Driving Miss Dolly: The Triumph Dolomite

This story originally ran in the September 2010 issue of Classic Motorsports, so some information may be out of date. 

 

A race fan was simply driving by when he spotted the car. He slammed on the brakes, stuck his head out the window, and hollered with the assurance of someone who knows what he’s talking about, “What model Fiat is that?” 

Sorry, the correct answer is Triumph.

Another spectator, one who had spent so much time digging through the beer cooler that he was fortunate to not have suffered frostbite, soon chimed in, “That’s a freak car! Triumph never made no car with a metal top like that!” 

When you drive a 1974 Triumph Dolomite Sprint to a vintage race weekend, it draws a lot of attention. This is to be expected, since most folks—even stone-sober sports car enthusiasts—have never seen one.

Dolomite’s Convoluted Evolution

Where’s a genetic researcher when you need one? The Dolomite descended from a Triumph family tree so twisted that only Darwin could love it. The car was last in a long and varied line of small sedans aimed at the family market. (Okay, officially the Honda-powered Acclaim was last, but purists maintain that it doesn’t count.) 

The story starts in 1965. That year, Triumph introduced the 1300 as an eventual replacement for the popular Herald. The new car featured a 1296cc Spitfire engine and front-wheel drive. 

Although the 1300 sold reasonably well, it proved to be expensive to produce and difficult to service. In 1970 the company launched the Toledo, a cheaper-to-build, rear-wheel-drive version that was powered by a 1.3-liter (later a 1.5-liter) engine. 

The Toledo was initially available as a two-door saloon, but a four-door version eventually followed. At the same time, the company introduced a larger model called the 1500, which retained the front-wheel-drive setup from the original 1300. 

All of these variants must have perplexed potential buyers, not to mention dealers and service technicians. The last of the Heralds competed for showroom space with front-wheel-drive 1300s, rear-wheel-drive 1300/1500s, and larger front-drive 1500s. Pay your money and take your pick. 

In early 1972, the Dolomite—later called the Dolomite 1850 to avoid confusion with the Dolomite 1300/1500 versions that were introduced after the demise of the Toledo—appeared on the scene. In keeping with Triumph’s tried-and-true parts-bin approach, this car used a reengineered body shell from the front-drive 1500 along with some of the running gear from the rear-drive Toledo series. Yes, confusing.

The Dolomite’s four-cylinder engine, however, was something entirely new and different. This overhead-cam four-cylinder, which was tilted 45 degrees, was derived from the engine that Triumph and Saab had jointly developed for Saab’s 99 saloon. Triumph enlarged the engine to 1854cc before mating it to a Spitfire gearbox and standard live rear axle. Output was 91 horsepower, and the block would eventually show up in the TR7. 

The Dolomite was a solid performer, capable of traveling from zero to 60 mph in 11 seconds. It could top out at 100 mph. 

The interior features plenty of gauges—including an unusual warning light cluster—set against a wooden veneer.

This Michelotti-influenced Dolomite design weighed a little less than 2300 pounds. Its solid rear axle was teamed with an independent front. Steering was rack and pinion.

The little sedan sported four headlights, four doors, a spacious trunk and a roomy, upscale interior. Later cars offered an optional automatic transmission or J-type Laycock electric overdrive.

While the Dolomite caught the market’s attention and sold well, Triumph felt the car needed better performance to compete with BMW’s 2002 and Alfa’s 2000 GTV. 

Club Connection

The Triumph Dolomite, especially in Sprint trim, is a rarity here in the States. However, owner Duane Spruill has found online help. He’s a member of the Dolomite club in the U.K. and recommends the group as a great source for information, contacts, parts sources and lively discussion. The Web address is triumphdolomite.co.uk.

A visitor to the site will quickly realize that the car has an enthusiastic following around the world, and that the Brits affectionately refer to their Dolomites as Dollies. In the U.S., the Vintage Triumph Register (vtr.com) also maintains a Dolomite presence. Help is never more than a click or phone call away.

Enter the Sprint

Triumph answered that last challenge by adding more juice under the hood as well as a host of performance and convenience features—all at no extra cost to the buyer. So equipped, the sporty Sprint model proved to be the undisputed jewel of the Dolomite series. Some enthusiasts claim that it’s the best sedan Triumph ever built.

A team of engineers developed an efficient, 16-valve aluminum cylinder head that used a single camshaft to actuate the valves. The inlet valves’ tappets operated directly on the cam, while long rockers operated the exhaust valves. The spark plugs were located in the center of each firing chamber. Displacement was increased to 1998cc. 

Thanks to this head plus a pair of SU HS6 carbs, the engine put out a robust 127 horsepower—a figure tuners soon tweaked to a reliable 150. This engine allowed Triumph to lay claim to the world’s first regular production 16-valve, four-cylinder engine. 

A Sprint could reach 60 mph in less than 9 seconds and top out at 115 mph. With overdrive, it could deliver about 30 mpg. 

Along with more horsepower, the Sprint featured a stouter TR6 transmission and rear end. The brakes were upgraded with heavy-duty pads in the front, larger drums out back, a bigger servo, and a load-sensitive valve for the rear. 

Stylish 13x5.5-inch GKN alloy wheels came standard, along with 175/70R13 radials. On the exterior, Sprint badges and a front spoiler distinguished the model, while a folding sunroof and vinyl top were offered as options. The well-equipped Sprint sold for the equivalent of about $8000.

British Leyland campaigned a couple of Broadspeed-prepared Sprints in the British Touring Car Championship Series from 1974 to ’78. The cars, driven by Andy Rouse and Tony Dron, acquitted themselves quite well, winning the manufacturer’s title for Triumph in 1974. The next year, Andy Rouse not only won the 2-liter class but also claimed the series championship. 

According to reports, these highly tuned Sprints were making nearly 190 horsepower and routinely revved to 8000 rpm. Factory-prepared examples also competed in rallies, though not with a high degree of success. Sprints ended their stint in rally when the works team shifted its focus to TR7s and later to TR7V8s.

While the Sprint established an enthusiastic following (mostly in the U.K.), British Leyland’s financial troubles slowly started to accumulate. Cost-cutting and quality control problems affected many of the company’s models. Still, the Sprint enjoyed a long and relatively successful run of 22,941 cars, and the model finally ended with the rest of Triumph in 1980.

No examples were officially shipped to North America during production. These days, however, the car may be imported to the U.S. with no federal restrictions since it’s now more than 25 years old. 

Rare Yet Reasonable

The Triumph Dolomite Sprint is a rare example of a comfortable saloon with spirit—a family hauler that hauls. For the enthusiast looking for plenty of space, it offers four doors and a large trunk. These factors add up to a heap of appeal at a reasonable value. 

Its rarity is a bonus. With fewer than 20 examples in the country, you won’t have to worry about parking your car in a row of Sprints at the next show.

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Comments
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wspohn
wspohn Dork
8/31/19 3:21 p.m.

When I was racing, Mike Rocket had the only Triumph Vitesse out there, too. Very effective driver and very potent car.

Duke
Duke MegaDork
9/3/19 12:18 p.m.

I always had a soft spot for those cars.  The proportions are exquisite in a dorky kind of way.

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