Virtue from Necessity (Part Two)

DTW continues the story of the Triumph Herald and its derivatives.

Triumph Vitesse. Image: storm.oldcarmanualproject

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.

(c) triumphspitfire.nl

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.

A Spitfire demonstrates the swing axle in extremis – image : triumphexp.com

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.

1971 Triumph Spitfire Mk4 (c) BLMC

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.

1971 Triumph GT6 Mk3 (c) BLMC

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.

Author: Daniel O'Callaghan

Shut-line obsessive...Hates rudeness, loves biscuits.

25 thoughts on “Virtue from Necessity (Part Two)”

  1. The big snag was that all of them were better suited to motorways than country roads, whereas their appearance suggested the opposite.

    1. The other snag was that the Spridgets might have looked more boring, but were better driving packages.

  2. Good morning Daniel. A thorough analysis of the range and a very fair retrospective assessment of the handling foibles.

    You would expect me to disagree completely with Vic – and I won’t disappoint! Motorways were definitely not where these cars were at their best, if only because, even with o/d, they were too low-geared. Comparisons between the Spitfire and Spridgets are actually unfair to both and in period all testers tended to conclude that the former was the more spacious and comfortable over long distances whereas the latter was cramped but far safer ‘at the limit’. Final choice would always be down to personal preference.

    As for those limits – I would add Porsche to the Italian exotica mentioned. The great thing about both Spitfires and GT6s was that they were an affordable way to experience machines which required the highest driving skills to master the limits of handling, rather than having to also be very rich….

    1. Here’s an interesting photo that JTC forwarded to me and described as below:

      It was taken at a Triumph Sports Six Club event a few years ago near Stafford. You can just make out two four-door Standard Gazels, which had recently been imported from India. The one on the left is an early version and not dissimilar to the Herald but the one on the right seems to incorporate the roof from an estate but with a smaller glazed area to the tailgate. Between them is the strange prototype ‘fast-back’ Herald that never made it to production 

  3. Now, here’s an interesting Herald derivative that JTC alerted me to, a three-door liftback:


    What’s most interesting about it is that it has different C-pillar treatments on each side. That suggests it might have been a prototype built to evaluate alternative proposals for production, and makes it a great curiosity today.

    1. It may be the perspective, but it also looks like the B-pillars differs side to side, with the right side being canted slightly rearwards, while the left side is canted slightly forwards?

    2. Hi Ingvar. I would think that’s probably a perspective issue, caused by the b-pillars sloping inwards. (I think it is exacerbated by the pillars and side-glasses being flat. If they were curved, your eye would more easily ‘read’ the photos correctly.)

    3. Both sides look terrible to me – thank God they abandoned it. Maybe this is where Bond got their ideas for the Equipe ?

  4. What is consensus as to which approach out of the Vitesse Mk2 and Spitfire Mk4 would have also been suitable for the Herald in improving the latter’s rear suspension or was there another alternative for the Herald?

    1. Hi Bob. I would suggest that the Spitfire Mk4’s cheaper ‘swing-spring’ modification would have been adequate for the Herald, given its lower power and performance. I wonder if it was possible to do a DIY retro-fit? JTC will know!

  5. Most people didn’t want to “master the limits of handling”, just bumble along while feeling quite safe. Plenty of cars could scarcely reach the 70mph limit.

  6. There was an aftermarket kit available to add a bottom wishbone and rotoflex half-shafts to make the suspension the same as the Mk2 Vitesse – this kit may have pre-dated the Vitesse up-grade.

  7. ‘Hark the Herald axles swing…’

    The Herald’s engine was used in the Amphicar, of course, which looks something like a Herald.

    I think the best-looking spin-offs were the Le Mans Spitfires. Really quite sleek.

    1. Interesting that Triumph entered and were allowed to enter the cars as “Spitfire”. There was never a tin-roof Spitfire and the GT6 never had the 1147 cc 4-cylinder.

    2. The LeMans fastback Spitfires pre-dated the GT6 of course. I remember sitting in a GT6 at the Earls Court Motor Show, and it felt a bit like sitting in a red post-box looking out of the slot…..

    3. Thanks so much for the long Le Mans film.
      I was already a longstanding Ferrari fan by then, but the Triumph’s progress was interesting.

    4. Thanks, Vic – glad you enjoyed it. There were some interesting cars and I thought it was nicely atmospheric.

    5. This is fascinating. Thank you. People dressed so much smarter in the 60’s. The cars are a hundred times more interesting than Le Mans of today and all the LMP1 nonsense.

  8. The rear suspension continues to be a source of partisan discussion, debate and disagreement among the cognoscenti. Every upgrade/retro-fit possibility you can think of has been tried by someone. But modify or keep original? It all comes down to personal choice in the end – although the (in my opinion) weird brigade who go for a live axle to cope with a V8 under the bonnet are living on a different planet.

    The truth of the matter is that provided the car has been properly maintained, tyre pressures checked and bushes have been replaced when necessary, all variations give a good ride with perfectly safe handling if driven properly. Even with the original set-up, you have to be doing something very silly to get into trouble. Provided that bumbling along does not imply not paying attention to the road ahead, then you could do it in perfect safety.

  9. I find it fascinating so many makers persevered with swing axles trying to make mend and do without going the extra length of substituting it altogether for something better? How hard could it be, and this is not a rhetorical question, I actually really want to know, how hard could it be to make a double wishbone IRS from a swing axle IRS? Triumph went the way of buying in a third party solution of an elastic rubber coupling, wouldn’t it have been easier to replace it with an extra CV-joint on the axle? Was it really that much more expensive? How much money are we talking about to see the Rotoflex as the better option in that situation?

    1. The rotaflex coped with angular flexing and with variations of length between the diff and hubs. The alternative would be an extra universal joint ( they weren’t ‘constant velicity’ in the 1950s) and expensive sliding splines in the driveshafts, which didn’t always work as well as they might. The other way out was to use the driveshaft as a suspension member, as Lotus often did – and Jaguar eventually did with the E-Type.

  10. For those interested in car restoration, I can recommend following Elin Yakov on YouTube. He’s been restoring several TR’s, Spitfires, and GT6’s. I find it endlessly fascinating following ground up restorations, and his consensus seems to be to upgrade to Rotoflex on the Spitfires.

    https://youtube.com/c/ElinYakov

  11. The Vitesse sales numbers are interesting – the more it improved, the fewer were sold:

    Vitesse 6 – 5/62-9/66: 7000 per year.
    Vitesse 2 litre – 9/66 -10/68: 5000 per year.
    Vitesse Mk.2 – 8/68 – 7/71: 3000 per year.

    This needs some context. The 1.6 litre Vitesse, was unique in what it offered; a joyous Italianate antidote to stodgy family saloons with the added status signifier of six cylinders. Perhaps more pertinently, it was helped by two purchase tax cuts and relaxation of hire purchase restrictions almost as soon as it went on sale.

    The Mk.2 probably suffered by the might of the Ford marketing machine. In April 1969 it cost £970, £10 more than a Cortina 1600GT. The cheapest Capri 1600GT cost £1042. The Triumph’s performance figures thrashed the Fords’ but it was seen as a spent force, through under-investment and over-familiarity.

    There was also the Triumph Sports Six, a 1962-64 US market Vitesse 6. Only 679 were sold – Triumph didn’t help themselves by describing the car as a “limited edition” at an over-ambitious price.

    That 1.6 litre engine was intended for the new large saloon codenamed ‘Barb’, for an entry level Triumph 1600 version to take the place soon to be vacated by the Standard Ensign. In the event, Standard-Triumph could sell every 2000 they made, but the narrow bore 1.6 litre six proved useful as its 70bhp and 92 lb ft of torque (both gross figures) wouldn’t break the uprated Herald gearbox.

    1. Robertas, surely a significant factor is the age of the basic package, despite tweaking. In the typical BMC fashion, a Mk2 version 6 years after debut would be surpassed by the competition that had a completely new car out.

      I’ve had an interest from afar in Triumph, but never seriously considered owning one.

  12. JTC

    There is nothing wrong with a well set up live rear axle. Swing axles……. well…..that is another matter.

    There is a problem with this statement, “The truth of the matter is that provided the car has been properly maintained, tyre pressures checked and bushes have been replaced when necessary, all variations give a good ride with perfectly safe handling if driven properly. Even with the original set-up, you have to be doing something very silly to get into trouble.” As the old song says, it aint necessarily so.

    When driving a car it is not always the case that the driver is aware of everything well ahead of time and is thus in the fortunate position of being able to make control inputs which are always correct, smooth, subtle and gentle enough to avoid activating the swing axle’s non-linearities and subsequent departure/s. A naked swing axle possesses certain deficiencies which can and do manifest themselves at the most inopportune times. These instances can be sudden, as in an emergency, or as the result of a reflexive control input. There are instances when the driver has no sensible options available other than to quickly lift off the throttle or abruptly activate the brakes and/or steering. Should this occur while cornering (even at modest speeds) or while traversing a roadway with adverse camber, adverse slope (usually downhill), change of grip, bumps etc. then the ride is going to get most interesting indeed. Departure will occur very quickly. Likely it will be irrecoverable. There is not going to be the space or the time.

    There is a well known story about the driver of a Mercedes 300 SEL sedan being followed by an early Jaguar XJ6 down a road leading from some hills to a sea-side town. Part way down the Mercedes driver may have misjudged the radius of a curve. Whatever the case he needed to tighten his line and did so. As he did he also applied some brake check. The driver of the following XJ6 was a journalist who later wrote about what occurred next. He watched as the Mercedes suddenly lifted at the back and abruptly over-steered without warning. The Mercedes driver caught the slide just in the nick of time (there was a cliff coming up- bet that must have worked wonders to concentrate the mind). At the next available opportunity to stop and park up the Mercedes stopped. The driver got out to have a reflective cigarette and calm his nerves some. The driver of the Jaguar also stopped to have a chat with the Mercedes driver. The guy had received quite the surprise. It turned out that there had been talk of other swing axle incidents like this one, but this was the first one the journalist had actually witnessed first-hand. A point later related by the Jaguar driver was that he had experienced nothing untoward despite nailing his brakes hard partway through that same tightening corner as he sought to avoid hitting the errant Mercedes. The swing axle can be treacherous and when it is, that does not necessarily mean a driver of a car was doing anything foolish. That Mercedes guy wasn’t.

    Closer to home there was the situation where a person close to me was driving a Herald convertible. There was the driver and three passengers- two couples. This particular evening was pleasant and so the roof was off. They were driving into town to go to dinner at a restaurant. As they came around a corner, to their horror there was a car being reversed towards them. That was unexpected. The driver swerved to avoid hitting the reversing car. In doing this he activated the swing axle’s cloven hoof. The Herald flipped. Two of the passengers exited the car (were flung or jumped out). Two were caught under the car. The lady in the front seat was pinned to the ground by the upside down car. Her pelvis was shattered. She got to spend months in hospital. The driver miraculously was unscathed. He was propelled sideways as the car flipped and ended up being saved by a combination of the crushed windscreen and his fiancée’s body holding the car off the ground slightly. He was able to crawl out from under the car and together with some passers-by get the car lifted off his fiancée. He spent the next quarter-hour trying to comfort her. She was in extreme pain the whole time. The other two suffered “minor injuries” (fractures to wrists, broken ankle and various scrapes, bruises and cuts). Again, the swing axle can be treacherous and when it is, that does not necessarily mean a driver of a car was doing anything foolish. The Herald driver wasn’t.

    Apart from unexpected situations like these you may indeed do OK with a swing axle. You’d be best advised to tame its errant behaviour by judicious modification if you can or by deploying a superior set-up altogether.

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