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Triumph Dolomite

Triumph Dolomite Published: 9th Jan 2019 - 0 Comments - Be the first, contribute now!

Triumph Dolomite

Fast Facts

  • Best model: Honest rot free cars
  • Worst model: Non overdrive and autos
  • Budget buy: Most projects
  • OK for unleaded?: Officially no, in theory, yes
  • Will it fit in the garage? (mm): L4115 x W1580mm
  • Spares situation: Generally good
  • DIY ease?: Excellent
  • Club support: Very good
  • Appreciating asset?: Yes but taking its time
  • Good buy or good-bye?: Underrated, the time to buy
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Underrated and overlooked Seventies’ sporting saloon that has pedigree and price on its side. However, historic lowly values means many aren’t as good as they look and these troubled Triumphs don’t enjoy the same specialist and club support that TRs enjoy

The Dolomite is a curious car in so far it went backwards when the motoring world was moving fast forward, ditching front-wheel drive for a conventional layout. That was a debatable step when the car was contemporary but a positive one for those now seeking a quality, yet simple and cheap to own classy classic. While we wouldn’t steer you away from the myriad of Alfa Romeos, BMWs, Saabs and Mercs that are around, it’s still to this Triumph marque that you should be looking – and in particular the still underrated Dolomite Sprint – if you’re after a serious sporting saloon that caused a stir when launched 45 years ago. Amazing value back then, they still are but it can’t surely stay this way for ever.

History

1970 New compact Triumph launched based upon the established 1300 saloon to create ‘sub 2000’ range. The entry model is the Toledo and rear wheel drive but the front-wheel drive 1500 gains longer bonnet and tail plus a revised interior. 1972 The Dolomite joins the range; based upon the 1500 shell but is rear-wheel driven and uses an engine that was designed by Triumph for Saab and its new 99 range. In the Dolomite it has a capacity of 1854cc for 91bhp.

1973 Dolomite Sprint arrives in June, with a standard vinyl roof, chin spoiler, cast alloy wheels and twin exhaust pipes. The first 2000 examples are all Mimosa Yellow with black interior trim. From the autumn an automatic gearbox joins the option’s list. Its party piece is the innovative 16-valve cylinder head worked by a single overhead camshaft fitted to a bored out Dolly engine to 1998cc for a quoted 127bhp. Also launched is the 1500TC; effectively a Dolomite but Spitfire 1500 powered. 1975 The refreshed Dolomite arrives in May, with overdrive and tinted glass now standard; they were previously optional extras. There’s also a driver’s door mirror, along with a side moulding featuring a rubber insert, while front seat headrests join the options list.

1976 The third-series Sprint goes on sale in March, with a standard radio, front head rests and laminated windscreen. A limited slip differential became optional (for competition purposes chiefly). Also, for 1977 all models, including Toledo, come under the Dolomite name.

1979 There’s a new chassis number protocol from August. Where the earlier cars are concerned, if it’s a genuine Sprint, its number will start VA, but from this point on there’s a new 17-digit VIN for each car. Manual-gearbox cars have a VIN starting with TWTLD5AT while automatics begin with TWTLD3AT. Special edition 1500TCs are introduced, such as the SE.

1980 The final flourish of Dolomites, including Sprint, is built in August. Total production runs to 22,941, of which 17,715 were sold in the UK. It’s now reckoned that there are fewer than 300 examples left and even less really good ones.

Driving and press comments

In its day, these Triumphs were considered to be a cut above the rest and the Dolomite and Sprint in particular genuine BMW and Alfa rivals but at much lower prices. Looking back, their biggest problem was the lack of development the design should have had over its seven year run (in the case of the Sprint) – it certainly deserved it. As many pundits have remarked over the ensuing decades – it was a great engine always in search of a chassis. Despite winning saloon car championships during the 1970s, the Sprint’s chassis was always heavily taxed even on the road. Drivers who are more used to modern machinery will find the handling, roadholding and ride from another era and, even when new, the suspension could rattle and crash around except on smooth surfaces with alarming regularity.

But let’s round up the Triumph’s good points across the range first. Chief plus is the plush cabin which was streets ahead of a Ford or Vauxhall of the same era. The driving position was one of the most commanding and all models are easy to place on the road, too due to the square cut styling. Thanks to their decent equipment levels and orthodox make up, Dolomites make good daily drivers. Overdrive (fitted to most) helps keep the noise levels and fuel usage down (expect around 30mpg on a run) and apart from wind noise, are ideal for long journeys if you can accept that rather choppy ride. If performance isn’t a criteria then the 1850 and the underrated 1500TC makes decent and much cheaper classics – but it’s Sprint that leads by a mile.

That industry award winning 16-valve engine remains a true masterpiece that, if good tune (sadly, many aren’t) endows the Triumph with splendid performance that’s well up to Capri 3-litre and BMW 2002 Tii levels with ample low-down torque and top-end shove, “a highly desirable and luxurious car…tame enough to let granny out in it, for the odd trip to pension’s office” said a rather non PC Hot Car.

When weekly Motor first put a Sprint through its paces in July 1973, its summary was that the saloon was already “a mite old-fashioned with its chunky lines, but the Dolomite Sprint doesn’t have a rival in sight”. The critical monthly Car wondered, “Is this the start of something good”. Alas it was not. Within 18 months, Motor pitted the Dolomite Sprint against the Alfa Romeo Alfetta, Lancia Beta and Saab 99 EMS, but by this point the Triumph’s price had increased from the cheap £1740 (£1811 with overdrive) to £2438 (£2551 with overdrive) – a massive 40 per cent hike, causing Car to remark that the Triumph’s trump card had been lost. Motor now emphasised the now ageing Sprint faults and said that the car’s failings “weigh all the more heavily against it. Yet it is still an enjoyable car to drive” but, it added “the Sprint’s ride comfort can only be described as poor. Furthermore the ride sounds as bad as it feels”. In 1975 Car, said the Triumph’s real shame was that “it’s engine behaviour isn’t matched by the chassis”. However, in complete contrast, Autocar was quite impressed with the sedate 1500TC. “If your requirement is for a luxury small-sized handy package, the Triumph 1500TC has few serious rivals… For those who can’t quite run to the price of the Dolomite, the 1500TC offers a good alternative”.

Values and marketplace

According to David Aspinall from Anglian Triumph Services, who has been a marque expert for nearly 40 years, demand for previously overlooked performance Triumphs, such as GT6, Vitesse and Dolomite Sprints are increasing but in the case of the Sprint it’s finding a good one – the last one Aspinall sold was more than two years ago.

A fairly good example will relieve you of around £6000 but something special will be double this; overdrive is deemed almost essential and while history and colour isn’t hyper critical, those finished in Magenta or Sapphire Blue appear to find buyers more readily, as these hues are sought after but rare. Predictably, what affects a Sprint’s value is its condition, and many of the cars that come onto the market are quite tatty – but may not look it, especially on the internet rather than a proper visual inspection. Because many of the downmarket Dollies had been sacrificed on the Sprint alter there’s even less around. Howmanyleft.co.uk suggests that there’s 247 Sprints but only 24 are autos. There’s 145 Dolomites and 105 1300s with a similar amount of 1500s (six SEs).

Improvements

A better radiator is must fit replacement on Dolomites and especially Sprints as, like the Stag, cooling on this engine (which is closely related to the ill-fated V8) is critical.

Uprated dampers and springs to replace the short-lived standard set up are wise as are replacing the standard suspension bushes (which will probably be shot by now anyway) with harder types to improve feel and stability although the ride will be made even harsher. As the suspension was criticised in period for its poor set up, fitting adjustable dampers all round so you can adjust them to suit your needs is a good ploy. Brakes, always marginal on Sprints, can be uprated in various ways, from simple, harder pads to bigger four-pot calipers.

The much slated engine is quite muscular in standard 127bhp form, but few produce this output now because they are out of tune. It can be boosted to around 160bhp through the fitment of a fast-road cam, gas-flowed head and electronic ignition if desired. You’ll also need to fit a more free-breathing exhaust system, increase the carburation (48DHLA sidedraught carbs are best) and to help feed those you’ll need to convert to an electric fuel pump. To improve the upgraded engine’s longevity, high-capacity oil pump and oil cooler should ideally also be fitted.

The 1850 is said to respond well to similar uprating and if the 2-litre TR7 engine is employed can produce practically Sprint power without the need for 16 valves. The Spitfire 1500 engine is highly tunable and can match the 1850 easily.

Engine enigmas

It’s really a V8 Stag split in two – so has only half the problems? Actually there’s no reason why any Sprint engine should now give hassle, as long as the correct fluid levels are maintained and the oil changed every 3000 miles. It’s also essential that decent anti-freeze concentration is maintained; a 50:50 mix is ideal and should be changed every few years.

The Sprint’s alloy head warps if it’s allowed to get too hot. Head gasket woes are legion and it’s a swine to get at due to slanted nature, and lift off the block. Some owners torque down the head annually as it can work loose in service by as much as 20lbft and do it the time honoured way rather than Triumph’s odd sequence of events. You can’t fit a Sprint head on an 1850 block and no Saab parts fit and this includes complete engines. The trusty ohv Herald-derived 1300 and 1500 engines hold few worries for the home mechanic other than the usual Triumph foible of excessive crankshaft float due to thrust washer wear.

Spot the rot

Bodged and poorly restored examples are common; if the car you’re buying isn’t original, ask for photographs to prove that things have been done properly as many haven’t. Pre-1976 cars seem to be the most rust-resistant, those built between 1976-’78 being the worst, it’s said. The floorpans are some of the most rot-prone areas. Remove the battery and make sure its tray is intact, as well as the subframe mountings; major corrosion problems are commonplace. Subframes crack and corrode at the wishbones.
Corrosion sometimes spreads into the base of the windscreen pillars and goes deep. Once a car is this rotten it’s likely that the bulkhead will have holes in it. If things are really bad, the steering column mountings could potentially break away and it may not be worth saving. Lifting the carpets is essential to get a good handle on the state of the car – just looking from underneath doesn’t provide you with an accurate picture.

The sills are likely to have corroded along their front and rear edges, with rot spreading into the rear wheelarches and A-posts, the latter then rusting badly to the point where the doors waggle around. Front valance panel and the surrounding areas rot out.

Inner panels, floorpans and outer panels all bubble and blister away. Open the bonnet and make sure the inner wings are sound and that the scuttle isn’t riddled with rot and nor the suspension pick-up points.

Areas around the headlamps and the front valance being two of the worst affected but the Triumph Dolomite Club sells repair panels. Check the leading and trailing edges of the sills. Inspect the jacking points and inner sill; new ones are available from the Triumph Dolomite Club at £100 per side. Doorskins can dissolve with alarming ease, as do the wheelarches.

Check the vinyl roof for condition and, more importantly, any signs of bubbling underneath, especially at the point where it mates with the screens. New roofs are expensive as few trimmers carry out this work anymore.

Fourth time lucky…

Stuart Marsden is a self confessed, buying, selling and enjoying classic car fan but it’s Dolomites that he has a special affection for because he lived near the factory and his mother used to own a special edition SE.

His first foray into owning his own was a Rover V8-powered home build bought on eBay and Stuart is on his fourth Sprint although admits the first three weren’t that good and disappointed him – unlike his current model which was well cared for by a previous owner who only got rid because it lacked power steering and so switched to modern Saabs instead.

As membership secretary of The Dolomite Club, Stuart has recently completed the annual Triumph Round Britain Reliability run with no problems whatsoever – so much for the usual tales of a Sprint’s lack of staying power!

If Stuart has one piece of advice to potential Sprint buyers it’s the old cliché of “buy the best you can afford – even if it’s a non runner” as body panels aren’t in plentiful supply – one member is himself financing reproduction stuff to help the situation. Unlike RS Escorts, there’s, so far, been no problem with acceptance of spurious Sprints within the club as many still around probably started off as 1850s – or even 1500s – although Marsden admits that rising values may alter this; Stuart says that five figure sums are fast becoming common and one concours car recently sold for close to £20,000!

What To Look For

Look for trim troubles

Check for delaminating veneer on the dashboard and door cappings. Trim is reasonably hard wearing, but you need to check closely for splits, tears and repairs – especially along the top edge of the back seat if its been left out in the sun too long. While it’s possible to buy reproduction carpets, you’ll be doing well to find any other interior trim new. Because of their marked desirability, Sprints have the most staying power and many lesser models have been cannibalised to save a Sprint.

The oily bits

1. The chances are that any car, Sprints in particular, you look at will be fitted with a four-speed manual gearbox. Until April 1975 this may have come with overdrive as well, but after this date all Sprints featured it as standard. It’s a straightforward transmission, and it’s fairly tough too as the internals were based on those fitted to the six-cylinder saloons and estates

2. Any overdrive problems are usually down to a duff relay, poor connections in the wiring or a low oil level in the gearbox. Of more concern is any crunching when you swap cogs, or the car jumping out of gear which the unit could be prone to. The only cure for this is a rebuilt gearbox, which generally costs around £300 unless you wish to fit the TR7 five-speeder instead

3. Less than 1700 Sprints were fitted with a three-speed automatic transmission, but if you’re not bothered about swapping cogs yourself, there’s no reason to avoid the Borg-Warner Type 65 unit, which is renowned for its reliability even if it did sap the performance. Check state of fluid and on test drive see that the ratios are all present and correct, engaging smoothly

4. The Sprint featured a unique rear axle, which is larger and stronger than a standard Dolomite affair. Some later cars even had a limited-slip differential although it’s expensive to repair; if the car you’re looking at has been reshelled, it’s worth getting an expert to verify whether it’s got the correct back axle, complete with the larger brake backplates. Some fit larger Rover SD1 axle.

5. Play in the steering is usually down to perished bushes in the rack mounts; they get soaked in engine oil but they’re easily and cheaply fixed. It’s worth fitting polyurethane items while you’re at it. A rattling column is a known Dolomite trait. The dampers and springs may need to be replaced by now. The brakes are straightforward with few particular faults.

Three Of A Kind

BMW 2002
BMW 2002
This is the distant relative of the 3 Series, and the most direct rival to the Sprint thanks to its discreet looks, understated cabin and grown-up driving experience. These cars are very sought after though so you’ll pay heavily for a minter – but look very carefully for rust before buying. Tii is most desired by a long chalk but all are worthy in their own ways.
Hillman Avenger
Hillman Avenger
An unlikely alternative at first glance but the Avenger GT, GLS and Tiger are good sports saloons, none more so than the boy-racer looking Tiger which matched the Sprint for pace and poise. The GLS is nice plush saloon that’s a match for the 1850 as well. Sadly, few good ones survive and parts can pose a problem.
MG Maestro & Montego
MG Maestro & Montego
Took over from the Dolomite as Austin Rover’s sporting saloons with a luxury laden Vanden Plas alternative. Early cars were under developed but 2.0i models are highly pleasant and Turbos go like stink – best go for the late 1980’s revise with their retuned chassis. Can be dirt cheap but top values seem to match the Triumph…

Verdict

As one magazine put it, the Dolomite Sprint was “One of Leyland’s brightest ideas.” And almost half a century on, we can’t recommend this sporting Triumph highly enough, because it offers so much of everything for so little cash – if you can find a good one that is – and remains a mystery why prices stay so low – look how much you have to pay for an RS Escort, for instance. But it can’t stay this way for ever and now’s the time to buy before values sprint away. And don’t dismiss the rest of the Dolly mixtures either.



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