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Dolomite History

One of the most interesting and unusual development stories in vehicle history, the Dolomite story begins normally enough, but features an interesting twist during its long production cycle. Keeping the car at the top of its game, two of the UK's most gifted engineers (first by Harry Webster, then Spen King) were responsible for allowing the vehicle to be an excellent example of product planning and platform maximization. The Dolomite went out of production in 1980, but at that point had already enjoyed a 15-year production run, while achieving many monumental ‘firsts' along the way.

Though not a trained engineer or stylist, Donald Healey was one to inspire and produce exceptional vehicles. The 1937 Triumph Dolomite Roadster is such an example. Joining Triumph in 1933, Healey soon became the company's technical director, where he quickly began upgrading Triumph's production vehicle range of Gloria's and Vitesses.

The new Dolomites in 1936 featured their ‘waterfall' style of radiator grill, a production of an obvious inspiration from the latest Hudson Terraplanes. Added to the body style that appeared in 1938, this distinctive feature had the effect they were looking for. Produced in limited numbers, the Dolomite Roadster was more ‘drop-head- than ‘roadster', and was available in two forms, a four-cylinder 1,1767 cc type, or a six-cylinder 1,991 cc model with a longer wheelbase. The waterfall grille was matched to a two-seater front compartment, and a long sweeping tail concealed a lift-up panel which esconsed two further ‘dickey' seats. With a top speed of nearly 80 mph, the six-cylinder engine made it a very commodious rally vehicle.

Under the codename ‘Ajax', the Dolomite development began in 1962. Leyland was interested in replacing the Herald, and Harry Webster was soon hard at work to produce the best package to replace the old car, including front wheel drive. Needing to ensure that the new model possessed the traditional Triumph virtue of a tight turning circle (31 feet), along with the allowance of a short nose, the decision was made to choose a longitudinal engine. Allowing for longer oil change intervals, the gearbox did not share the engine oil (like the Mini/1100), and the engine was placed in a sitting position over the gearbox. Once the layout was decided upon, the decision for the 1300cc engine was a simple choice. In the earlier stages of development, a two-door version was a popular idea. The two-door bodywork was deemed important to the model, as the Ajax was initially drawn up as a replacement for the Herald.

By 1964, any pretence that the Ajax was to replace the Herald was dismissed, and the proposed specification was enhanced massively. Meanwhile the planned two-door version was dropped completely. The cost of developing this vehicle was escalating rapidly, and the popularity of the Herald was suddenly improving, mainly due to the up-gunned 1200cc version.)

The new car underwent final testing and development, and the new name ‘Triumph 1300' was chosen. Announced to the press in September 1965, the Triumph 1300 proved to be an instantaneous hit with customers, though the compact front wheel drive vehicle was definitely not a replacement for the Herald. The styling and specifications were lavish for its day, and the vehicle went on general sale January 1966. Rapidly picking up a clientele that appreciated its compact size, high quality fixtures, fittings and high levels of equipment, the Triumph also boasted a price that was quite comparable to other 1300 saloons.

Unfortunately, the higher than expected level of unreliability, due to the all-new mechanical layout posed both certain servicing problems as well as issue of costs. Since the front wheel drive packaging was quite expensive to manufacture, lowering the price of the 1300 was not an available option.

Under the codename Ajax III, plans were laid to upgrade the vehicle significantly due to a slight move up-market by the 1300 in 1967. A facelift for the front and rear end, and the idea to place the newly expanded 1500cc Spitfire engine under the hood was decided. By converting the Triumph to rear wheel drive along with a live rear axle and utilizing the existing engine, the idea was to simplify the 1300. The two-door body was brought back into service while under the codename ‘Manx II', a short-tailed version of the original vehicle, was penned by Michelotti. Spen King oversaw the conversion to rear wheel drive, while essentially; the 1300 range was split into two.

Due to a new front end and longer tail, the Triumph 1300 morphed into the 1500 and became a popular vehicle for buyers searching for a compact luxury saloon. Launched into the market in 1970, the 1300/TC had now become the 1500, and received a customary Michelotti facelift. The tail end was lengthened; the grille/headlamp became a much bolder arrangement, and a new Innsbruck-style dashboard was installed and utilized a great deal of wood. The extended engine, though only offered with a single carburetor, offered an increase in power, and original 1300's independent rear suspension layout was replaced by a cheaper ‘dead-beam' arrangement.

The Herald was laid to rest following a long and distinguished career by the introduction of the simplified rear wheel drive Toledo model of 1970. More affordable, the Toledo shared a similar look to the 1500, but was easily identifiable due to its single rectangular headlamps and shorter rear style of the original 1300. The interior was also much less extravagant than the 1500.

Due to clever product planning by Spen King, the slant-four engine was shoehorned into the existing long-tailed 1500 bodyshell. This produced 91bhp when Triumph's version of the slant-four displaced 1854cc and formulated to twin-Stromberg carburetors. The new version of the Ajax/Manx theme was beginning to develop into an exciting sporting saloon, as the Toledo's rear wheel drive driveline was joined, along with the addition of stiffened suspension.

The marketing department resurrected the pre-War name, 'Dolomite' during 1969 and 1970 to differentiate this new vehicle from the existing models. The launch of the Dolomite was put back until 1971 due to mounting industrial strife, though the introduction was ready by late 1970. The Dolomite did impress the public as expected, and sales took off quickly. The sporting handling made it a popular choice, along with the 100mph potential of the car, the fact that the basic body design that was over six years old didn't seem to matter much.

Near the end of 1971, the junior Triumph range consisted of three very distinctive models, the rear wheel drive Toledo with a short tail, the front wheel Triumph 1500 with a long tail, and the rear wheel Dolomite with a long tail.

The sporting Dolomite was born when it became obvious that customers wanted a much more powerful version to compete with the sports saloons produced by the company's competitors. The logical decision was to use the slant-four engine, the perfect engine to compete more effectively in motor sport. Spen King devised a plan to extract more power, with the cooperation from Harry Mundy and the engineers at Coventry Climax, a 16 Valve cylinder head was designed to sit atop a two-liter v ersion of the engine. With clever arrangement, the need for an expensive twin camshaft arrangement was negated, and would offer all the benefits of the multi-valve layout. The 16 Valves would be actuated by a single camshaft, and long rockers across the head would be used to actuate the second bank of valves. This engine would power the marque's vehicles effectively for many years to come.

Since the 16V slant-four was incredibly efficient, the engineers were able to tweak productivity over 150 bhp, though the final figure decided upon was 127bhp. The name Sprint was chosen early on during development, and much like the Dolomite, several setbacks and delays occurred before it appeared in the Fall of 1973. Noteworthy for using the first mass-produced 16 Valve 4-cylinder engine, as well the use of stylish GKN alloy wheels first as standard, the Sprint was greeted by both buyer and press enthusiasm.

Though the body was aging, gracefully in fact, the Dolomite Sprint soon garnered fame in the Sports Saloon sector, mainly due to its 0-60mph in 8.7 seconds, and top speed of 116mph. An irresistible package, with a luxurious wood-lined interior, plush carpeting, and very full instrumentation, the Dolomite Sprint was proving itself a popular vehicle.

Due to cost benefits of rationalization, the Triumph 1500 was eventually replaced by the 1500TC, which featured the same rear wheel drive-train as Dolomite/Sprint and Toledo models. What was impressive at that time, and still is today, was that during the eight years of a production run, an entirely front wheel driven range was reverse-engineered into a rear driving range.

Unfortunately, rumors of 16V unreliability were spreading, during the launch of the Dolomite and Sprint models. As the work force was increasingly falling prey to their militant leaders, overall build quality slacked off. BLMC was cost cutting wherever possible, and components necessary for internals were skimped on. The low fortune of BLMC as a whole rapidly dragged the Triumph reputation down as well.

The Dolomite bodyshell was still being produced as the basic Toledo, the 1500 and the Dolomite by the mid-1970's. By introducing the Dolomite 1300 and 1500 in 1976, Triumph was attempting to rationalize their image and range. Quickly replacing the Toledo as the basic model in the range, the Dolomite 1300 utilized the 1300 cm³ engine that was developed from the Herald and Spitfire. With an almost identical body, and simplified fittings, the interior trim was also very simplified with only basic instruments and seats. The wooden dashboard and carpeting remained, along with the addition of single square headlights. The shorter-boot bodyshell of the Toledo ended its production, and the Dolomite 1300 did not have a two-door option like the Toledo.

The Dolomite 1500 was the next model up and would replace the Triumph 1500 in both L and HL trim. With an identical specification to the 1300, with the improvement of a 1493 cm³ engine and twin carburettors, the 1500L and 1500 HL shared basic improvements on the previous model. The overdrive and automatic transmissions were an optional feature on the HL, and performance was rated good on both models. Unfortunately, very few 1500L models were ever produced. Though complex, the range was nothing compared to the previous chaotic group of names and layout.

Through the end of this decade, updates were few while British Leyland and Triumph concentrated most of their engergy on other vehicles. In 1977 overdrive was made standard on both 1850 and Spring models. Some detail improvements and updates were done to both the interior and exterior trim. While earlier vehicles often had vinyl interiors, the 1300 was standardised across the range while gaining standard cloth seating and head seats.

Dolomite became a range of cars in 1975 with a more ordered feel, all models sharing the same body and nearly the same running gear. The newly-launched 1300 version, the re-christened Dolomite 1500, the original Dolomite became the Dolomite 1850HL, the Triumph Dolomite Sprint, and the Toledo (which ended in 1976) now made up this junior Triumph range. Essentially, this range remained virtually unchanged until its demise in 1980.

Due to financial crisis, the Triumph SD2 should have replaced the Dolomite range in 1977, but the concept was cancelled in 1975 due to lack of resources and internal competition. The Triumph was a small part of BLMC, and the essential issue in replacing the Dolomite would require designing a car that did not directly compete with pre-existing models in the corporation's range. Following the demise of the SD2, Dolomite underwent a facelift by Michelotti to keep the range relatively fresh while replacement plans were drawn up.

The facelift delivered a vehicle that closely resembled the Fiat 132 in style, with its squared-off grille and square-rigged four-door style. The detailing was 1970's Euro-standard, while the proportions matched closely those of a Dolomite. Unfortunately, the Board approval for the one full-size model built wasn't forthcoming, mostly due to lack of finances, so the Dolomite continued unchanged.

Dolomite sales had subsided slowly, and due to the rationalization of marques and models, it became increasingly clear that it would not be replaced. The number one priority at the time was for Michael Edwardes (newly appointed in 1977) to maintain the existence of BL. There would not be a replacement car for the Dolomite until 1982 (at the earliest) due to the demise of the SD2/TM1 projects and the slow start of their Austin-Morris replacement – LC10-. Edwardes brokered a deal with the Japanese , which eventually led to the production of the Triumph Acclaim. Though not a direct replacement for the Dolomite, it was originally planned that the Acclaim would wear the Triumph badge while being built at Canley. Coincidentally, Canley, the car plant, was soon closed and the Acclaim's production facility was re-grouped to Cowley/Longbridge. The Anglo-Japanese vehicle brought in a new era for Austin-Rover, which allowed several interesting vehicles in the next few decades. Extremely compact and well specified, the Acclaim was reliable and well-built, though it may have served as a replacement for low-end Dolomites, it in no way offered anything for 1850HL or Sprint customers.

During the crisis-torn 1970's, the little power unit may have been overlooked by product planners who were having to constantly streamline BL's range according to sales, the fact remains that the Dolomite Sprint was one of the major engineering successes for BL during the 1970's. Unfortunately, when the Dolomite went out of the production, the 16V engine was never developed, though the O-series was used universally, as it represented the bigger investment.

Produced by Triumph under the British Leyland organization, the Triumph Dolomite was a very popular small to medium sized four-door saloon vehicle that was introduced in 1972. The final addition to Triumph's complex small car range, the Dolomite, the successor to the upmarket FWD cars, continued to be produced until 1980.

Triumph began by producing its first vehicle, the Triumph 1300, orginally a 1300 cm³ with front wheel drive, before the cost, performance and sales was dissatisfying to the company. Eventually the 1300 was re-engineered in 1970 as the Toledo, which was a much more cost-efficent, basic model with conventional rear wheel drive.

Originally, offering energetic and peppy performance, the only version available utilized the new slant-four 1850 cm³ engine that provided 95 bhp. Offered with optional automatic transmission, the Dolomite had standard equipment that included twin headlamps, luxury seats and carpet, heated backlight, a clock, and much more. Updated with a black-painted rear panel and outfited with new wheel trims, the Dolomite shared many styling similarities with the FWD Triumph 1500. Capable of achieving 100 mph, and with an overdrive gearbox that was eventually made optionial, the Dolomite had excellent performance for motorway cruising.

The Dolomite Sprint was added as the performance model in the Dolomite range in 1973.
Based on the 1850 engine, the capacity was increased to 1998 cm³, and the addition of a 16-valve cylinder head pushed the output to 127 bhp. With excellent performance, the Sprint has a claim to being the world's first truly mass-produced multi-valve vehicle. Capable of a maximum speed of 119 mph, the new Sports Saloon with a very advanced engine could reach 0-60 mph at around 8.4 seconds. The Spring shared a similar trim with the 1850, along with cloth seats, but had the addition of alloy wheel, vinyl roof, front spoiler and a lowered suspension. Later becoming standard, overdrive was an option on early models. Automatic transmissions and a limited slip differential was also optional.

In 1980, British Leyland was downsizing in an attempt for survival, and dropped the line, incluiding the Triumph Spitfire. Despite Leyland's reputation for poor build quality, the Dolomites seemed to have kept up a vey acceptable standard overall. The basic 1300 and 1500 models were reputed as solidly build, pleasant vehicles with reasonable performance and economy. Due to the nature of the slant-four engine, the 1850 and Sprint didn't fare as well, though they were both of an advanced design. In part, the commmon overheating problems were due to the lack of engine knowledge with BL Dealerships. This ended up being quite an expensive nuisance for Triumph.

The slant four engine was eventually fitted to the Triumph TR7 in a dual version with the 1850's eight valve head, and the Sprint's two litre displacement. The advanced aluminum head enabled the slant four to run on unleaded petrol without any uneccessary modifications.

Due to the reasonable resistence to corrorosion and the type of customers who purchased the Dolomite when new, the vehicle is still in use every day. Though mainly the Sprint, there is still a considerable following to the Dolomite range. The array of parts supply is excellent, most likely due to the large number of common parts that are between the Dolomite and other vehicles in the Triumph range.

The choice of transportation in television, in Bodie's The Professionals series, the Dolomite Sprint was car of choice for the first half of the season before being replaced by a Ford Capri.

By Jessica Donaldson
Triumph Models


Vehicle information, history, and specifications from concept to production.

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