The 1959 Triumph Herald was an innovative and pragmatic solution to a difficult problem. It was also surprisingly accomplished and deservedly successful. DTW tells its story.
In the latter half of the 1950s, the Standard-Triumph motor company was facing a potentially existential problem. The mainstay of its model range, the Standard Eight and Ten saloons, were ageing and in need of replacement. However, Fisher and Ludlow, the company’s body fabricators, had been taken over by BMC in 1953 and was under orders from BMC Chairman Leonard Lord to terminate the relationship with Standard-Triumph once existing contracts expired.
Even if Lord had not decided to try and throttle a competitor in this manner, a situation whereby Standard-Triumph would be, de-facto, handing its future model plans to BMC would surely have been untenable. Standard-Triumph searched for another supplier without success. Pressed Steel, the only other company large enough to handle the expected scale and volume of the work, already had a full order book.
Fortunately, Harry Webster, the company’s talented chief engineer, evolved a pragmatic and workable solution to the problem: instead of a monocoque body structure for the new model, it would instead be built on an ‘X-frame’ backbone chassis with outriggers, onto which could be bolted separate inner and outer body panels. Production of these separate panels could be outsourced to smaller fabrication companies which would not have had the capacity to produce a monocoque. Moreover, the use of a traditional chassis would simplify the development of a range of variants, including estate, coupé, convertible and van models.
Italian carrozzeria Michelotti* was commissioned to design the new model, which was codenamed Zobo. Michelotti produced a pleasant and contemporary design for a two-door saloon with fashionable razor edge styling and a large and airy DLO. The style was readily adaptable to estate, van, coupé and convertible versions. One distinctive feature of the design was a large forward-hinging bonnet that incorporated the front outer and inner wings and gave excellent access to the engine and ancillaries.
The 948cc inline four-cylinder OHV engine and four-speed gearbox were carried over from the Standard Ten. Front suspension was by double wishbones and coil springs while at the rear was an unusual independent arrangement comprising a transverse leaf spring and swing axles. One notable advantage of the car’s unusual construction was an exceptionally tight turning circle, just 25½ ft. (7.77m) between kerbs, although this was accompanied by a lot of tyre scrub.
The new car was christened Herald and it was decided to retire the Standard marque with its launch. In future, all the company’s models would carry the Triumph name. The Herald was launched in April 1959 in saloon and coupé versions. The latter was nominally a two-seater with additional luggage space behind the seats, but a folding jump seat suitable for children was available as an option. The convertible would follow a year later.
Motor Sport magazine tested the coupé in July 1959 and was positively gushing about Triumph’s new car, which was summarised as follows: “…splendid road-holding and cornering, an ideal driving position, fantastic manoeuvrability and an 80mph maximum [are] outstanding features of this brilliant new Coventry-built small car.”
Apart from rather noisy (but “unusually good”) suspension, the tester’s criticisms were of a minor order, citing a large central bonnet opening handle that looked like it came from an item of kitchen furniture and the rather “continental” tone of the horn(!) The magazine concluded that the saloon and coupé “…were likely to break all previous sales records for the courageous British concern that has introduced them.”
Sadly, Motor Sport’s sales predictions were wide of the mark. Although the Herald was well received, early sales were hampered by the relatively high prices of £702 for the saloon and £730 for the coupé. Standard-Triumph was struggling financially and in December 1960 was taken over by Leyland Motors, a successful manufacturer of commercial vehicles. The new owners provided the capital for further development of the Herald, which was relaunched in April 1961 as the Herald 1200 with an enlarged engine and cosmetic improvements.
These included a wood-veneered dashboard with glovebox, single rather than duo-colour upholstery and black rather than grey steering wheel, column shroud and stalks. The new model was recognisable from outside by its rubber bumper coverings, previously only fitted to export models, and the deletion of the rather ungainly large central bonnet lifting handle.
Autocar magazine tested the revised model at launch. The magazine had been highly complimentary about the original version two years earlier, describing it as a “…delightful little car to drive and ride in, modern in appearance in design”. The only significant criticism at that time was of a less than wholly satisfactory fit and finish of what had been an early production model. Two years later, the quality of the paintwork and general fit and finish was noticeably improved, which Autocar ascribed to the opening of a new state-of-the-art assembly hall at the Canley works.
Thicker front seats with greater curvature in the backrest and a longer cushion were more comfortable than before, although they did reduce legroom by about an inch (25mm). The driving position was described as excellent and the walnut-veneered dashboard was thought pleasant and attractive. Instrumentation, which was limited to a large speedometer with inset fuel gauge, was easily readable, although the former was unduly optimistic, indicating 70mph at a true 63mph. Minor switchgear was logically arranged and identifiable by position.
Even though it was barely run-in, the 1,147cc 39bhp engine was a sprightly performer and more flexible with stronger torque than the earlier 948cc 34.5bhp unit. The 0 to 60mph (97km/h) time was 21.8 seconds and maximum speed was 74 mph (119km/h).
Autocar’s description of the Herald’s unusual suspension configuration is intriguing: it was described as having “oversteer correction built into its rear suspension layout by virtue of the inclined rear pivot line”. This technical description was probably lost on many readers, but it translated into a car that “can be cornered fast with a minimum of roll”.
At the limit, there was a “positive, but easily controlled change to oversteer [as] the back begins to slide”. This tendency was more marked in wet conditions or if the tyre pressures fell below recommended levels. There was no hint of concern or alarm on the part of the testers but, somewhat disturbingly, they advised that, when travelling two-up, it was “preferable to place luggage in the rear seat of the car rather than in the boot.”
The estate version of the Herald was launched just a month after the revised saloon. A van version called the Courier was launched in 1962. This was little more than an estate with no rear seat and metal panels in place of its rear side windows. Because of its limited capacity, it sold poorly and was produced for only two years, although CKD kits continued to be exported for local assembly for a further year. A higher performance model, the Herald 12/50 saloon, with an uprated 51bhp engine was introduced to sell alongside the 1200 in 1963. The coupé was discontinued in 1964.
In October 1967, the Herald was given its only significant facelift. It received an angry frown bonnet similar to the larger-engined Vitesse model, albeit with a single rather than twin-headlamp front end. The engine was enlarged to 1,296cc and produced 61bhp, hence the new suffix, 13/60. The 13/60 was offered in saloon, estate and convertible variants.
The Herald continued in production unchanged until December 1970 for the saloon and May 1971 for the estate and convertible. About 511,000 cars were sold over its twelve-year production life. The car also enjoyed a parallel life in India as the Standard Gazel, where it was produced in unique variations, including a four-door saloon.
The Herald’s separate chassis provided the ideal basis for a number of kit-cars and, most notably, the German built Amphicar, an amphibious vehicle. The car also spawned other Triumph models; the larger-engined Vitesse and the Spitfire and GT6 sportscars. In Part Two, we will take a look at those derivatives.
* Michelotti’s mark, an italicised letter ‘M’, is to be found on the chromed bonnet catches behind each front wheel arch.