A Step Back

In 1970 Triumph had a decade to live. Two cars combined that year to bookend its saloon swansong.

1970 Triumph Toledo (c) carsaddiction

It wasn’t apparent at the time, but 1970 marked the close of Triumph’s expansionist ambitions, and the beginning of its fall. Not that the fortunes of the carmaker prior to its undignified end under British Leyland had exactly been characterised by unbroken success – quite the contrary in fact. But for one short decade, the name of Triumph burned brightly before being snuffed out through a combination of self-harm and corporate politics.

Following their 1960 acquisition of the Standard-Triumph business, Leyland Motors invested heavily in the Triumph marque, rendering the Standard nameplate to the history books. Amongst the most significant fruits of this investment was seen in 1965 when the compact and technically sophisticated front-wheel drive 1300 (Ajax) saloon was introduced.

Leading light behind all of Canley’s 1960s designs was chief engineer, Harry Webster, who had established a fruitful working relationship with Giovanni Michelotti’s eponymous carrozzeria in Turin. Responsible for the skin lines of the Herald, the 2000 Saloon, and the TR4 sportscar, Michelotti’s Ajax design, intentionally redolent of the larger 2000 was a fine example of contemporary car styling. Fortuitously so, as matters would turn out.

1965 Triumph 1300 (c) slatford.co.uk

By the close of the decade, it was felt that a move upmarket was necessary, especially now that Triumph sat uneasily within the BLMC car giant, which incorporated BMC’s associated marques. Ajax therefore was nose and tail-lifted to lend it a more upmarket and up to date air, while technically, it would retain the longitudinal front-wheel drive layout, with the gearbox and final drive mounted beneath, although unlike BMC’s technical director, his Canley equivalent eschewed a shared oil supply.

Power came from a further enlarged version of the long-running Standard in-line OHV four, with a capacity of 1494 cc, developing a rather underwhelming 61 bhp, (identical to the 1296 cc version) but with an improved torque output. While front suspension (wishbones/struts) was largely unchanged, the rear end abandoned the 1300’s semi-trailing arms for a dead beam axle, which was engineered under the auspices of Webster’s replacement, Spen King – a pragmatist who took the view that the outgoing layout simply didn’t offer sufficient advantages to justify the expense.

1970 Triumph 1500. (c) classiccarcatalogue

Stylistically, the 1500 received a remodelled nose, with dual headlamps and a bisected grille treatment. Aft, the tail was also lengthened, with new horizontal tail lamp units. Inside, a revised woodgrain dashboard and door trims (along similar lines to that of the revised 1969 (Innsbruck) 2000/2500 saloons) was fitted. All in all, Michelotti’s revisions lent the car a more upmarket aura.

When Ajax was first conceived, it had been envisaged that it would replace the entry-level Herald model. However, as costs escalated, and the Herald (which had a slow start) began to take off, it was decided to repurpose the 1300 as a more upmarket model. Now, as the Herald began to fade, the same dilemma reimposed itself. The FWD 1300 was too costly to be sold at a lower price point, but it represented a market in which Triumph management, rightly or wrongly, wished to maintain a presence.

So while Ajax was being upgraded, a separate programme was enacted to re-engineer the bodyshell for a rear-wheel drive layout, incorporating the existing RWD Triumph drivetrain with a much-simplified live rear axle. The smaller car would therefore become a curious hybrid of a simplified 1500 nose, the shared central section and shorter Ajax tail. Unique to the model would be its two-door bodyshell.

Launched simultaneously in 1970, the Toledo would feature a single carburettor version of the 1296 cc unit from the 1300 developing 58 bhp. Mechanical and interior specification was pared back to keep costs down, so brakes were drums all round, and the cabin was a more austere affair than that of its larger siblings. It was however, still a step up from most rivals. The Toledo didn’t set the sales charts alight, but built up a steady clientele of upgrading Herald owners and those who wanted something a small cut above the norm.

The following year, a four-door model was added to the range, and between then and its demise from UK price lists in 1976, minor trim and equipment changes were its lot. The 1500 enjoyed an even shorter lifespan. In 1971, Triumph introduced the Dolomite, another shake of the kaleidoscope which unified the 1500 bodyshell with an upgraded version of the Toledo’s driveline and rear suspension. New however was the slant four 1854 cc engine, co-developed with Saab.

With the advent of the larger engined Dolomite, the die was cast. In 1973, the 1500 received the same treatment, becoming the RWD 1500 TC and three years later, the entire range was rationalised under the Dolomite name and bodyshell, from basic 1300 through to the fire-breathing 2.0 litre 16 valve Sprint.

This form of reverse engineering was not only highly unusual, but an illustration of BLMC’s confused product policy and of Triumph’s outlier position within the new conglomerate. Because from 1970 onwards, Canley was essentially starved of meaningful investment until it pretty much expired of its own accord. Triumph’s atrocious labour record hardly aided matters, but it seems to have escaped BL planners’ notice that the compact sporting saloon template was a growth market, one which they failed to capitalise upon.

1971 Triumph Dolomite. (c) carsaddiction

One has to wonder too whether a move downmarket with Toledo was an astute use of resources by Triumph management in 1970? Because while it bought them volume (almost 120,000 Toledos were built), it represented finite resource which in retrospect might have better been employed developing and refining the Dolomite line. Certainly, by the mid-1970s, the car both looked and felt dated, despite its other compensatory merits. It’s equally clear that BL’s stillborn SD2 was palpably not the answer either.

Yet, without the Toldeo, would the Dolomite have emerged at all? Certainly it made such a programme both possible and affordable, but perhaps merely prolonged the inevitable. Sometimes it’s instructive to take a step back.

Datasource: AROnline

Author: Eóin Doyle

Founder. Editor. Content Provider.

4 thoughts on “A Step Back”

  1. Good morning Eóin and thanks for bringing us an interesting story. Ajax and its successors must be unique in that it started life in its most sophisticated and advanced form before being progressively ‘decontented’. I hadn’t realised before that even the FWD 1500 had lost the 1300’s semi-trailing arm rear suspension.

    The 1300 really was a technically ambitious design back in 1965 but somewhat hid its light under a bushel with its neat but conservative design. One can’t help wondering how Triumph might have fared if the Leyland/BMC merger hadn’t happened. With no need to massage its market positioning to fit in with the BL hierarchy, it might have had a genuine shot at becoming the ‘British BMW’, the soubriquet sometimes applied to the Dolomite Sprint.

    1. Don’t forget that the Rover 75 went from front to rear wheel drive when it got the Ford V8 late in life, although I don’t if they also ditched the Z-axle rear suspension and the 75 isn’t really the kind of car that makes me want to go away and find out.
      I wonder if Triumph staff talked amongst themselves about it’s potential as a “British BMW” at that time? It seems to me they’d have thought of Alfa if they’d have been thinking in those terms at all, as BMW was only one generation on from making bubble cars and had a much more limited product range. What they did end up being for a time [Literally with their final car] was a British Honda. Later in life they appealed to the same one-careful-driver-comfy-car market that became Honda’s British role in the 1980’s and 90’s. It helps that the high roofline suggests a hat and pipe. Clarkson once alleged that the Ajax was designed so that a chap could drive without having to remove his trilby hat.
      My own grandparents replaced a Series V Hillman Minx with a Triumph 1300. It was on a 1970 plate which suggests they got it at a discount being a runout model. They aren’t around to ask any more but I suspect when it came to trade in time they thought the new”Arrow” series Hillman was a bit young and thrusting for their stage in life. A lot bleaker inside by the looks too.
      I also think that the 1st generation Rover 200- the “Ronda” could easily have been a Toledo for the 80’s. My inner cynic thinks that the Rover identity suggested itself because the slit like grill Honda was engineering for it looked like the vestigal grill that facelifted SD1’s got.

  2. Nice cars. The 1300 had some quite ‘futuristic’, or at least thoughtful features, such as fold-away window winders for safety and dimming brake lights and indicators so that those following you wouldn’t be dazzled at night.

    Being well-appointed cars they were often bought by genteel people. I spotted a 1300 at a dealer some time ago and the correspondence which came with the (immaculate) vehicle showed that its first owner, a Miss Jefferey, was quite a character:

    http://www.pembrokeshireclassicinvestments.co.uk/content.asp?dp_id=1&directory_id=37&d=37&article_id=300

    The Standard-Triumph / Ricardo engine used in the Dolomite wasn’t so great, however, and was substantially reworked by SAAB.

  3. There’s a particular style of very sharply defined three-box saloon car, almost like a child’s drawing of a car that was the norm in Italy in the 1960’s. I’m thinking of the FIAT 124, Alfa Guilia 105, Autobianchi A111, Fulvia Berlina as examples. It didn’t seem to catch on outside Italy, with the exception of the SIMCA 1500- which like the Ajax series was designed by an Italian- and perhaps the small Triumphs. Do others perceive the Triumph’s as being part of this “School” and what if anything do you call this style of car? It seems such a distinctive look that it aught to have a name but as far as I know does not.

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