The trials and tribulations suffered by a staff man in 28,000 miles with Triumph’s small, sporting saloon
The Triumph Dolomite Sprint has been hailed by us and others as one of the best 2-litre saloons in the world. W.B. has eulogised about the model in at least two separate features, his words of wisdom implicitly approved by most of the Standard House staff. But any motoring journalist will tell you that what we learn in a thousand or two miles of road testing with a car can merely be useful in assessing performance, roadholding, handling, general practicability and whether or not we find the car dull, dangerous, boring, lively, exciting or downright electrifying; what we can’t tell you in a road test is how the model will resist the ravages of high mileage and prolonged ownership. The Dolomite-Sprint in particular is of so much interest to the Motor Sport reader type of enthusiastic, sporting driver that we feel this account of our Assistant Chief Photographer’s experience with a Sprint over 28,000 miles will form a useful adjunct to W.B.’s aforementioned driving impressions. The Sprint in question was one of the early hatch of 2,000 Mimosa examples produced after the model’s introduction in mid-1973. To be fair to Triumph, many surreptitious improvements have been made to subsequent production examples, a state of affairs which one expects, even from Rolls-Royce and Mercedes. However competent the development engineers, the first few thousand customers can always be expected to find faults which extensive pre-production testing failed to highlight. As it happens, this staff car has suffered more not from inherent faults, but from a questionable standard of servicing by British Leyland’s London service division in Western Avenue. Of the specific faults which the early Sprints were noted for, this one was given a clean bill of health on the suspect wheel Studs when recalled for a check-up, has not suffered from the rocker trouble which Ralph Broad’s racing Sprints highlighted and influenced production changes, nor from foundry sand blockages in the cast alloy inlet manifold, which Broadspeed discovered also.
This Sprint had a tall order to fulfil in replacing a much-loved Ford Cortina 1600E, yet at the time there seemed to be no question about its qualifications for the task, a combination of compactness, luxury finish and performance. The first problem was actually obtaining one—the demand was apparently so high that even attempts to pull strings with British Leyland failed. One morning, just when our photographer had almost decided to order another Ford, he walked past the Triumph dealer within 50 yards of Standard House to find a brand-new Sprint sitting on the shelf without a waiting list in sight. The car was his within hours. Who fabricates these stories about demand being greater than supply?
TGN 469M was collected from the dealer on October 1st, 1973. The cigar lighter was missing and the rear screen heater warning light didn’t work, though the screen heating did. The following day the car was returned to cure a sticking throttle caused by a total lack of lubrication on the linkages.
Mechanically this Sprint performed well up to its 1,000-mile service, though it had to be returned to the dealer at 750 miles to cure chronically out-of-balance wheels (not covered by the guarantee) and a serious rainwater leak into the driver’s side parcel shelf and footwell.
Finding a Triumph dealer to carry out the I,000-mile service was the first real problem : none could quote less than three weeks’ waiting time, which would have meant another 1,500 miles on the clock. Even if the service had been booked on the day of delivery the mileage would have been 500 miles over the top. What do these dealers expect high mileage customers to do—lay their cars up while waiting for service? A little bit of influence was exerted to Slide the car into British Leyland Western Avenue when it was 17 days old. Unfortunately our photographer’s records for the car’s early services have been mislaid, but he remembers that this first one was routine. His complaint about a clonk from the bottom of the steering column was said to be normal on Dolomites and remains to this day.
Shortly after the 1,000-mile service the tachometer went totally berserk and a misfire started. Our staffman reports that Western Avenue changed practically everything apart from the spare wheel to find the fault. Three hours later it was traced to a tachometer feed wire shorting on the bodywork where it was trapped behind the brake servo.
At 10,000 miles a stone went through the tinted windscreen, which was replaced extraordinarily messily by Wallace Windscreens. Around about the same time the front passenger door trim came loose and a slight hiss developed from the region of the exhaust manifold; all subsequent services have failed to trace this, which remains.
During these early miles, our staffman bitterly regretted having bought the car without overdrive. When the car was bought,. Triumph had not yet put this option into production cars; they did so a couple of months later and current Sprints have overdrive as standard. Various calculations related to depreciation and consumption suggested that it would make economic sense to have one fitted. This was done at a cost of about £120 when the Sprint went to Western Avenue for its 15,000-mile service. Immediately the car’s driveability improved tremendously and from being something of a buzz-box on long motorway journeys it entered the mini-limousine realms of smoothness and quietness. Immediately too the average consumption improved from 23 m.p.g. to 29 m.p.g., quite a staggering case for overdrives and particularly noteworthy because the comparison is made on the same car. Specific consumptions with overdrive are roughly 24 m.p.g. in town conditions and as much as 33 m.p.g. on long journeys using 70 to 80 m.p.h. as a maximum. The £120 was certainly very well spent.
Running a car in London is always a risky business. However carefully you drive, somebody else always seems to have your card marked. The woman who charged her car like a mad bull from the entrance to a block of flats might well have laid in wait for the Sprint : she rammed its nearside front wing and door, bent the suspension and steering and damaged the alloy road wheel and SI’ Sport tyre. So the Sprint rested at Western Avenue for over a month while repairs and the 20,000mile service were carried out. This included replacing the carburetter mountings and the distributor cap, which had developed a mysterious; screwdriver-shaped hole between services . . . so they said. On collection the finish of the repaired front door proved to be dreadful. so the car was left there for another few days. Afterwards it took our man a whole day to clean up the mess left inside the car by the Western Avenue staff.
Immediately after this the Sprint was needed as transport to the Belgian Grand Prix, so there was no chance to return it yet again to Western Avenue for rectification of appallingly spongy brakes—perfectly all right before the accident. In Belgium the brakes grew progressively worse, but, more infuriating, the fan-belt broke in the middle of Belgium, not more than a couple of hundred miles after Western Avenue’s service. Gingerly, and perhaps riskily, the Sprint was pottered at 40.m.p.h. the rest of the way down the autoroute to the hotel. Surprisingly, I think. the engine showed no signs of overheating in spite of the inoperative water pump. A British Leyland dealer drove out to the hotel to replace the fan-belt at a cost of £10.
Our photographer was not a happy man when he returned his car to Western Avenue immediately upon his arrival front Belgium. Apart from the lack of brakes and the fan-belt, which was obviously neither checked nor adjusted properly during the £50.95 service. a terrific wind howl emanated from the bent-out window frame of the repaired passenger door.
After the brakes had been bled and the window frame refitted the Sprint settled down to a fairly reliable 5,400 miles’ up to its next service. Nevertheless the performance was none-too-sparkling, the brakes remained spongy and juddered under heavy braking and there was a heavy vibration at 60 to 70 m.p.h. Other complaints made when the car went in to Western Avenue for its 25,000-mile service it the failure of one of the twin horns (a complaint made after the 1,000-mile service, while still under guarantee, and at most subsequent services, but never rectified a defective courtesy light and a suspicion of overheating at high speed. Nothing too drastic, yet Western Avenue’s hill came to £117.13! Triumph’s fixed charge for a routine service would have been £22, so where did all that extra go to?
For a start the nearside front brake caliper was replaced at a cost of £18.62. Now, as an outsider looking at this, it seems to me there must be some connection between the crash on that nearside wheel, the subsequent complaint of spongy brakes and the eventual replacement of the relevant caliper. If the crash was the cause of the caliper problem, rectification should have come under the scope of the insurance repair. The brake judder and vibration at speed was traced to a mysteriously ovalised rear brake drum, another £7.50. However, this work actually achieved a cure. Less understandable and successful were Western Avenue’s attempts to cure the overheating. “Check wiring and gauge, fit new thermostat and test car thoroughly on the road”, says the invoice. It Would be interesting to know how Western Avenue can justify a charge of £18.63 for what should have amounted to 15 minutes’ work at the most. Not that our photographer would have complained if this had effected a cure; as it is, that £18.63 made not a blind bit of difference to the overheating problem. Looking at this invoice I think I’ll go into the business 01 windscreen wiper blade replacement : Western Avenue charged £1.08 labour for this one-minute job—on top of the profit made on charging £4.20 for the blades. Replacing the horn, which should have been carried out in the car’s earlier life, under guarantee, now cost £8.50. Labour alone for this service came to £56.56 before VAT.
Paving what appears to be an exorbitant amount for such work would not have seemed too bad if the standard had reflected the price. Yet within 3,000 miles this Sprint had become practically undriveabie. The performance, bad when the car came out of Western Avenue, deteriorated badly to the point where it had little more steam than a Triumph 1500. Cold starting was a cross-your-fingers-and hope affair, the engine refused to tick-over unless it had warmed up for 30 Miles or so and was shockingly lumpy in traffic. A noisy clutch thrust race, leaking seals in the clutch slave cylinder (troublesome since before the 20,000-mile service) which called for vigorous pumping to disengage the clutch were other problems. Smoke appearing from under the bonnet and a smell of burning oil inside the cockpit baffled our man until he crawled underneath the car to find one of the two rear sump bolts missing, and the other held on by three turns. Oil was seeping out on to the exhaust manifold and flywheel, which had spread it liberally around the clutch housing and clutch. Not surprisingly, our man was again a little annoyed that the car should be in such an appalling state-only 3,000 miles after the service.
A ‘phone call to Western Avenue brought a guessed estimate from them of at least £200 to decoke the engine and grind in the valves their assessment of the poor running:, changing the clutch and sundry associated work. Another £200 on top of that recently spent £117 and on top of the total £314 servicing hill for two years and 25,000 miles. Palling at this, our photographer decided a second opinion wouldn’t go amiss. He dropped the car in at the Swiss Cottage mews garage of rally driver Andy Dawson (my chauffeur in the Chequered Flag Stratos on the Tour of Dean Rally). where Andy’s engine genius, ex-Brian Hart engineer Mark Perry had the performance transformed within an hour. Some of that time was taken checking that the two nuts had not come loose on the end of the camshaft drive wheel, a not infrequent happening on the Sprint engine which can have disastrous effects on valve gear and pistons when the gear finally drops off. As it happened, the bolts were tight in this engine. Mark sorted out the sorely ill adjusted carburation and points and discovered that the ignition timing was totally mis-set, the main reason for the flat performance and erratic running. There was no question of the distributor having slipped; it is held IV two Pinch bolts, both tight, and marks on the distributor base showed that it had never in its life been swung to the point where Mark said it should have been.
“It goes better than it has ever gone,” said our man after he’d parted with the cost a couple of pints. Readers of my reports on experiences with my TR6 might lind the fault and reaction familiar here. Serviced by Western Avenue during its early life, the TR6 lacked performance. At 15,000 miles, DCM The TR centre discovered that Western Avenue had mis-timed the TR6 too. Result, instant revitalisation. Somebody, somewhere, appears to have taught Somebody the wrong tricks.
Some thousand miles or so later the engine is beginning to lose its edge once more, though well in tune. It is likely that a decoke may well be needed at 30,000 miles, though our photographer says that this definitely won’t be carried out by Western Avenue. A mysterious loss of water and overheating when the Sprint is cruised for long distances at high speeds suggests that there might he a weep from the head gasket, though from where isn’t apparent—it certainly isn’t entering the sump. Nor, alternatively, does the water appear to be leaking from the radiator, its cap, or its overflow bottle. It certainly isn’t disappearing up the wires to the temperature gauge, as Western Avenue seemed to think it might have done! Replacing the lost sump bolt and tightening the other cured the spillage of oil on to the clutch which, fortunately, has not begun to slip. Talking oil, none has ever been required between 5,000-mile services.
The three Dunlop SP Sport 70 series which had been on the car from new (the fourth was replaced by the unused spare after the crash at 19,000 miles) lasted for 26,000 miles, an excellent record for tyre’s which are not notable for their longevity. These were replaced by a set of low-profile Goodyear Grand Prix, which transpired to be dreadful tyres in ether wet or dry conditions, worse than the bald Dunlop’, which they replaced. This conflicts with the same driver’s excellent experience of the Grand Prix on his 1600E, suggesting that they are unsuitable for the Sprint rather than generally bad tyres. Had there been low profile version of Goodyear’s G800 Supersteel available he would have plumped for those; most of the Standard House cars are currently running on normal profile Supersteels and gaining the benefit of quite extraordinary improvements in roadholding.
The Sprint’s chrome and bodywork remain excellent as it approaches 30,000 miles. And at least Western Avenue can be credlted with an excellent. indistinguishable paint match on the repair work, very difficult to achieve with mimosa yellow. The Bri-Nylon seats, woodwork and general trim look like new, though both front carpets are showing signs of wear, possibby, accelerated by dampness from a water leak which has never been completely cured. The engine is, and always has been . a had starter from cold; once fired-up it hunts like mad with the choke out or dies completely when the choke is pushed even part-way in.
“Mechanically the Sprint has been very good; the engine has been first class when it has been running properly, with no mechanical breakages experienced. The car has been let down by very bad servicing,” reports our photographer, who doesn’t entirely agree with the verdicts reached by road testers about the Sprint. He sees it as : “… a good, family saloon with excellent acceleration, but by no means a sports car.” He has found it a useful motorway car since the overdrive was fitted, but found it terrible before. The man in question is an excellent driver, I can assure you, yet he finds that the Sprint’s handling frightens him at times : “There’s too much initial understeer if you go into a corner too fast in the dry and the tail breaks away too quickly in the wet. Traction is very poor on any road that smacks of being greasy.”
Would he have another Dolomite Sprint? The answer, a categoric “no”. The Sprint has attracted none of the affection he felt for the 1600E. We would be interested to hear Sprint-owning readers’ experiences. —C.R.