Commonly described as ‘Britain’s BMW’, British Leyland’s Triumph Dolomite has one of the most elongated and convoluted histories…
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As per most of my articles, we’re back studying some glorious British Leyland machinery, and, in particular, a car that is now really appreciating in the minds of enthusiasts. This is the car that many people have referred to as Britain’s BMW, but despite its beauty, its engineering advances, and its ingenuity, it fell into the spiralling plug hole of British Leyland.
This is a Triumph Dolomite, resplendent in its Michelotti-penned bodywork and Russet Brown paint finish, but this car is just one component in what was one of the most convoluted, confusing saloon car ranges of all time, so before we go anywhere, we need a bit of a history lesson.
By the mid-1960s, Standard-Triumph had been taken over by the Leyland Motor Company and was slowly but surely turning itself into a quasi-luxury manufacturer. The existing small Triumph was the Herald, a car that sat upon exceptionally basic mechanicals, but following the introduction of the six-cylinder, monocoque bodied, smartly sprung Triumph 2000 in 1963, the Herald’s replacement was about to get a lot more sophisticated.
The car that emerged was the Triumph 1300 of 1965, bringing with it the buzz words of British small cars of the 1960s, front-wheel drive. But the way in which the little Triumph achieved this was through a longitudinal engine, reducing its positive impact on packaging when compared to BMC’s top-selling Austin and Morris 1100. Additionally, the luxury aspects of the 1300’s design only added to the costs associated with the new drivetrain, meaning the 1300 was considerably more expensive than the Herald it was supposed to replace, forcing Triumph to keep the old car in production. Though the 1300 was really very popular, in 1968, for example, a Herald 13/60, which shared the new car’s engine, would have set you back £728, while the 1300 was all the way up at £868, a price increase of nearly 20%.
Within only a couple of years, Standard-Triumph had realised that they required a car cheaper than the 1300 to retain sales volumes and finally replace the Herald, while also keeping in mind a more expensive, faster car to sit between the 1300 and big Triumph 2000. The answer to their prayers lay within the existing 1300, as Triumph radically facelifted, reengineered, and relaunched the car, laying the foundations for their range of compact cars through the 1970s. The objective Triumph faced was designing a car that was cheaper to produce than the 1300 but that retained its sense of luxury and style while tapping into the performance market, something the existing car had largely avoided. The mechanical setup, therefore, practically chose itself. The new cars would shun the 1300’s front-drive layout and return to rear-wheel drive.
Though that would make the car cheaper to build, it required a fundamental reengineering of the suspension, and who better to oversee that conversion from pull-along to push-along power than Spen King? King’s name isn’t anywhere near as well-known as it deserves to be, as he was the man behind truly seminal cars like the Rover P6 and Range Rover, but once Leyland bought Rover in the mid-‘60s, he was drafted in by Triumph to work his magic on their cars.
So, what did he come up with for Triumph’s new compact? Something along the lines of the P6, maybe, with a De Dion tube to maintain precise camber angles? No. Quite the opposite. The company now known as British Leyland was well along its path towards oblivion, so King had to do this job on a shoestring, but he realised that a really impressive car could result from simple mechanicals, as long as it was impeccably engineered. An impeccable engineer, King was, so these Triumphs made do with a live axle.
That may sound like a retrograde step in comparison to the independent rear-end of the 1300 and 2000, but King located that axle incredibly well, with low unsprung weight, four links, an anti-roll bar, firm damping, and coil springs. The philosophy he employed for this platform would live on through the Triumph TR7, and, more famously, the Rover SD1. As a result, this setup was well received at its launch. Though not the last word in performance, being tuned for mild understeer with low-geared steering, the new cars were praised for just how good they were, considering not just the on-paper spec, but the accuracy and controllability of the car, allowing it to take the extra power that Triumph was planning for it.
We’ll get to the facelifted styling in a few minutes, but in 1970, this revised driveline was launched in the Triumph Toledo, retaining the modest engine of the old 1300 and finally replacing the Herald, but just around the corner was the injection of performance the shell really deserved.
Under the forward-hinging bonnet, because cool, is the infamous Triumph Slant-Four, an engine with an infinitely interesting story behind it, and one that remains controversial over half a century later. In the mid-1960s, Triumph began developing an all-new engine that would bring their powerplants bang up to date. With that, the Slant-Four has an overhead camshaft and an aluminium cylinder head. As the name suggests, the engine is canted over at 45 degrees, allowing for a few things, including the conversion into the V8 we saw in the Triumph Stag. But while under development, the engineering company Ricardo were aware of Triumph’s progress and put them in touch with Saab. A deal was brokered, and Saab funded a portion of the Slant-Four’s development. As a result, the first car the new engine would find a home in was the Saab 99 of 1968. The Swedes would later build the engine themselves and buy the rights to develop it. In fact, this is the engine that would end up with a snail on its side under the bonnet of the Saab 900 Turbo, and it would live through to 2009, 25 years after the Triumph badge was last placed on a car.
But this car was the first Triumph to use the all-new Slant-Four, in this form at 1850cc, with twin HS4 carburettors alongside it, producing about 91 bhp @ 5200 rpm and 108 lb-ft of torque @ 3500 revs. That figure is about on the money for the era, a couple of horsepower more than the equivalent BMW 1802, and that’s what makes this a much sportier car than the original 1300, even more so than the rear-drive conversion.
The front-drive 1300 would live on with a bump in displacement to 1500cc, rebadged as the Triumph 1500, but this Slant-Four powered, rear-drive compact saloon was christened the Dolomite, meaning this end of the Triumph range consisted of three models, all sharing the same bodyshell. Two of these had proper names, one of these had a unique engine, and another had front-wheel drive. See why this is so confusing now?
Now we’re virtually done with the semantics though, we can focus on this high-end compact saloon, and why the Triumph Dolomite is so special. For that, we must first come back to the Slant-Four, as Triumph wasn’t happy with a mere 90 bhp range-topper, developing this engine to go into a proper super saloon, the Dolomite Sprint. To boost power, the Slant’ was bored out to 2-litres, fitted with twin HS6 carburettors, and most importantly, received a new cylinder head. The single cam was retained, but rockers were attached to actuate 4 valves-per-cylinder, making the Dolomite Sprint the first car ever available in Britain with 16 valves as standard. This came together to total 127 bhp, easily eclipsing its BMW counterpart, the 2002 ti, with only the limited production 2002tii, with fuel injection, being able to match the 16-valve power of the mainstream production Triumph.
What made the Sprint even more impressive was its price: Only 2/3rds that of the BMW, and at its launch, Motor magazine decreed ‘A BMW-eater from Triumph’, noting that it would in fact match a tii in the real world, and beat an Alfa Romeo GTV. The Sprint was, therefore, something to behold, both on its pace and its engineering. As proof of this, the Dolomite showed shades of success on the track, finishing on the podium at the 1974 Spa 24 hours and winning both the manufacturers’ and drivers’ British Saloon Car Championships in ’74 and ’75 respectively. Leyland even took the Dolomite rallying for a couple of years, spurred on by its 16-valve engine and Spen King engineered suspension, before they replaced it with the TR7, featuring both those elements in motorsports spec.
However, before the Dolomite’s launch, the ugly head of British industry would rear itself, as industrial action at Triumph’s Speke and Canley factories would postpone the launch from 1970 to late-1971, by which point this car looked more like a tarted-up Toledo than a car developed in unison. Similarly, the Dolomite Sprint would have to wait until ’73, by which point the basic shell was eight years old.
Aged it may have been, but I believe that this is the best-looking saloon car Britain has ever produced. The original 1300 was sculpted by Giovanni Michelotti, as were the majority of Triumphs, but for 1970, he completely revised his own shape, giving the Dolomite, in particular, a very different attitude to its predecessor.
This car is purposeful, but not all-out aggressive. It retains an incredible amount of elegance despite its clear sporting intentions, and other than the details, it’s the overall proportions that make it perfect. The 1300 shell was always very upright, but with the drooping front end and lengthened boot it’s the perfect length to complement its height rather than accentuate it. The black sills also go towards achieving that, while the definition in the doors, as well as the handle placement, allow it to look chunky and stout without being stretched, as I feel the Triumph 2000 seems. Additionally, the wheelbase is the perfect length for the body, avoiding the misplaced stance of the 02-Series BMW.
But perfect dimensions and proportions don’t make a car beautiful. They make it right. What makes the Dolomite beautiful are the details and the personality.The purposefulness is achieved through the very gently hooded front-end, with the blacked-out grille and quad headlamps. The sparing use of chrome that smartens but doesn’t bling, and the vinyl pillar that adds an extra dimension to the Russet Brown paint finish, as well as the kink at its base that’s at the same angle as the windscreen. The front splitter and alloy wheels, too, an option on this late model car and standard on the Sprint, bring out a little more of the pedigree.
That’s all combined with the early-70s Michelotti trademarks, like the peaked roof at the back, housing the extraction vents, the confident spine, and the Kammtail lined with a chrome strip, the inside of which is sprayed in black, opposing the body colour. This car epitomises everything that was good about late 1960s and early 1970s car design. It’s just gorgeous. The kind of car I could very easily stare at for a lot longer than would be considered polite. In comparison, the BMW 02 looks a little clumsy, while the Mk2 Escort looks bland. It’s just ace.
And that general theme continues inside. It’s traditionally British with lashings of wood, and very ‘70s beige bri-nylon seats. But what isn’t very 70s is the driving position. The Dolomite has one of the best driving positions of any period saloon car, and unlike even some cars you can buy today, the steering wheel is completely adjustable.
The wheel itself is big, but with a thin rim and ever-cool metallic spokes. The seats are incredibly comfortable. All squishy and soft, matching almost perfectly my fashion choice of that day, a brown corduroy jacket. The pedals are weirdly placed, with the brake and throttle separated by miles, but the Leyland roundel is printed in the pedal rubbers. That’s pretty cool. The biggest change in here from a 1300 is, of course, the gearbox, as a big transmission tunnel has cut through the centre of the cockpit. However, the car is so well packaged that it makes minimal difference. The gear change, while a long throw, is incredibly precise, the kind you only get with a lever entering straight into the top of the ‘box.
Behind this steering wheel is that wooden dashboard, and the wood continues along the door cappings, the sign of a true luxury car in 1971. What’s cooler though is the scalloped instrument panel, but in the centre is one of the unique features of a Triumph, the pie chart of warning lamps.
This car, the Triumph Dolomite, should have been immense. It should have been a world-beater. But through this story so far, we’ve seen shades of British Leyland pulsing through, and that company is the reason this car never made the impact it deserved to, and why Triumph doesn’t make cars anymore.
Industrial action was crippling for BL, we all know that, but the reason it mattered at two factories, separated by 115 miles, was because both were vital for Dolomite production. Triumph was encouraged to open its factory at Speke, on Merseyside, by the British government in the early-1960s. It was part of a drive to bring the motor industry to other parts of the country rather than just the Midlands, and so, Triumph never really wanted to be there. The factory was hastily built and production practices were inefficient. In the early-70s, when the Dolomite was coming onto the scene, it was in the middle of changing the wage system at the perceived detriment of the workers, and so, they went on strike. But they couldn’t just build them at Triumph’s home factory, at Canley, near Coventry, as the two plants had to work in sync. Such was the inefficiency and poor-quality control of the British motor industry, the bodies were built at Speke, then transported all the way down to Canley to be fitted out into Dolomites. This backwards arrangement and the convoluted launch were the least of its worries though, as British Leyland had much worse on the way.
Thanks to a multitude of factors, build quality rapidly decreased through the mid-1970s. Add to that the reputation for overheating the Slant-Four gained, thanks to both its aluminium cylinder head and silly water pump placement, and consumer confidence shattered. After BL’s effective nationalisation in 1975, all attention turned away from a replacement. It was still an attractive and relatively well-regarded car, and with no money and the whole existence of the company on the line, replacing a niche product like this wasn’t on the minds of anybody at BL. Speke was closed in 1978, with full production moving to Canley. But the Dolomite withered. Nothing could stem the passage of time. This car was built in 1980, by which point the BMW E21, the first-generation 3-Series, had been around for five years, and that car, though not as pretty, was endlessly more modern than the antique that was the Dolomite. This basic shell had been around for fifteen years, and when BL decided to close Canley in 1981, that was it.
The gap left by the Dolomite and the rest of the ageing BL saloon car range was plugged by the Honda Ballade, built under licence by Morris at Cowley, and badged up as the Triumph Acclaim. The Acclaim was absolutely what BL needed to survive at that point, but other than its name, it carries no relation or similarity to the Dolomite. What was once the promise of a sophisticated, compact, technologically advanced, sporting, and beautiful saloon car became another dead body on the shop floors at British Leyland. They had secured defeat from the jaws of victory. How very British.
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