Here’s another of the ever-shrinking number of cars yet to enjoy their 15 minutes of CC fame. The Triumph Vitesse is a somewhat curious car, one that has fascinated me since childhood. It encompasses some good qualities, such as a smooth and lusty little inline six, as well as a rather vile one, in the form of a particularly nasty swing axle rear suspension.
I was rather hoping this Vitesse shot and posted by Nathan Williams might be the original version (1962-1965) which had a 1596 cc engine, the smallest new postwar six ever mass produced. But this is a 2 Litre (1966-1968), which had the larger 1998 cc version of the Standard Six as also used in the GT6 and Triumph 2000 saloon. Shoe-horned into the little Herald, it gave sparkling performance, as well as making its swing axle rear end even more thrilling at the limit.
Here’s how it looked under the flip-up front end of the Vitesse, which made for unbeatable access. This was possible on the Herald, Vitesse, Spitfire and GT6 because they all had a separate frame, hence the front end of the body—like the rest of it—was not needed for structural duty. And these all had a superlative 25′ turning circle (not radius).
As mentioned in the leader, the original Vitesse had a 70 hp 1.6 L six. Seems silly from an American perspective, but compared to the Herald’s original 34.5 hp 948 cc four, it was a huge improvement, actually doubling its power (the later Herald 1200 had 39 hp). And of course, it was superbly smooth, being an inline six with such a small displacement.
The Vitesse was a success form day one, as there was nothing that competed directly against it, offering an elevated level of performance and refinement, seating for four and all at a relatively affordable price.
In 1966, that was upped to a full 2 liters, and a whopping 95 hp. That put it in a league pretty much by itself, as sporty four seater that could take on or beat the two-seater sports cars of the time.
“The 2-Seater Beater” became an advertising tag line for the Mk.2, which arrived in 1968 with the improved rear suspension shared with the Spitfire and GT6 from that year forward. It still had a bit of camber change: 5 degrees max., but that was significantly better than the 15 degrees of the original swing axle design.
The MkII also had an improved engine with revised cylinder head and more power (104 hp).
This one still sports the swing axle, as it’s MkI Vitesse 2-Litre.
Here’s a shot of a Vitesse interior from the web, which shows off all the traditional English trimmings of leather, wood, Smith instruments and a traditionally-spoked steering wheel. The perfect sports car for the family man.
I’d like to do the Vitesse more justice, but time doesn’t allow right now. Consider this the vitesse version of a proper write-up.
More on related subject matter:
CC 1962Triumph Herald: Tempest In A Tea Pot PN
That’s brought back great memories, Living in London UK back in the late ’70s I had a 1600 Vitesse convertible after having had Austin Healey Sprites, TR3s/TR4s and similar for years, after being a motorbike rider for many years. It was a great car for UK’s narrow windy roads but although the ad states “a 2 seater beater” I’d still rate the lesser powered Sprite as a more sporty car, the road holding and “feel” of the Sprites was superb. But the Vitesse was great for beating up the M1 motorway to visit friends in Manchester, 200 miles away, for the weekend. I know 200 miles sounds nothing in US terms but in England back then it was quite a journey especially in rattly old English small sports cars..
I saw one quite recently at an engine reconditioners but fitted with a 2.5 engine from a Triomph sedan, You might also find the Wolseley Hornett had a smaller capacity six a OHC engine 1300cc but of course prewar.
I was lucky to own a ratty Mk2 saloon with the full length Wabasto sunroof. A hip kid in a Golf GTI pointed at me to his car full of “girlfriends” . Light turned green and I left him like he was in reverse. I still have the vision in my mind of him opened mouthed in my rear view mirror
Sure thie My 2 was rated at 100 HP.. and 0-60 11secounds according to my stop watch. Fast in the day to the 2lt Pinto engine Corrina came along. They were rated at 100hp to with the OHC engine. That’s difference between 1950s and 1970s technically. Great up. Market cars n class above Fords. The replacement Dolomite Was The British BMW.
The European GTI Mk1 did 0-60 in 10 seconds or less.
Maybe he wasn’t intending to race you? It’s easy to win a stop light race when the other guy isn’t participating.
A GTI full of young women its driver is trying to impress wouldn’t stand a chance of hitting 60 in 11 seconds. Suppose the passengers totaled 350 pounds. That would reduce the power to weight ratio by 15%. Also, some people are better at extracting performance from cars with peaky engines and manual transmissions than others.
And some drivers have the reaction time of a sleepy sloth. Reaction times have a lot to do with it.
My father had a 1966 Vitesse 1.6 convertible, NPD 607D – white, like the one in your photo. As you say, the engine was wonderfully smooth – you could wind up the revs to the red zone, and it just hummed happily away, a beautiful sound with no vibration or harshness at all. No car I have ever had since has produced the same, almost ‘creamy’ effect at high revs. Ours (or should I say, his) could have done with an overdrive, but that was true of an awful lot of British cars before the era of the five-speed gearbox. The car’s only shortcoming was a clutch that was always a bit juddery on engagement, even from new. I used to drive it at really silly speeds down the country roads around our home in Farnham. My father would have gone nuts if he had known …
Nice, here’ the first (and last) Vitesse I’ve ever seen at the British Motor Heritage Museum in the UK.
Pretty gloriously ugly little car, I approve.
I wonder how a Vitesse would perform with the 2.5-liter version of the six swapped in. Of course you’d want to do it on a car with the revised rear suspension.
Judging by the “2-seater beater” ad, I’m guessing “beater” doesn’t have the negative connotations in the UK that it does in the US.
Only other small-displacement six I can think of is the 1845cc V6 in the Mazda MX-3.
In Britain the word is “banger”.
Which can also mean a sausage, but doesn’t come with the American connotations
Now I’m wondering what the current “Family Man’s Sports Car” would be (at least of the models sold in North America)?
Please note that a muscle car is different than a sports car.
Golf GTI or Civic Si sedan, assuming the family budget won’t stretch to an R of either?
I also thought of the Veloster N (weirdly 3 door) and perhaps a little closer to the spirit of the Vitesse would be a BRZ or 86-GT. Interestingly enough taking a year off from production and returning next year with a displacement boost to 2.4 ltrs over the current 2.0. The BRZ/86 twins have a backseat and a trunk more generous than a Miata.
911 if you have small kids, but 3 (or now 4) Series BMW is nearer the mark. My E30 320i was similar in formula to the Vitesse – same handy size, sweet 6 cylinder motor, snickety-snick gearchange and ride and handling that felt like a more modern version of the Triumph. The later E36s and 46s are great practical, but compact fun machines.
In the final years for the Vitesse in the US, the US arm of British Leyland campaigned a 2.5 Vitesse in the under-2.5 liter TransAm series. I don’t think they ever won a pro TransAm race, but in later years, the ex-factory cars had considerable success in “amateur” SCCA racing, competing against Datsun 510’s, Alfa GTV 2000’s, 2002’s etc. and a few years later, Paul Newman also famously raced a Triumph 2.5 six in B Sedan, but his was a 2500 four door sedan.
Did he win?. . Paul Newmans Triumphs triumpth. Do you have a pic of his car as I’ve never seen it used in advertising?.
Newman also won the SCCA championship in Tullius’ Group44 Triumph TR6. There is a great documentary on Newman’s racing career on I think Amazon Prime channel, I just watched it the other day. Mainly Datsun but some Triumph footage as well, well worth watching.
The 1933-1934 BMW 303 was produced with an 1,182 cc variant of the M78 inline 6-cylinder engine. The 1934-1937 BMW 315 used a 1,389 cc version of the M78 inline 6-cylinder engine. The M78 eventually grew to 1,911 and 1,971 cc displacements, remaining in production even after WWII. It wasn’t the same engine as the high performance hemi 1,971 cc M328 that eventually powered Bristols and Frazer Nashes, which England took ownership of as war reparations leaving BMW to develop the older M78 for the Baroque Angels.
I strongly suspected I was leaving someone out. I wouldn’t be surprised of there were others too.
Do motorcycles count? Honda had the 1,047 cc CBX from 1978-1982 and the first 6-cylinder GLs had 1,520 cc engines from 1987.
I haven’t driven a Vitesse, but my experiences in Spitfires, a Herald and a GT6 suggest that they twist and creak. The variants I drove were not as bad as the worst big convertibles I’ve driven, but the flexibility certainly stood out relative to the rigidity of a FIAT 124 Sport Spider or MGB. I think the short door TR3 was considerably more rigid too.
No. I was aware of smaller motorcycle engines. Benelli’s 750 Sei had 747 cc.
The Benelli Sei was arguably a copy of the 500cc version of the Honda 4 (CB500) with two more cylinders. I think the only 750 Sei I’ve seen was new at the dealership. Not a big hit here in the US.
There were some fantastic small capacity 6s made in the 30s – Salmson and other French marques and of course many in Britain, a result of cars being taxed on cylinder area (“RAC Horsepower”) which meant lots of small pistons, or very undersquare motors.
My favorite is the 1933 MG Magnette K3 – an OHC 1100cc, supercharged screamer, making 120hp at 6500rpm – quite the track terror and beautiful to behold!
I’ve owned both the Herald 4 cyl, and a Vitesse 1.6 car. Both were DHC bodies & sold new in the USA with LHD.
The Herald was a horrible car to control at speeds above 50mph. I sold it to a young guy who totaled it on I-95 just north of Baltimore when [his words] “The rear axle folded in on itself during an emergency turn of the steering wheel to avoid a car stopped in the high speed lane, and the back of the car tried to outrun the front half!” I saw the photos, it rolled over & over before coming to a stop upside down. He was thrown out of the car [the top was down] and landed in some bushes in the center median, only had a few scrapes & cuts from the bushes!
The Vitesse was suffering a terminal case of tin worm, and the body was actually rocking side to side on what was left of the chassis. I ended up selling it for spare parts.
A pretty car with a beautiful engine and beautiful dash. Definitely underappreciated. I don’t think I ever saw one in real life. TR3s and Heralds were common in the 60s, but these weren’t around.
Had several of these both sedan and convertible – great cars which I loved dearly. My first car was a Vitesse 6 sedan with overdrive – only 70hp, but sounded lovely, followed by a succession of 2 litre Mk 2s with the reversed lower wishbone rear suspension. These later cars handled pretty well and cruised all day at 90mph with overdrive. The decent power and light weight meant they went well, but it was the 6cyl refinement and sound that made them such a pleasure. If you have ever driven an E30 BMW 320i you will have a good impression of what the Vitesse felt like. Its market position was similar, too. I always felt that Triumph missed a trick with the Dolomite – no 6 cylinder and live axle rear suspension.
All the ingredients you might ask for, except perhaps the swing rear axle.
Still tempting, as long you have no expectations of great speed and handling.
Didn’t it come to the US as ‘Sports Six’, not as Vitesse? Not sure why. Anyone knows why?
I’m not sure, but funnily enough, the British club for all Herald based vehicles is named after this US variant – the Triumph Sports six Club has existed for over 40 years and is one of the largest one make clubs in the UK.
The later non swing axle rear was a great improvement and the later cars were fairly quick for their era. A weakness was the gearbox, stressed for 80hp, but this could be remedied with stronger Dolomite internals. They are also built like a Meccano kit – the bodies are in three sections mounted on the separate chassis – the disadvantage to this being that they did not have the structural stiffness of a monocoque shell. It is therefore quite easy to build variants that never officially existed, such as a Vitesse Coupe, or estate. I built a convertible out of a saloon front end and doors and rear end from a convertible that had had its front smashed. As the two cars were both the same color, I didn’t even have to paint the finished result. Its first test drive was to Dover and then across to Ruesselsheim in Germany to take me to my job at Opel. (See Top picture). I was still bolting the seats in whilst on the ferry! Triple Webers and an exhaust system really wake those straight 6s up, as did inserting the larger, long stroke 2.5 litre, although these do not rev as sweetly as a 2 litre.
The Triumph Sports 6 Club is also one of the largest UK car clubs and full of great people – I met a great friend who years later became the best man at my wedding through it.
So I have very fond memories of these cars – my later TR6 PI never gave the same enjoyment….
If I recall correctly these and the Heralds were the first production cars with a collapsible steering column.
A collapsible steering column that was also “adjustable” for reach – prompting me to buy my first ever allen key.
I once read a book that quoted a road test of the then new Triumph Herald-based Spitfire. When describing the Spitfire’s handling, the road tester declared, “Hark, the Herald axles swing!”
Mark II Vitesse parked on the street in Havana, seen while on a visit in 2016.
So true. My daughter used to love getting the drop on guys in V8 Commodores – her old Suzuki Swift would out-accelerate them until they saw the light had gone green! 🙂
Sorry, this should have appeared under Chris In Australia’s comment way way up above, re reaction times.