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Triumph Dolomite Sprint

TOP TRIUMPH Published: 4th Nov 2013 - 0 Comments - Be the first, contribute now!

Fast Facts

  • Best model: Anything straight
  • Worst model: Non overdrive and autos
  • Budget buy: 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 at long last
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If you wanted an understated sporting saloon during the 1970s, but on a tight budget, there was only one company to look to – and that was Triumph. If you’re after a classic that’s practical, affordable, fun and can also throw in a dash of luxury you still don’t have that many options. While we wouldn’t steer you away from myriad Alfa Romeos and BMWs, it’s still to the Triumph Great attempt by Triumph 40 years ago to make a BMW- beater from its Dolomite but reliability issues let it down – now largely corrected by specialists. Nevertheless a fine, if still overlooked classic that’s dirt cheap for what it offers that you should be looking – and in particular the under-rated Dolomite Sprint – if you’re after a sporting saloon.

If you wanted an understated sporting saloon during the 1970s, but on a tight budget, there was only one company to look to – and that was Triumph. If you’re after a classic that’s practical, affordable, fun and can also throw in a dash of luxury you still don’t have that many options. While we wouldn’t steer you away from myriad Alfa Romeos and BMWs, it’s still to the Triumph marque that you should be looking – and in particular the under-rated Dolomite Sprint – if you’re after a sporting saloon.

Offered in four-door saloon form only, the Sprint may have already looked dated when launched in 1973, but it still put the cat among the pigeons. With its 127bhp 1998cc four-pot engine and 115mph top speed, this was the car with which to bait all those drivers of German and Italian marques. The car’s credibility was given a boost by becoming Leyland’s most successful competition car of the 1970s – although with a severely curtailed budget the Sprint’s career could have been better. This year marks four decades since the Sprint made its exciting debut, and it still makes a cracking classic buy – especially at prices that way under cut an MGB for example. Combining performance with practicality, the Dolomite Sprint has a lot going for it – but sadly good examples are getting fewer and further between.

Mint ones rarely come onto the market as owners tend to hang on to them, so while you’ll have to look hard to find your corker, the wait will be more than worthwhile.

HISTORY

1973 The 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 along with a laminated windscreen.

1975 The second-series Dolomite arrives in May, with overdrive and tinted glass now standard; they were previously optional. 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 limitedslip diff was optional.

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.

1980 The final Dolomite Sprint is built in August. Total production runs to 22,941, of which 17,715 were sold in the UK. It’s reckoned that now there are fewer than 400 examples left and even less really good ones.

DRIVING AND PRESS COMMENTS

When you consider how lairy some mainstream sporting cars were in the Seventies, the Sprint looks surprisingly restrained – but this is a real Q-car. That 16-valve engine is a true masterpiece that gives the Sprint low-down torque and top-end shove, so you can drive the car hard if you want, or you can take it easy and just cruise effortlessly. Indeed, compared with key rivals such as those in the Three of a Kind panel, the Sprint looks rather restrained (perhaps even dull) and may be too civilised for its own good.

At a time when most of its readers were modding Anglias and Minis, a £1740 Sprint was in dream world for most Hot Car readers but thought it “a highly desirable and luxurious car…tame enough to let granny out in it, for the odd trip to pension’s office”.

When Motor first put a Sprint through its paces in July 1973 its summary was that it was “a mite old-fashioned with its chunky lines, but the Dolomite Sprint doesn’t have a rival in sight”.

When you take into account prices and availability, that’s a situation which hasn’t really changed over 40 years.

One by one, Motor’s test team went through the Sprint’s potential rivals and dismissed them for their high cost, lack of practicality, thirst or inferior performance – the magazine was so impressed that it bought its own example of the 16-valve machine. It wasn’t all good news though; the Triumph was marked down for its low-key looks, lack of boot space and a choppy ride on poor surfaces – but you could tell Motor was having to nit-pick to say anything negative about this landmark car. Indeed monthly Car asked, “Is this the start of something good”. Late ‘73 was certainly a great time for car enthusiasts as the Escort RS2000 and the HP Firenza were also launched at roughly the same time.

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 £1740 (£1811 with overdrive) to £2438 (£2551 with overdrive) – a massive 40 per cent hike. While Motor’s testers were still enthusiastic about the Sprint, the significantly higher price dampened things somewhat. In those days, there were no winners or losers in these group tests; each car’s merits and deficiencies were highlighted with the reader left to make up their own mind.

Reading between the lines it was the Alfa which won, but the Triumph’s performance and economy were still praised. However, the summary this time round was that “If the chassis was as good as the engine, the Triumph would be in a class of its own”. What a difference 18 months can make!

Two years on and the same test team reappraised the now ageing Sprint and said that the car’s failings “weigh all the heavily against it. Yet it is still an enjoyable car to drive”. It quickly added however, “One area where the Sprint has fallen behind the time, it is the performance of its suspension. “The [Dolomite Sprint’s] handling is still fun but it is also unsophisticated and the ultimate roadholding is not every high… the Sprint’s ride comfort can only be described as poor. Furthermore the ride sounds as bad as it feels”.

Looking back, the Sprint’s biggest problem was the lack of development the car should have had over its seven year run – it certainly deserved it. As many pundits remarked over the decades – it was a great engine always in search of a chassis.

PRICES

David Aspinall from Anglian Triumph Services has been focusing on the marque for over 30 years. He told Classic Motoring: “The Dolomite Sprint is quite a specialist machine. Its appeal is more limited than with mainstream Triumphs such as the TRs or even the Herald and Vitesse. For starters, most buyers tend to have a family; if they don’t they’d invariably prefer a TR6 or a Spitfire, depending on their budget.

“Yet despite the Sprint’s relative lack of widespread appeal, and the fact there isn’t particularly a shortage of them, values have climbed significantly over the past couple of years. Those buying them tend to be on a nostalgia trip; they used to own one or their dad had one when they were a kid.

“In some cases” he added, “the car isn’t as good as they remember it, which is why these cars are sometimes bought and sold in quick succession”.

To get into a Dolomite Sprint you really need to spend at least £2500; anything less will need a lot of work. If it’s a project that you’re after, you can pick one up for £500-£1500, but to get into something that’s genuinely tidy you should expect to pay upwards of £3500. Something really nice is likely to be priced from £5000 while the very best cars can go for up to £10,000 – but to command that sort of figure it’ll have to be pretty special.

David continues: “It’s worth shopping around because prices can vary drastically – the key is to be prepared to travel. There aren’t many of these cars available at any one time and you might find that you can get a better car for less money if you’re prepared to look further afield”.

David warns: “And if you’re tempted to buy from eBay, look at any car before bidding. There have been quite a few cars on there recently which haven’t been as good as they’ve looked online, and as a result the buyers could have got a better deal if they’d done their homework first”.

While the worth of a Sprint isn’t affected by its colour, those finished in Magenta or Sapphire Blue will find buyers more readily, as these hues are sought after but rare. Predictably, what really 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.

David concludes: “Most Sprints are bought very much for occasional use only, and buyers get carried away paying over the odds for some very average cars. The Sprint has a cult following because of what it is – and it is a good value, usable classic. But some examples aren’t so great – and you need to ensure that you don’t pay top money for one of these”.

IMPROVEMENTS

With small discs at the front and drums at the rear, the Sprint’s braking system was always marginal and while okay in normal driving struggles to haul the car down from high speeds if you make the most of the available power a lot. Better discs and harder pads are a worthwhile fitment. The suspension was criticised in period for its poor set up, which is why it’s worth fitting adjustable dampers all round so you can adjust them to suit your needs. Some shorter, stiffer springs will aid the handling while polyurethane bushes will stiffen things further but you’ll need to choose the damper settings very carefully if you’re not to end up with a car with a firmer, noisier ride than standard.

The much slated engine is quite muscular in standard 127bhp form, but few produce this now and are out of tune. It can be boosted to around 160bhp through the fitment of a fast-road cam, gas-fl owed head and electronic ignition if desired. You’ll also need to fit a more free-breathing exhaust system, increase the carburation (48DHLA side-draught 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 also be fitted.

What To Look For

ENGINE

  • There’s no reason why any Sprint engine should now give problems, 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.
  • The Sprint’s alloy head warps if it’s allowed to get too hot. Some owners torque down the head annually as it can work loose in service.
  • The bottom end is same as the 1850 and while they’re basically strong they can suffer from poor oil circulation at start up because the standard oil filters don’t have non-return valves; a caring owner will have converted to a modern type of filter.

BODY AND CHASSIS

  • Rust is the Dolomite’s main adversary, with its value reduced to nothing if allowed to corrode significantly. That’s why 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.
  • There isn’t really any part of the Sprint’s bodyshell that’s immune from the tin worm, so inspect everywhere, very carefully. Pre-1975 cars are the most resistant to rot, while those built between 1975 and 1978 are the worst.
  • The fl oorpans 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.
  • 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.

BODY AND CHASSIS

  • 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 undersides of the inner wings should have three mudshields in place along with a stiffener. The latter is high up in the wheelarch, and if it has rotted away you’ll have to remove the front wing to replace it. The wings themselves are welded on, so they’re not easy to take off and refit without paintwork rectification but it’s likely that this will need fettling anyway as standard paint was none too durable.
  • Door casings have a habit of filling up with water, then rotting along their bottom edges. It’s a similar story where the boot lid and roof are concerned; their trailing edges can rot badly and they’re not particularly easy to repair.
  • Check the vinyl roof for it’s condition and more importantly signs of bubbling underneath, especially at the point where it mates with the screens. New roofs are expensive as few do this work anymore.

GENERAL

  • Beware of delaminating veneer on the dash and door cappings. Trim is hardwearing, but you still need to check closely for splits and tears – especially along the top edge of the back seat if its been left out in the sun. While it’s possible to buy repro carpets, you’ll be doing well to find any other interior trim new.

RUNNING GEAR

  • The chances are that any Sprint 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 tough too as the internals were based on those fitted to the six-cylinder saloons and estates.
  • Any overdrive problems are usually down to a duff relay, poor connection 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. The only cure for this is a rebuilt gearbox, which costs around £200.
  • Only 1634 Sprints were fitted with an automatic transmission, and you’re unlikely to stumble across one for sale. However, if you do, and 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 but sapped performance.
  • The Sprint featured a unique rear axle, which is larger and stronger than a standard Dolomite’s. Some later cars even had a limited-slip differential; if the car you’re looking at has been reshelled, it’s worth getting an expert to check that its got the correct back axle, complete with the larger brake backplates.
  • 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.

Three Of A Kind

BMW 2002 TII
BMW 2002 TII
Think compact executive now and you probably think BMW 3-Series – this is a distant relative of the baby Beemer, and it’s the car that really put BMW on the map as a purveyor of beautifully built fine drivers’ cars. However, this is also 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.
FORD ESCORT RS2000
FORD ESCORT RS2000
In theory the Ford is the most readily accessible car of this trio and the Escort is possibly also the most instantly recognisable – and now the dearest to buy. That ‘droop snoot’ nose completely changed the Escort’s appearance while the 2-litre Pinto engine offered 110bhp to give Dolomite Sprint performance albeit reliably. There’s superb club and specialist support. But be wary of rot, replicas and poor crash repairs. Rarer 1.6 Mexico is worth looking at too.
HILLMAN AVENGER TIGER
HILLMAN AVENGER TIGER
If there was an unlikely car to receive the sports treatment in the Seventies, it was Hillman’s Avenger. Saloons came no more humdrum than here, yet the bright paint jobs and stripes galore suited the car’s lines. This car wasn’t all mouth and no trousers though; the twin-Weber 1498cc gives the Avenger some go thanks to low gearing and its rev-happy nature. It’s not the most efficient engine though; 20mpg and parts are specialist as well as rare.

Verdict

It’s the Sprint’s 16-valve engine that marks it out as something special compared with contemporary rivals – even the quite acceptable 1850 Dolomite if you can’t find a suitable Sprint. 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.

While buying carefully and choosing the best you can afford apply to any classic, they’re even more important where the Sprint is concerned. Buy badly and you’ll wonder what all the fuss is about; buy well and you may be converted for life. As one magazine put it, the Sprint was “One of Leyland’s brightest ideas.” How true.



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