The Triumph Vitesse
To tell the tale of the Triumph Vitesse, you have to start with the Triumph Herald.
In 1959, the Triumph Herald was launched by the Standard–Triumph Company at the London motor show on 22nd April 1959.
However, this was not the 2–door saloon that became the most popular face of the car, but a 2+2–seater coupé that was based upon the design of the original Herald prototype. The better known saloon version of the car appeared a couple of weeks later.
The Triumph Herald Offered New Features in Small Car Design
The Triumph Herald had been designed by Italian Giovanni Michelotti and carried a number of innovative design features for the day.
The saloon car had the largest viewing glass area of any other car on the market, with 95% all round visibility. Steering was rack and pinion with telescopic dampers, coil springs and double wishbones bolted to the separate chassis to provide independent suspension.
There was the luxury of independent suspension at the rear too, this being provided by what is known as swing–axles.
The Triumph Herald had an amazing 25–foot turning circle, for which it became a legend, and Standard–Triumph exploited this in their sales pitch well. There was a heater as standard, lockable glove box, a reserve fuel tank and carpeting throughout.
Other features consisted of a collapsible steering column and nylon and rubber bushes that virtually eliminated grease–fittings and maintenance to the chassis.
The engine was a 4–cylinder overhead valve 948cc unit with single carburettor (twin carburettors for the initial coupé). This engine had been carried over from the Standard 10 and powered the rear wheels through a 4–speed gearbox with synchromesh on 2nd, 3rd and 4th gears.
Performance was hardly sporty, as the top speed was barely 70mph, 0–60 took around 30–seconds for the saloon and power output from the single carburettor Standard–Triumph engine was a mere 38bhp (42.5bhp for the twin carburettor coupé).
Sales of the Herald Were Slow to get Started
Initially, Triumph Herald sales were poor, as all this innovation and luxury had been built into the car at a price. Standard–Triumph had to work very hard to generate interest in the car.
A drive from Cape Town to Tangiers by prototype cars was used to create publicity, and Standard–Triumph were quick to point out how easy the car would be to repair and maintain due to the whole of the front forming the opening bonnet.
TV commercials exploited its manoeuvrability and famously showed the car driving up and down flights of steps to demonstrate the fully independent suspension.
The Triumph Herald was up against stiff opposition, as the 1959 motor show also saw the launch of the new Ford Anglia and the Alec Issigonis designed Austin Mini, which developed into one of the most famous cars of all time.
Rear Suspension Became a Thorn in the Side for Standard–Triumph
The swing axle rear suspension system of the Triumph Herald quickly came in for some sharp criticism. This was due to its somewhat alarming characteristic of wheel tuck–under, which occurred during aggressive cornering.
The issue became a source of irritation for Standard–Triumph, given that it used the same system on other models. However, driven normally, the Herald was a very light and easy car to live with.
In March 1960, the Herald coupé and saloon models were joined by a convertible, which offered a fold down roof that stowed almost completely out of sight.
The convertible also had a full, although somewhat cramped, rear seat and a twin–carburettor set up for the engine. The initial coupé only survived until 1964 when it was discontinued.
Standard–Triumph Comes Under New Ownership
In April 1961, Standard–Triumph became the property of Leyland Motors ltd, a successful truck and bus manufacturer. These were hard financial times within the motor manufacturing industry and Standard–Triumph were struggling to make ends meet. At the time of the takeover, Leyland Motors changed its name to the Leyland Motor Corporation and Standard–Triumph became just Triumph.
Under new ownership, and later that same year, the Triumph Herald 1200 was introduced, and as the name suggests, it now had a 1200cc engine. The car was still being offered with the same selection of body styles. The performance of the Triumph Herald 1200, with the larger capacity engine, was further enhanced by a more relaxed final drive gear ratio, but it still wasn’t anything that could be called exciting.
Not long after its launch, an estate version of the car was added to the range, as well as the short–lived Courier van. This was a commercial version of the estate, but with solid panels in the sides at the rear instead of glass.
A Six–Cylinder Experimental Project
Since the conception of the Herald, Triumph had been working on a project based upon the car, but with a bigger engine that had two extra cylinders. In 1960, Triumph engineers shoehorned their 2–litre straight six–cylinder engine into a test car, a modified Herald Coupé, and found the performance to be quite impressive.
The management at Triumph were initially uncertain if the car their engineers were experimenting with would be worth producing commercially. They were persuaded on the grounds that production costs would not be unreasonable on account of the design incorporating many already available parts.
The Triumph Vitesse 6
In 1962, and with some influence from famous Italian car designer Giovanni Michelotti, designer of the Herald, the new Triumph Vitesse 6 was launched and was offered as both saloon and convertible body styles.
The external appearance, although being much the same as the Herald in all other respects, featured a re–worked bonnet that was flatter and which sloped up at the sides.
The new shape gained a second set of headlights, giving the car a somewhat slant–eyed look. Inside the interior was upgraded to that of the Herald with wooden door cappings, better seats and upgraded interior door trim.
The Triumph six–cylinder engine tested in the prototype car was used, not in 2–litre form as originally planned, but a 1600cc version instead, and with a single carburettor. From 1963, the car became available with overdrive and wire wheels were an option.
Twin Carburettors Boost Performance
In 1965, twin Stromberg side–draft carburettors and accompanying manifold used for the Triumph 2000 saloon, were added, replacing the original Solex setup. This resulted in a significant gain of horsepower, acceleration, as well as fuel economy.
In 1966, due to increasing competition, the Vitesse 6 was significantly upgraded with the 2–litre six–cylinder engine and was thereafter called the Triumph Vitesse 2–litre.
This event coincided with the launch of a new model, the Spitfire derived Triumph GT6 sports coupé, which shared the same 2–litre engine. Both cars received an all–synchromesh 4–speed gearbox originally developed for factory Spitfire rally cars.
A sturdier axle and differential, larger front disc brakes, and 4.5 inch wide wheels, as used for the GT6 and Triumph 2000 models, were fitted giving a more mean and purposeful look to this Triumph Vitesse.
Triumph Herald 13⁄60
It wasn’t for another 2–years and in 1968, that the Triumph Herald received its own version of the slant–eyed front, albeit with a single pair of headlights, bringing a family appearance to the two cars. At the same time it was fitted with the free–revving 1296cc engine from the Mk3 Triumph Spitfire, but in single carburettor form instead of the twin SU’s of the sports car.
This version was called the Triumph Herald 13⁄60, which stood for 1300cc with 60bhp output.
By now, Triumph’s owners, Leyland Motor Corporation, had amalgamated with BMH, British Motor Holdings (formerly BMC), bringing together Jaguar, Daimler, Rover, Austin, Morris, MG and Triumph, all under the banner of British Leyland Motor Corporation (BLMC).
Hark the Herald Axle Swings
The handling issues of the swing–axle rear suspension of the swing axle rear suspension, particularly on the more powerful Triumph Vitesse and the GT6, was really starting to have a negative effect on the reputation of the cars. The motoring press of the day seemed relentless in their effort to take photographs of cars in hedges and ditches. Slogans, such as, ‘Hark the Herald axle swings’ were published and Triumph was getting worried.
These incidents were the result of rear wheel tuck–under, a condition that became synonymous with this type of rear suspension design. In reality the cars were very stable and provocation for them to misbehave to this extent had to be quite brutal. However, incidents there were and something had to be done.
Despite the solution to the swing–axle problem having been available since the beginning of Triumph Herald production in1959, nothing was done about it until late in 1968. This coincided with the launch of the Triumph Vitesse 2–litre Mk2 and the Mk2 GT6.
Triumph Vitesse 2–Litre Mk2
The remedy was a double–jointed drive shafts with Rotoflex couplings utilising the same transverse leaf–spring as before, but now with a reversed lower wishbone. New shock absorbers were fitted and the tailing arms were relocated making for far better road manners.
The Triumph Vitesse 2–litre Mk2 benefitted from a further increase in horsepower, thanks to a re–profiled camshaft and the use of the cylinder head from the Triumph TR5.
The re–worked 2–litre engine boosted engine power to 104bhp and gave the car a 0–60mph time of just over 11–seconds, and a top speed of more than 100mph.
The Vitesse Mk2 was most easily identifiable by a silver coloured inset panel on the boot lid, where the registration plate was fitted, and larger horizontal slats to the radiator grill. The wheels now received full diameter chrome and black wheel covers in the Rostyle design.
As to be expected, this was the best version of the car Triumph had produced and still remains the most sought after by those looking for a low budget performance classic car.
The End of Triumph Vitesse & Herald Production
As good as the Triumph Vitesse had become there was again the familiar case in that era in British car manufacture of everything being too late to save the day. Whilst sales were still reasonably strong, the Triumph Vitesse was dropped from the range in May 1971, together with the Herald, and with no direct or immediate replacement being available.
However, in October 1982, the Vitesse name re emerged, but not associated with a Triumph. This time it was used for a high-performance version of the Rover SD1 to indicate it was a sporting version of the standard car. After that, the name was carried over to represent a sports version of the Japanese designed Rover 800–series, but disappeared altogether in 1999.
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Triumph Vitesse – Triumph Herald