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1970-1977 Triumph Stag

Triumph Stag's Development History

In addition to its surprising value as a collectible car, the Triumph Stag's development history is also interesting, the sort of tale that is sometimes the only reason a car becomes collectible.

The Stag drama opened in 1963 with Italian designer Giovanni Michelotti, who'd recently penned Triumph's then-new TR4 and Spitfire sports cars as well as the just-introduced 2000 sedan. "Micho" was a close friend of Triumph engineering supremo Harry Webster, and asked Webster to give him one of the new big saloons for building a show car to promote his design talents. The following year, Web­ster provided a worn prototype with the understanding that if he liked the finished car, Michelotti would keep it secret and sell it to Triumph.

Webster did like it, paid Michelotti for his trouble, and had the car -- a four-seat convertible on a shortened 2000 chassis -- shipped to Triumph's Coventry headquarters, where the company "kept it on ice for some time," as Graham Robson and Richard Langworth relate in Triumph Cars: The Complete 75-Year History. "It was the usual problem of priorities, and money to tool it," Webster recalled. But things were better sorted by early 1966, and Webster began lobbying for the convertible. So did British Leyland (BL) managing director Sir Donald Stokes, who, if anything, was even more enthusiastic than Webster.

The idea certainly had appeal. At the time, open four-seaters were uncommon among British and Continental manufacturers, and Webster felt Micho's attractive full-convertible styling would assure success. Of course, price, performance, equipment, and refinement had to be just right, because the new model would compete in the European luxury class, a market with which Triumph had seldom bothered.

After surveying likely demand in several countries, America included, BL planners calculated worldwide sales at around 12,000 a year on tooling costs of 2.3 million sterling. With that, Triumph's new droptop tourer got the go-ahead by year's end as Project Stag, a name chosen for no particular reason but which stuck anyway.

Development proceeded under Spen King, who replaced Webster when the latter was promoted to head BL's high-volume Austin-Morris division. Launch was ambitiously set for 1968, but it was not to be, owing to numerous unex­pected, er, snags.

One of the thorniest problems involved engines. Two were proposed: an upsized version of the TR's hoary 2.1-liter straight six, and a new 2.5-liter V-8 that would be formed by joining two of Triumph's new overhead-cam slant fours. The four was the core of a new Triumph engine family devised in 1963 by engineer Lewis Dawtry. (Inter­estingly, the first car to use this engine was not a Triumph but a new flagship Saab, the 99, introduced in 1966. But that's another story altogether.) Though he envisioned a standard displacement of 1.5 liters, the design was amenable to bore/stroke variations giving up to 2.0 liters. The same ap­plied, of course, to a "double four."

One of Triumph's new colleagues from the merger, Rover, had a V-8 too: the 3.5-liter unit it acquired from General Motors, which had devised it for early Sixties "senior compacts" like the Buick Special. But prideful Triumph engineers said this engine wouldn't fit the Stag, a claim later roundly disproved by a number of private conversions. The Triumph chaps might have also argued that their V-8 was the better choice for being more modern than Rover's: an overhead-cam design versus overhead-valve, and with cylinder heads rendered in weight-saving aluminum instead of old-fashioned cast iron.

Ultimately, planners discarded any idea of using a six and ordered the Triumph V-8 taken out to 3.0 liters to overcome the comparatively weak torque of the 2.5 version. To cope with the extra twist, King decreed a stronger gearbox and final drive, plus bigger brakes and 14-inch wheels instead of 13s. Trouble was, the 2000 sedan engine bay had been designed for an inline engine, so substituting a 90-degree V-8 meant considerable reworking there, adding time and expense to the car's development.

Otherwise, the Stag's rear-drive chassis mimicked that of its sedan parent, though wheelbase was trimmed six inches to an even 100. Unibody construction was retained, as was an all-coil independent suspension with front MacPherson struts and antiroll bar, and subframe-mounted rear semitrailing arms. Brakes were front disc/rear drum, steering power-assisted rack-and-pinion.

The Michelotti styling created some snags of its own. For example, the prototype hid its headlights behind slatted doors that slid electrically on tracks by cable. This mechanism easily froze in cold weather and was soon junked for an orthodox face with exposed lights. While this also saved some money, there was no way to economize by sharing body panels with the sedan, not with unique front and rear ends and the two-door, short-wheelbase format.

A more serious problem was structural floppiness. As Webster told Britain's Motor magazine in 1978, handbuilt prototypes "suffered from the most horrendous scuttle shake. ... The torsional stiffness of the [sedan] body had gone to hell, of course, and the only way to get it back was to join the A- and B-posts with a good torsional box across the top." Thus the Stag's effective but ungainly superstructure "hoop" with a T-bar brace to the windshield header.

Fixed door-window frames went on for good measure and cradled standard power glass. Interestingly, one British magazine later claimed that actual body stiffness was such that the T-bar could be unbolted without ill effect, but one tends to be skeptical of such statements about convertibles carved from sedans.

Equally disputable is the claim from some quarters that the T-bar was a hedge against anticipated U.S. regulations for rollover crash protection in open cars. While protecting occupants may have been a motive, the Stag's superstructure had nothing to do with Washington, which didn't seriously threaten such legislation until some time after Stag sales commenced.

As one might expect, Triumph looked closely at the popular Mercedes SL in developing the Stag, which accounts for the manual soft top that dropped conveniently into a GM-style lidded well behind the back seat. Michelotti drew an airy SL-inspired hardtop at Triumph's request, and this became a regular fac­tory option priced at about $250 in the States. Like the SL's, the Stag's lift-off roof needed two WWE types to manage, but did wonders for appearance.

Suddenly it was 1968, yet the Stag was nowhere near ready for production. Worse, Triumph now had to contend not only with the confusion of the bloated BL bureaucracy, but also a needed update of its five-year-old big sedans. Accordingly, Stag work was slowed while Michelotti facelifted the saloons with Stag-like noses and tails. These Mark II models bowed in 1969, a full year before the Stag, so they undoubtedly diluted the styling impact of the new image-leading drophead.

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