On two wheels or four, the Triumph name evoked visions of everything British and created a vehicular dynasty that spread around the world.
2023 marks the 100th Anniversary of Triumph as a car manufacturer and 121 years since the brand made its first motorcycle. Today it is the cars that hold our interest though, ranging from the original 10/20 Tourer to raucous TR8s with Rover V8 engines that would effectively bring Triumph production to an end.
The original Triumph car appeared more by accident than intent. Among the assets of the Dawson Car Company, which Triumph acquired in 1921, was the design for a light car; the kind of vehicle that enjoyed growing success at the time. With help from Lea-Francis, which had supplied the original design, the 10/20 entered production and survived until 1926.
It was then replaced by a more sophisticated but expensive 13/30, which didn’t sell in the numbers hoped, however it did help fund a model that did. The Super Seven was compact and cheap; a rival for the even more basic Austin Seven, which the Triumph with its more spacious body, bigger 832cc engine and hydraulic brakes easily overwhelmed.
By 1930 when sales of low-cost cars were annihilated by the Great Depression, Seven production had topped 10,500 and a supercharged Sports added to the range to challenge models like the MG Midget and Austin Seven Super Sports.
Triumph progressively enlarged the Seven to create Eight and then Nine versions then in 1934 released its first model with genuinely prestigious style and performance.
The Gloria was a mid-sized four-door sedan with a 1.1-litre four-cylinder engine or 1.5-litre six. Top speed was 110km/h and around 5000 were made, however it was the derivative Southern Cross that excited the ‘need more speed’ brigade. These were a two-seat roadster, sitting on a shortened chassis with 1.2 or 2.0-litre engines and a top speed from the ‘big’ six of 130km/h.
During the early 1930s, Triumph began making a name in the world of European rallying, which would pave the way for more serious efforts during the 1950s. Ironically, one of the brand’s most successful drivers was Donald Healey, who would later produce the Austin-Healy 100 as a fierce rival to Triumph’s TR models.
Before the outbreak of World War 2, Triumph was down to a single model stream and in receivership. It was bought by a company that owned scrapyards, then a year later its factory was destroyed in a World War 2 air-raid and the brand looked doomed. Then along came a man named Black.
Sir John Black was Managing Director of Standard Cars and looking to replace business he knew he was going to lose post-war once major customer Jaguar got going with its own engine production.
Triumph had a recognisable name and Black was prepared to fund a rebuild of the brand around Standard engines. Its designs were very 1930s but, in a world, starved of new cars, almost anything could be sold. That included affordable sports cars to a booming export market.
The first open-top TR1 was appalling; a ‘death trap’ according to Triumph’s chief test driver. Changes were made, mostly to the suspension, and the revised TR2 with minor attention to aerodynamics was flung along a section of Belgian motorway at more than 200km/h.
That was good enough to convince North American distributors of its worth and they bought TR2s by the thousands, using them as a blunt object against MG’s ancient T Series and Donald Healey’s more costly 100. More than 80,000 of the original-shape TR2-3A series cars were made, with the vast majority sold to the USA.
As Triumph became entrenched in the sports car market, other opportunities appeared. Standard needed a replacement for its old-style Eight and Ten sedans, so with a radical suspension design and body by Italian stylist Michelotti, the Triumph Herald took their place.
Built in Britain and exported world-wide, the Herald and various derivatives sold in excess of 600,000 and provided the basis for one of Triumph’s most endearing models.
The Spitfire was designed as a rival to BMC’s Healey Sprite/MG Midget duo but ended its days sharing an engine with the last of the Midgets, a result of both brands falling into the clutches of British Leyland.
Michelotti’s studio would also be responsible for the shape of two other models that were pivotal to Triumph’s success: the 2000/2500 series of sedans and two-door Stag. He would also run a modernising pen over the last of the six-cylinder TR sports cars to create the crisp shape of the TR6.
The Stag began life as a chopped and welded show car, painted in exotic pink with no roof at all but distinctive new front and rear sheet metal. Triumph management liked the shape and asked Michelotti to produce a road-going version, but the structure was too flimsy and so was born the famous Stag ‘T Top’ which was employed to stop the roofless car splitting in half.
Competition success in Britain would elude Triumph for years, but in the USA where the bulk of its sports cars were sold, there were race series promoted by the Sports Car Club of America that seemed tailor-made to the Spitfire, GT6 coupe and TR6.
Rallying had always held an attraction for Triumph and after developing the 2000 sedan into a Top Ten performer in UK forest events, the factory went all out in its attempt to win the 1970 London-Mexico World Cup Rally. Four cars started and two would finish, placing 2nd and 4th.
More glory was to come in 1975 when a Dolomite Sprint driven by Steve Soper topped its class with sufficient consistency to win the British Touring Car Championship.
In a final bid for survival, Triumph in 1975 displayed a new sports car with wedge-shape styling designed by Leyland styling chief, Harris Mann. The TR7 initially came as a four-cylinder coupe before a soft-top shape joined the range and a Rover-sourced alloy V8 created the TR8.
By the time TR7/8 production ended in 1981, more than 112,000 of the four-cylinder cars but fewer than 2500 of the V8 had been built.
Later attempts at relaunching the brand using rebadged versions of Honda’s four-door Ballade proved futile and although the name remains available to current owners, BMW, there seems no incentive for them to follow in the wheel-tracks of the reborn MG.
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