The Triumph 2000 Story – Conquest and Consolidation: 1963-1969

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From the outset, there could be little doubt about the success of the Triumph 2000 in the marketplace. Triumph’s decision to announce the car some months before it became fully available paid dividends in terms ‘priming’ the buying public with favourable press reviews, though the car was also clearly selling on its undoubted attributes. The entry into full production of the automatic-transmission version in the summer of 1964 helped matters further and, by the end of the first full year in production, more than 20,000 cars had been made, with yearly volumes to rise further still. Quite a few detail changes to specification were introduced during that time, covering areas as diverse as interior trim, suspension and the exhaust system, and it is likely that at least some of these derived from practical experience with those cars lent to prospective customers for evaluation prior to the model’s sales launch In general, however, the cars proved robust from the very start, as their record in international rallying made clear, though ironically it was competition work that showed up some weaknesses in the rear suspension arrangements when all three works entries in the 1964 Spa-Sofia-Liège rally retired due to the outer rear subframe mountings tearing out of the floorpan. Whilst local reinforcement of the floor between the sills and rear toeboard quickly overcame this particular weakness, the rubber mountings themselves remained prone to failure even in normal use and during the course of 1964, the original arrangement of floor-mounted shackles picking-up on longitudinal bushings in the outer subframe members was replaced by new vertically-mounted bushes sandwiched between the subframe ends and the floorpan itself.

1965 Triumph 2000 Estate
The 1965 Triumph 2000 Estate

Although undoubtedly gratified by the success of the 2000 in the marketplace, Triumph was not resting on its laurels and in the autumn of 1965 the proposition was made even more attractive by the introduction of a 2000 estate. This maintained much of the existing saloon structure, the most obvious changes being largely confined to a new roof panel and lift-up tailgate, rear quarters and modified rear doors. In order to permit a fold-down rear seat, the petrol tank had been relocated to a new position beneath the luggage compartment floor and the tank filler relocated to the right-hand side. As well as preserving the acclaimed good looks of the 2000 saloon, the design also permitted tooling costs for the estate variant to be minimised, part-built saloon shells being dispatched from Pressed Steel’s Swindon plant to the premises of Carbodies in Coventry, where they were converted to receive the new estate car panelwork and then sent on to Triumph at Canley for painting and final assembly.

…Triumph found itself in the very happy position of having a virtual monopoly over the lucrative and expanding market for ‘executive’ estate cars…

Mechanically, there were few departures from the established 2000 specification, the most notable consisting of higher-rate rear springs and the standard fitment of 175-section radial tyres. The fully-trimmed rear compartment provided a capacious and versatile load space, without any significant compromise to the saloon’s standards of ride, handling and performance. Applied both to estates and saloons at this time was a simpler and more modern steering wheel with a thin central bar and horn ring in place of the original’s stylised boss. The estate was favourably received in the marketplace and – given its relatively specialist nature – sold well from the outset. In fact, for a number of years at least, Triumph found itself in the very happy position of having a virtual monopoly over the lucrative and expanding market for ‘executive’ estate cars; whilst Ford offered an estate version of the Corsair as a catalogued item, it was not factory-built but rather an Abbott conversion which, although beautifully made, was rather more expensive than its saloon counterpart. For its part, Rover had no plans to offer an estate version of the 2000 and, whilst the company eventually approved an estate conversion of the P6 design by FLM Panelcraft, the end result was both more expensive and less practical than the Triumph estate. Other big estates were available, but most were considerably less well appointed than the Triumph and – with the possible exception of the Citroën ID19 – much less capable as road cars as well. On the home market at least, not until the early 1970s would Triumph’s dominance of this sector be seriously challenged.

Prototype Triumph 2000 Fastback
Prototype Triumph 2000GT Fastback

As it happened, the estate car had been just one of a number of potential variants being considered by Triumph. Originally, the proposal was to extend the range through the introduction of an estate car and a convertible, but it soon became apparent that funding was sufficient to undertake one new model only and, as the sales department reckoned the estate car to be potentially the better seller of the two, that carried the day. Even then, however, for some time Triumph wavered between a conventional estate and a five-door fastback design dubbed the 2000GT. Comfortably preceding similar schemes from Rover which eventually gave birth to the SD1, development of the 2000GT got as far as the conversion of a running prototype from an existing car, but the project was finally killed by doubts over its marketability, not to mention technical difficulties with productionising the very large rear hatch. Had it proceeded, the 2000GT might well have adopted the mechanical specification of the Triumph 2000TS, a still-born high-performance variant loosely inspired by the works rally cars, with its engine ‘super-tuned’ to around 115bhp. The 2000TS concept succumbed to the perceived difficulties attendant on reconciling a specialised, low-volume variant with the established production routine, but its spirit – if not detail – would later be revived, as would the idea of a 2000-based convertible. Late in 1964, stylist Giovanni Michelotti asked Triumph for the use of a 2000 as the basis for a motor show ‘special’, and the company’s management agreed subject to the proviso that they would have first refusal on the design if they liked it. In due course, Engineering Director Harry Webster visited Michelotti’s studio in Turin, was greatly impressed with the four-seater convertible that Michelotti had created on the basis of the slightly-shortened 2000 floorpan, and decided that Triumph would exercise its option to buy. For a short while, the car was considered as a straightforward replacement for the TR4A, but soon matured into a more specialised and refined luxury GT loosely modelled on the Mercedes-Benz 230SL. Codenamed ‘Stag’, after a somewhat tortuous development process the car was introduced under that name in June 1970, marketed as a model in its own right and the flagship of the entire Triumph range.

1969 Triumph 2000
The (mildly) facelifted Triumph 2000. Note the rubber inserts on the bumper overriders.

A popular and successful product was yet further improved from October 1966, when major improvements were announced for the entire Triumph 2000 range. Although external differences were minimal and largely restricted to the adoption of rubber-faced bumper overriders and slightly revised badging, the interior gained new seats with standard leather upholstery, sundry improvements to the instrumentation, and the incorporation of a through-flow ventilation system. This latter featured adjustable ‘eyeball’ fresh-air outlets in the lower padded roll of the dashboard, which now had an overall black finish in place of the previous and often unpopular two-tone treatment. Extraction of stale air was accomplished by one-way vents cunningly hidden in the bodywork panel returns, above the rear windscreen on saloon cars, and above the numberplate on estates. Revisions to the rear floor pan on saloons also permitted a choice of spare-wheel stowage arrangements, the original vertical mounting being supplemented with an optional underfloor stowage (akin to that of the estate car) that increased usable luggage space, albeit at the cost of some inconvenience if access were to be required to the spare with the boot fully loaded. Electrical systems were changed from positive to negative earth at this time, in line with general industry trends, whilst automatic cars also gained an improved version of the Borg-Warner Model 35 gearbox with a revised (P-R-N-D-2-1) selector quadrant. Whilst automatic-transmission cars were always a minority within the production mix, they did offer a more relaxed style of driving without significantly detracting from performance or economy levels. Indeed, the US journal Road & Track, which professed no great affection for the Borg-Warner or – indeed – most other American automatic gearboxes of the period, was moved to note that the Triumph’s free-revving yet torquey engine helped to make this particular installation perhaps the most successful of its type yet encountered. By contrast, whilst Rover did eventually get around to offering a two-pedal version of the P6 using the same B-W 35 transmission, the gearbox proved ill-suited to the rather different power/torque characteristics of the four-cylinder engine and the Rover 2000 Automatic was never as well-regarded as its Triumph counterpart.

By the mid-1960s, the Triumph 2000 could hardly be viewed as much other than a considerable success story for Standard-Triumph and its Leyland masters, with typical production volumes in the region of 20,000 per annum. The car was selling well not only against comparable products such as the Rover 2000 and Ford Corsair, but also significantly more expensive offerings like the 2.4-litre Jaguar Mk2, not to mention making very significant inroads into the market for traditional large saloons like the Austin Westminster, Ford Zephyr, Humber Hawk and Vauxhall Cresta. So well were sales progressing that, when in 1967 Rover joined the Leyland Motor Corporation, there was never any serious consideration given to any curtailing of the existing Triumph 2000 range in favour of its new Solihull stablemate. Both models were well-established and well-respected in the marketplace and, corporate politics aside, it was clearly understood that neither model – even in a revised form – would be likely to equal the combined sales of both Rover and Triumph product lines at that time. In this respect, little changed even after Leyland merged with British Motor Holdings (the combined BMC-Jaguar entity) in early 1968 to create the British Leyland Motor Corporation, though the increased overlap of different models which resulted certainly began to affect attitudes towards possible replacements. The success of the 2000 formula also effected a far-reaching shift in Triumph’s strategy for its smaller saloon car line; its proposed Herald replacement was instead pitched up-market as a ‘junior 2000’ and, as the Triumph 1300, made its appearance in 1966 to widespread acclaim.

Both for convenience and to satisfy local import requirements, some markets – notably the Benelux countries, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa – were satisfied through the export of cars in completely-knocked down (CKD) kit form, which were then assembled in-country, often using a certain degree of locally-sourced material. This, of course, facilitated the creation of variants specific to those particular markets, one such example being the Triumph 2000MD offered to Australian buyers between 1965 and 1968. Intended to compete against US-inspired but Australian-built Ford and General Motors models, the 2000MD was largely distinguished from the standard model by the incorporation of ‘luxury’ features such as overdrive, additional dashboard instrumentation, radial tyres and wire wheels, though it is understood that some cars at least were also fitted with triple-carburettor engines. In this respect, however, the 2000MD failed to equal the low-cost performance offered by the domestic products and, compared with the ordinary (and very popular) Triumph 2000, sales were slow.

US-market Triumph 2000 SEm
US-market Triumph 2000 SEm

Sadly, one important market in which sales of the 2000 undeniably failed to meet Triumph’s expectations was the United States. Although warmly greeted by the American automotive press, the car’s 1965 introduction to that market had largely co-incided with the contemporary ‘muscle car’ craze, and it struggled to sell against medium-sized but large-engined American cars offering much greater performance (albeit less refinement) at a lower price. In addition, at that time many Triumph dealers were multi-franchise agencies offering domestic marques such as Pontiac or imported models such as Volvo in addition to the Coventry-built cars. Whilst no serious conflict of interest existed in the case of the Spitfire and TR ranges, the same could not be said for the 2000, and although Triumph’s US importers certainly tried to stimulate market interest in the big saloon, it has been suggested that the dealer body was less enthusiastic. As in Australia, Triumph sought to respond by moving the car further up-market, introducing an upgraded 2000SEm variant incorporating a number of dealer-fitted cosmetic extras. Unfortunately, US buyers continued to demand straight-line performance in preference to the 2000’s other attributes and, once existing stocks were cleared, Triumph took the decision to withdraw the car from the North American market in favour of concentrating on its more popular sporting models. For the record, Rover failed to do much better in the US with its own 2000 model, despite a series of rave reviews in influential motoring magazines, and a few years later also pulled out of the American market.

Compared with the overall picture, however, the unfortunate experience of the 2000 in the United States was very much the exception, and Triumph was looking to build on the undeniable success of its product with significant improvements for the 1970s. Before that, however, would come an authoritative response to those who claimed that the 2000’s performance lagged behind that of the competition – Triumph was about to take its big saloon into the ranks of ‘the Power Elite’!

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This article © Jonathan Lewis 2010