1970 Triumph Stag V8 Automatic

1970 Triumph Stag V8 Automatic

A Great Beginning Delving into Ricardo’s technical secrets with Prototype 12. The Triumph Stag had it all: sporty looks, 2+2 accommodation and V8 power; surely a winning combination. Sadly, behind the scenes all was far from well – we reveal the reality behind the reputation and test one of the prototypes. Words Mike Taylor. Photography Jonathan Fleetwood.


Delving into the infamous engine, with No. 12 and Ricardo Engineering

1970 Triumph Stag V8 Automatic

Fifty years ago Triumph’s glamorous Stag was about to reach production after a frantic two-year final development and testing period. Twelve pre-production cars were built, all of which were taken to a three-model BL press launch in Belgium. Today we’re driving one of them, LD17, registered on 17 April 1970 as RVC 438H. Handily, it’s only recently emerged from a major rebuild, which provides an opportunity to appraise how the Stag might have performed straight from the showroom. We’ll also explore why it failed its maker’s expectations so dramatically.

1970 Triumph Stag V8 Automatic

Half a century later the Stag’s composition of style, performance and niche market appeal still feels fresh and exciting. Looking at the classy Wedgwood Blue Triumph Stag, its heritage is clear. It encompasses the same crisp knife-edge lines of the Triumph MkII family, creating a strong design identity yet projecting its own powerful message of individuality. It successfully embraces the image of Triumph’s sports cars with the lines of its luxury high-end saloons; it was planned to be a pivotal partner in the company’s model line-up for the Seventies. BL’s Sales Director Lindon Mills said the Stag’s market spoke to a very small but select group of people. It was the kind of car that created showroom traffic. Thirteen years earlier, in 1957, Harry Webster had been made director of engineering at the Triumph Motor Company while Giovanni ‘Micho’ Michelotti had worked as a designer in several notable Italian carrozzeria studios. Following the Triumph Herald commission, Michelotti set up his own design business, going on to shape many Triumph models including the MkI 2000/2.5PI, launched at the 1963 London Motor Show.

The account of how Micho asked Webster for a 2000 saloon for conversion into a design concept has already been well documented. Suffice to say, Micho’s delightful sporting two-door proposal formed the foundation for the Triumph Stag.

1970 Triumph Stag V8 Automatic

Once inside LD17, there’s every opportunity to be comfortable; the Stag’s front seats adjust for fore/aft travel, the backrest can be raised and lowered and a natty little handle raises and lowers the seat squab. Better still, the steering column adjusts for reach and rake, and the 15.75in steering wheel gives the driver an uninterrupted view of the well-organized instrument cluster, set in a veneered facia. Only the lack of an all-important oil pressure gauge detracts from a full analogue engine management readout. This is an early car so there are no headrests; these were fitted later.

1970 Triumph Stag V8 Automatic - engine

That delightful V8 burble from the twin tailpipes comes immediately on song from engine start up; it’s a comforting soundtrack making a satisfying symphony once underway. LD17 is an automatic, using a three-speed BorgWarner Type 35 gearbox that suits the Stag’s tourer character well.

With a purposely unstressed 145bhp at 5500rpm on tap, performance through the gears is responsive rather than impressive, with a recorded 0-60mph sprint timed at 10.4 seconds. Should you need a burst of power for overtaking there’s a choice; the kick-down reacts to extra pressure from the throttle pedal, or you can simply move the selector into manual mode. Either way the change in tempo is immediate, the power unit seemingly unruffled by the increase in revs asked of it.

In 1963 Webster had tasked Lewis Dawtrey, a senior Triumph design engineer, to produce a paper outlining the critical components for a new range of engines capable of satisfying the company’s needs into the next decade. Dawtrey then approached world-renowned engine consultant Harry Ricardo Ltd. It was the kind of overture that fitted Ricardo’s operating business model ideally. What emerged was the layout for a compact overhead camshaft four-cylinder canted over at 45 degrees, with a water reservoir to one side that formed an integral part of the cylinder block casting, housing a jackshaft driven water pump.

In early 1965 Saab Automobile approached Ricardo over working on an all-new engine. Ricardo promptly introduced Saab to Triumph. Then followed a comprehensive test and development programme, Saab requesting that the camshaft remain in situ when the cylinder head was removed and that the cylinder head be affixed to the block with a row of angled studs. Perversely, the Saab/Triumph contract contained an exclusion clause preventing Triumph from using the engine itself until 1972.

1970 Triumph Stag V8 Automatic

Meanwhile, the Triumph 2000’s design influence over the Stag was clear. Micho had taken the saloon’s stainless steel finishing strip that encapsultes its rear lighting while disguising the bodywork’s welded seams and used it front and rear. A full-width grille included sliding panels to reveal the headlamps; there was no rollover bar. When Webster approached his board members with the elegant Stag prototype the programme was given the green light; with the innovative Dawtrey/Ricardo power unit scheme, which enabled the cylinder block casting to be enlarged into a V8 for installing into larger vehicles, the proposal looked particularly promising. Better yet, the four-cylinder and V8 engines could be assembled sharing the same production line. Incidentally, ‘Stag’ was Triumph’s project title but was so well received it became the model name.

In late 1966 the prototype was returned to Micho for final design fettling, including reshaping the dashboard and adapting the interior to accommodate larger people. It also formed the platform for turning into a sleek fastback later. At this point the car’s styling features were finalised and work began on assembling two cars in Triumph’s prototype build shop; almost none of the body panels were shared with the 2000 model. The sliding grille feature was deleted and a rollover bar added for safety. Under the bonnet was the familiar Triumph 2.0-litre straight-six. In 1967 testing began, including pavé work at the MIRA proving ground; the team would have to move fast to make the projected 1969 launch date.

Critical to progress on the Stag’s programme were the demands of work involving the Saab engine, the increasingly stringent US safety and emission regulations and the forthcoming merger of Leyland Motors (which included Standard-Triumph) and BMC, which severely impacted on the budget.

By 1968 it was clear that the Stag’s projected launch date would slip, caused in part through customer demand for other Triumph models. Meanwhile, the intense testing at MIRA revealed major weaknesses in bodyshell rigidity and a leg linking the windscreen with the rollover bar was necessary. Meanwhile, evaluation of the 2.5-litre prototype V8 power units was underway, including cooling system performance analysis. Significantly, the fuel injected version fell markedly short of US emission regulations on the dynamometer; a change to twin Zenith-Stromberg carburettors resulted in a cleaner burn pattern yet the unit was woefully down on power. The solution was to increase its swept volume to 3.0 litres. This in turn required upgrades to the gearbox and final drive. Changes were also made to the front seat mechanisms to make rear seat access easier.

To give the right international tourer-type flavour, brochure photography was done in the Alps and the South of France, the Stag’s natural habitat. Its success now lay in the hands of international motoring journalists and the buying public if it were to reach the annual target build rate set at 12-14k units.

Two areas that received considerable attention from Triumph’s development engineers were the brakes; the servo-assisted front discs and rear drums are well up to dealing with the Stag’s performance. To help with suspension dynamics development, Triumph brought in ex-F1 engineer Derrick White, the result being six-plus inches of well-damped suspension travel controlled by an anti-roll bar up front and located by trailing arms at the rear.

Under severe road test conditions in period, the brakes were found to judder and fade after 20 emergency stops, and there was a tendency for the front suspension to tuck in when lifting off during high-speed cornering, caused in part by slight binding in the 2.5PI-derived splined driveshafts. In practice the roll angle on bends is well-damped and within limitations, and progress over less-thankind surfaces is handled with aplomb; occupant comfort is further enhanced by well-cushioned seats. Finally, there were journalist comments relating to the ‘over-lightness’ of the power steering. None of these criticisms were considered to require modification by Triumph development engineers during the Stag’s life.

Built at Speke, Liverpool, and finished in Coventry, the Stag’s assembly schedule was complex. Doubtless, Triumph’s board pointed its business finger at the 2000/2.5 MkII models as being the volume sellers to be released first in 1969 to provide a much-needed boost to revenue streams. Overall, press reports on LD17 and other similar cars suggested the Stag had a promising future.

Among the world’s journalists to sample a Stag in Belgium was Max Boyd, motoring correspondent for the Sunday Times. And this is the very Stag that he was allocated. Here we quote from Boyd’s comments recorded in the video Project Stag, ‘It really is very nice indeed. It has been made to compete with the Mercedes 280SL, which is really hot competition. But I think that BL have gone a long way to achieving it, and it will sell pretty well.’ Clearly enjoying the delights of open-air motoring in the Belgian sunshine, Boyd continued, ‘I think that BL could make the same mistake as other British manufacturers, unavoidably or otherwise, that they get the orders and then can’t build enough to satisfy demand.’

Stepping out of LD17 to voice his opinions Boyd added, ‘There are three things which impressed – the get-up-and-go-ness of the engine, and the smoothness of the automatic gearbox, which is really nice indeed. I’ve tried the Stag with a manual ’box and while many customers may prefer it, I recommend they don’t ignore this version. Finally, the suspension coped well with the unsatisfactory Belgium road surfaces that the car had to endure.’ Boyd’s only criticism was the location of the battery. ‘Tucked away at the front under the bonnet it will be a job to top up, let alone replace it. Perhaps it would have been better to put the battery in the boot, even if it took away useable space.’

He concluded, ‘Now the dealers have seen it and we journalists have tested the Stag, its success will depend on customers.’ In 1982 I quizzed Triumph’s engineering director Spen King over why the Stag was never fitted with the Rover V8. He said he’d asked his team to fit a Rover unit into a development car but, significantly, he was told it wouldn’t go in. Yet as Stag production approached termination, a handful of cars were fitted with the Rover engine.

It’s unclear when Triumph/BL sold this car off into the public domain but intensive research has revealed that it has had at least nine owners. Initially leading a hard life and losing its important ‘RVC’ number plate, it was acquired in 1985 by The Stag Centre before being sold to Martin Dimmock of Just Triumph in 2003, who managed to trace and reinstate the original registration plate. Dimmock began a full restoration and the bodyshell was taken to Keith Stevenson of Tynwald in Warrington where a rebuild was undertaken. Meanwhile, the engine was rebuilt by a local specialist. Dimmock sold LD17 to current owner Chris Bodill in 2012.

When this car emerged as one of the first of the breed in 1970 the Triumph Stag had no direct competitor; even the Mercedes 280SL – priced at a hefty £4655 and often reckoned to be its natural market competitor – lacked comparable rear-seat legroom. During a 1973 CAR magazine group test the Scimitar GTE and Datsun 260Z were both cited as being quicker with better handling. Pricewise, there was little in it – the GTE with overdrive cost £3337, the Datsun £3435 and the Stag with hard-top was now £3342, the result of rapid inflation in the Seventies. Other rivals included the Ford Capri 3000E and the Lotus Elan +2 – priced respectively at £1513 and £2616 in 1971. The latter in particular was a compelling proposition, offering similar accommodation but with much-enhanced driver appeal.

Sadly, it was the Stag’s unreliability that ultimately caused its demise with just under 26,000 cars having been built, a little over half that of the Mercedes-Benz W113 SL. Major industrial disputes linked directly to poor quality control were pivotal; sales to the USA were stopped in 1973 after a barrage of warranty claims.

An stylish open-topped car with a soft-top and hard-top, the Stag encompassed three stylish vehicles in one. All this plus a plush interior, too. Surely this should have been enough to ensure its success? As we know, it was not. But with a half-century of third-party development addressing most of its notorious shortcomings, the Stag makes more sense as a matured classic than it ever did as a promising but ultimately troubled novelty.

‘When this car emerged as one of the first of the breed in 1970 the Stag had no direct competitor’

The Stag is arguably more compelling today than it was half a century ago. The Stag’s torquey 3.0-litre V8 was a development of the slant-four that had been co-created with Saab. Aftermarket development has banished the Stag’s original shortcomings. Popularity ensured the ‘Stag’ project name was carried into production Mike shares his thoughts on Stag performance with owner Chris Bodill.

First-gen Stags had chrome/black wheel trims; later cars were given alloys. Dashboard similarity to the 2000/2.5MkII is clear though the Stag spec includes electric window buttons. Side elevation reveals how the T-Bar enhances body rigidly and provides safety protection. GB plate refers to the 1970 Belgium press trip where RVC 438H was one of 20 BL demo cars. Seat and steering column offered more adjustment than most cars had in 1970. Stainless steel trim turns welded body seams into a styling feature. Elements of the Stag’s Michelotti crisp lines were shared with the 2000/2500 saloons and Spitfire/GT6.

Restoring the Stag prototype number 12

I’d previously restored a Stag myself over several years starting in 1989, and was accumulating parts for a second early H-reg project when LD17 came onto my radar in 2012,’ explains current owner Chris Bodill. ‘It was clearly more advanced than the restoration of my car, so I bought it and started to work on it myself.

‘The bodyshell had been stripped, repaired and painted in its original colour of Wedgwood Blue. I stripped the car again because the body had a few chips and marks and ultimately I decided to have it completely repainted. In the event it had to be done twice to achieve the quality of finish I wanted. Meanwhile, I had all the mechanical parts stripped and powder-coated by RPA Ltd and the brightwork re-chromed by S-T Ltd, both based in Bristol.

‘When the body was finally finished the bodyshop refitted the suspension components and the car was returned to me as a rolling ’shell. I then started on the assembly process. The dashboard top had cracked so I had it repaired by Classic Trim in Essex, which uses a vacuum process to mould the new vinyl covering to the curved surface beneath. I also had the steering rack serviced and the automatic gearbox was rebuilt by Meadspeed Autos in Faversham.’

Major surgery was required. Here is the car before it was set on a jig so that alignment could be maintained Work to body included welding in replacement inner and outer wings, sills, and cockpit and boot floors Chris’s car on a flatbed after the first repaint; it ultimately had to be done again to eradicate dents and scuffs Parts laid out before final assembly. Chris says taking the car to Enginuity marked a turning point in the project.

Fast forward to 2019 and Chris took LD17 to Triumph specialist Enginuity of Ealing, West London. ‘This marked a significant turning point in the restoration,’ recalls Chris.

‘They began by fitting new brake and fuel lines, dressed the engine bay with items like the fuse box, wiper motor, radiator, washer bottle and so on before running the engine up on their test bed to ensure it was oiltight before reinstating the drivetrain.’ While this was being done Chris sourced the correct colour leather to match the original soft-grain vinyl in Blue Print, which was supplied by Southbound Motor Trimmers. ‘I then rebuilt the seat frames and doorcards and sent them to Aldridge of Wolverhampton, which recovered all the interior parts and the T-bar with the leather I supplied.

‘I also bought another dashboard, which had already been restored by Chapman and Cliff to match those used on the MkII 2000/2.5 cars, from previous owner Martin Dimmock.’ Enginuity could then fit the interior and have the Stag MoT’d.

Progress with the build was tempered by available finances and waiting while parts were refurbished. ‘I did enjoy the experience,’ says Chris, beaming. ‘The colour is growing on me; it speaks volumes of the Sixties. Only three of the first 20 Stags were finished in this shade.’ Now Chris has just one job left on his restoration list ‘I’d like to find some good original sill kick plates, the current items are reproductions. Other than that it’s finished.’

‘The colour is growing on me; it speaks volumes of the Sixties Body resplendent in Wedgwood Blue; only three of the 12 early Stags were finished in this shade Rebuild in progress with final drive in position. All parts were checked before fitting to the body shell Interior being fitted out and wiring loom connected. Carpet and leather in original colour of Blue Print V8 reinstated in the engine bay after being run on the test bed to ensure it ran properly with no oil leaks.

Dates and numbers

  • 1970 June – Stag launched with 3.0-litre V8 and 2+2 body
  • 1972 October – overdrive on manual version now standard; three-speed Borg Warner automatic transmission options
  • 1973 February – matt-black sills and tail panel are restyled
  • 1974 January – hazard and seatbelt warning lights are fitted
  • 1975 March – air conditioning option is dropped
  • 1976 January – upgraded to include alloy wheels, tinted glass and laminated windscreen as standard. Stainless steel sill covers. Tail panel reverts back to body colour
  • 1977 24th June the last Stag ever built rolls off the production line 25,939 Total built across seven years
Malcolm McKay

Gordon Birtwistle used X782

Gordon Birtwistle used X782 to test automatic and manual gearboxes

A bad reputation early in a car’s model run can taint it forever, or paradoxically help infuse it with mystique

Mention the Triumph Stag in mixed motoring company, pause for breath and you’ll almost certainly have someone chime in with a wellworn version of the old, ‘Don’t they always overheat?’ line. Like the thirst of the Jensen Interceptor and the deathwish oversteer of a Porsche 911, these nuggets of received wisdom cling to certain cars forever, often obscuring the full picture. With the Stag reaching its 50th birthday this year, we decided to colour in that picture with some fresh insight. We’ve driven two pre-production prototypes, spoken in-depth with factory development driver Gordon Birtwistle and followed the story of a prototype’s restoration. Like many cars with a reputation, the Stag’s is rooted in fact, but delve deeper into its story and you’ll be impressed that it turned out as well as it did. In these handsome grand tourers – they look best with the hard-top on – is a sophisticated travel companion, one that helps you escape life’s troubles as soon as that overhead-cam V8 stirs into a silken burble. And with modern knowledge, old problems are consigned to the past. No wonder it has such a following. If you want an example of a car that is revered in spite of its reputation for being difficult, consider the Porsche 917. Like the Stag, it celebrates a 50th anniversary in 2020, in this case for giving its maker its first outright victory in the Le Mans 24 Hours. But contrary to Porsche’s hard-earned reputation for obsessive engineering, the 917 was a wayward child, so unstable at full speed that it would weave from one side of the Mulsanne straight to the other, its drivers using all of their skill to keep it on the blacktop. Some even refused to drive it until aerodynamic improvements tamed the beast and made it into a winner. To celebrate, we took a 1971 Le Mans contender on track and spoke to the luminaries who knew it inside-out.

Bob Harper

A Stag on the Riviera

What could be better – a hot summer’s day in 1978, the Promenade des Anglais in Nice, a Triumph Stag with the roof down and a hat to die for! But the bonnet slightly ajar is a precursor to a fraught and ultimately fruitless attempt to reach Grasse where we were meant to be staying. The offending distributor had supposedly been fixed by a BL garage in Gap but the problem re-appeared with little to choose between zero and maximum revs.

We limped as far as Roquefort-les-Pins where we persuaded le patron of the local garage to look at the problem. To his credit he undertook such a successful repair that the car ran faultlessly all the way back to Inverness. The silver lining was having to spend the weekend in a delightful little restaurant with rooms, dining under the stars and listening, rather bizarrely, to Mull of Kintyre.

As for those wheel trims, two went AWOL – one under a lorry on the M1, the other preceding us down a Normandy village’s steep main street, greatly entertaining the locals. The car is still on the DVLA database but has been on SORN since 2012.