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What is a Triumph Vitesse?
It’s a breathed-on version of the Triumph Herald, which means it’s a performance derivative of one of the most usable classics around. If you don’t get out of bed for less than six cylinders, the Vitesse is the car for you if you’re on a budget. All versions of this eminently practical Triumph came with a sextet of combustion chambers and as a result the cars are beautifully smooth and fabulously torquey. Best of all, the convertible will carry four people comfortably (as long as they’re not too big), in be-finned style - and all for pennies.
The Vitesse grew out of the Herald, which was first seen in 1959. With just 38bhp from a 948cc four-pot, more power was desperately needed. While an 1147cc (and later a 1296cc) powerplant helped to make the car less sluggish, what was really needed was an extra pair of cylinders and further increases in displacement. That’s why the Vitesse appeared in 1962, with a 1596cc six-pot that developed 70bhp. Although it wasn’t much more powerful than the Herald 13/60, the Vitesse had a fabulously smooth engine and rather more torque, making it a honey to drive. From 1966 there was a 1998cc engine, which was fitted to the Vitesse 2-Litre Mk1. The displacement gave an extra dose of power (now up to 95bhp), but it was the post-October 1968 Mk2, complete with revised cam and head, which offers the most power and torque. With 104bhp on tap, the car could finally crack the ton. But the car was to live for just three years, with the final examples being built in May 1971.
A sharp gearchange, reasonably light steering and a very comfortable ride all come as standard on the Vitesse’s menu. The brakes aren’t bad either, although if the car has been tweaked in any way they can struggle to haul it down from high speeds repeatedly. The best thing is the low-down torque – the Vitesse offers the perfect antidote to modern 16-valve engines which have to be thrashed to get the best out of them. On the move the Vitesse is surprisingly refined, with the engine being much quieter than you’d think - unless a stainless sports exhaust has been fitted, which is a popular ploy. What isn’t so good is the inevitable rattling and creaking as the body flexes - torsional rigidity was an unknown concept when Triumph was churning out the Vitesse.Accusations of poor handling aren’t really justified unless the car is driven hard – in real-world use you just don’t notice the limitations of the swing-axle rear end. The 2- Litre Mark 2 from 1968 dispensed with that system anyway, using a rotoflex rear suspension system instead. Go for that with some lowprofile tyres and a conversion to telescopic dampers, and the car’s handling improves greatly.
The 2-Litre Mark 2 is the most sought after version of all the Vitesses while the convertible is the most valuable bodystyle. Parts specific to the 1600 are getting hard to find and they’re not as torquey as the 2-litre cars, so consequently they’re the runt of the litter. But because it’s so easy to mix and match with mechanicals as well as body styles (swapping from saloon to convertible or even estate is just a question of changing the rear body tub), it’s best to buy on condition rather than car type. A tatty but complete project can be bought for a few hundred while a mint convertible will fetch up to £7000. But the most common cars are decent running examples that might need a bit of occasional TLC to get them through MoTs. For these you’ll need to pay around £1500 for a saloon or £2500 for a convertible - the latter being the most common variant. If you can’t find what you want, the monthly classifieds issued to Triumph Sports Six Club members carries the best choice of cars.
What To Look For
- Engine and gearbox oil leaks are common – any car that isn’t dripping from the front is probably devoid of lubricant. If there’s discernible play in the thrust washers, the engine is fit for scrap - get someone to depress the clutch while you look for movement in the front crankshaft pulley.
- Listen for rattling, which indicates the main bearings are starved of oil. Switching from a canister-type filter to one with a non-return valve will fix this - for around £40.
- The bodywork is essentially cosmetic, so even really tatty examples are probably safe and strong enough as long as the chassis itself is sound.
- The main chassis rails rot away below the diff - the outriggers that sit just behind the screw-on sills might also be history. Watch out for outriggers that have just been tacked on to tart up the car as without removing the bodyshell it’s tricky to replace these properly.
- Don’t be too alarmed if panel fit isn’t great, especially if the car has seen a body-off rebuild. Getting everything properly lined up from scratch is a nightmare, but to rebuild a Vitesse properly, the three sections that make up the bodywork (bonnet/front wings, bulkhead and rear tub) should be separated from the chassis. That way the floorpans of the various body sections and the rails of the chassis can be inspected and repaired properly.
- On cars with rotoflex couplings, make sure they’re intact - 35,000 miles is as much as you can expect from genuine Metalastik items, with some repro ones dying much quicker.
- If overdrive is fitted, make sure it engages and disengages smoothly - sometimes the wiring shorts out or the internal filter gets blocked up. Transmissions are the weak spot of the Vitesse, with a gearbox and diff that can protest if too many emergency starts have been performed. Not only can the gearbox or back axle innards let go but there are also universal joints galore that wear and lead to vibration as you put the power down.
- Ensure the front trunnions have been kept well oiled with EP90 - they’re often fed a diet of grease or neglected altogether. The result is snapped vertical links where water has got in and corroded the metal - they’re cheap enough to replace, but the car is immobile until fixed.
- The Vitesse is like a big Meccano set - a box of imperial spanners and some screwdrivers is all you need to do just about everything on the car from a general maintenance point of view. You can also track everything down without having to try very hard and service items are still available from high street motor factors; even new trim is available as it’s being remanufactured by Newton Commercial (01728 832 880).
- The best bit is accessibility – after working on a Vitesse you won’t want to tinker with anything else. Lift the bonnet and you can access the engine and steering along with the front brakes and suspension. Even the gearbox is easy to get to, as you can access it just by removing its cover inside the cabin. There are a couple of bigger jobs, which need specialist tools, but these can normally be hired or borrowed from fellow Triumph club members. The first is a spring lifter if you’re replacing the transverse rear leaf spring, while the other is a hub puller, to remove the rear hubs from the tapered driveshaft on which they sit.
- There were a few estates built unofficially, and genuine examples of these might fetch £6000 or so if in good nick. But making your own by mating a Herald estate bodyshell with a Vitesse bonnet, chassis and running gear will give you the same effect. Although it’s the drop-tops that are the most sought after, they’re still cheap. But for real penny-pinching you can buy a saloon and unbolt the roof - which is held on by just eight bolts.
- Tuning the Vitesse is easy, but bear in mind that the transmission is the car’s Achilles’ heel. It’s easy enough to drop in a 2.5-litre unit from the TR6, but that’s when you have to start uprating brakes, suspension and transmission as well. This unit also isn’t as free revving as the lovely 2000, but the low-down torque is fantastic! You can change up to fourth gear early and just flick in and out of overdrive, treating it almost like a semi-automatic.
In many ways the Vitesse was the BMW 3 Series of its day: stylish, big-engined and classy. A hotted up herald it may be, but for those after a car that lives up to its name and can cut it on modern roads plus is a cinch to maintain by the kerb, this Triumph almost sells itself.