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A Triumphant century

25 July 2023

Our car club partners, the Triumph Sports Six Club (TSSC) are celebrating 100 years of the Triumph marque in 2023. The members of the TSSC are going to enjoy a packed programme of celebrations throughout the year. So, a whole century after the Triumph motor car first appared, let’s take a look at it’s history of death, difficulty and resurrection. Don’t forget, if you are a Triumph owner, then we have a specially tailored insurance scheme available to you through the TSSC. Details are at the foot of this article.  

It all started on two-wheels before Triumph became a major player in the motor car industry in 1923. There were many highs and many lows during its 60-year life. In fact, the wheels very nearly fell off entirely – but the Triumph brand left the legacy of an incredibly diverse range of motor cars that are still fondly enjoyed today.

The Triumph Motor Company was founded by the German businessman Siegfried Bettman in Coventry in 1887, with significant financial input from Dunlop. Alongside business partner Mauritz Johann Schulte started by building pedal cycles. They moved into motorcycles from 1902 and would eventually supply many to Britain’s war effort.

Interestingly, Siegfried Betmann was also Mayor of Coventry during 1913 and 1914 but was forced to give up the position, which was deemed inappropriate for a man of German descent to hold, at the outbreak of the First World War.

Despite the protestations of Schulte, who disagreed with the move towards car production, the company, which had expanded mightily after switching to motorcycles in 1902, then bought up the remains of Coventry’s stricken Dawson Car Company in 1921.  Schulte had departed in 1919 and was replaced by a young ex-army officer by the name of Claude Holbrook who became works manager and then Managing Director.

After purchasing the tooling and expertise of the Dawson Car Company, Triumph’s first light car came in 1923 with the launch of the 10/20 in April of that year. It was a simple, yet robust little machine with a 1,393cc engine. It helped to change Triumph from a motorcycle company that made a few cars, into a car manufacturer that had sold off its motorcycle division.  Triumph followed the 10/20 with the first of their sporting models, the Super Seven shortly after.

Triumph had been paying Lea Francis a commission on every one of the Triumph 10/20s they sold as part of the deal for the company designing the car and engines for them. Volumes ramped up with the Triumph Super 7 and the subsequent Super series of Triumphs sold well. But, Claude Holbrook was if the opinion that competing with the mass market suppliers like Austin was going to be impossible, so instead he went ‘high-end’.

Bettmann had retired by 1934 and Holbrook became the sole Managing Director. Engineering was to be taken care of by a rally driver from Perranporth, Cornwall who had come to the attention of Holbrook when he entered a Triumph Super Seven into the 1929 Monte Carlo Rally. That bright spark Cornish engineer was Donald Healey.

In 1933, exactly 90 years ago, he introduced the exotic and upwardly mobile sounding Triumph Gloria. It later came in Vitesse form with slightly different body work and an uprated engine and then the very sporty Southern Cross (a name that had been used on the Super 9).

Donald Healey bought (no doubt on the company credit card) an Alfa Romeo 8C and by using the straight-8 engines from the Alfa as inspiration, Triumph built three cars in 1934 carrying the Dolomite name. One of the cars was smashed up by Healey on the Monte Carlo in 1935 on a railway crossing in Denmark. Then it all went horribly wrong.

Sales of luxury cars in the worldwide depression were slow and quickly the company fell into financial troubles. In a brave act of postponing the inevitable, the motorcycle arm of the company was sold off to Ariel in Birmingham to raise some much-needed cash in 1936.

However, in 1939 the Triumph company went into receivership. The factory closed and was destroyed during the German bombing raids on Coventry during the Blitz.

Triumph rose again thanks to the vision of Standard Motor Company head, Sir John Black who purchased the company and resurrected the brand as a sporting label for Standard Triumph.

The first Triumphs to be launched came in 1946. Styled by Walter Belgrove, the Roadster began life as an 1800 and was launched alongside a saloon (which later became the Renown), before the engine was enlarged to 2-litres. The Triumph Roadster lasted a mere 3 years during which time 4,500 were built. Then came a new Triumph saloon, the Mayflower that was slightly ahead of its time offering the post-war public an affordable compact saloon.

Sir John Black still had ambitions of producing a truly sporting car with the Triumph brand. He wanted to rival Jaguar and MG and he also wanted to buy the Morgan Car Company to achieve it. When he was flatly refused, Sir John Black set about designing a sports car from scratch. The first, a Walter Belgrove prototype was the TRX. A progressive, modern, and wacky looking car for the time with an airship shape, bare alloy bodywork and pop-up headlamps it was never going to be viable for production, but three were made.

A more realistic prototype was shown to the public two years later in 1952, called 20TS. It was built on a modified Standard 8 chassis with the Vanguard engine enlarged to 1991cc. The car looked a little awkward with a spare wheel plonked on the boot lid and when the BRM test driver Ken Richardson drove it he called it a ‘death trap’. However, by a stroke of hard work and miracles the engineering team lead by Harry Webster and Walter Belgrove had the new Triumph TR2 ready to launch to the public at the 1953 Motor Show.

The car was met with instant adoration and success, but what it needed to do was to prove itself as a sporting marque – just as MG had done before the war. Publicity was boosted in the May of 1953 when a run on the Jabbeke highway in Belgium saw Ken Richardson scoop the speed record for a two-litre production car.

The TR3A was the first mass produced British car to feature disc brakes. The Triumph brand was finally enjoying success, but sadly the man who had engineered its rise to fame didn’t enjoy the same because by 1954 he had been pushed out by the board of directors and replaced by Alick Dick.

A new freelance designer arrived at the company in 1959, an Italian but the name of Giovanni Michelotti. His first job was to design a replacement for the Standard 8, 10 and Pennant. It was his first wholly new car design for the company. It was the stunning, tail-finned, Triumph Herald.

But, Triumph found itself in financial difficulty once more and in 1961 was purchased by the bus and truck builder Leyland – just in time to save it again.

The Herald benifitted from the cash injection and its old-fashioned seperate chassis construction proved an advantage giving Triumph the ability to create a whole series of different versions, from a sleek Coupé to an estate and a convertible. The platform was also used to create a range of more grunty ‘Vitesse’ models with a six-cylinder engine from 1962 onwards.

Giovanni Michelotti progressed the Triumph TR into the new decade. In 1961, came the TR4 and it adequately responded to the changing sports car market that was demanding a more luxurious driving experience. Another first, this time face level ventilation, arrived. The engine was now at a capable capacity of 2138cc and the TR4 saw Triumphs back in rallying once again. The competition department was revitalised, and Harry Webster appointed a young Competitions Secretary, Graham Robson to enter a team of Powder Blue TR4s into the Alpine Rallies to great success, wearing their famous ‘3, 4, 5 and 6 VC’ Coventry numberplates.

In 1965, the TR4A gained more innovation, this time underneath with the arrival of independent rear suspension along with some subtle exterior and interior trim updates. Then, the TR4A was given a six-cylinder engine and another pioneering first, mechanical fuel injection by Lucas.

The TR5, in the UK at least, was the first production car to be offered as standard with fuel injection – a real step forward. However, in the USA emission regulations meant that the TR5 was known as the TR250 and was fitted with twin carburettors instead. Production of the TR5 and TR250 was short-lived, just 18 months, before the TR6 arrived in 1969.

The TR6 was an example of re-styling efficiency at its finest. Michelotti was busy on other projects when it came to the TR6 and so the project was outsourced to Karmann, based in Osnabruck in Germany. In record fast time, they designed a new TR on a shoestring using a TR4A as a template. The inner panels were the same and the six-cylinder engine with injection remained, but the outer panels took on a more squared off, aggressive stance.

The Triumph TR had maintained its reputation as a rugged but accessible sports car. Indeed, it also spawned several Derivatives that used the TR range as a platform to varying amounts. Peerless, Swallow Doretti, Triumph Italia and even the Daimler Dart all had TR genetics.

The Triumph TR8 was developed just before the TR range was cancelled. These production cars saw just 22 right hand drive examples, including development prototypes, made in the UK with just under 3,000 making their way to customers in the US and Canada until in 1982, it all ended for Triumph’s TR line of sports cars.

When MG announced the return of their historic ‘Midget’ brand to a small sports car in 1961, Michelotti used the Herald underpinnings to pen a small but perfectly proportioned Midget rival, the Triumph Spitfire.

The Spitfire would enjoy several stunning iterations and evolutions and would last right up until 1982, ironically lending its 1500 engine from the last of the models to the MG Midget. The finest moment was in 1965, when a team of 4 works prepared cars went to Le Mans and won their class. The resulting publicity gave rise to a road going version of the hard top version of the Spitfire, but this time powered by a six-cylinder engine – thus the Triumph GT6 was born and was made until 1973.

Top tip: The Triumph Spitfire is an ideal starter classic and can for some people, be relatively inexpensive to insure. We also offer special insurance packages to members of the Triumph Sports Six Club. So, if you are under 25, you could be enjoying true classic motoring with our club scheme insurance giving you the peace of mind you need.

Launched in 1963, the Triumph 2000 saloon was a revelation for Triumph as it burst into the hip, trendy new luxury saloon market. It did well and it was a bit sleeker looking than its rival launched at the same time, the Rover 2000.

By the mid- 1960s fins were out and front wheel drive was in, so a new Triumph 1300 arrived with motive power provided by the two front wheels.

Eventually, the 1300 front wheel drive switched back to the more cost -effective production of rear wheel drive and was named the Toledo. From 1973 onwards, Toledo’s also had the 1500 engine option or the top of the range 1500TC.

It was around this time, 1972 to be precise, that Triumph revived the Dolomite name that had been used in pre-war times. Initially launched as the 1850, with the slant-four engine that was developed in partnership with Saab for their 99 and used in the TR7.

Then in 1973, Triumph broke new ground with innovation once again. The Dolomite Sprint was launched, the first mass produced British car with a 16 valve cylinder head fixed on top of the slant four in 2 litre guises.

At this point, the selection of small saloons was all but confusing and so they were slimmed down to just the Dolomite in a choice of 1300, 1500, 1850 and Sprint form.

In 1968, Leyland had bought Rover and then merged the resulting company into British Motor Holdings to create the British Leyland Motor Corporation, headed up by Sir Donald Stokes.

The saloon range had grown, and the six-cylinder engine seen in the TR5 also joined the saloon range along with the ground-breaking petrol injection to create the 2500 PI. In 1969, Michelotti remodelled it to give us the Mark 2 with a more contemporary look.

Another Michelotti masterpiece was the Stag, based on the 2000 saloon and designed in his own time, on the quiet. The engine was surprising choice – a 3 litre V8, completely of Triumph origin and using the same design principles that had been employed on the slant – four overhead cam engines that Triumph had been developing. It was the Triumph that many would dream of, a burbling V8, upmarket and glamorous Italian style and a British sentimentality. But sadly, it wasn’t to be and with only 26,000 sold it was cancelled in 1977.

Meanwhile, in the big saloons range, the oil crisis of the 1970s was affecting sales and so the injection models gave way to the carburettor equipped 2500TC and 2500S until 1977 when they were finally discontinued in a move that would finally see Rover win out, after years of being at loggerheads – when BLMC favoured the incoming Rover SD1 as their executive saloon of choice.

By the early 1970s, Triumph was part of the BLMC conglomerate. They had decided that the next sports car was to be a Triumph and not an MG and so the TR7 was to be rolled out as the successor to the TR6 and a controversial replacement for the MGB in the modern sports car market. Another young designer, this time from the midlands, arrived on the scene to design the TR7 – he was Harris Mann.

First produced only as a ‘Fixed Head Coupe’ owing the fear of impending USA legislation, the TR7 had a 2 litre, 4 – cylinder engine bored out from the company’s small saloon at the time. The wedge styling was modern and controversial. The early cars suffered many setbacks in build quality caused by industrial action at BLMC’s new Speke plant in Liverpool at launch. Production moved back to the midlands, first back to Canley, whereupon Michelotti was drafted back in to design the convertible for 1979. The TR7 finished off its years being built at Solihull and by then, the niggles had been solved but the reputation was in tatters.

Despite all this drama and controversy though, the TR7 was the most successful TR ever with over 112,000 examples sold.

That’s not quite the end of the story though, because of course the TR7 gained a Sprint engine for rally homologation before adopting Rover’s mighty 3.5 litre V8. There was plenty of space under the bonnet and so in it dropped producing the fastest and most powerful Triumph ever, the TR7 V8 rally cars.

The final Triumph would be made in Cowley, Oxford and the resulting car was the Triumph Acclaim.

British Leyland, as the company were now known, entered partnership with Honda to produce the Triumph badged Ballade as the Acclaim. The Triumph Acclaim would start the influx of Japanese manufacturers into the UK market that remains to this day.

Between 1981 and 1984, 134,000 Acclaims were built. Honda later went on to create new Rover models in partnership right into the late 1990s. But for Triumph, 1984 marked the end and they have never been seen again since.

The motorcycle brand continues to run as a healthy but entirely unrelated business out of Hinkley in Leicestershire. BMW own the right to the Triumph name, a hangover from their purchase of the Rover Group in the 1990s. Today, Triumph epitomises a golden era of British motoring and is dearly loved by enthusiasts the world over who keep the brand alive with their passion – happy centenary Triumph!

To insure your Triumph with Peter James , contact us direct or why not benefit from the extensive benefits of the Triumph Sports Six Club members’ scheme. For members of the TSSC, we offer a bespoke insurance package tialiored to suit the needs of Triumph owners. Call us for a chat today on 0121 274 5348 or visit www.peterjamesinsurance.co.uk/tssc .

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