Curbside Classic: 1962 Triumph Herald – A Tempest In A Teapot

Many of you are going to read “Triumph Herald” and instantly have a visceral impulse to reach for your touchpad/touchscreen/touchsomethingoranother and move on to a post about a car a bit more comfortable and familiar. A Pontiac Tempest, perhaps, or maybe even a GTO? Something you can actually relate to, not an obscure footnote of British automotive history. So I’m setting myself the task to make the Herald more accessible to you. What could it be? Thinking hard….

(three hours and some glasses of Pinot Noir later):

Aha! I’ve just come up with a highly fascinating and compelling correlation between the Triumph Herald and the Pontiac Tempest that will leave you positively breathless; let’s take it further; even with the GTO!  And no, this isn’t one of my flights of fiction, although I suspect strongly that I’m the first to come up with it. We’re making history here; or re-writing it, anyway. Let’s see…where to start…it is a bit tenuous…but here goes…

In the mid-fifties, most small British cars were odd little affairs; shrunken-head versions of slightly-less odd slightly-bigger cars. Like this Austin A30, which might be the most “cartoonish” car ever.

Standard-Triumph’s own Eight, the predecessor to the Herald, suffers from the same syndrome. It certainly looks like it should have earned a role in “Cars”. The eight pence that Austin spent on the A40’s stamped grille was deemed too dear for the poor Eight.

The Morris Minor was a decidedly better design, but then it was fathered brilliantly by Alec Issigonis. But all of them were highly conventional: front engine, rear wheel drive, and more leaf springs and solid axles than a Conestoga wagon train. The birthplace of capitalism was constrained in that commodity in the lean post war years, and its automobiles mostly showed that.

But a new decade was dawning, and the bigger British auto firms felt the need to show the world that they weren’t actually turning into living fossils, despite the seeming enduring success of quite a few of that genre. So the new decade would be ushered in by radical new thinking, beyond lever-action shocks and cart axles. The result was a generation of new small cars, especially at BMC, which embarked on a complete transformation to highly-modern fwd cars, starting with the 1959 Mini.

One (me) might well consider this period in the UK as somewhat analogous to the 1960-1961 compact revolution by the Big Three in the US. And it wouldn’t be such a stretch to see the bold Mini comparable to the equally-bold Corvair, despite their vast differences.

Ford UK already had the conventional and relatively less-cartoonish Anglia, and held back to see how the Mini would make out.

After taking one apart, costing it out, and deciding there was no profit in that, they stuck to the tried and true conventional formula for their new 1963 Cortina. A British Falcon, if ever there was one.

GM took exactly the same approach with their 1963 Vauxhall Viva; a Chevy II indeed. Or 1.5.

I was going to compare the rugged Hillman Minx to the Valiant, then realized that Raymond Loewy designed it, recycling all the brilliant ideas that went into that dud of a 1953 Studebaker sedan. So let’s call it the Lark stand-in. I guess the Brits didn’t really have a Valiant. Their loss.

And Hillman’s charming rear-engine Imp didn’t appear until 1963, so we won’t call it the Brit Corvair, although it sure borrowed its styling.

 

Standard-Triumph was in a very bad way financially about the time it developed the Herald, and its body builder, Fisher & Ludlow, had moved into the BMC camp. Given those very real limitations, the Herald was a mixture of old and new indeed. More old than new, actually, but with some clever aspects. And some questionable ones.

The homely Eight/Ten had been a unibody construction, by Fisher & Ludlow. Now triumph had little choice but to use a frame, which did make it easy to also use the whole chassis (with some easy modification)  under the Spitfire sports car.

Having accepted that home-brew styling was not a British quality to admire at the time (excepting Jaguar), and lacking the automotive equivalent of Saville Row, the fashionable thing to do was to hire an Italian designer. Pininfarina had become the in-house tailor for BMC, so Triumph went with Giovanno Michelotti. The result makes it clear why Pininfarina was top dog then. Like most things Michelotti, it’s certainly distinctive, and has some almost-elegant angles. And the Herald saloon’s visibility may never be bettered.

Thanks to the frame and the necessity of using small pressings, the Herald’s external body plays a very limited structural role. There was a benefit to that, since variants were easily created, in an almost Lego-like way. Many parts just bolted to the inner structure. But the Herald’s rather unusual construction turned out to be labor-intensive, and made the car essentially unprofitable.

And here’s the real benefit to that frame and unstressed body parts: the tilt up bonnet: a feature that brings tears (of joy) to mechanics. And the central attraction is the Herald’s 1147 cc engine. It was an enlarged version of the 803 cc engine first developed for the Eight in 1953, and would eventually grow to 1500 cc in the seventies. A very versatile engine indeed. This 1962 was rated at 39 hp; a sportier 12/50 model that arrived in 1963 sported 51 hp, thanks to the Spitfire.

Ok already; so where does the Tempest fit in with all of this? Swing axle rear suspensions; that’s how. Triumph and Pontiac both decided that the modern compact of the new decade needed independent rear suspension. But using a 1930s design may not have been the best idea. Actually, in the case of the Herald, it was the worst thing about it. It was a crude affair, with a transverse leaf spring strapped across the top of the differential, and initial positive camber.

The Tempest (CC here) wasn’t quite as unruly, but could bite too if provoked in the wrong way. John DeLorean and Triumph were both in pursuit of a noble goal with limited resources, and BMW (and others) proved that to be a futile undertaking. By 1964, The Tempest was back to a live rear axle, and Triumph eventually revamped their swing axles (on the later Spitfires), to give them gobs of negative camber. Better, but still not right.

Otherwise, this was a rather decent little car for the times. Nothing brilliant, except perhaps its amazing 25 foot turning circle. Take that, Mini!

Let’s take a look at our featured CC, which has finally escaped its digital prison after three years. I saw this on Hwy 99, heading out of Eugene, and gave pursuit. Hark, a Herald!  Hadn’t seen one in ages, although they were common enough in the early sixties, especially in Iowa City. But they were pretty much all saloons.

This cute-as-a-button convertible is still in the hands of its first owners, who, if I remember correctly, picked it up new in England and brought it home, where it’s become a beloved member of the household.

Also a pampered member. I’m not sure how much of it has been redone over the decades, but the dash has received some nice wood planking, better than the original laminate. The Herald was praised for its very light steering, along with that tight turning circle. Makes for a fine city car.

 

 The upholstery has obviously been redone too, and I can’t say whether the original was white. I’m a bit doubtful of that, but its possible. I know this shot is three years old, because our local newspaper isn’t as wide as that anymore, nor as thick.

This 1200 has a single Solex carb, but there were versions with twin side-drafts too, borrowed from the Spitfire.

Ok, so we’ve made the connection with the Tempest; how about the GTO? It was called the Vitesse, and obviously had a face meant to convey a bit more gravitas than the Herald. And like the Tempest got a bigger engine to turn it into a GTO, so did the Herald. But not just a bigger bore, but two more cylinders.

Except for those two grafted on cylinders, the Vitesse engine was essentially identical to the Herald engine, and one can find a “seam” on the block between the third and fourth cylinders. The result was one of the smallest production sixes ever: 1596 cc. It generated 70 hp, with twin Solex carbs. In 1966, it was enlarged to two liters, and now made 95 hp and scooted the Vitesse 2-Litre from 0-60 in eleven seconds. Not bad, for 1966. Outside, the US, that is. The Mustang made the Vitesse a very hard sell in the US. The six was eventually enlarged to 2.5 liters, as used in the TR-6. Quite a bit of growth, from the Eight’s humble 803 cc four.

The Vitesse came in saloon or convertible body styles, and has an enthusiastic following. How’s this for a paint job?

No one will accuse Vitesse advertising to be copying the GTO’s. But then the Vitesse came out in 1962, when the words GTO still meant a Ferrari.

So have I convinced you sufficiently? If not, at least you’re still here.