John Simister: The curious heritage of the Triumph Dolomite Sprint

27th November 2017
john_simister_singer_goodwood_12062017_04.jpg John Simister

A front-wheel-drive car's mechanical design is so different from a rear-wheel-drive car's that their evolutionary paths would surely never cross. But, twice in history to my knowledge, they have. The recent example is Ford's Transit van: front-drive for the lighter-load versions, rear-drive for the heavy stuff.


At least they were meant to be like that from the beginning. The tale of the Triumph Dolomite Sprint, though, is much stranger.

The Sprint, built from 1973 to 1980, was the fastest, most expensive and most desirable of a range which began with the Triumph 1300 in 1965, a car with a very different character. I like the 1300. It looked much like a smaller, stub-tailed version of the early Triumph 2000. It was the first Triumph with its dashboard warning lights arranged in a pie-chart, or like slices of a round cake, and it had ingenious fold-flat window winder handles designed not to impale your thigh in a side impact. They were a pain to use, though, and post-1300 were not seen again to my knowledge. 

Most intriguingly, the 1300 was Triumph's first front-driver. Its engine, longitudinally mounted, sat above its gearbox, making a clutch change easy from within the passenger compartment. I performed this task once, on a friend's 1300. She was convinced the 1300 was rear-wheel drive, because an 'expert' had told her it was, but had to concede the point – rather reluctantly I thought – when I opened the bonnet and pointed out the driveshafts.

A twin-carb 1300 TC joined the range, a rare car which would be an enjoyably lively curio today. Then the nose was squared off and given quad headlamps, the tail was lengthened, the engine enlarged and the 1500 was the result. At the same time (1970) a cheaper, lower-spec member of the family was launched, with the squared nose (minus the quad headlamps) but retaining the 1300's tail. And unprecedentedly, unbelievably and at an investment, cost offset only by the cheaper, simpler components that could now be used, this economy model (the Toledo) was now propelled not by its front wheels but its rears. 

Two years later, Triumph launched the mildly sporting Dolomite, with the 1500's body, the Toledo's rear-wheel drive and a new 1854cc engine, a slightly smaller version of which Triumph had already been selling to Saab for its 99. A year on, in 1973, Triumph's FWD adventure was over as the 1500 TC, with rear-wheel drive, replaced the 1500. This whole family of cars ultimately ended up with the Dolomite name and the long tail, an obvious marketing move given that the ultimate Dolomite – the Sprint, also a 1973 launch – was quite a hit with the critics.


'A BMW-eater from Triumph', asserted Motor magazine on the Sprint's launch, pointing out pace able to match that of a BMW 2002 Tii and beat that of an Alfa Romeo 2000 GTV. Power of 127bhp, with just under a tonne to pull, explained the impressive 0-60mph time of 8.4 seconds. 

It arose not just from a capacity increase to 1998cc but also from the world's first truly mass-produced 16-valve cylinder head fitted to a truly mass-produced car, all the valves rather cleverly actuated by just the one camshaft. British Leyland's engineers, led for this project by Rover's Spen King, even won a Design Council award for their ingenuity. 

To see a Dolomite Sprint today is to notice some dated details to which the 1970s critics might have been blinded, their eyes drawn instead to the vinyl roof, the black grilles, sills, front spoiler and tail panel, and the racy, pleasingly arch-filling alloy wheels (another mass-production first in a British car). It's only now that we notice the upright stance, the full-framed doors and their flat-glass windows.

This is one of those cars which have triggered in me a sporadic scouring of the classifieds because a good Sprint ought to be a very appealing car. The model's motor sport exploits add to the kudos; Sprints did well in the British Touring Car Championship, the cars of Andy Rouse and Tony Dron winning the manufacturers' title in 1974 and Rouse the driver's title in 1975. Dron nearly won it in 1977, thwarted in the final race (having won seven out of the 12 in the series) by a tyre failure.


Of course, there has been plenty of scope for structural disintegration over the years, and the Sprint engine is famous for overheating and head gasket troubles, made worse by its row of angled cylinder-head bolts which complicates attempts to skim a warped or corroded head. But, as with most once-problematic classics, modern techniques exist to render these engines strong and reliable. And with some further tuning, such as Weber DCOEs in place of the standard SUs and a keener camshaft to exploit them, a Sprint can be made to go very well indeed.

Contemporary road tests praised the handling, helped by a limited-slip differential, and loved the comfy cabin with its cloth seats and satin-wood embellishment. They were less keen on the ride (choppy) and the brakes (not powerful enough). Hmm, I found myself thinking after a particularly intense Sprint-hunting session, one which ignored the too-common brown ones, was torn between a bright red one and a bright blue one, and rued the fact that I had just missed a temptingly original Mimosa yellow one (the launch colour) from 1973.

So I called Tony Dron, the Dolomite racer himself and on Motor's staff when the road test was written. 'Should I buy a Sprint?' I asked. 'No!' he replied. 'Don't do it! The brakes were terrible, even on the race cars. Yes, I won races in them, but I never liked them.' 

So ended that temporary dream. It's interesting, though, that of the many cars in the 1300/1500/Dolomite family, it's only the first and last that hold any appeal. The rest of it is just a BL muddle. Now, let's see if I can find a twin-carb 1300. It may take some time.

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