Peter Cahill, one of CMM's writers, worked for Triumph for many years. This article, from Issue 77, August '95, on the Dolomite Sprint underlines his enthusiasm for the marque.
THE DOLOMITE SPRINT
TO PLACE THE DOLOMITE in context, there's good reason to retrace Triumph steps. The feverish activity within the UK industry in the late '50s, by The Big Five, was aimed at moving up a couple of gears.
The period saw the birth of the Mini, a radical departure on the part of Ford with the 105E and a daring return to the separate chassis theme by Triumph with the Herald. It was a concept that encouraged the eventual existence of Vitesse, Spitfire and GT6. Perhaps not so daring when one considers that the lack of a suitably economic body manufacturing facility determined that "necessity was the mother of reinvention".
Herald arrived on the scene, before the Leyland takeover, following a time when Standard-Triumph had for some years widely spread their energies across a range that included Vanguard, TR, Eights, Tens and Pennants, the production of the latter small car range only amounting to 350,000, in all their forms. In parallel the company had made a commercial killing, selling its number 1, saloon and sports car engine, in huge quantities to an Internationally renowned agricultural tractor manufacturer, Massey Ferguson.
Herald was a move designed to maintain Triumph's slot in the mass produced small car sector, a slot rendered less important by Leyland Motor Corporation's acquisition of BMC. Purpose designed for the family market, its simplistic form and ease of assembly, lent itself to one other model which never saw the light of a UK day - the only official 4 door version, was produced in India.
The PSF built body of the Triumph 2000, introduced in '63, would set the mood for what was to follow in the small car range. Oddly enough, as 1300, Dolomite and Toledo progressed, dimensional comparison indicated that there was only a marginal difference in the seating accommodation provided throughout the 4/5 seater range, whether powered by a four or a six. Similarly the line and style across the range would progressively introduce a brand image.
Triumph's Chief Engineer, Harry Webster chose 4 cylinders in-line, engine above the transmission front wheel drive, for the slightly larger than small car, which was to follow the Herald, the 1300. The interior was packaged to take the car 'out of the ordinary' and position it in the Riley, Wolseley, MG and Vanden Plas saloon grouping. As with the 2000, the company was measuring up to the buyer who expected quality and enjoyed that extra status that visible purchasing power afforded. Triumph were increasingly turning their attention to the ever expanding fleet market, particularly the satisfying of those lower and middle management levels which started with the car as a perk, often the employer's substitute for real and regular salary progression. It was at this point, internally at Triumph, public facing staff were encouraged to refer to the company as the Specialist Car Division of Leyland Motor Corporation, all good for the image.
The 1300 convinced many that the model range would only go up market from this point and that the front wheel drive configuration would be the 'norm' for the small car range. Wrong! A new name appeared in the frame - Toledo - not the car or the image builder we were expecting. Almost as if the hierarchy had got cold feet about the up-market move, a two door body shell emerged with a less expensive trim and equipment 'spec' and a cost reducing conventional rear wheel drive. One can understand the defensive dialogue conjured up by showroom sales staff when for a further 12 months the last of Herald 13/60s, fresh built, stood alongside and the fwd 1300 became a fwd 1500. Up curtain, enter stage from the right.....Stag. For one year, it was just too much and for the factory sales, service and parts reps more time was spent in the factory training school than out on the territory administering to the distributer/dealer network.
In parallel to this activity, Triumph's Fletchamstead North design and engineering facility had found time to satisfy an outside contract, to develop a 45 slant in-line 4, overhead cam engine for SAAB and its 99 saloon. The company's enthusiastic sales and marketing team at Fletchamstead South, under the management of a great character, Lyndon Mills, expressed their wishes. To keep new model costs to a minimum, the bore size of the 1709cc SAAB engine was increased to give a swept volume of 1850 and the 1500 fwd shell was modified to accommodate rear wheel drive. Badged Dolomite, after a pre-war sporting Triumph, the new model gained immediate acceptance. It was compact overall, had a practical 4 door body, was comfortable and well appointed, was endowed with a useful performance by reason of its power to weight ratio and could produce, when necessary, economic running if driven with tender loving care. The Dolomite's appeal to a wide span of users was obvious.
For a time the muffled sound (after all it was a secret) of the factory's jungle drums hinted at yet another new model. Not a Dolomite, but a competition Toledo, a Toledo TS. Story is that the idea was initiated by Lord Stokes and Triumph's boss George Turnbull. The lighter, stiffer 2 door Toledo bodyshell combined with an uprated 1.5 engine had real promise as a race or rally car. How much work went ahead of official sanction has to our knowledge never been formally declared. The enthusiastic lads in the competition shop and experimental department, spurred on by the braver elements of shop floor management, were normally way ahead of anybody in realising the sporting potential of standard product. However, the story goes that the body, officially close to finality - a gnat's whisker away from production, when "the Board" decided to cap the project.
By now, Rover had joined the fold and the conglomerate was known as British Leyland. Rover import to Triumph, design and engineering guru, Spen King, as always ten steps ahead of the next man, led the team devoting their energies to extracting real gains in horsepower from the slant 4 engine. The usual cost constraints ensured that the design would not be allowed to stray too far from reality and existing production components, particularly in the bottom half of the motor. The 'new' engine retained the 78mm stroke, with the cylinder bores being increased to 90.3mm, resulting in 1998cc of swept volume. Four valves per cylinder were chosen, for proven reasons, and at one point a double overhead cam arrangement was considered, but discarded.
Resident Triumph engine designer Len Dawtrey came up with the idea of operating the 16 valves off one camshaft. For the inlet valves the cams bear directly on the bucket tappets, the exhaust valves are operated by rockers operating off the same eight cam lobes. This enabled the plugs to be sited in the ideal position, centrally in the cylinder head. The design study of this engine is an article on its own, but suffice to say that two HS6 SU carburettors were chosen in place of the Stombergs used on the company's smaller slant 4.
Officially the engine gives a regular and useful 127bhp, but reliable sources claimed that well built and tuned engines, with stock components, had been known to give a sustained 150 bhp on the factory test bed, without any hint of valve gear failure.
The Dolomite name had established itself by June of 1973 when the Dolomite Sprint was announced. Not Ford or GM numbers, but for Triumph high productivity levels meant 600 Dolomites, off line each week, compared with 350 units of the less expensive Toledos. Sprint production levels were aimed at 250 each week. . Following the introduction of the Sprint, a 1500TC became a 1500 and a Dolomite 1300 was introduced. The Dolomite ranges's hottest property, the flagship of the range, was the last Dolomite to be built, chassis number TWTLD5AT/113504, a Sprint. Dolomite production ceased in August '80 and sadly 1980 was also the year we said our farewells to the marque Triumph.
The Sprint had filled the gap in the market for a quality, compact, British, high performance saloon capable of competing with the BMW 2002 Tii and Alfa Romeo's 2000 GTV. Comparable in performance, the Sprint was less expensive and more comfortable. Other comparisons were drawn by grouping the FIAT 124 Coupe 1800 and Rapier H120 alongside the Sprint. Closer on price, neither the Italian nor the Rootesmobile could hold a candle to the Sprint, on performance. Naturally their were comparisons with Ford products of the time. Similar in cost and performance to an RS1600, the Coventry car was considered the more civilised of the two. The Capri 3000GT - quicker, flat out, near equal through the gears, was no match for the Sprint's interior room or standard of appointment. The Sprint's four door facility was a distinct advantage, particularly when an accountant's objection to the purchase of a 'company' car, with a sporting flavour, had to be overcome.
The Sprint's performance, with its maximum power at '5700' never in doubt, included a useful torque curve. At around 2000rpm, 40mph in top gear, 108 lb, ft. of usable torque increased to a maximum of 122 lb. ft. at 4500rpm. To ensure a reserve of strength and transmission reliability, when transmitting the torque and the power, a 2000/2.5 gearbox was specified. The car was known for its long, relatively economic legs. The six speed facility created by overdrive on third and top delivered a road speed of 18.9mph per 1000 rpm in top and 23.6 in overdrive top.
Through the gears maximums were, just over 40mph in first, high fifties and eighties in second and third, 110 in overdrive top and 115 to 117 according to conditions and load in top. The manufacturer pointed out that it was not advisable to change down from o/d third to third at speeds in excess of 89mph. The 0 to 60mph time matched the BMW and the Alfa at between 8 and 9 seconds and although screaming a little at the top end, this willing 16 valver revs freely up to its 6500rpm maximum. In sedate but purposeful mood, a Sprint, in good condition will cruise happily all day at 100mph with little more than 4000 on the rev counter. Power delivery - smooth and effortless, perhaps a feeling accentuated by the interior comfort level, determines that the car's performance calls for driver awareness and a modicum of habitual concentration. It is after all a sporting car.
The difference between high performance extravagance and economical, legal limit overdrive cruising is about 7mpg - 23mpg to 30. The 12.5 gallon tank can be expected to yield from 290 to 375 miles, between fill-ups.
The transmission comes in for further comment. With the 2000/2.5PI gearbox Laycock J type overdrive is an worthwhile option conveniently operated by a knurled slide switch incorporated into the gearlever nob.
The drive line consists of a two piece prop shaft with a rubber mounted steady bearing. Birfield-Rzeppa constant velocity joints are used rather than the customary Hooke joints in an effort to eliminate vibration periods. The final drive was a hypoid bevel unit as specified for the TR6, with heavy duty in mind. Automatic transmission with a T head shift lever was an optional extra.
The use of 5.5 inch rims, shod with 175.70HR13 Dunlop SP Sport radials called for a bit of muscle when parking. Over 5 to 10mph it was a different car with a light, positive, constantly in touch feel. Front suspension by unequal length wishbones, featured coil springs and telescopic dampers above the upper 'bones, the lower 'bone was formed by a transverse link and a trailing radius rod. The live rear axle was located by four trailing radius arms, the springing and damping medium acting on the lower pair of radius rods. The upper radius rods acutely angled inwards towards the top of the diff casing all but constituted an A bracket. Anti roll bars were fitted front and rear.
A lot of work was done on the showroom version of the Sprint to get the ride and handling, adhesion and stability, right. Having driven the standard model many hundreds of miles on the road, plus many hours of race circuit high speed demonstrations there comes a point where you accept little quirks of car character. Turn in on a tight corner produced, momentarily, pronounced understeer, which could be eased out by lifting the throttle. To the uninitiated and the unsuspecting, on a wet road it could be an unsettling experience. The wallow effect that would progressively appear on long fast bends, sometimes promoted by road surface undulations was never disconcerting, the car always maintaining its true direction. Provoked oversteer on fast bends was a manageable condition on a circuit, but not recommended for the road. There was sufficient power under certain conditions to steer the car in total control, on the throttle. Most buyers of the Sprint, in the Seventies, either bought the car for its in-built Jekyll and Hyde character or quickly found out. A character that proved to be acceptable to a number of police forces.
Brakes were, of course, up rated. High performance pads were specified for the front discs, larger drums were fitted at the rear, as was a load-sensitive relief valve in the rear brake circuit. A larger servo completed the up-rating.
The body, a full 4/5 seater with generously dimensioned doors was a pleasant and comfortable abode which projected the car into the high speed executive express class. The seating provided armchair comfort and in the front good forward visibility. There was sufficient leg and headroom in the rear, with its folding central arm rest, to satisfy most physiques and statures. Full width parcel shelves, a glovebox and map pockets added to the facilities. Wall to wall carpets, walnut cappings and quality cloth seating plus other equipment and a comprehensive heating and ventilating system, heated rear window as standard made the Sprint a very attractive proposition. Comprehensive instrumentation and ergonomically placed controls are in unison with adjustable height and tilt seating and a steering wheel adjustable for rake and reach.
Boot space, although easily accessed and loaded, and of a regular shape, comes into the 'iffy' category..." if I leave...at home, and if you don't take your...We should get it all in". Its not quite that small, Triumph claimed 9.4 cu ft of usable space, hardly adequate for a family of four, but progressively reasonable for three or less.
From that day in June 1973 when a new chassis number was added to Triumph history, the first in a line - VA/1-DL, the Sprint would distinguish itself externally from its Dolomite relatives by cast -alloy wheels, vinyl covered roof, front spoiler and twin exhausts. All of the first batch of cars to be built were finished in yellow, with black roofs and waist-line stripes. Eight years and 22,941 Sprints later, the fortunes of a company would determine that the last car of this distinctive line would be built.
John Glenn, devout Sprint enthusiast was kind enough to allow us to photograph his car and to spend time talking about a car which is a very early example. Looking back at John's purchases the Sprint was almost inevitable. The line -up included a much modified Mini, an Austin 1300 GT, and an eight year affair with a Mk1 Escort Mexico purchased new. In August '79 the Mimosa Dolomite Sprint came on the scene, purchased from a friend. The car was in good condition, but had been fitted with a road/rally cam, a full Group 2 Abingdon rally exhaust system and motored every bit as good as it sounded. Unfortunately a set-up that wouldn't tick over much below 12 or 1300 rpm wasn't conducive to everyday motoring in Britain's second largest city and the car was returned to the standard specification.
In the early Eighties, after the closure of the Dolomite line, John was fortunate in locating a number of genuine BL panels for the Sprint. For under £200, the package included an inner and outer front panel, two genuine factory front wings, four doors, four door skins, two complete tonneau assemblies and a rear light cluster panel!
In '83, when the car was still being used as daily transport, it was decided to replace the front wings and front panels. Anticipating a scarcity of panels and making allowances for any possible accident damage in the future, the new panels were bolted on. 1984 heralded the arrival of a company car which introduced a new dimension to the Sprint's future. A small amount of work was carried out, at about the time the Glenns decided to join the Triumph Sporting Owners Club.
John was persuaded to enter the car at the Syon Park, Dolomite Sprint National Day concours event. Third place was enough to wet the Glenn's appetite for this type of event and with the car more available for attention Jim Henshaw of Hereford replaced the boot floor, inner and outer rear wheel arches, rear light cluster panel and genuine factory sills were fitted. On its return to Barnt Green, John Glenn effected a complete repaint at home, using cellulose. Its worth recording that the vehicle has never been taken off-the-road and stripped down to a wheels off, engine out, bare shell, all work having been carried out as a rolling restoration when parts and money have been available.
Entering the Benson and Hedges concours competition in 1988 and in this and the successive years up to and including 1991, the Glenn's were invited finalists. Other successes included winning Car of the Day and two other major awards, one of which was Best Non Original Car, in 1990, at the Sprint National Day , and the Best Post War Car at the Oulton Park Classic.
An engine rebuild in '93 coincided with an approximate mileage of around 130,000 miles, the gearbox has received similar attention. On the body side, the woodwork is original and has not been reworked, seat facings have been replaced, the immaculate carpets are those when the Glenns purchased the car sixteen years ago.
John took time to trace each and every owner of the car and was told that at no time had the car overheated. John maintains that the reliability of an engine of this type is assured if regularly serviced and the correct coolant mixture, with a high performance inhibitor, is used.
How early is the car? Early, very early. Built on the 11th of June 1973, as chassis number 1351, it existed ten days before the Sprint was actually announced. For the first two and half years it was a company car owned by Complex Alloys of Fazeley Street, Birmingham.
Receiving attention in the Glenn household at the moment is another Sprint, first registered 1st Jan 1974. I share John's interest in Sprints, but details of this latest Glenn project has thrown me into a fit of pique. The car was acquired in a domestic garage desperation clearance, on a "make me an offer and take it away" basis for £75. Am I vexed? You bet I'm vexed! That garage is here in Coventry, not two miles from where I sit. Just shows, you can't win 'em all.
Over the years the Sprint earned its corn in motorsport, racing and rallying at all levels competition, we'll be revueing those days in a later issue.
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