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Triumph Stag

Published: 5th Sep 2014 - 0 Comments - Be the first, contribute now!

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Hardly...but Triumph’s Stag is now one of the UK’s most popular and best loved classics. How times change recalls Alan Anderson

Remember when motoring programmes were serious and serious viewing? Before the advent of Top Gear, there was Thames TV’s Drive-In but before that there was one that started it all – Wheelbase, Thursdays on BBC2.
Remember back in mid 1970 when we all sat down to watch, in black and white probably, the episode when it tested the all new swish Triumph Stag?

It was the British Mercedes SL launched before the R107 range, too and the dream car for the average motorist, with a rusting maroon coloured 1964 Triumph 2000, who yearned for a bit of excitement in his semi-detached life!

Fast forward a decade and that same bloke may well have rustled up the cash to actually buy one second-hand but instead of enjoying it was now sitting, fuming, by the kerbside – yet again – waiting for his now friendly tow truck to come and haul his sick Stag to the local garage and fix it; odds on it was a blown head gasket, failed water pump or stripped timing gear.

Wheelbase Gordon Wilkins played it straight (no scripted scenes or dramatic tyre-eating shots and music here, thank you) and told it as it was; here was a stylish, fast (for its era) British 2+2 that ticked all the right boxes and was highly desirable at under £2000. “Without doubt this is going to be a very successful car and perhaps the source from which even more successful variants may spring”, said an equally bullish Charles Bulmer, Motor’s editor. Well how was he – and every other expert – to know that the Stag quickly turned into a Triumph Snag?

PIECES OF EIGHT

The history of the Stag has been well documented; a sporting take of the Triumph 2000/2.5 which actually in the end shared little with that straight-laced saloon. First seen by Triumph in late 1965/66, after the instant success of the Spitfire, the Canley company thought that turning another saloon into a sports car was easy enough route to profit.

If only it had stuck to the simple Spitfire principles and used a known powerplant how would the Stag have turned out? But the cachet of having a V8 in this upper crust market instead of a lump of old iron that first saw light of day in the old Standard saloons of the 1950s was vital.
It seemed simple enough; just marry two of the slant four engines Triumph had made for Saab – and was later to be used in the forthcoming Dolomite – to create a V8.

Now it’s here that some magazines spout the usual comment of why didn’t it use the Buick-based Rover unit that British Leyland already had? The truth is that when the Stag idea was first kicked around, the two car making companies were deadly rivals and even when under the BL blanket they were encouraged to still be rivals.

Problems with the V8, delayed the launch and there were those within the company who thought it wasn’t fully developed once in the showrooms either and could see big problems on the horizon…

But BL was desperate to get the car to market – the lucrative one across the Atlantic where suave Mercedes SLs were the order of the day. Priced at a fiver under £2000 in the UK and introduced around the same time as the V8-powered Range Rover early that summer, Wheelbase raved about both cars but whereas that off-roader got off to a flying start, the Stag soon failed to live up to its brochure promise.

It wasn’t due to the V8’s performance, which was good if not exceptional for a V8 plus it did sound lovely, but its reliability. Overheating was the biggest problem followed by failed timing chains and tensioners, if not serviced on time. The latter ailment was more due to simple maintenance but the former affected some cars more than others and for no good reason; eventually it was suspected to be due to substandard engine castings and poor manufacturing at the factory, where some heads had wrongly machined water galleys leading to nowhere! It’s also now suspected that cars even left the factory without their heads torqued down properly – as did Dolomite Sprints!

Bad news travels fast and by 1973, despite a rethink of the cooling system, Triumph had to pull the Stag from cash rich US marketplace where its TR sports car historically did so well, due to horrific warranty claims. After that, the Stag was a wounded animal simply living on borrowed time and the car was dropped in 1977 after only 26,000 were made.

ROVER TO THE RESCUE

Despite various cooling system revisions Stags still got hot and bothered just like their fed up owners and by the mid-to-late 1970s the car had gained the reputation of Triumph ‘Snag’.

This ushered in a new breed specialists with some weird and wonderful solutions. Apart from the Rover V8, other transplants tried to varying degrees of success included Ford’s Vee engine – yes even the Transit’s V4! Thankfully, along with the logical fitment of the trusty Triumph straight six, the Rover V8 was by far the most popular solution but even then this wasn’t without its problems.

Slotting in another engine wasn’t the difficulty, it was sorting out the suspension spring rates to account for the new engine that was either too light (Rover) or too heavy (everything else) and only the professional conversion outfits bothered. Badly engined Stags, and many were done at home on the cheap, could be scary to drive at all quickly.

With around 150-160bhp at its disposal, the Rover unit only gave a slight performance advantage, and at least it was reliable. We remember one Essex company selling ready- to-go converted and sorted Stags, ironically from around £2000 back in 1979.

ARTFUL DODGERS

Thankfully, it was around this time that the car started to gain some recognition as an up and coming classic which consequently became the Stag’s saviour, turning its reputation around from being dodgy to becoming one of our most desirable and delightful classic sports cars.

Specialists, Tony Hart being the best known along with an emerging owners club worked away at the known design deficiencies and slowly but surely cured the engine of its inherent design faults, to the point that converted cars are now being re-converted back to the original power unit.

STAG PARTY-TIME

If ever a car was better now than when it was new, then it’s the Stag. All it ever needed was better build quality, and thus reliability, for it to more than match the pricier Mercedes SL. Like the German, the Fair rear seating, but T bar restricted entry 2+2 Triumph is more a smooth-operating GT than a rowdy sports car but on the right roads, the Stag was, and is with some suspension mods, as satisfying as a TR6 and a whole lot more civilised.

However, Motor remarked in its 1973 test “The Stag would be a comfortable cruiser at more than 100mph were it not for considerable wind noise” which was made worse by the smart hardtop many owners relegated to the garage or the bottom of the garden. Badly fitting, it was too heavy to manhandle into position even with a helper.

Nevertheless, Motor’s verdict on the greatly improved Mk2 version was that it was “Not only unique in character and highly desirable property, but that the standard of finish makes it a world beater at the price (£2685)”. Today Stags remain good value, and are one of the UK’s most prized classics.

It’s a crying shame that the Stag fell foul of the great BL disease. If the engine had been reliable from the outset, then who knows how the car would have progressed.

That V8 was always planned with other applications in mind and it’s ironic that when an enterprising engineer called Del Lines did just that and started making Stag-powered 2.5 Saloons and Estates, all he got for his enterprise and effort were threatening letters from BL to stop – or else.

Ironic also because by then, slung out of the States, Triumph knew that the Stag (and its engine) was a dead duck by then…

When The Car Was The Star

A car favoured by both girlfriends of Gerald Harper’s Hadleigh and 007 had to be desirable even if the Stag in Diamonds Are Forever had an over-dubbed Herald engine note for some strange reason. The same car was one of a ten strong PR fleet and went on to star in Dracula AD1972, a film so incredibly dire that someone actually says Dig the music kids! Nicholas Ball in the
much underrated Hazell drove a Stag and you can still see Dennis Waterman swanning around in one in cop show New Tricks.



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