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Triumph Vitesse vs. Sunbeam Rapier

Triumph Vitesse vs. Sunbeam Rapier Published: 17th Apr 2018 - 0 Comments - Be the first, contribute now!

What The Experts Say...

Stephen Bowers owned a Superminx because he couldn’t get insurance on a Rapier and – after a Triumph 1300 – bought one of the last Vitesses some 40 years ago. He remember being quite shocked how the rear-wheel drive Triumph handled until he got used to it but loved the punch of the six-pot engine and the overdrive “a real sports car in its day”, he recalls “that ate MGBs”.

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This great City sported two classic, quality British brands which warrant seeking out if you want something sporty and classy – but with a difference

Which one to buy?

Fins – and things

Both had an American influence in their styling with their fin-tailed look that quick looked dated especially the Rapier which carried on until 1967 while the cheaper Hillman Superminx looks much more modern in convertible form. Yet for all that there’s certainly a quaintness about Rootes’ ‘Audax’ offerings.

Triumph’s Vitesse is perhaps sportier looking, with its Gordon-Keeble-style front end and twin headlights – a look which stayed around until its demise in 1971 – plus it wasn’t so old fashioned in saloon/ coupé guises. It was without question the sportier performer care of two extra cylinders and a 2-litre upgrade (for 1968) where as the Sunbeam only gained decent pace once the 1725cc engine was slotted in during the mid-60s. Both had the worthy option of overdrive although only the Sunbeam marketed an automatic.

Where this British duet score is the wider options available once you include other less sporting derivates. The Vitesse was Herald-based and if you don’t need the extra speed and smoothness of the six-pot, makes an equally good choice as does the Rootes Group Hillman Minx or Singer Gazelle variants; it aids choosing such rare classics much easier so long as you don’t mind which badge it wears!

What’s the best to drive?

Rapier earns its scalp

The first scalp goes to the Rapier because of its handling. It’s no MX-5 but at least it’s utterly predictable, with a gradual, if rolly-poly, oversteer setting in at low speeds, contrasting against the rather unnerving behaviour of Mk1 Vitesses doing the same velocity where the added power (upped by almost 100 per cent) overtaxed the Herald chassis (as it did in the original GT6). In ’66 Standard-Triumph, unbelievably, increased the engine size to a full-fat 2-litres, with an extra 25bhp (95bhp), but, amazingly, failed to improve the original swing-axle rear suspension – the undoubted villain of the piece – merely increasing the speed at which you joined the scenery if you cornered at all clumsily! Over the years, Rapiers came in 63bhp (1390cc), 78bhp (1494cc), 79bhp (1598cc) and 85bhp (1725cc) not a great advantage over the Heralds where the last 1296cc 13/60 is as quick as the original 1600. The best Vitesse is the final Mk2 version, launched in 1968, with 104bhp for more sting and a properly located rear suspension for more cling, so a lot of provocation is needed to really upset the stern; “You can do things with a Mk2 which would have turned over the original car,” commented Car back in ’69 but remarked drivers are still aware of the car’s limits.

Many earlier Vitesses (along with Heralds, Spitfires and GT6s) will have been modified in this department by now. In fact, a well tuned and sorted Herald – with its lighter engine up front – can be a delightful little car but the Vitesse is the better tourer so long as you ignore the hard ride plus numerous creaks and groans associated with separate chassis framed Triumph designs although Rootes’ roadsters are hardly scuttleshake free creamy cruisers either.

If you opt for a more mundane Minx, bear in mind that the earliest pre-mid sixties’ cars sported a four-speed column change and as a consequence you may find a bench seat too so it can potentially become a tight six-seater; there’s just enough room for this, whereas the Triumphs are smaller cars and this is highlighted by the rather cramped driving position and the offset pedals. In terms of build and trim, both Coventry car makers were a cut above those south of Watford Gap and the Sunbeam/Singer interiors remain delightful period pieces.

Owning and running a total triumph

This round must go to the Triumph because of the superior specialist and club support, on the back of TRs and the like. Also, while both cars rust for England, at least Triumphs, with their ladder frame construction and bolt-on panels, are so much easier and cheaper to repair. Similarly, routine servicing is easier because of the brilliant accessibility afforded by that front-hinged front end.

To be fair, back up on Rootes’ cars isn’t a major worry thanks to unstinting efforts of the Association of Rootes Car Clubs (ARCC) and, mechanically, there’s a lot of parts interchangeability, not only with lower ranked models but also from the later ‘Arrow’ designs although this means that totally standard examples are of the hen’s teeth variety.

Both brands offer great value. Five grand is ample for something really nice with fair but still usable examples from three-and-a-bit although specimens are the thick end of five figures, especially the 2 Litre Vitesse and Hillman Superminx convertibles; but you can pay more for an Anglia! Neither dropheads are particularly easy to get hold of but there are easily more Heralds and Vitesses about.

And The Winner Is...

For the price of a good BMW 3 Series you can have something with more style and exclusivity as well as being quintessentially British although if you’re expecting E30/E36 levels of sophistication and refinement then you better look elsewhere… Applying logic to picking out a winner and the Vitesse has to be the obvious choice; with the Herald next in line – but since when does choosing a classic become such a hard and fast decision? There’s more Triumphs around and the Vitesse was arguably the BMW 3 Series of its day in many ways. You can’t go wrong with one – especially as classic car insurance means running a six-pot will be no dearer than a Herald. Add a bit of modding and you can turn one into a pretty accomplished GT. In fact, Car asked what would Triumph make to succeed the Vitesse – the answer was…Nothing! Yet there’s something about the relaxing Rootes’ roadsters which we find especially endearing and we bet you may well agree after trying one.

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