In order to truly live, the Triumph Stag first had to die.
Some subjects are easier to write about than others. Underdogs in particular tend to exert a stronger grip upon the imagination, better lending themselves to narrative. However, despite frequently characterised in more lurid terms, the Triumph Stag remains a car which almost defies categorisation. Because, with a reputation as commercial failure and potential ownership nightmare largely embedded into the automotive consciousness, one struggles to approach it in anything approaching a balanced manner. But aside from the difficulty in presenting the Stag in measured terms is the question of how a car so derided would come to be reborn as one of the UK’s most beloved and cherished classics?
Good looks help, and in this the Stag’s genes were strong; its carrozzeria-Michelotti penned lines retaining a powerful allure, one more redolent of the carefree late Sixties than the more painful decade in which its strife-ridden life played out. Add in its status as an indulgent convertible Gran Turismo, powered by a mellifluous-sounding, relatively unstressed V8 engine and the Stag’s appeal to the romantically minded appears self-evident.
The Stag’s origin saga was fruit of the symbiotic relationship between Triumph Technical Director, Harry Webster and Italian atelier, Giovanni Michelotti. Originally intended as a concept for the 1966 Turin show, Webster, captivated by the open-topped design Michelotti had created, instead had it diverted to Canley, soon convincing his superiors of its merits. Befitting its saloon basis, the Stag employed a similar drivetrain and suspension layout to the 2.5 saloon, and while originally intended to debut with the existing in-line six, a 2.5 litre V8 was instead developed, part of Lewis Dawtry’s plans to renew Triumph’s entire engine range along modular lines for the coming decade.
Given that larger multi-cylinder engines were the direction of travel by the close of the decade, it would appear that just about every carmaker was working on a V8 engine of some description – apart from Rover, who had prudently obtained one from General Motors. Few European carmakers had meaningful experience in the art of the V8 engine however, meaning that a great many (if not all) of the resultant power units proved either stillborn or in some way deficient. The latter is perhaps an over-emotive word to describe the Triumph unit (others are available), but contentious is perhaps the more balanced. Suffice to say, it is one which would develop a toxic reputation amid the motor press, second only perhaps to that of the Lancia Gamma in notoriety terms. Bad press dies hard.
Triumph had already made a name for itself in the North American market, primarily with its popular range of sportscars, being very much viewed as a two-seater specialist in the US. The Stag therefore was seen by Triumph’s Canley management as an opportunity to extend the carmaker’s reach, ambition, and transaction price in that most lucrative, but demanding of auto markets. By 1966, when the programme began in earnest, Webster’s engineers were busy overseeing a number of other model programmes which were perhaps more commercially sensitive in the domestic market, 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.
Upheavals resulting from the forced marriage of Leyland and British Motor Holdings in 1968 delayed the Stag’s gestation, in addition to an insistence on the Triumph V8 being uprated to 3.0 litres in order to provide sufficient power and torque to satisfy US requirements. During pre-production planning, Triumph’s marketers are believed to have projected annual sales of around 12,000 cars per annum, which would potentially have placed the carmaker in an entirely new sales league.
On paper, the Stag appeared compelling. An elegant Michelotti-penned body with its unusual factory-developed T-top roof arrangement which lent the car its defining visual 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 one which lacked direct rivals.
Received wisdom holds 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, but both Canley and Speke plants were notoriously restive, so certainly, production quality was not all it should have been.
But from a product perspective, how did the Stag stack up? Certainly, the motor press felt the V8 engine lacked punch, and moreover, suffered from a lack of mechanical refinement. Its road behaviour was also criticised, the Triumph’s dynamics being criticised 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, not to mention the vastly more expensive Mercedes SL it was so widely compared to (not that any were offering a matching proposition) the Triumph it seems didn’t stack up as well as some have suggested.
Yet despite the implausibility of Triumph’s sales projections for the model line, it was beyond doubt that the Stag’s appeal was a potent one, with a UK waiting list developing which lasted well into 1973. But one of the least understood areas of the Stag story relates to its production volumes, for it appears that Triumph either couldn’t or wouldn’t build anywhere enough to satisfy initial demand, either domestically, or for export.
The reasons for this remain unclear. Many observers point to the oft-documented issues that arose with the V8 engine from a durability perspective, (and there were several of those) but had reliability been the sole cause, would any British-built car have sold in the US market at all? One might be tempted to suggest that for US customers, the car sat between stools; neither a two-seater sports car, nor a 2+2 GT. Nor was the Triumph brand deemed sufficiently upmarket to appeal to the more aspirational end of the imported US car market. But these rationales speak to demand rather than the more puzzling issue: supply. Triumph, it seems simply didn’t build them.
Another way of looking at it is this: As a car developed prior to the creation of BLMC, the Stag simply may not have fitted into the newly formed car giant’s hastily cobbled-together plans for the 1970s; certainly one could potentially read a certain board-level ambivalence from its delayed introduction and lacklustre promotion. BLMC’s ambitions in this area would ultimately become centred upon the TR7 and its derivatives, and with a 2+2 version (the stillborn Lynx development) in the product plan from around 1972, it is tempting to view the Stag as being viewed by the BLMC board as something of a dead man walking.
It is believed that BLMC exported about 2,500 Stags to the USA from late 1971 to the summer of 1973, when the model was quietly pulled from the sales-lists. But why so few? One possible rationale behind the US withdrawal may have been the impending 1975-model year impact mandates. The likely costs of designing and tooling up for these (quite radical) changes for a model line which was either not selling, or not being supplied would undoubtedly have been prohibitive. For not only did there seem to be little real impetus to further develop the car, but what little resource there might have been evaporated in the wake of the fuel crisis and especially once the parent company crashed messily to earth in late 1974. But whatever the rationale, the US market withdrawal was a decisive blow for the Stag’s business case.
Production was maintained until 1977, by then largely for home consumption. Some minor development however did take place. A mild cosmetic facelift in 1973, which also included a raised compression ratio and improvements to the cooling system. There were reports of prototypes running at one stage with TR8-derived Rover V8 engines and five-speed transmissions, but these, along with so many worthwhile developments were lost amid the ongoing crisis within the volume car division. By the latter 1970s, Triumph was fighting for its existence within BL, a battle it would ultimately lose.
Yet after its death, the Stag was reborn – legions of enthusiasts seeking (and finding) solutions to its more egregious faults. But the car’s robust following and high survival rate illustrate the car’s durable appeal, some fifty years on. Now as much part of the British classic car scene as anyone’s MGB, the Stag has been rehabilitated, its problems solved, its romantic appeal perhaps even more evident than when first introduced. Sufficient time has passed to view the Stag a little more clearly – a car which perhaps came into being at the wrong moment, yet despite a troubled career, one which lives a good deal more richly in death than in life.
 The TR6 would arrive in 1968, the Innsbruck six-cylinder saloons in 1969 and the compact saloons in 1970.
 The Stag’s business case was predicated to a large extent upon high US market demand.
 The Stag’s saloon-based body proved structurally insecure, a matter remedied by the fitment of a stout T-bar centre roll hoop. The T-bar roof support may also have circumvented proposed federal regulations which threatened to outlaw convertibles in the United States.
 Amid BLMC’s product priorities in 1968 was the all-hands-to-the-pumps mission to salvage the hopelessly off-target Maxi programme, which absorbed huge amounts of engineering time and resource, not to mention availability at BLMC’s Pressed Steel body suppliers. Additionally, the ADO 28 Marina would also prove a significant drain on time and resource at the time.
 25,939 Stags were built in total, amounting to an average of 3705 cars per annum.
Editor’s note: This article has been revised and several areas of unsubstantiated reporting excised from the piece as originally published.
Sources: Classic and Sportscar – December 1984/ AROline.