Triumph Dolomite Sprint

Labelled a ‘lame duck’ by some, the powerful Dolly was nevertheless a motor sport success, particularly trackside. And the Triumph faithful still love it…
By Richard Heseltine

For much of the 1970s there was little indication of a prudent central plan or grand design within British Leyland. But then this lumbering monolith was the realisation of shotgun mergers, which served only to ratchet up the chaos and tension as former rivals were suddenly obliged to work together. Throw in a state bailout, combustible labour relations and products that often lacked depth, soul or class, and it was clear even then that the writing was on the wall. Not that anyone was around to read it – most were outside picketing. A facetious summary, perhaps, but while BL primarily spent the decade doggy-paddling in a sea of lost hope, it did create some decent products. Ones that possessed the necessary ingredients to make magic. It’s just that many of them resolutely refused to be magic.

The Dolomite Sprint is a case in point. To us dopey romantics, there’s still something rather appealing about a car that married a fusty, faintly municipal outline with shrill ’70s colours and Q-car performance. This car did accrue both the British Saloon Car Championship manufacturers’ and drivers’ crowns, after all. To hard-headed realists, though, it was a truly, comprehensively bad car; one labelled ‘a national disgrace’ by a respected former works driver. His team-mate merely branded it a ‘lame duck’.

The origins of what was the first mainstream production car ever equipped with a 16-valve headed four-banger are predictably circuitous. The Sprint’s origins stretch back to the early ’60s when Harry Webster of (pre-BL) Standard-Triumph conceived a front-wheel drive replacement for the popular Herald range. But the resultant – and now all but forgotten – Triumph 1300 cost more to build, so the still popular (and cheap to make) Herald earned a stay of execution. The 1300 would instead become a more upmarket (if that’s the right word) mid-range offering. Except it didn’t sell in the figures once envisaged so, in an unprecedented move, the bodyshell was reworked to accommodate a rear-wheel drive set-up; at a stroke Triumph would create a cheaper entry-level saloon – the Toledo – and a high-performance sporting variation which would revive the pre-war Dolomite tag.

Arriving in January 1972, the ‘Dolly’ featured a single-overhead cam slant-four, a purportedly new design even if Saab had been making use of it for the better part of four years. Devised by Triumph’s Lewis Dawtrey, this 45-deg angled unit was part of a proposed new family of engines and shared a degree of commonality with the much-maligned Stag V8 boat anchor.

However, ‘Project Swift’ was the real draw. With displacement enlarged from 1854cc to 1998cc, the major point of interest – the alloy 16-valve ’head – was highly unusual in having the valves actuated by only eight cams. The inlet valves were directly activated via bucket tappets and the cams then turned to operate the exhaust valves via rocker arms. The net result was 127bhp at 5700rpm, this brave new world even scooping a Design Council award.

Originally to have been called simply 135 (badges were made in readiness to this effect), the resultant Sprint was otherwise resolutely pedestrian. Regular Triumph collaborator Giovanni Michelotti shaped the three-box outline; without his customary tinsel touch, the Dolomite was pure stylistic drizzle. Beneath the skin the front end was suspended on unequal length wishbones with coil springs. Out back sat a live axle and a simple four-link arrangement. All very run-of-the-mill.

Even so, when launched in June ’73 there was little in the same price bracket that could match the 115mph Sprint for outright pace. Priced at £1740, at a time when a comparable Alfa was £600 dearer, it was nothing if not a bargain. Journalists were effusive, Autocar gushing that the Sprint was ‘tremendous fun to drive’ as ‘Britain shows the way’, while Motor talked of ‘sparkling performance, good smooth roadholding and an excellent driving position’.

And if ever there was a ready-made competition tool within the BL armoury, this was surely it. You would have thought.

The globally-renowned BMC competition department was by this point history, axed by then BL chairman Lord Stokes in 1970. The firm’s motor sport activities were by now more of a twilight operation run under the British Leyland Special Tuning banner. And this division was running Sprints before it was even announced: a pre-production car was entered in the 1972 Scottish Rally where Brian Culcheth and Johnstone Syer placed 19th overall and second in class. They retired from the Portuguese TAP Rally that same season.

Rallied extensively from 1974 to ’77, the factory-backed Sprint programme was nonetheless far from overt and concentrated primarily on the Group One category. Too heavy to go toe-to-toe with the ubiquitous (and reliable) Ford Escorts, the Sprint’s sole overall victory was the ’75 Hackle Rally in Scotland with Culcheth and Syer, who also placed 16th outright and won their class on that year’s RAC Rally. The team was bolstered with the arrival of Tony Pond in 1976, the ex-Dealer Team Opel man scoring several class wins en route to taking the Group One category in that year’s RAC Open Rally Championship. The works equipe bowed out with seventh place and class honours on the following year’s Manx Trophy Rally with Mike Nicholson and Pat Ryan.

But if the Sprint’s successes off piste generally tended to fly under the radar, it was a consistent and much publicised winner trackside. New Group One (more accurately, One-and-a-Half) regulations had been implemented for the 1974 BSCC season by which time sufficient Sprints had been made to satisfy homologation requirements. Ralph Broad took on the challenge with Broadspeed talents Andy Rouse and Tony Dron up against other works-backed entries such as the Bill Shaw car of John Hine. Their efforts helped seal the RAC Manufacturers’ Championship for BL that same year with Rouse claiming his maiden drivers’ crown in ’75.

Among the useful Sprint privateers to enter the fray was touring car veteran Martin Thomas. “I initially took over Brian Muir’s car,” he recalls. “We gradually developed it and did quite well. From there I had Bill build me a new car and we got support from BL in the form of a Don Moore-built engine, or occasionally Broadspeed would throw me one. The Sprint wasn’t a bad car but initially the brakes were useless – the discs would glow hot. This was the era when rollcages and the effects of them stiffening a chassis was starting to come into it. The Sprint was so stiff it would lift a wheel clear off the deck and in one race I was able to do two laps with a burst tyre because of it. I wouldn’t say it was a great touring car but it got results. The thing now is that a lot of cars that couldn’t stay with it in the ’70s have since been developed further, whereas the Sprint people in historics are still using our old running sheets; other than brakes and tyres they haven’t moved on much.”

Despite Broadspeed’s efforts being diverted into the crowd-pleasing if ultimately ineffective Jaguar ETCC programme, the factory Dolomites continued to garner results at home. Dron returned to the BSCC in ’77 after a spell in F3 and came achingly close to taking the drivers’ title (see I Raced One). Aside from dominating Class B, he claimed seven outright wins against bigger displacement Class A Ford Capris.

By ’78, the works Dolly was pushing out more than 200bhp, with Dron still ruling Class B although there would be only one outright win that season. His sometime team-mate was former champion John Fitzpatrick, who doesn’t remember the car with any great fondness.

“I got involved because I had driven the Broadspeed Jaguar and before that I’d been racing a Hermetite-sponsored BMW,” ‘Fitz’ recalls. “Hermetite couldn’t afford to sponsor ‘my’ Kremer Porsche but wanted to stay involved with me. Ralph Broad suggested that as he was running a Dolomite for Tony he could run a second car for me backed by Hermetite. I would drive as and when I was free from my other commitments. I hated the car. Compared with most things it was a lame duck and had terrible brakes. It was reliable but just awful to drive. I did a few races and then Hermetite and the car went away…”

By the end of the ’70s the Sprint was beginning to lag behind Continental rivals while its reputation for fragility and poor build quality wasn’t without foundation. The slant-four’s propensity for blowing head gaskets was well known, as was the lack of scrupulous aftercare service from dealers. Engines tended to last with meticulous maintenance but were sensitive to the ignition timing being absolutely correct. Otherwise, performance tended to fall off a cliff. With a David Bache-styled hatchback replacement being killed off in 1977 following the arrival of new BL chairman Michael Edwardes, the Dolomite lingered on until August 1980. Some 22,941 Sprints had been made by that point, survivors today being highly prized by the marque faithful.

Ultimately the Sprint didn’t raise bars or move goalposts. True innovations not only move existing technologies forward, they’re generation-defining. The Dolomite Sprint was nothing of the kind, that mantle instead going to a car that arrived in June 1976 – one which ushered in a whole new category of performance car. That would be the crisp and vital Volkswagen Golf GTi, the archetypal ‘hot hatch’. With its heady mixture of Ye Olde Worlde timber door cappings and afterthought alloys, the mixed messages Sprint appeared to be from another age by comparison. Nonetheless, for all its flaws this frumpy would-be pioneer more than proved its worth trackside and is consequently an icon in a more localised sense; a car that provided some closing glory for soon-to-be-dead Triumph. Which just goes to prove that dying embers burn hottest…

I raced one
Tony Dron
Despite some major victories in the Dolly Sprint, this saloon and sports car star has mixed feelings about the model…

“I had a season set up to drive a Ford and gave in my notice to become a full-time racing driver, but then the deal fell apart. I acted pretty cool when I got the phone call asking if I’d like to test the Dolomite, but I needed the drive. I drove for Broadspeed in 1974 as number two to Andy Rouse, before racing Alfas and a Ford in ’75. Then it was F3 in ’76, before returning to touring cars with Ralph [Broad].

“The Broadspeed Sprint was a great car once you understood it. The road car on which it was based was a pile of junk, the product of a company in which real engineers had lost control. It was held together by one bodge after another. Ralph’s achievement in making a decent saloon out of that was immense. We had a reasonable season in ’74 [including third overall in the Tourist Trophy] and in 1977I almost won the BTCC drivers’ title.

“Ralph and I were going for overall wins rather than class honours and we won seven rounds outright. I lost the title in the final at Brands – it was one of the few races where Ralph turned up; while I wasn’t looking he went softer on all three tyre specs. The car took off like a rocket but soon I could feel it weaving. With three laps to go, Jeff Allam caught me in his Vauxhall and I was shameless in trying to keep him behind. It got to the last corner by which time canvas was poking through [the left-rear tyre] and I was sideways at 30mph. Jeff got the class win; Bernard Unett took the title. Not winning the title didn’t seem that important then and I haven’t changed my mind.”

One to buy
Triumph Dolomite – £6995
From: Car and Classic 07043 228584 (seller)

Currently set up for track day use, this comprehensively stocked Sprint was hitherto campaigned in Post Historics. The car’s 16-valve ‘four’ features a lightened and balanced bottom end, twin Weber 45DCOE carbs and a high lift cam, while the suspension has been uprated with height adjustable Spax dampers, stiffer springs and a beefier front anti-roll bar. Currently road-registered and MoT’d until October 2010, it’s being sold with a spare set of 13in x 16in Minilites and Falken road tyres/Toyo circuit rubber. It also has a six-point rollcage, stripped interior with sealed bulkheads, internal fuel and brake lines, and is ready for racing or fast road/track day use.

Others to consider

Alfa Romeo 2000GTV
Sublime Latin coupé married lithe Giugiaro styling with agility and vocal twin-cam. Very user-friendly.

Ford Capri 3.0S
‘The car you always promised yourself,’ said the ads. Tail-happy and huge fun. Unless it’s wet.

Mazda RX-3
All but forgotten rotary-engined coupé once flew in the hands of Barrie Williams and others.

Triumph specialists

Jigsaw Racing Services 01536 400300
Abingdon MG 0121 544 4444
The Triumph Dolomite Club
Rimmer Brothers Ltd 01522 568000
Moss Europe Ltd 020 8867 2020