We examine the death and afterlife of the Triumph Stag.
Some cars are easier to write about than others. Failures in particular exert a stronger grip upon the imagination, better lending themselves to narrative. However, despite falling into the latter category, the Triumph Stag is a car which almost defies classification. Because, while there is little doubt about its status as both commercial failure and potential ownership nightmare, its story has been told and retold so many times that one struggles to approach it in a balanced way.
But aside from the difficulty in presenting the Stag in measured terms is the question of how a car so fundamentally flawed would come to be reborn as one of the UK’s most beloved and cherished classics?
Looks help, and the car’s carrozzeria-penned lines retain a powerful allure, one more redolent of the carefree late Sixties than the more painful decade in which its short, brutish life played out. Also the fact that the Triumph is an indulgent convertible Gran Turismo, powered by a smooth-sounding relatively unstressed V8 power unit further adds to the Stag’s appeal to the classically minded.
The Stag’s origin saga was fruit of the symbiotic relationship between Triumph’s Harry Webster and atelier, Giovanni Michelotti. Originally intended as a concept for 1965’s Turin motor show, Webster, captivated by the open-topped design Michelotti had created, instead diverted it to Canley, convincing his superiors of its merits.
Befitting its ‘Barb‘ 2500 saloon base, the Stag employed a similar drivetrain and suspension layout, and while originally intended to debut with the existing 2.5 litre in-line six, a 2.5 litre V8 was instead developed, part of Triumph’s plans to renew its entire engine range along modular lines for the upcoming decade.
By the close of the 1960s, it would appear that just about every carmaker – given that bigger multi-cylinder engines were the direction of travel – was working on a V8 engine of some description, apart from Rover, who had simply (and wisely) obtained one ‘off the shelf’ from General Motors. Few European carmakers had meaningful experience in the art of the V8, meaning that a great many (if not all) of the resultant engines proved either stillborn or in some way deficient.
The latter is one word to describe the Triumph unit (there are other, more emotive terms), which was allegedly a development of their slant four unit, but surely enough has been written about that already. Suffice to say, it was neither Spen King, Harry Webster, nor the Triumph Motor Company’s proudest achievement, perhaps second only to the Lancia Gamma powerplant in notoriety. The Stag was an opportunity to expand Triumph’s reach and ambition, especially in the US, where the marque had made a name for itself, primarily with its popular range of two-seater sportscars.
By 1966, when the Stag programme began in earnest, Webster’s engineers were rather busy overseeing a number of other model programmes which were perhaps more commercially sensitive, notably the 1500, Toledo and facelifted 2000/ 2500 saloons, the TR6 and preliminary work for what would become the Bullet and Lynx proposals for an early ’70s successor for the TR series. The TR6 would arrive in 1968, the Innsbruck six-cylinder saloons in 1969 and the compact saloons in 1970.
Upheavals resulting from the rancorous merger of Leyland and British Motor Holdings in 1968 delayed the Stag’s gestation, in addition to the insistence on the new Triumph V8 being uprated to 3.0 litres in order to provide sufficient power and torque to satisfy US requirements. This was of course no small consideration. During pre-production planning, Triumph’s marketers are believed to have projected annual sales of around 12,000 cars per year, which would potentially have placed the carmaker in a whole new sales league in that most lucrative, but demanding of auto markets. But crucially, their lack of preparation or meaningful on-site proving made such projections simply that – numbers on a board.
Certainly, on paper, the Stag appeared compelling. An attractive Michelotti-penned, if structurally insecure body; remedied by the fitment of a stout T-bar centre roll hoop which lent the car its most distinctive feature, (along with its optional hard-top, à la Mercedes), fully independent suspension, and a brand new V8 engine, adding up to a concept which if not quite unique, certainly lacked many rivals. The only questions were that of Triumph’s brand image and whether they could build a car of this class to the requisite standard?
Initially scheduled for 1968, the Stag arrived in 1970, meaning that in the interim, the revised Innsbruck saloons had been introduced, stealing (from a styling perspective at least) the Stag’s thunder, and lessening the impact of its introduction.
Received wisdom was that the Stag was a winning concept, fatally holed beneath the waterline by well publicised engine-related maladies which so undermined customer confidence. But that bears further scrutiny. Certainly, the Stag’s production processes were not only convoluted – both Canley and Speke plants were notoriously restive – so production quality was not all it should have been.
But from a product perspective, was the Stag all it was made out to be? Certainly, the press felt the V8 engine lacked power, and moreover, suffered from a lack of mechanical refinement. Its road behaviour was also criticised, with the Triumph faring poorly in a 1974 Car Magazine Giant Test. Motor Sport Magazine were also sparing in their praise. The Stag was more GT than sportscar, but against similarly priced rivals like the Reliant Scimitar GTE, or Capri 3000 GT, (to say nothing about the vastly more expensive Mercedes SL it was so widely compared to) the Triumph didn’t stack up as well as some have suggested.
Not that these were offering an identical proposition, and it is beyond doubt that the Stag maintained a strong appeal, yet one must wonder whether Triumph’s projections for the model line were anywhere close to reality? Given that in temperate Blighty, Stags quickly developed a deserved reputation for self-destruction, one need not visualise the issues that arose once it arrived in the US market. It is believed that BLMC exported about 2500 Stags to the USA from late 1971 to the summer of 1973, when the model was unceremoniously pulled from the sales-lists.
The US market withdrawal was a catastrophic blow to the Stag’s viability, removing the model’s business case at a stroke. With the UK market now almost solely absorbing production, not only was there no real case to be made to develop the car, there was by then comparatively little resource to do so. However, a mild cosmetic facelift did take place in 1973, which included some engine-related modifications to aid reliability.
It made little difference, the Stag’s name having been irreparably tarnished. Production limped on until 1977, with 25,939 built in total, amounting to an paltry average of 3705 cars per annum, suggesting that the entire programme may have been something of a futile exercise.
Yet, after its death, the Stag was reborn – legions of enthusiasts seeking (and finding) solutions to its inherent faults. There may have been as many views on how to solve the car’s propensity to boil its coolant as there are Stag aficionados, but the car’s robust following and high survival rate (estimated to be around 35% of the original production run), illustrate the car’s lasting appeal, fifty years on.
As much part of the British classic car scene as anyone’s MGB, the Stag has been rehabilitated, its problems now solved, its romantic appeal perhaps even more apparent than when first introduced. Now that the taint is gone, we can perhaps view the Stag a little more clearly – a car which lives more richly in death than in life.