Opinion : Triumph’s missed supermini opportunity

Triumph Supermini

Here’s an interesting one recently brought to my attention. AROnline Contributor David Harvey got in touch to remind us that it wasn’t just BMC that had missed the boat to replace the Mini and ADO16 with something resembling what we now know as a two-car supermini and Golf-class range.

Back in the mid-1960s, Triumph’s own Harry Webster had asked Michelotti to sketch out an idea of what a five-door, shortened Triumph 1300 would look like, and the above image is what we have of it. The basis of this car is easy to see – and I suspect that those passenger doors in the sketch are lifted straight from the car it’s based upon. And in this sketch at least, it looks none the worse for it, even if there are distinct Simca 1100 overtones.

The project was put together at least as early as 1964, and this image, taken from the April 1998 issue of Classic Cars magazine, shows just how prescient it actually was. Based in the clever engine and running gear of the front-wheel-drive Triumph 1300, the ‘Short 1300’ as it was known by Webster looked like it could have had some promise.

A Golf-class Triumph before the Golf?

Of course, Triumph has form for putting hatchbacks on its cars and building them into prototypes – before abandoning the idea. It had done so with the Herald, and would also go on to build a hatchback Stag… but this one’s different because, as you can see from the image of the scale model below, it did get moved on from its original concept of a bob-tailed version of the 1300 saloon.

Harry Webster recalled in the 1998 issue of Classic Cars: ‘Ah, yes the short 1300. We set the wheelbase big enough to accommodate four adults, and drew a line just in front of the front wheel and just behind the rear wheel and said to Michelotti, “design a car around that – forget the luggage space”.’

Webster went on. ‘A prototype was actually built of one of Michelotti’s designs, but never reached production. Ironically, one design from around 1964 bore a close resemblance to the Renault 5 of 1972, while another looked more like the Citroen LNA of 1983.’

The Triumph supermini that never was

So could it be that Triumph and Michelotti could have beaten Autobianchi and Dante Giacosa in building the world’s first supermini ahead of the A112 in the late 1960s? Based on the Triumph 1300’s running gear, but with a range of engines that also included the smaller 948cc and 1147cc from the Herald, this could have really hit a sweet spot in the market place as Mini buyers were looking for something to grow into for their next cars.

Being a Triumph, it might have been sold at a price premium against what BMC might have charged for such a car, but with that all-important hatchback and smart Italian styling, it might have been considered worth the premium.

Another, more interesting consideration is this: had Leyland Motors found the development funds for Triumph to bring this car to market, would it have left the company with another reason to rebuff the Government’s pressure to merge with BMC?

So, why wasn’t it built?

Quite simply it came down to cost and capacity. Harry Webster said in the 1998 Classic Cars feature: ‘Tooling costs were always a problem. We had loads of great ideas but could never put them into production.’

This would seem to be very much the case, but also down to be overtaken by internal politics and a loss of focus on Triumph as the group grew larger and increasingly unwieldy. Site contributor and industry man Graham Ariss said: ‘Tooling costs remains a significant expense for car manufacturing and in those pre CAD/CNC days was by far the greatest expense in bring a new car to production and so why you see so much carry over of panels between cars.’

But there could also have been a not-invented-here issue. Graham continues: ‘The Triumph 1300 was an orphaned child, with its father Harry Webster sent off to Longbridge and then fostered out to a new parents who cared little for it. Spen King who was eager to put his ideas as to how cars should be, and so with little interested in developing it any further than he had to.’

In short, this car was not far enough along its development programme to consider mourning its failure to make it into production – but what it does do is throw up some tantalising scenarios, and once again have us asking what might have been…

Triumph supermini

Keith Adams

39 Comments

  1. Pretty sure I remember hearing about how “failed” designs were often sold off to other companies, maybe the Simca 1100 look was how it came about

    • No, when this was penned the way the Simca 1100 would look was close to sign off if not already, similarity is from the two cars sharing features such as a high roofline, glassy cabins and short overhangs.

      • Maybe Mario Revelli di Beaumont who penned the SIMCA had discussions with Giovanni Michelotti then ? They knew each-other very well, since the thirties when they worked for the Stabilimenti.

        • Very possible, certainly if you look at the Italian proposals for the Marina you see that European thinking was very much towards more glassy cabins that the “coke bottle” US inspired styling of the Avenger and Marina that was being penned in the same time frame as the Simca 1100.

          • Mario Revelli di Beaumont was Italian, he worked more for SIMCA than for other brands but not only for SIMCA overall.

    • The Simca 1100 came after the 1963 “936” project cancellation, a true 4 doors Mini clone then.

  2. The Short 1300 seems to be pretty much a more ADO16-sized Triumph 1300 two-box hatchback, both it and the smaller Supermini idea had promise were they in a position to make it to production.

    Even if Triumph had both the means and will to bring those ideas into production, one concern would be a lack of space efficiency as later seen in the outline drawings of the ADO74 project headed by Harry Webster.

    The flaws of the FWD 1300 layout would have also needed to been resolved amongst other things, while had both reached production the 4-cylinder engines would have likely warranted further development then they ended up receiving reminiscent of similarly sized A-Series (including A-OHC and A-Plus, etc).

    Possibilities include a low-cost OHC conversion of the 4-cylinder similar to what was originally envisioned for the 6-cylinder that later became the PE146/PE166 and no rationalisation or cost-cutting motivated 1296-1493cc floppy crank engines with recessed bores nor their resultant weaknesses and limitations (meaning room for a bit more enlargement).

    And since it has already been brought up, Leyland rebuffing the government’s pressure to merge with BMC also means Reliant through its acquisition of Bond Cars becomes more intertwined with Triumph and they just happened to possess the all-alloy 598-848cc Reliant OHV whose origins stem from a reverse-engineered 803cc Standard Eight unit after the model ceased production.

    The Reliant element combined with their own plans for an OHC conversion of the Reliant OHV with BRM potentially opens up the possibility Triumph could have gone even smaller than the 1300-based Supermini, a Triumph 1300 derived analogue of the Michelotti 750 proposal to challenge the Autobianchi A112 perhaps?

    https://www.facebook.com/groups/645553638811155/permalink/3610410248992131/

  3. Very interesting ! How many dead projects sadly.

    IMHO could not have beaten Giacosa because the Primula was born in 1964.

    Could not have beaten the SIMCA 1100 either.

    So definitely the Golf was not the beginning of anything.

    ADO16/Primula/Simca were there before.

    Did not know the Reliant engine was a Standard Eight derivative.

    Moreover wonder how the Standard SC engine could range from 803cc to 1500 with the later Toledo and Spitfire, and even an extra bore x stroke extension in its 6 cylinder form with the 2500/TR5-6 !

    Even though BMC extended the 803 A-Series to 1275cc and even 1293cc for some Coopers, or Renault Cléon-iron-steel from 956cc (and a Brasilian 852cc) to 1397cc, no-on can understand this.

    • The tidbit on the Reliant engine’s origins can be found in Daniel Lockton’s Rebel Without Applause and Elvis Payne’s The Reliant Motor Company books.

      Theoretically with more modern production machinery/tooling installed earlier on the A-Series was potentially capable of reaching a viable production 1380cc at most, BMC were pretty fortunate they were able to reach 1275cc with the old tooling as it was.

      As for the Renault Cleon one only needs to see the unusual displacements achieved in South America as well as by Dacia and the limited-run Volvo 343 Oëttinger.

      The Simca Poissy motor is another that had a similar capacity range that unlike the above was actually realized.

  4. There was a third picture in Classic Car, but it’s printed across the spine of the page so is not really photograple/scannable (if my scanner was working). It is has overtones of a Herald that had been squashed! Looking at that, against the other two pictures I would suspect it was his first idea, although the wheelbase looks like it is shorter. As the 1300 was designed to be 4wd, a Webster idea, meant the car had adaptability, and maybe these were transverse engined not longitude in layout? It is a missed opportunity and as Keith said, one that may have changed the game in the 60s and meant the merger may have never happened.

  5. once i scrolled that down i was hit but Renault 5, that really does look like a slightly tweaked 5, and that was not a bad thing, with Triumph’s sporty heritage, and reasonable reliability until BMC, i feel this is yet just one more of those lost models, that would have been a huge seller for the brand.

  6. Interesting. The top sketch does look very Simca 1100-esque, even though that car was still 3 years from launch.
    So, IF Triumph had managed to launch a 5-door hatch in say 1967 and IF it had been a success then would there ever have been an Allegro as we know it, or would BLMC have fully embraced the hatchback idea instead? Who knows, but it might have helped them shift a few more cars in Europe.

  7. It is all very interesting and in an area (Triumph) that is definitely not my speciality. Great to see these contributions – I’m learning lots!

  8. Interesting story. Such a pity that so many interesting cars fell by the wayside during BMC/BL/etc. And also a pity that a lot of the cars were underdeveloped and almost never could realise their full potential. So many might-have-beens.

  9. You do wonder why BL didnt make more of the 1300/1500/Dolomite platform. Flexible enough to be FWD or RWD, it could have underpinned the Marina instead of expensively reverse engineering 1940s Morris bits to fit it and provided an FWD platform for the Allegro and this small car that Leyland so desperately needed. With a longitudinal engine it wouldnt have been as space efficient, but would your average1970s car buyer have given a damn about that?

    • Its a question that has been asked on here before, but Ian’s recent History article showed that Donald Stokes kept each side, Austin Morris and Specialist Division apart. Although Harry Webster was ex Triumph, the only major component used was the old Herald gearbox, and this only seems to have been used because the transmission tunnel was very narrow, the Minor box couldn’t cope with larger engines and the Herald box was the only one that could fit. This gives the impression that Webster hands were tied, which as we now know was a bad idea as the Minor tooling was knackered.

  10. Very true Paul. And anyone notice the 2nd picture looks remarkably like a scaled down Allegro-sized Austin Maxi? That front end and slightly domed bonnet… which also shows if they had adopted the Maxi’s front end scaled down to Allegro size, it would have looked far better than the set-in headlights they built.

    Real shame this fine looking Triumph hatch never made it to production.

  11. Make no claims about being an expert and will readily concede to being bookish as opposed to simply uttering empty drivel by some. Yet of the understanding over the years here that the 1300/1500/Dolomite platform could not be stretched any further if referring to a Triumph Ajax equivalent of ADO16 being rehashed into ADO22, unless we are talking about a clean sheet carry over approach for Ajax with more longevity like BL did with replacing ADO16 with the Allegro.

    Triumph also appeared to have its own plans to replace the 1300/1500/Dolomite platform with the larger Bobcat project, which seemed to be linked with the Bullet/Lynx and Puma projects so as to pretty much replace Ajax, TR6, GT6 and the 2000/2500 with a common platform as would later be similarly attempted with SD2 (later TM1), TR7 / Lynx (later Broadside) and SD1.

    One thing to consider would be to what extent if any the Ajax-based Triumph hatchback and supermini projects played a role in Harry Webster’s later involvement with ADO74 with its own curious take on the transmission-in-sump system? Discounting the earlier Renault 6, the likes of the Toyota Tercel and Volkswagen Gol are the only other longitudinal inline-4 FWD C-Segment cars that come to mind.

    • https://driventowrite.com/2016/04/05/toyota-tercel-triumph-1300/

      The Tercel even copies the Triumph layout!

      Indeed there’s an interesting comment below the article…

      This story had me climbing the creaky stairs to my archive. CAR December 1982 has this, in a test of the second generation Tercel – the first and only Tercel we got in the UK – by Roger Bell.

      “The world’s second biggest car maker had no front drive model until 1978 when the original Tercel, conceived a decade before and then mothballed pending a more favourable investment climate, was launched.”

      • The background of the Toyota Tercel does open up some questions such as whether the the Tercel was to carry over the Toyota K engine or if the Toyota A engine was planned as part of the Tercel project. The following brings up some interesting similarities with the A engine and the Cosworth BDA assuming there is some truth to the claims. – http://www.billzilla.org/4agstock.htm

        Ajax could have certainly benefited from MacPherson Struts amongst other things had it been available, yet have doubts a 1250cc Slant-Four (basically half a 2.5-litre Stag V8) would have been an improvement over the existing 1300/1500 engine (let alone a redesigned one with a stronger bottom end with 5-bearings, OHC conversion, etc) or an all-new 4-cylinder version of the PE146/PE166 as briefly mentioned in the SD2 section in David Knowles book on the TR7.

        Also curious to know which other manufacturer had a go at a Triumph 1300/1500-like longitudinal layout that ultimately did not reach production.

        Speaking of the Saab 99 in the Lance Cole book there is a sketch of what seems to be Saab Catherina prototype or an early design proposal with similar styling cues claimed for a smaller Saab 99 theme to directly replace the 96 that eventually evolved into the Saab 99. That of course got me pondering the notion of Triumph and Saab developing more joint-projects for both Ajax and the 96 as well as Spitfire and Sonnet.

        In Elvis Payne’s book on Reliant it is mentioned that Saab USA was interested in creating a new generation of Sonnet for the US market and approached Reliant in the early-1970s to establish a deal where Reliant would design, engineer and assemble the car only for the idea to be killed off due to the fuel crisis. That is not even mentioning Reliant’s increasing ties with Triumph had the BL merger not happened nor the unfinished pretty much recycled Broadside styling Michelotti did for the Scimitar SS1 later on before he passed away.

        • The 4AGE engine is widely debated. Rumours are that it is a BDA mass produced clone designed by Yamaha, however there are many differences as per Guy Croft, respected race engine expert – http://www.guy-croft.com/viewtopic.php?t=534. I think the BDA inspired the 4AGE, with Yamaha or Toyota (whoever designed it) using it as a starting point, much like Mr Duckworth did using the Fiat twin cam belt on the BDA.

          • Seems there was an indirect British role with Yamaha for their 1,6 DOHC YX30 prototype that may help clarify things with respect to the 4AGE and BDA engines.

            When Yamaha were considering producing cars they purchased, tested and dismantled an MGA twin cam from a US Occupation Forces army officer (as officially unable to buy foreign made vehicles) and a Facel-Vega Facelia to gain knowledge and understanding. Maybe even learning from the mistakes of those particular two engines given their infamous reputation for unreliability to help create a reliable 1.6 Twin-Cam of their own.

            The British connection in the case of the Facel-Vega Facelia would be one Harry Mundy who worked for Facel in developing the Facelia engine (even suggesting a 5-bearing crankshaft instead of the existing 2-bearing one only to be rejected) and a stillborn V6 Quad-Cam unit (displacing around 2.6-3.0-litres), before Colin Chapman commissioned Mundy to develop the Lotus-Ford Twin-Cam with the original BDA also making use of a Kent based block.

            https://csp311.net/csp311-development-history/

          • Nate the 1.6 Facel Vega Facellia engine was designed by former Talbot engineer Carlo Machetti. I have never heard of Mundy’s involvement.

          • Forgot to say, the Faceila was a failure because of the engine, but when the company was trying to be saved and revived, the car was transformed into the Facel III with a Volvo B18, and then the Facel 6 with something more British – a C series!

          • Daveh

            Managed to find a few English and one French language references to Harry Mundy’s time at Facel, perhaps Mundy was either involved earlier on in a lesser capacity or tasked with later helping to salvage the Facellia engine or even developed a new engine to replace it along with a V6 that were both ultimately rejected on grounds on cost.

            Would otherwise be fascinating to see the chronologically of events and the true extent of Harry Mundy’s involvement with the Facellia.

            https://www.classicdriver.com/en/car/facel-vega/facellia/1960/656222

            https://lotuselan.net/forums/viewtopic.php?t=22207&f=39&start=15&sid=9d5baae9b2299caa2632c08458c8477d#p135319

            https://forum-auto.caradisiac.com/topic/374205-topic-officiel-mythiques-facel-vega/page/160/?tab=comments#comment-42929893 (French)

          • I had a look at my files, and it was a Harry, but Westlake not Munday who worked on the engine. He did work on the head.

          • Nate just looked up in Graham Robson’s Cortina: The Story of Ford’s Best Seller. He states that the Facel engines, both the 1.6 DOHC and v6 that Mundy worked on never reached production, and that his design was then transferred to the Kent to make the twin cam. The classic driver article says Westlake worked on the head, so maybe Mundy was brought in to try and sort it out before Facel went bust? This page sort of points to that

            https://bringatrailer.com/2012/07/21/french-power-1961-facel-vega-facellia/

            The 1.6 is reputedly a cut down of Marchetti’s 2.8 six which was used by Talbot.

          • Don’t see why Cosworth would have needed either Facellia or Salmson, they had access to the XK ! Moreover both Harry Mundy and Harry Weslake.had worked for this engine.

    • The Renault 6 was more a B, like the Renault 5. On the C-segment it was more the Renault 16/12/15/17/18, the 21 with the diesel or 2.0 (the 1.7 was transverse), For sure some others where either boxer like Citroën GS, Alfasud/33, or V4 like Taunus, SAAB 96.

      • The 21 was weird. Renault didn’t have a gearbox for transverse applications that could handle more power than the 1.7, so it made the larger engines longitude. The weird thing is the wheelbase are slightly different to accommodate this! Why? It must have cost more for different panels than make the 1.7 fit longitude?

        • The 1.7 was used longitude in the Trafic van. True they did not have the high-torque box for transverse engine.

        • It was always a weird workaround for the Renault 21, which makes leaving Princess with a just a 4-speed gearbox seem sensible in comparison.

      • You are correct, was thinking in terms of the Renault 6’s dimensions as opposed to its engine size though always viewed the other Renaults mentioned being more Cortina sized.

        Have to wonder if Renault’s plans prior to its government backed collaboration with Peugeot was for a proper pre-Golf longitudinal FWD C-Segment car in place of the transverse Renault 14.

  12. To me the Triumph 1300 was an orphaned child, with its father Harry Webster sent off to Longbridge and then fostered out to a new parents who cared little for it, Spen King who was eager to put his ideas as to how cars should be and so with little interested in developing it any further than he had to and the imported knowhow from Ford who saw the way forward as simple dedicated platforms that are tightly costed and made to be produced and sold in large volumes on price.

    But I wonder what had happened had Donald Stokes tempered his ambition and recognised that consolidating Rover and Trimuph was big enough task and so choose to instead or merging, purchase from BMH their Daimler Bus, Nuffield Tractors and Medium Duty Truck range along with agreement to drop the Austin all of which would have offered easily reached synergies for Leyland and given BMH a much needed injection of cash.

    In this world then you have very different internal politics, with Rover free to go where it wanted to in competing with Jaguar and Mercedes, the mood at Canley would have been very different, not only for the management but also on the shop floor and so making it much easier to rationalise production and products. Also the Stag would not have suffered the delays and problems that resulted from the change in management during its development and thus Harry Webster would have been able to look at leveraging the 1300 platform as he had successfully done with the Herald and had set out to do with spinning the Stag out of the 2000/2500.

    The question is what that could possibly have looked like, of which this is an important point in the Jigsaw?

    Well we know how it could have moved upwards in its market position, whilst still being FWD, the Dolomite facelift with its longer tail and introduction of the slant four engine.

    On the matter of the slant four with a better mood on the shop floor at Canley there would have not been the resistance to change, so enabling it to replace the OHV engines as was planned.

    The Toledo smacks as one of those minimum cost options but a less financially pressured and more confident Triumph could have seen a three and five door hatchback as a more attractive option and with its hatch back, flexibility and OHC engine justifying a higher price point than Ado 16. The higher manufacturing costs of a hatchback could also be somewhat offset by utilising the hatchback as the rear door on a Dolomite Estate derivative (a trick other manufacturers have done, such as Skoda with the Favorit Estate).

    The question then comes up with how they could have replaced the Spitfire / GT6, one could envisage something along the lines of the Lancia Fulvia Coupe being skinned over a 1300s platform. Considering Harry Websters vision for four-wheel drive, and knowing that Saab looked at the Triumph V8 in a fwd installation as an alternative to going down the path of forced induction for the 99, a potential replacement for the TR6 could have been 4X4 V8 powered halo model of the Spifire / GT6 replacement.

    • Small correction Paragraph 2 should read

      But I wonder what had happened had Donald Stokes tempered his ambition and recognised that consolidating Rover and Trimuph was big enough task and so choose to instead or merging, purchase from BMH their Daimler Bus, Nuffield Tractors and Medium Duty Truck range along with agreement to drop the Austin Gipsy all of which would have offered easily reached synergies for Leyland and given BMH a much needed injection of cash.

    • Based on his record of competence how would Stanley Markland have approached things compared to Donald Stokes?

  13. V8 powered 4×4 TR now that would have put hairs on your chest! As a counterfactual I don’t think this would have happened, Stokes wanted to be seen as the top dog and the takeover made him that. Also not sure about the Stag being sorted under Webster. The project and its engine choice was a major problem, and for all accounts if Webster had got his way it would have been a 2.5l v8 with pi – imagine that disaster! King though slatted by some on here, did give us the delightful slant 4 16v a fabulous engine ruined by accountants and a rebellious workforce.

  14. I’ve previously posted on a certain counterfactual history site a timeline where Triumph could have been cast as a British VW. This just makes it even easier to imagine for me. Triumph was such a wasted opportunity as a relatively upmarket mass produced brand. You just feel that if BL (somehow) survived, it would have been wiser to focus on this as its main brand rather than Austin or the later Roverisation process.

    • @ Jon Jones, go back to the seventies, as Triumph was considered a British BMW, producing sporting saloons that were aimed at a more affluent buyer than Austin Morris, and even at the height of Leyland’s woes, the Dolomite was still considered a good car.
      Yet by 1977 the writing was on the wall. The big Triumphs had been replaced by the Rover 2300/2600, there was no plan for a Dolomite replacement, the Stag had been axed, and the plan was to turn Canley into an engine factory. Also the TR7 sports car, supposedly the great hope of Triumph, had developed a reputation for faults and terrible quality and the factory in Liverpool where it was built was notorious for absenteeism and union militancy.

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