one of the ‘lessons I have learned’ along the way.

  4. The world was changing and BLMC failed to keep up with it. Emission controls started in 1968 with the Clean Air Act and more or less at the same time safety standards were launched. The Japanese took the sports car segment by storm with the first Z car by Datsun in 240 form followed by larger engines, the 260, 280 and finally 3 liter edition. Honda came out with their first Civic in the US in 1973 and it ran so cleanly that it didn’t need a CAT until 1980. So whoever was running the show back in the corporate and engineering divisions were out of touch with how things were changing and didn’t have their ear to the ground. The MGs and TRs and everything BLMC couldn’t hold a candle to the Datsun Z car and the Mazda sports car.

  5. If Renault, Simca and others were providing their iron block / alloy head engines with sealed for life cooling systems from the early 1960s onwards then why were Triumph not capable of doing the same? One can only wonder how much less trouble the Stag might have been if owners had not needed to make regular coolant changes to prevent corrosion forming in the engine’s water passages.

  6. In late ’69/early ’70 a pre-production one was brought for evaluation to the Triumph Gearbox Plant in Radford, Coventry, where I was working; it was the first that I had seen. Whilst we liked the car’s lines, we all had resevations about the engine. The general consensus was that we should have fitted it with the Rover V8, however corporate politics were but one reason – albeit it a large one – why that didn’t happen. One has to keep in mind that, from October 1963 with the introduction of their respective 2000 models, Rover and Triumph were definite rivals before their 1968 amalgamation into the Specialist Car Division; that spirit of rivalry was still very strong.

  7. The Stag was simply radioactive once its mechanical woes became apparent. By North American standards its TINY V-8 was a joke, even though in Britain it was, and still is, viewed as somewhat exotic. Its four-seater configuration took it out of the true sports car league, as far as most Americans were concerned and made it more of what they called a “pony car”. Furthermore, while I know that many in Great Britain think that the Michellotti design is truly beautiful, few Americans were impressed. Most said it was way too long in the middle, and very few indeed had anything kind to say about the big, conspicuous roll bar. There were just too many negatives that added up, and took their brutal toll on American sales. Not even 007 driving one in Diamonds are Forever, while chatting with Moneypenny, could save the Stag.

    • Yes. Too much lean panel work aft of the doors. The hard top managed to balance it visually, but soft top up and especially down, it didn’t look quite right. Such a “nearly car” in so many ways. Still quite like one though.

  8. Americans had a wide range of V8 engined muscle and GT cars to choose from, and as gas was still cheap at the start of the seventies, a 6-7 litre V8 wasn’t a problem. A British car with a relatively tiny V8 wasn’t going to sell in America, even if the engine sounded beautiful and the Stag could keep up with most of its American rivals. As has been pointed out above, a Buick Riviera, consider to be an upmarket car in America, was available for considerably less and could be specified with options that weren’t available on the Stag like air conditioning and a stereo system. As well, the Stag’s unreliability killed the car’s chances and breaking down outside the cities, where mechanics would have no knowledge of British cars, would prove very difficult.

    • Indeed – Though in fact Air Conditioning was an option on the Stag in the USA from the start (and vital in southern California to take an example – where even the TR6 was sold mostly with A/C (and driven on the freeways with the hardtop on). But some reports criticize the performance of the Stag’s A/C ….

  9. Karl Ludvigsen has a lot of interesting and illuminating information about the US launch and ensuing problems from his experience in Leonia at the time, hardly covered here at all.

    Quoting from the famous ‘pub talk’, it was fashionable to opine that the Rover V8 should have been used rather than the Stag V8, this is piffle and has been disproven over recent years by countless persons converting their Stags to a Rover V8, often then back again! The Rover V8 was normally found to have very similar symptoms as the Stag V8 bringing the expensive conversion to nothing, especially if the conversion had not been properly engineered.

    The basic problem is in design. The engine compartment is quite small and any V8 installed has very little room for any natural cool air flow. Exhaust manifolds/pipes are tortuous and thus tend to get very hot on their bends/corners and not take away hot gasses very well, adding to engine operating temperature. Finally, because the bonnet is quite low and the engine compartment small, there is not enough room for an efficient and decent capacity radiator (both liquid capacity and air flow), leading to higher engine temperatures too! Clearly, Triumph needed to use as many existing body components as possible (a common Rover Group problem over the years), but if they had been permitted to add a few inches to compartment volume and/or lift the bonnet line slightly, air flows might have been much better. Interestingly, the Stag had been designed to fit the Triumph straight 6, which explains the lack of space under the bonnet, but curiously the inner wings and many other body parts which should have been common with the large saloon, have ended up different from the saloons. Retro-fitting the Triumph Straight 6 into a Stag is an easy and trouble-free job with its lesser demands, but leaves the car quite under-powered.

    Prior to the Stag being seriously designed, the V8 engine (and its sibling slant 4) had been untouched on the shelf for a few years, as a design exercise that needed development. When it was realised it was needed for the Stag, few improvements were sought and used, although various permutations of capacity and fuelling were on the shelf and largely ignored due to time constraints. Thus, basic weaknesses such as the mad position and engineering of the water pump, the tenuous relationship between inlet manifold and cylinder heads, the head stud/bolt relationships and even the lack of study of head gasket ‘nip’, engine water flow rates, hot-spots etc., use of Singlex timing chains to save a few mm engine length, I could go on……

    FinaIly development car mileage was wildly short of what it should have been considering all permutations, the one Mojave trip proving disastrous. Such things as overheating were spotted but never developed thoroughly, ’emissions’ versions only cursorily checked for exhaust quality resulting in some bizarre mods, no wind tunnel testing for air flow into the radiator which was actually much less than the naked eye would suggest should have been. OMG.

    On the plus side, dealers, owners, clubs and Stag experts (e.g., Tony Hart) have over the years come up with sensible mods which have permitted the car to be enjoyed to the full, if carefully done. Yet I still come across new owners who, finding their Stag overheating will drop the antifreeze and use tapwater, throw away the radiator pressure cap and fit an additional electric fan in front of the radiator – only to find their Stag then much worse and blowing all its water out if used much !!!

    The ultimate plus is that I bought my Stag new in 1973 and in my ownership it only let me down once when a hose blew under the inlet manifold, and apart from that incident NEVER overheated. All parts used have been carefully inspected to be equivalent to original or better, and that includes the radiator. There have been no modifications done except very minor ones to extend reliability. The sump has never been off. It has been regularly used at high speeds in Europe to attend Stag Meetings. Major parts of it have been off many times in our club Technical Weekends to demonstrate to other Stag owners ‘how its done’. While it could do with a bit of a cosmetic fettle at the moment, it is ready for the next post-Covid Conti-tour. Viva Stag!

    • Thankyou for that very detailed comment. I wasn’t aiming to cover the development of the Stag (other articles on this site do that) and I agree that simply switching to the Rover V8 might not have been the “silver bullet” it’s somehow made out to be. It’s not something I had mentioned of course (though people in the comments have done).
      There’s a (very hard to pin down) additional issue pertinent to that, concerning actual/rumoured/mythical restrictions that may have been placed by GM on the use of “their” V8 in the USA by Rover and its successors. Respected author Graham Robson writing much closer to the time cited such restrictions as an additional reason the Rover V8 did not find its way into the Stag – a car which (potentially) could have harmed sales of various GM models in the USA. But it’s proved impossible to verify that. It did get exported to the USA by Rover of course in the 1970-71 3500S (not much of a threat to GM) and much later (1980) in TR8 & Rover 3500 SD1 (by which time the basic design was 20 years old).

      • Well the SD1 Rover was very briefly exported to the States, so I can’t see a logic substance to such an issue. In any event, Rover had to fairly extensively upgrade the incoming engine to make it suitable for any UK us and that suggests as the basic lump had all the upgrading so much, it could be legally argued that it was no longer a GM engine. I got drawn into a very similar situation (in the opposite direction) with GM ‘pushing’ Saab in the late 90’s when they were expected to use the GM V6 and the conundrums regarding diminished brand quality/identity and ambiguity in advertising. Which was a bit odd really when you consider ‘their’ straight 4 was progressively developed over many years out of the Triumph slant 4!

        • I wonder if there’s a dusty 1960s contract in an archive somewhere placing “end use” restrictions on Rover (& their potential merger partners/successors). Or perhaps there was simply a gentlemens’ agreement or “understanding”…. Quite possibly this is a non-issue (and I’ve been told it is by others) – but it’s a simple fact that Graham Robson – who knew the companies and individuals concerned probably better than anyone – did flag up an issue of GM restricting the use of that engine in vehicles to be sold, in competition with GM products, in North America – at one time. (And of course the decisions over what engine to put in the Stag – a car conceived very much “for America” – were taken in the late 60s, only a short time after GM had sold the rights to build it to Rover).
          Somebody else who implies GM had to give their approval to the use of the engine in a product (in the 60s anyway) is the journalist Chris Goffey. (my italics)
          Writing an article on the history of the Rover V8 in Autocar in 1976 he writes “……….Another famous application of the V8 in a sports car was of course the Morgan V8. The story of this car started in 1966 when Peter Wilks asked Peter Morgan to merge with Rover to produce a sports car fitted with the V8. Morgan said he liked the engine, but he didn’t like the idea of a merger. Wilks agreed, and negotiations for Morgan to use the engine went ahead smoothly until the Leyland takeover, when there was a major hiccup. Leyland wanted permission from GM to use the engine in a Triumph sports car (Stag presumably), so permission was sought for both the Morgan and the Triumph. GM replied that they had no objection to Morgan using the engine, but would not commit themselves on the Triumph. In the meantime, Peter Morgan had Maurice Owen shoehorn a Buick V8 into a modified Plus Four, and a very successful car it proved to be. It is still owned by the factory”.

  10. I think a car that came from a manufacturer of cheaper sports cars, poor reliability and priced so close to the Mercedes 280 SL was going to struggle in the US. It struggled elsewhere too, because of theses failings, even if it is one pretty car.

  11. There seem to be many reasons why the Rover V8 couldn’t be used and the Triumph V8 was a problem child. As Daimler via Jaguar was part of BL I wonder if the 2.5L and 4.5L V8s might have been better options at the time than either as they were proven and tooled for and had no homes.

    The Stag – another BL ‘if only’ car

    • There were many reasons why the Daimler could not be used. One was capacity to build it, but far more problematic is that in either size it is very wide for its capacity. In addition, lts durability is questionable because of the very narrow main bearings used, with complete overhauls at 50 to 60,000 miles being common

  12. For a vehicle priced such as the Stag, no doubt the dealership experience (or lack of one) was a huge impediment here in the US. Many BL “dealerships” in my experience from this era were little more than small time used car sales lots that also carried an import brand or two. Our local sales outlet was just like this; no actual showroom, one room office connected to a small repair garage, and also carried other “low level” to most Americans European brands. I remember MG, Triumph, the Austin Marinas, Renault, and Fiat. Jaguar was distinctly not part of the equation (a real showroom downtown for those), and I don’t recall Rovers either. It was pretty apparent new cars were not the primary focus, and new stock on hand was extremely limited, maybe 15 vehicles max between all the brands at any given time. I am sure there were exceptions to this, but I doubt that what I describe isn’t far from the norm (we were the 14th largest metropolitan area in the country in 1970, with 1.7 million people), if at all. The type of buyer who could and would purchase a vehicle such as the Stag would be hard pressed to tolerate this type of a sales environment without “absolutely have to have it” already present.

  13. That price versus the American cars is a real shocker. British cars often seem to have been awfully expensive in America, but to see what Americans could buy for so much less than the Stag is just jaw-dropping. Did nobody think to check the exchange rates first?

    • Uncompetitive pricing was a long-standing problem in the era of fixed exchange rates (up to 1972). British cars that could avoid head-on competition with domestic models such as Jaguar and the small sports cars were “protected” in a sense.
      But cars like the Rover 2000, Triumph 2000 and in this case Stag faced an uphill battle because American brands could offer so much more for the price in a near equivalent – reflecting their huge economies of scale.
      In the 70s companies like BMW carved out a premium niche in the USA where higher pricing than the domestics was accepted – but that required investment not just in a good product but also a US distribution network worthy of a premium brand.
      As covered well in the comment from ‘cjiguy’ above, Triumph in 1971 certainly lacked such a network and perceptions of the brand were not “premium”.
      Of course British Leyland did have “in house” a brand with all the right attributes to sell to Americans at a premium – and that was Jaguar. An observer standing a very long way back might conclude the best thing was to play to that strength – which is a perspective with relevance to (for example) the story of the cancelled Rover P8 which was heavily dependent on optimistically projected US sales – But that’s another story : )

  14. Unbelievable logistics – Half the car was built in Liverpool then shipped 100 miles south to Coventry for the other half. What could possibly go wrong?

  15. One of the cooling issues the Stag had was the radiator cooling fan ‘blew’ instead of ‘sucked’ the air-flow in. Fairly rudimentary engineering. I came across this scenario again working in the dealer network when the HH-R Rover 400 was launched. Another car with a woeful engine (excludes Honda D-series).

    • I don’t think that it makes a difference whether the air is ”blown in” or ”sucked in”. Many cars nowadays have that set-up. Of course it shall be engineered properly so that that the blown air must go through the radiator and cannot escape sideways.

    • Given that Stag has a conventional ‘north-south’ engine installation with the engine-driven fan between radiator and engine the notion that the fan would somehow ‘blow’ air through the rad rather than ‘suck’ makes no sense at all. At least not to me. Minis and 1100s have fans that blow air through their sideways mounted rads but not many others (not with engine-driven fans anyway). On the topic of cooling though and just for interest have a look for Channel 4’s ‘For the love of cars’ series 1 episode 3 where Messrs Glenister and Anstead tackle a Stag. Having done the rest of the car they looked at the rebuilt but otherwise standard cooling system with a thermal imager and noted that the Stag cooling system as designed works perfectly. At least in those conditions.
      I still maintain that the Stag’s engine woes could have been largely avoided by filling the cooling system with a permanent antifreeze/corrosion inhibitor mix instead of leaving it to the owners to maintain the yearly chore of flushing the system and refilling with fresh coolant/antifreeze which then only had a life of 12 months. Millions of Renaults and Simcas with iron block / alloy head engines had sealed for life cooling systems and it baffles me that Leyland could not have done the same thing and saved themselves the enormous reputational and warranty costs associated with the Stag.

  16. I purchased a brand new Stag (Mk2) and it broke down on me driving it home after taking delivery. Faulty fuel pump. It had a tear in the passenger seat, paint peeling and a faulty rear window demister all in anew car. The dealer had the car in the workshop more often than I had it. The overdrive never worked and inevitably, it overheated and blew an engine after just over a year and just out of warranty.

    I nought the car because of its great looks, 4 seats, open motoring and promising performance. That such a car was produced without doing a serious market survey is unbelievable. The article by Chris sums up the company’s incompetence. The only way I could get out of the car was to trade it in on a new TR7 which actually proved very reliable despite being under powered.

    I now own a genuine TR8 PED which is just right.

  17. In light of the Stag’s compromised development. Where an additional engine beneath the V8 like the Triumph inline-6 would have left it quite underpowered (with PE146/PE166 likely being too long), while the Rover V8 was not quite the remedy it is typically made out to be. Should it have instead been passed over in favor of Lynx or even an SD1 Coupe (a sketch of a 2-door Fastback Coupe was said to have been done by David Bache)?

  18. I remember being behind a Stag here in the USA when I was a kid in mothers Corvair and saying WOW that’s a nice looking car. I never saw another one on the road again.

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