Triumph Dolomite Review

Archie Vicar tests three sporting saloons: Triumph’s Dolomite, Lancia’s Fulvia and Alfa Romeo’s evergreen Giulia.

(c) carsaddiction

From the Driving & Motoring Weekly Guide, 1972. Photos by Nigel de la Warr. Owing to the unfortunate theft of Mr. De la Warr’s Nikons, stock photography has been used.

Small sporting saloons are becoming an important if quite tiny part of the market place. Naturally, the large family car will always remain the most popular choice for the suburban motorist and business-man on the move. But, for the fellow who likes energetic driving and who also needs to chauffeur his wife and children about from time to time, there are three cars offering an alternative to the much loved Ford Cortina, the humdrum Vauxhall Viva and dull Morris Marina.

The Triumph Dolomite, Alfa Romeo Giulia and Lancia Fulvia are three similarly conceived cars to tempt us into more lively motoring. Each has a sleek and well-tailored body enclosing four seats and a choice of powerful engines. We took a trip to Canley, near Coventry to inspect the latest version of the Triumph Dolomite and to compare it with Lancia’s evergreen Fulvia and Alfa’s standard-bearer, the Giulia.

“a clever mixed blend…”

The Dolomite is part of Triumph’s fiendishly comprehensive model range of small cars. Lately front-wheel drive has become almost acceptable for small cars, and Triumph have indeed had a bit of a stab at this format for the 1300 and 1500. However, as the old saying goes, the only way forwards is backwards. The new Dolomite (890 lbs weight) is a clever mixed blend of bits of Triumph’s small cars and pilfers freely from the firm’s engineering past.

It sports the elegant, longer body of the front-driven Triumph 1500, but the oily bits are mostly inherited from the rear-wheel drive Triumph Toledo (reviewed November 1971). This means it has a simple live rear axle with coil springs in the interest of simplicity and higher profits. This is an inspiring example of BMC thrift and shows clearly that rear-drive has some legs yet.

Lancia Fuliva : (c)

“…Lancia´s evergreen Fulvia…”

Standing up against the Dolomite is Lancia’s refined Fulvia, launched in 1963 and updated only five years ago with the 1298 cc engine and 5 speed gearbox. Effective Girling calipers and pads replaced the shoddy Dunlop system attached to the earlier cars. [See page 34-36 for more details on Girling’s new brake pad compounds – Ed.] The handbrake design is also new (for 1970) and deploys separate drums and brake-shoes operating on the rear wheels. This and other small modifications show that Fiat, who now own Lancia, are determined to keep this great marque healthy in these increasingly competitive times.

Carried over also is the crisp and smart bodywork, which reminds one of a small Mercedes. Plenty of chrome embellishments and a very refined driver’s compartment certainly enunciate Lancia’s distinguished pedigree. I’ve managed to lose my little Fuvia brochure so I can’t quote the vehicle’s weight, except to say, in Rolls-Royce style, it is adequate. The Fulvia’s driven wheels are located forward of the driver’s ashtray.

1975 Alfa Romeo Giulia

“…frankly marginal company…”

Finally, Alfa Romeo are still investing heavily in their rear-while drive Giulia to maintain its dominant position as the sporting saloon preferred by serious and enthusiastic drivers. On sale in one form or another since the unification of Italy, it seems no-one can topple the Giulia from its position on the sales charts or in the hearts of red-blooded drivers. Some might whisper the name BMW here but one can expect little from this frankly marginal company who have long struggled with their boxy and evil-handling saloons. The Giulia tested here has a powerful 1.6 litre engine which must move a mere 2,200 lbs.

“…the lethal Herald…”

We took the cars on a 116 mile test drive from Canley to Worcester and had a good opportunity to assess their various foibles and flaws. The driving conditions were fair to moderate, with a light North-Westerly breeze. The temperature was mild. We passed through Gaydon, Ratlez, Compton Wynyates, Honington, Weston Subedge, Evesham and Pershore. The 14th century church at Warmington is worth a look.

Rather surprisingly, Lancia’s Fulvia belied its controversial chassis-configuration and proved to be the most surefooted and tractable of the three cars. Whilst the top-speed was nothing about which to telex home, the crisp steering, rifle-slick gearchange and smart acceleration contradicted the limousine-in-miniature appearance of the car. The driver’s position is a little odd but far less so than one might expect (The Mini’s is far, far worse.)

Naturally, the front-driven Fulvia is prone to understeer yet I found this much less unsettling than the Dolomite’s tendency to swing its tail at the lightest of touches. Even the lethal Herald had more stability, which is saying something. Triumph have saved some pennies with their cleverly simple engineering and this is to be respected. However, this does not compensate for the sense of fearful anxiety one feels merely pulling into the pub carpark to down some afternoon refreshments.

Incidentally, the Butler’s Plough outside Honington is a topping place for a good lunch. The ox-tongue sandwiches deserve a special mention. I have not had any finer since road testing the Riley 4/72 in the Lake District in 1972. It was in the Lake District Arms Hotel that I had a smashing basket of home-baked bread, thick slices of ox-tongue, English mustard, cress, lettuce, creamery butter and a baker’s dozen of Slattern’s Extra Dark Imperial Stout. For me this transformed my views of the Lake District utterly. I’d previously been unable to find a single decent pint of beer or a half-way palatable luncheon in nearly twenty years of testing in that otherwise pleasant region.

When Riley summoned us there (back when I worked for the Weekly Manchester Advertiser) I was filled with a deep dread, despite my fond regard for Riley cars, God bless them, because I thought we’d be forced to eat awful vittels for three days straight. That tongue-sandwich thankfully saved the Lake District for me. And the car we tested seemed to be equally as good. I always said that the 4/72 was a much better car than its BMC competitors: the laughable A55 Cambridge, the appalling MG Magnette (the wife has one!) and the stout Morris Oxford. Perhaps the Wolseley 15/60 is nearly as good a car but I’d hate to be asked to justify this prejudice in a court of law.

Summarising remarks

To sum up, the Dolomite is credible motor car and a credit to BLMC. It’s cheaper and simpler than its predecessors which is a sign of progress. The Fulvia is formidable little thing whose main failing seems to lie in the viscosity of the engine oil recommended by Lancia. I think a slightly lower viscosity would allow far better performance from its thoroughly-resolved 92 horse power, narrow angle-V engine. The Alfa Giulia in 1.6 litre guise has benefited from its restyle, with modern black plastic replacing the old-fashioned chrome grille of earlier cars. The comfortable grey velour upholstery is another attractive feature too. And finally, even if it’s not the fastest car of the trio, it is better assembled than the Triumph and has a bigger boot and an even bigger ashtray than the Lancia.

Is that enough to swing the test? No, I prefer the Lancia for the simple reason that is the more honest and carefully constructed of all three cars and this makes it worth the extra money. Triumph take note. You can not rest on your laurels for too much longer!

Author: richard herriott

I like anchovies. I dislike post-war town planning.

9 thoughts on “Triumph Dolomite Review”

  1. I´ve had two opportunities to see a Lancia Fulvia sedan in the metal. The latest was in Dirke´s Lancia dealership in Cologne in July ´09. The car is not what you´d call sporty looking, rather it is very upright and rectilinear. The construction and details looked first rate, very much like a tiny Mercedes. I didn´t get a chance to sit inside but it looked like a comfortable and airy driving environment. The rear passengers had ample room, thanks to the FWD package. If you get a chance google the car´s interior which is a study in elegant simplicity and fine material choice. The car shared mechanicals with the more famous coupe and during its long life Lancia made lots of small changes and improvements. It was a sign of Lancia´s difficulties that the car (1963) soldiered on for so very long.
    Before reading the Vicar article I had no idea how messy BMC´s product structure was. It was a sign that they too were in difficulties that they had to bodge together so many variants from their existing parts bin. The Triumph 1300 and 1500 were FWD and replaced the Herald but they were more costly and less succesful than the Herald so, wierdly, a rear-wheel drive version called the Toledo was created with the intention of being cheaper than the FWD versions. It was a real throwback, using a RWD system with quite primitive suspension arrangements. From this bodge was born the Dolomite and it eventually was given the task of fighting hot Cortinas and the emerging BMW phenomenon. By 1973 all the versions were on sale at once: 1300, 1500, Toledo and Dolomite and heaven knew how anyone could work out which was which.
    Since the Dolomite was essentially a 60s car, it had little chance against BMW´s continuous product renewal. The game was up even in 1975: BMC, Alfa and Lancia were fielding ancient designs against BMW and simply couldn´t keep up.
    Check this link, which is a little Blog by Jalopnik:

  2. Eoin posted this reply to the original posting: “By the mid-late 60s Triumph was on the verge of having a decent range of cars – (if you discount the primitive sports models). Although their Michelotti styling was not to everyone’s taste, the 2000 and 1300/1500 saloons were the kind of classy semi-sporting saloons that should have ensured Triumph’s future.
    However, it was not to be. Quality issues (what else) and buyer resistance seems to have put paid to the FWD experiment, Triumph also lost a fortune on the ill-starred Stag project and of course, once the Leyland Cars merger took place, chaos and under-investment ensued. From then on, Triumph had to make and mend. A shame, as the Dolomite with a properly located rear axle would have been a lovely car. (If Alfa could make the live rear end of the 105 series work, surely Triumph could too?) You are right though, by the late 60’s Triumph’s model range was a mess. Partly because the 1300 failed to adequately replace the Herald, the old girl (beloved of driving schools) remained in production until about 1971, by which time they should really have abandoned that end of the market. The ensuing Toledo was dreadful and had that money been spent upgrading the Dolomite accordingly, it would have rivalled the Italians and BMW – dynamically at least. To think the poor old Dolomite soldiered on until 1980 virtually unchanged. Tragic.
    Out of the three tested here, the Alfa appears the obvious choice – I’ve always loved the shape of the Giulia saloon. (Interestingly, it was, despite its boxy appearance, highly aerodynamic). I think it was about 0.38, which was incredible for the early 1960s. They also handled better than the more glamorous Giugiaro-penned GTVs, I believe.
    However, I would be swayed by the ladylike grace and engineering purity of the little Lancia. I imagine it would be the sensitive driver’s choice too. It too, despite its leaf-sprung rear suspension, rode and handled beautifully I believe. But Lancia did things properly in the days before Fiat.

    Oh by the way Richard, I hate to sound like a pedant, but you have in fact uploaded two pictures of the Fulvia’s bigger sister, the equally understated but equally aristocratic Flavia Berlina of similar vintage. An even nicer car than the Fulvia Berlina, I would imagine…”

  3. I replied: “Yes, Archie Vicar finished his article very suddenly, as if overwhelmed by the choice he faced. Eoin is quite right to note that the Alfa Giulia was very aerodynamic. It had a kamm tail, for example and a wrapped-around windscreen plus some other smart details that made it as slippery as a small box on wheels can be. I´ve long admired this car. It would be fascinating to drive both the Alfa and Lancia as I think they would have very distinctive characteristics. Having seen both cars in the metal, the Lancia strikes me as a distinct cut above the Alfa in quality terms. The Flavia oozed solidity and quality and I presume cost rather more than the Alfa. The road test really did pick three very different cars.
    Well spotted on the photos. I had a tiny inkling something was amiss but ignored the inkling as I liked the pictures. I didn´t know there was a Flavia Berlina. I shall look further into the matter.”

  4. The reason that Triumph retro-engineered their front drive 1300 and 1500s as the rear-drive Toledo was due to cost (it was explained). I had a look at the prices for the 1300s and their competitors in the mid sixties. I don´t have all the figures for one year but a spread of years from 1965 to 1968. It would appear that the Triumph was more expensive than a Ford but less expensive than many other similarly powered cars. The Riley looks the most absurd, costing £912 and being little more than a posher version of the Austin 1300. Possibly the 1300 Triumph´s price didn´t allow enough of a margin.
    1967 Ford Escort 1300 cost £750 and had 53 bhp.
    1966 Triumph 1300 cost £835 and offered 60 bhp.
    1968 MG 1300 1275 cost £845 and offered 70 bhp.
    1967 Saab V4 1498 cost £851 and offered 65 bhp.
    1968 Riley Kestrel 1275 cost £912 and offered 70 bhp.

  5. Eoin replied: “Imagine for a moment that BMC had not spent money on engineering endless brand extensions of the essentially right ADO16 1100 concept but instead had spent that money on refining it more and pricing it at a level in keeping with its advanced engineering.
    It was not the best selling car in the UK throughout the 1960’s because it was cheap. (Although it was seriously underpriced for what it was)
    It held the top spot because the buying public liked it, because it was fit for its purpose and because it was demonstrably a better car than its rivals. (In 1962 it didn’t have any direct rivals) BMC could therefore have improved the spec, made the drive-train more refined and charged considerably more. The Innocenti version below is a good example of how nice it could have been. Imagine how much better a car it would have been had they developed it properly?
    Considering the fact that it sold so well, BMC made very little money per unit on ADO16. The upmarket models clawed something back by dint of being more expensive, but weighed against the cost of redesigning the various front ends, production costs coupled with distribution/dealership support and its difficult to see what the point was? But the failure of the BMC years was that they continued to allow the myriad dealerships to run independently, thus necessitating the provision of a model for each marque. Madness. The failure to capitalise on the 1100’s success was one of the major reasons BMC lost so much money by 1968. George Harriman and his team deserve nothing but contempt for their inability to manage their business.
    Oddly enough, pictured below the Innocenti 1100 is a Michelotti styled version for the South African market. Somewhat unsurprisingly Triumph-like, but would have been an interesting restyle for ADO16. It was more of a three box saloon and might have removed the need for the Marina, had they produced it domestically…”

  6. That is some interesting research. The Michelotti version looks rather smart, if typical of il maestro´s late output. I suppose it was hard for the BMC people to see that there was no future in having so many different brands. Instead of culling them and moving the price points inside one or two brands, they tried to keep a broad but shallow range of cars. These days they´d be trim variants rather than entire brands. Ford did this for years in the US with its Ford and Mercury brands too.
    Having the original market prices was the only way to make sense of the brands and their relative positions. I find it hard to believe that people who knew Riley´s pre-war cars were much fooled by the Riley-ised versions of BMC´s 1100 body. It would be nice to know how many were sold. There´s probably a PhD in historical marketing to be done on this topic. A careful study of the product literature might elucidate how BMC attempted to differentiate between, say, Wolseley and Riley and between Austin and MG. It´s similar to the pickle GM was in for years with their competing Pontiac, Buick and Oldsmobile brands.

  7. As you point out, Richard, the Dolomite was perceived as being based on an old design when it appeared, and suffered accordingly. Maybe if BL had been able to give its own engine the quality that Saab managed to give its version of the same base unit, things would have gone better. But ‘Maybe’ and ‘British Motor Industry’ are synonymous. Today, viewed out of context and with a sorted engine, a Dolomite now seems a nice car with a pretty unique character, particularly in Sprint form. Time has been kind to Michelloti’s work and, with its pocket limousine interior and plenty of headroom, the only compromise is that live back axle, which is no cruder than what Alfa, Fiat, etc were touting around at the same time.

  8. If truth be told – despite BMW’s vaunted handling the 3 series of 1984 onwards was truly awful for the road in the handling stakes and a large % were crashed. This was good for BMW sales figures though. AV mentions the handling on 1602/2002 models in this article, I understood the handling was better on the early models but I’m not old enough to remember. I did however own a 1602 but was far too young/naive to know what was good or bad at that point. I blew the big ends changing down to 3rd at too many RPM having never changed the oil and the car had been standing for 10 years.

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