(first posted 6/11/2015) Have you ever tried to define “a grand tourer”, with a sense of affordability and familiarity, to someone who is less familiar with cars than yourself? It can be complicated, or quick. After all, you can just say “Triumph Stag”. It normally works.
By the mid 1960s, life was starting to look up for Standard-Triumph. The TR3,TR4 and TR5 were doing good business in the sports car market, and as a brand defining and promoting product. The Triumph Herald was proving a commercial success despite its unusual construction and the contrived manufacturing logistics it required. The Triumph 2000 saloon was doing good business, establishing, with the Rover 2000, a new market space for a compact, luxury, sporting car, a space we now define by saying BMW 3 Series or Audi A4. The Triumph 1300 was achieving something similar at a lower point in the market, perhaps in a parallel to the BMW 2 Series or Audi A3 of today.
You can sense there would have been a feeling of confidence, of achievement of the difficult task in moving upmarket, indeed of effectively re-establishing the brand as a saloon car producer. Much had been achieved since, and with the investment that came from, the Leyland takeover. Indeed, in 1966, Leyland would acquire Triumph’s leading competitor, Rover, and eventually the much larger BMC itself.
In 1968, the 2000 gained a 2.5 litre version of the 2000’s six cylinder engine and the range was looking stronger than ever. Triumph also had the 1970 1500, developed from the 1300 but with a longer tail and four headlamp front, in the works, as well as perhaps one of the most understated and surprisingly charismatic cars BLMC ever produced, the 1972 Triumph Dolomite.
All these cars had been styled by Giovanni Michelotti, who had a very close relationship with Triumph’s engineering director Harry Webster. Michelotti was able to persuade Harry Webster to hand over a Triumph 2000 for a concept car programme Michelotti were planning for the 1965 Turin Motor Show, to show case Michelotti. Webster, always a canny character, negotiated the rights or Triumph to have the first refusal on the resulting design.
Of course, once Webster saw the result, that right was exercised and concept car actually never made it to the Turin Show. By 1966, Triumph were working on the Stag project, initially as a six cylinder convertible GT car based on the Triumph 2000/2500. The style of the Stag was clearly derived from some of the other work Michelotti were doing for Triumph, especially the 2000/2500 Mk2 that debuted in 1968.
The concept was quite straightforward – a cut down platform from the Triumph 2000, with 6 inches cut from that car’s 106 inch wheelbase, carried over fully independent suspension through front MacPherson struts and rear semi-trailing arms. Braking was by front discs and rear drums, while steering was power-assisted rack and pinion. The engine was to be the 2.5 litre straight six from the Triumph 2.5PI, with Lucas mechanical fuel injection and the four speed gearbox, often with overdrive, from the Triumph TR2. In production, the majority cars had Borg Warner automatic gearboxes.
Also in development at Triumph was the Dolomite, which was a fusion of the Triumph 1500 body, with a new four cylinder engine, known as the Triumph Slant-4, as it was canted over at 45o. The engine had been developed in house by Triumph from 1963, and was shared with SAAB, who used a derivative in the 99, launched in 1968. As originally designed, the engine was planned at 1700cc, but was used at 1850cc in the Dolomite and then at 2 litres on the Dolomite Sprint, with a sixteen valve cylinder head.
Webster then linked the Stag project with the Slant-4 project, and specifically the potential for a V8 developed from the Slant-4. The driver for this choice was the potential of an increase in the car’s appeal to the important US market, where Triumph were selling the TR4 and TR5 roadsters but making little, if any, head way with the saloons (AteupwithMotor.com suggests sales were “bleak” and “dreary”), which were withdrawn from the US market in 1968. Webster’s proposal was that a V8 engined GT car, with compact but usable rear seats could be a good image builder and a step up for the existing TR5 owners. And probably profitable if based closely enough on the existing range.
As it finally came on to the market in 1970, the Stag had a 3 litre, 90 degree V8 of 145 bhp and was capable of 120 mph and around 9.5 seconds to 60 mph, and more than capable of holding its own against the Rover 3500V8, with the ex-Buick V8. The cars were not directly competing, but not many manufacturers in Europe were offering two V8s so close in size and power.
The issue of BLMC having two comparable and maybe competing V8s is one that cannot be avoided, and the obvious question is why the Rover V8 was not used for the Stag, given that it was available to BLMC earlier. The only answers have to be the available production capacity of the Rover engine (or rather the lack of it), and the fact that as much as possible of the investment in the Triumph engine, partly shared with the Dolomite’s slant-4, had to be recovered. It is hard to make the case though that corporate pride didn’t come into it. But, it doesn’t look very connected, given that Rover and Triumph had been together since 1966.
The V8 became one of the Stag’s many differentiating features, along with the T-bar construction, the size and configuration of the car, and maybe even the overtly masculine naming of the car. The V8 almost became one of its major problems.
This engine had possibly the worst record for reliability of any produced by BL, before or after. The list of defects included the excessively long single-link timing chains which suffered from poor tensioning – and to avoid expensive failures, the chains needed replacing every 25,000 miles – and its appetite for head gaskets made the 1990s Rover K series look positively teetotal. Add in issues such as inadequately sized main bearings, cylinder head warping due to poor castings, and water pump failures and you start to see why production volumes were never what was expected.
The second series cars, from 1972, addressed some of these issues, with reshaped combustion chambers and a higher compression ratio, as well steering revisions. Some things didn’t change though, like the heavy hardtop and the poor quality materials in the interior. The interior looked good, but the materials didn’t answer very well on the knuckle tap test.
The appeal of the Stag is clear – here was a car that practically unique in the market – a relatively compact, grand touring four seater convertible with a hardtop for the winter. There was a V8 with a great “wooffle” factor, a decent automatic gearbox and an attractive, modern (for 1970) take on the wood and leather British interior. Looks wise, it had all you could have wanted – the showroon appeal of the car was unarguable. Perhaps the closest competitor in Europe was a Mercedes-Benz 280SL (W113), albeit with more cramped accommodation, or as a more compact take on the W111 250SE Convertible, and a stronger brand image. The Peugeot 504 Convertible and Coupe were not dissimilar, but less powerful.
The manufacturing logistics were less impressive – the bodyshells were pressed and assembled at Triumph’s plant at Speke in Liverpool, and the engine and final assembly were completed in Coventry. Add in the sort of build quality you may typically associate with Britain and the 1970s, and you get an idea of owner experience many had.
One other feature that everyone will recall the Stag is the T-bar, which was added to the original Michelotti design for structural. Apparently, without it, the car suffered scuttle shake to an extent that it was undriveable. But, it also became one of defining features and added something to the uniqueness of the car and somehow to its visual appeal as well.
Stags are now a favourite on the classic car scene in the UK, and many shows will have a good Stag turnout. With the TR range and the Spitfire, Triumph has a strong following in the classic community, perhaps ahead of any volume premium marque other than Jaguar. One particular fan was Donald Stokes, Chairman of BL from 1968 to 1974, and one of the drving forces behind Leyland’s purchase of Triumph, who proclaimed the Stag as his favourite ever car.
In 7 years, Triumph sold exactly 2,871 Stags in America and exported fewer than 7,000 in total. Of the 18,000 sold in the UK, remarkably around 6,000 still exist. That’s a survival rate ahead of anything comparable.
That doesn’t make it a good car, in absolute terms. But it does have a great appeal, still.