DTW continues the story of the Triumph Herald and its derivatives.
Following the December 1960 takeover by Leyland Motors and the successful relaunch of the Herald in April 1961, the newly formed Standard-Triumph division had the funds and confidence to develop the car’s versatile chassis as the basis for additional models. The first of these was the Vitesse, essentially a Herald fitted with a reduced capacity 1,596cc version of the straight-six engine from the Standard Vanguard 6 saloon. A close-ratio gearbox with overdrive was fitted to improve performance and make high-speed driving more relaxing and economical.
Elements of the chassis and front suspension were strengthened to cope with the additional power and weight of the six-cylinder engine, and disc front brakes were fitted as standard. The rear suspension, however, arguably the Herald’s weak point, was carried over without alteration.
The Herald’s body was unchanged aft of the A-pillar, but Michelotti designed a new one-piece front end incorporating angled twin headlamps, the outers being positioned higher than the inners, giving the car a distinctive appearance. Silver anodised alloy bumper facings replaced the Herald’s white rubber items. The interior was upgraded, with wooden door cappings to complement the dashboard.
Launched in May 1962 the Vitesse was available as saloon and convertible, although a small number of estates were built to special order. In September 1963, the dashboard was upgraded: instead of the Herald’s single dial, a matching speedometer and tachometer flanked by two smaller supplementary gauges for fuel and water temperature were fitted, an arrangement more appropriate to the Vitesse’s sporting mien.
The Vitesse’s engine was enlarged to a 1,998cc unit producing 95bhp in September 1966. This was accompanied by an all-synchromesh gearbox, larger disc brakes and a stronger differential. Unfortunately, the higher performance these changes delivered, with a 0 to 60mph (97km/h) time of under 12 seconds and a top speed of 104mph (168km/h) highlighted the limitations of the rear suspension. The on-limit handling was criticised as wayward and potentially dangerous to those whose bravery exceeded their driving skills.
The Vitesse Mk2, introduced in October 1968, finally addressed these issues. A revised layout incorporating Rotoflex flexible rubber couplings in the half-shafts reduced the maximum camber changes from 15° to 5° and made the handling more progressive. The engine was uprated to produce 104bhp, while the car received a new grille, Rostyle wheel trims and new badging. The model remained in production in this form until July 1971. Total Vitesse sales were just over 51,000 in nine years.
The Herald chassis would also form the basis for two small Triumph sports cars, the Spitfire convertible and GT6 coupé. The former would be built exclusively in four-cylinder form, the latter only in six-cylinder form.
The Spitfire was launched in October 1962. Once again, Michelotti had been commissioned for the design. It was a pretty and pert car, with a low, sinuous waistline and full hips over the rear wheels. The body was mounted on a shortened version of the Herald’s X-frame chassis, with 8” (200mm) taken out of the wheelbase, without the Herald’s outriggers.
Unlike the Herald, the Spitfire’s body was partly structural and supported the rear suspension trailing arms. The drivetrain and suspension were carried over from the Herald 1200, unchanged apart from the fitment of twin SU carburettors and front disc brakes. Somewhat confusingly, the new model was called the Spitfire 4, the numerical suffix referring to cylinder count and implying that a Vitesse-based Spitfire 6 might be on the way.
The 1,147cc engine produced 63bhp, enough for a 0 to 60mph (97km/h) time of 16.4 seconds and a top speed of 92mph (148km/h). Because the Spitfire was a sports car, it was always likely to be driven more energetically than the Herald, so the limitations of the rear suspension were more readily apparent.
In March 1965, a Mk2 version was introduced, with an engine uprated modestly to 67bhp, a new grille and badging, and improved interior trim, with carpets instead of rubber flooring.
Exactly two years later, a Mk3 followed with a major facelift to the front end, again penned by Michelotti. The front bumper was raised so it now bisected the grille, with only a narrow slot remaining between the bumper’s upper surface and the leading edge of the bonnet. New rectangular indicator and sidelamp units were located below the bumper. This was a clever facelift in that it made the Spitfire look sleeker and more modern without major alterations to the metalwork. Practicality was improved with a proper folding hood and the car was given a wood-veneered dashboard.
The 1,296cc engine from the Herald 13/60 was fitted, but with twin carburettors it produced 75bhp, reducing the 0 to 60mph (97km/h) time to 13.4 seconds and increasing top speed to 95mph (153km/h)
In November 1970, it was the turn of the rear end of the car to receive cosmetic attention and it was given a scaled-down version of Michelotti’s design for the Triumph Stag and the 2000 Mk2 (Innsbruck) facelift. The bonnet was redesigned to eliminate the welded seam on top of the front wings. The problematic rear suspension design was revised, albeit differently and less expensively to that of the Vitesse. The so-called Swing-Spring arrangement reduced camber changes and tamed the handling somewhat when coupled with a larger front anti-roll bar. The revised model was badged Spitfire Mk4.
The suspension revisions were, apparently, effective and worthwhile. Motor Sport Magazine tested the Spitfire Mk4 in January 1971 and reported that the handling was now “beyond reproach” when driven around Silverstone at high speed, although the nimble MG midget could still complete a lap of the circuit more quickly.
The final revision to the Spitfire was the introduction of an enlarged 1,493cc engine in 1973 for the North American market and 1975 elsewhere. The revised model was known as the Spitfire 1500 and received further minor cosmetic improvements until it was finally withdrawn from sale in 1980 after an eighteen-year production run and sales of around 315,000.
The expected six-cylinder Spitfire never materialised, but that engine was instead used in a fastback coupé version called the GT6, which was launched in 1966. Again styled by Michelotti, the GT6 had a liftback tailgate, opening rear side windows and a bulge in the bonnet to clear the engine, but was otherwise identical to the Spitfire Mk2. At 1,904lbs (864kg) the GT6 was a substantial 336lbs (153kg) heavier than the contemporary Spitfire, hence the decision to offer it in six-cylinder form only.
The 1,996cc engine produced 95bhp, good for a 0 to 60mph (97km/h) time of 11.8 seconds and a top speed of 106mph (171km/h). The stronger performance coupled with the additional weight of the coupé body overwhelmed the Herald-derived rudimentary rear suspension and the GT6 quickly developed a reputation for abrupt and potentially dangerous lift-off oversteer when cornering fast.
The 1969 GT6 Mk2 was heavily modified, receiving the Vitesse Mk2 uprated engine and revised rear suspension with its Rotoflex half-shaft couplings, and the Spitfire Mk3 front end styling. Just a year later, it was further modified to become the GT6 Mk3, receiving the Spitfire Mk4 cosmetic alterations and a reprofiled, more curved rear side window. The rear suspension was changed to the cheaper ‘Swing-Spring’ design. The Mk3 remained in production until late 1973. The GT6 was a steady but modest seller in comparison with the Spitfire, achieving around 41,000 sales over seven years in production.
Over the years, there has often been criticism of the Herald and its derivatives’ relatively primitive rear suspension layout. In the case of the Herald, its modest performance (and the manner in which it was usually driven) made this largely a non-issue for drivers used to the limitations of contemporary small cars.
The pre-Rotoflex two-litre Vitesse and GT6 certainly demanded a degree of respect and skill to be driven quickly and safely, but that was a quality often admired in exotic Italian machinery. The Rotoflex equipped versions were much more progressive and foolproof in their handling, likewise the ‘swing-spring’ equipped Spitfire.
Born out of necessity, the Herald and its derivatives became a mainstay of Triumph’s range and around 918,000 were sold in two decades on sale, which was pretty impressive for a car that some would have dismissed as outdated even before it was launched.
Author’s note: My thanks to DTW reader and commenter JTC for sharing his hands-on experience of the Vitesse, which was very helpful in writing this piece.