Rumblings

The original Dolomite.

Readers of our road-test report on the recently-introduced Triumph Dolomite saloon in the February issue, unless conversant with pre-war motoring, may not have understood our references to the original straight-eight Dolomite. On the face of it this was a very exciting project, but it sadly misfired.

At the time of this original Triumph Dolomite's conception enthusiasts were inspired by the fine performances and first-class specification of Jano's 2.3-litre straight-eight twin-cam supercharged 8C Alfa Romeo. This great motor car had burst upon the sporting scene in 1931. It continued in production until 1934, a total of 188 being made. The 8C was the logical successor of the blown 1 1/2-litre and 1 3/4-litre Alfa Romeo cars and it won for the Milanese factory such races as the Irish GP (Birkin, 1931), Le Mans (Howe/Birkin, 1931), the TT (Borzacchini, 1931), Le Mans (Sommer/Chinetti, 1932), the Mille Miglia (Borzacchini/Bignami, 1932), the Targa Abruzzo (Balestrero, 1932), the Belgian Touring Car GP (Brivio/Siena, 1932), Le Mans (Sommer/Nuvolari, 1933), the Mille Miglia (Nuvolari/Compagnoni, 1933), the TT (Rose-Richards, 1933), the Belgian Touring Car GP (Chiron/Chinetti, 1933), Le Mans (Chinetti/Etancelin, 1934), Le Mans (Helde/Stoffel, 1935), etc. It led to the even more illustrious 2.3 and 2.6 Monza Alfa Romeos.

At this time British sports cars were apt to be somewhat lorry-like, the new 3 1/2-litre Bentley excepted, and we had nothing to compare with an Alfa Romeo or Bugatti. So it wasn't surprising that considerable interest was aroused when a mysterious 2-litre straight-eight twin-cam supercharged two-seater sports car was seen on Midlands roads at the time when the 2300 8C Alfa Romeo was at the height of its fame. "A British Alfa Romeo", exclaimed delighted sportsmen in this country.

The new car was discovered to be a Triumph, the brain-child of Donald Healey. When it was officially announced in 1934 incredulity was stretched to the limit when it was seen how closely this Triumph Dolomite followed the pattern of the 8C Alfa Romeo. It had a bore and stroke of 60 x 88 mm. (1,990 c.c.) against the Italian car's dimensions of 65 x 88 mm. (2,336 c.c.). Its wheelbase was that of a Monza Alfa Romeo, 8 ft. 8 in., instead of the 9 ft. 0 in. of a short-chassis 8C. The crankshaft of this Dolomite had disc webs, it naturally used a Zenith carburetter instead of a Memini, and Healey had used a different transmission, in the form of a pre-selector Wilson gearbox and an open propeller shaft, whereas the Alfa Romeo had a splendid "crash" box and a torque rube. The short 8C used a 4.25 axle ratio, the smaller engined Dolomite either a 4-to-1 or a 4.5-to-1 final drive. Healey contrived a c.r. of 6.5 to 1 in conjunction with a boost of 10 lb./sq. in. Jano found 5.7 to 1 and 5 to 6 lb./sq. in. sufficient, although many variations were available. Otherwise, the Coventry production was technically a blueprint of the Milanese one, with an identical light alloy, wet-liner dry-sump straight-eight power unit having its twin o.h. camshafts driven by gearing between the two cylinder blocks, and plain bearings throughout. A chassis weight of 14 cwt. was claimed for the Dolomite, or perhaps 4 1/2 cwt. less than a short 8C; its engine was said to develop 140 b.h.p. at 5,500 r.p.m., whereas Alfa Romeo set their sights at 130 b.h.p. at 4,900 r.p.m. but this may well have been modest by some five horses. Healey used a three-gallon oil tank between the Dolomite's front dumb-irons, the same capacity as that of the tank on the Series One and Two Alfa Romeos, although it was located beneath the seats of the latter (but the prototype 8C had had an oil-tank where Donald slung his).

There were a few minor differences between Dolomite and 8C— the Triumph had pressed-in steel-alloy valve seats in the aluminium heads, the Alfa phosphor-bronze inserts, shrunk, later screwed and shrunk, into place. The Dolomite had valves inclined at 90 deg., the Alfa's were at 100 deg. The alloy in the Triumph engine was R-R Hiduminium, and some parts were of elektron. Being a Triumph, the brakes were naturally hydraulically operated, whereas Alfa Romeo drivers relied on rods. The Dolomite used a separate exhaust pipe from each of the eight ports, but Alfa Romeos had flowed piping. Otherwise, Healey mirrored Jano.

In 1934 Triumph cars were popular; they had done well in the Alpine Trial and Monte Carlo Rally and Gloria tourers had been supplied to the Chief Constables of Northants, Durham, Derby and Bucks., "Miss England" used a Gloria saloon and the airman Sir Charles Kingsford-Smith had taken delivery of a Gloria with Australianbuilt saloon body.

In the early announcements about the 1935 Triumph models there was no reference to the Dolomite. But there was a luncheon in its honour in London in September 1934, at which a top speed of over 120 m.p.h. was spoken of, with wings and spare wheel in place, and at which Lt.-Col. Holbrook, Triumph Managing Director, quipped in Latin quotations, and at Olympia a. Dolomite chassis was exhibited along with the Gloria and Vitesse models. A speed of 100 m.p.h. was now said to be guaranteed with road-equipment in place and the price was £1,050, or £1,225 as a two-seater. The spare wheel was carried on the tail and there was a slight tail-fin above it, reminiscent of those on four seater 8Cs and competition 4 1/2-litre Lagondas of the period. By this time the non-supercharged 2.3 Alfa Romeo had superseded the 8C chassis but the latter had sold here in 1934 for £1,625, so the Dolomite was reasonably priced.

How did this remarkable British sports car perform ? The late Brian Twist got a scoop story for The Autocar when he accompanied Donald Healey to Brooklands on the eve of Olympia, to get figures, in a Dolomite with aero-screens and the 4-to-1 axle ratio. Slipping gearbox bands and the absence of a speedometer hampered the tests, but a s.s. 1/4-mile in 17.8 sec., a mean flying 1/4-mile at 102.47 m.p.h., a best 1/4-mile at 104.65 m.p.h. and a flying lap at 98.23 m.p.h. were accomplished, equipment in place. This compares favourably with what the 2.3-litre Alfa Romeo was capable of—figures of 108 m.p.h. maximum, and a s.s. 1/4-mile in 17.0 sec. having been quoted.

Donald Healey, who won the 1931 Monte Carlo Rally in a 4 1/2-litre Invicta with 23-in, wheels, took the light-car section in 1934 with a Triumph Gloria on oversize tyres. For the 1935 Monte Carlo Rally he used the "racing" Dolomite but a train wrote it off at an unguarded level-crossing in Denmark.

Production-wise, the eight-cylinder Dolomite was a flop. Only five were made. What really stopped things must remain conjecture. If Healey is the man we think he is, maybe he will tell the true story, now that his Alfa-crib is history; perhaps at the release of his new 16-valve four-cylinder Jensen-Healey sports car later this year ? Triumph obviously quickly rid themselves of this embarrassment but, to his credit, Healey refused to give it up, and got one through the 1936 Monte Carlo Rally, the highest-placed of the British cars, and eighth overall. Nevertheless, you can see now why we are apt to smile at the name of the latest Triumph model, especially as it is the third to carry the Alpine tag and British Leyland have conveniently forgotten the first one to do so. . . .