In the late 1950s, the future looked bright for Standard-Triumph. The company enjoyed a relatively young and forward-looking management team under the leadership of Alick Dick, strong financial reserves from the profitable sale of its tractor business, and healthy sales in a variety of global markets, not least of the Triumph TR sportscars.
When the time came to seriously consider a replacement for the long-running Vanguard, therefore, it was not illogical that the company should embrace an ambitious approach and, under Chief Engineer Harry Webster, plans were laid down for a vehicle of highly advanced specification. Codenamed ‘Zebu’, the new car would not be a straightforward large family car in the mould of the Vanguard, but rather a mid-size saloon which would combine luxurious accommodation with relatively high standards of performance and roadholding. Although not dissimilar in ethos to Jaguar’s 2.4 saloon of 1955, Standard-Triumph’s thinking was in many ways more progressive, and the project may be considered to be one of the true pioneers of the modern-day ‘executive’ car.
Technically, ‘Zebu’ was noteworthy not only in being of separate chassis rather than monocoque construction, but also in featuring a new six-cylinder engine (designed to be built on the same tooling as the Triumph Herald unit), all-round independent suspension and a Lancia-like transaxle. Even more innovative features such as front-wheel drive and pneumatic suspension had been considered though not proceeded with in the actual prototypes. Styling was similarly adventurous with pillarless construction and a reverse-rake rear window, but when the company was advised that certain of these features would be pre-empted into production by another manufacturer (namely Ford), this – combined with worries over vibration problems stemming from the unconventional transmission – caused the project to be de-prioritised.
Unfortunately, this setback co-incided with a sharp reverse in Standard-Triumph’s fortunes and, in an attempt to minimise costs, the company spent some time exploring the possibility of building under licence a modified version of another manufacturer’s car instead. When this too proved ill-starred, ‘Zebu’ was resurrected in modified form with a conventional transmission and Triumph Herald-style body, but failed to arouse the enthusiasm of the company’s management. More seriously, Standard-Triumph was now in very serious financial difficulties and quite simply lacked the means to put the vehicle into production.
Not for the first time, Standard-Triumph sought salvation in a co-operative venture or even merger with another carmaker. Discussions with Rover took place but came to nought, as did negotiations with the American Motors Corporation. In late 1960, an approach was received from Sir Henry Spurrier, Chairman of truck and bus manufacturer Leyland Motors and, after a period of negotiation, Standard-Triumph was formally acquired by Leyland in May 1961. Leyland’s motives for buying Standard-Triumph were severalfold; at the time, the Lancashire company was at the height of its powers and was looking not just to expand in the commercial vehicle market (which it was shortly to do with the acquisition of its primary domestic competitor, AEC) but also to diversify its activities. One such focus was the car industry, and during the previous decade Leyland had pursued tentative merger negotiations with both Jaguar and Rolls-Royce. Whilst rather less prestigious, Standard-Triumph nonetheless commanded an attractive asset base, not least its distribution operations in North America. In addition (and unlike Jaguar and Rolls-Royce at that time) it was a true volume producer, and it is known that some senior figures within Leyland were very interested in applying the mass-production techniques of the car industry to the manufacture of commercial vehicles, especially buses. In addition to the obvious synergies, it is likely that the acquisition of Standard-Triumph was viewed (in part at least) as a means of gaining the practical experience and industry contacts to facilitate that objective.
Despite Standard-Triumph’s extremely fragile finances, Leyland – and in particular their newly-appointed Managing Director of Standard-Triumph, Stanley Markland – firmly supported the development of several key new products. One was the resurrection of Giovanni Michelotti’s proposal for a small sportscar based on the Triumph Herald chassis, launched to popular acclaim as the Triumph Spitfire in 1962. Another was a replacement for the moribund Vanguard and, in the spring of 1961, work commenced on a successor under the project name ‘Barb’, preserving the basic parameters and mechanical layout of the final ‘Zebu’ prototypes but adopting monocoque construction. Whilst overall mechanical and product specifications were determined by Harry Webster, styling was by Michelotti, using a fresh and contemporary scheme first suggested for a rebodied Herald but quickly and successfully adapted to the larger car. Another significant decision was that the new car should be attributed to the Triumph rather than the Standard marque, leaving the latter to fade away. This was understandable, given the lacklustre image of the Vanguard in its later years, especially when contrasted with the burgeoning popularity of the Herald and TR ranges. Although of less significance at the time, it also had the happy effect of re-establishing the link to Triumph’s pre-war sporting saloons such as the Dolomite and Gloria.
Progress on the new car was almost unbelievably rapid (little more than two years from start to finish), not least given the extremely stringent financial controls imposed by Leyland upon Standard-Triumph after losses at the Coventry concern continued to accelerate. As approved for production, ‘Barb’ featured a welded-steel four-door monocoque bodyshell which, although costing much more to tool-up for than the separate body and chassis of the Herald and ‘Zebu’, was felt to offer significant gains in longevity and quality. At this stage, Standard-Triumph’s body engineering and pressing capabilities were still relatively limited, so detail design and construction of the new monocoque was contracted to the industry specialist, Pressed Steel, which would manufacture the shells at its Swindon plant. The end result proved to be of very strong construction (a torsional rigidity of 6,500lb/ft per degree being measured on test) without being unduly heavy.
Progress on the new car was almost unbelievably rapid…
Inevitably with such a tight schedule, progress with the mechanical elements at first outran the availability of bodyshells, and much early testing would be undertaken with the famous ‘Birdcage’, a prototype ‘Barb’ floorpan and engine bay assembly suitably reinforced with a crude but effective tubular structure spanning the passenger compartment. Styling was distinctive, with a long nose and short tail flanking a low-waisted six-light passenger compartment. Although the essentials of the original Michelotti design were carried through into production, it is important not to under-estimate the input of Triumph’s own staff, not least Chief Body Engineer Arthur Ballard and stylist Leslie Moore. One example of note is understood to involve the headlights which, in Michelotti’s original conception, would have been placed behind glass fairings conforming to the profile of the front panels. As this had been deemed too expensive for production, Moore restyled the existing headlamp locations to create the ‘nostril’ recesses which gave the car’s front end so much of its distinctive character. The overall impression given by the bodystyle was one of modernity combined with elegance, and the car’s appearance would serve it well over the coming years.
Under the large front-hinged bonnet was an improved version of the 1998cc straight-six OHV engine developed for ‘Zebu’ but first seen in the Standard Vanguard Luxury Six. Compared with the Vanguard installation, the ‘new’ engine benefited from some refinement of the combustion chamber design, plus an entirely new inlet manifold arrangement fed by twin Zenith-Stromberg carburettors. Cumulatively, the changes boosted available power by around twelve percent to some 90bhp; more could have been obtained, but at the expense of low-speed tractability, and this was deemed unacceptable for what was intended to be a refined family car. As was becoming normal practice for Triumph, all-round independent suspension was featured, though in this case by McPherson struts at the front and coil-sprung semi-trailing arms at the rear. Originally, the rear suspension members were intended to be in the form of steel pressings hung directly from the floorpan but, after early prototypes revealed problems with excessive transmission of noise into the car, the scheme was modified to employ cast-aluminium arms pivoted from a resiliently-mounted crossmember in the fashion of BMW’s contemporary 1500/1800 models. As with the German cars, this same crossmember supported the front of the chassis-mounted final drive unit, closely related to that of the TR4, as was the four-speed all-synchromesh gearbox with optional Laycock overdrive. An automatic transmission option, using the popular and well-proven Borg-Warner Model 35 gearbox was envisaged from the outset, though it would not enter production until some months after its manual counterpart. Braking was accomplished by a servo-assisted Lockheed system featuring discs at the front and drums at the rear, whilst steering was of the rack-and–pinion variety.
Although the final specifications of the car remained subject to rigorous cost controls, Leyland’s direction had been that ‘Barb’ should be Standard-Triumph’s most luxurious car to date and, as a result, standards of finish were high. This was especially evident inside, where an abundance of polished wood, thick carpet and comfortable seating created very real passenger appeal, as did the provision of a number of thoughtful extras such as an automatic courtesy light operated by switches on all four doors, a glove compartment vanity mirror and heater ducts to the rear footwells. The car’s relatively long wheelbase and wide door-opening angles also contributed towards an especially roomy passenger compartment. By contemporary standards, instrumentation was comprehensive, with a speedometer and matching combination instrument (incorporating ammeter, fuel and temperature gauges) supplemented by a cluster of warning lights for functions such as choke, handbrake and indicators. The dashboard design was particularly individualistic with its recessed instrument binnacle and flanking piano-key switchgear set in a two-tone padded vinyl surround with a walnut veneer fillet in front of the passenger seat, though it must be admitted that the overall effect was not universally liked. Doors were trimmed in matching fashion, with deep polished wooden cappings and integrated arm rests-cum-door pulls, whilst even the luggage compartment was generously carpeted. Optional at no extra cost was a contrasting paint colour for the roof panel; leather upholstery could also be specified in place of the standard vinyl, though the prospective owner would have to pay a price premium for this.
Although promoted from the outset as a luxurious family saloon with a sporting flavour, Leyland’s original intention had been that the basic ‘Barb’ design should support two distinct models; the mainstream 2-litre car to be known as the Triumph 2000, and a rather more modestly-specified Triumph 1600 utilising the small version of the straight-six engine then fitted to the Triumph Vitesse. At a relatively late stage in the pre-production process, however, the decision was taken to further upgrade the equipment and interior furnishings of the car to make it more competitive with the forthcoming Rover P6, then something of an open secret in the Midlands motor industry. Unlike its two-litre sister, the upgraded version of the small-engined car appeared neither sufficiently cheap nor agile to remain a viable proposition, and the decision was made to go to market with the 2000 only. A solitary Triumph 1600 prototype was built and, after modification with a 2000 engine, survived into the mid-1960s as a support car for Triumph’s Competitions Department.
The Triumph 2000 made its first public appearance in October 1963, taking pride of place on the company’s stand at that month’s Earl’s Court Motor Show, though it was emphasised that deliveries of customer cars would not begin until the following January. Indeed, one interesting development – possibly reflecting a slight caution on Leyland’s part and a desire to ensure that their new product was absolutely right – was the placement of 40 pre-production examples into the hands of a range of target customers for evaluation. Whilst there could be no question of sanctioning any major alterations to the specification (cars for the sales launch were already being built), the exercise did succeed in identifying a number of more minor issues that could quickly be addressed, as well as providing Triumph with some valuable further publicity. Press reaction was extremely favourable, Autocar going so far to opine that the car held ‘golden prospects’ for the future. Both Autocar and Motor praised the new car’s accommodation, handling and refinement, although Motor noted that fitment of the optional overdrive would be a wise investment in order to maximise the car’s performance potential, as well as to preserve its excellent fuel economy throughout the speed range.
Of particular interest to the motoring press – and to the buying public as well, of course – was the fact that this new breed of Triumph had come to market virtually simultaneously with an equally new species of Rover. Aimed at precisely the same market segment, Solihull’s P6 model – unveiled as the Rover 2000 – was in many ways even more advanced than its Triumph counterpart, with features such as base-unit construction with easily-replaceable body panels, an all-new overhead-cam engine, all-round disc brakes and de Dion rear suspension, not to mention an engine bay configured to receive a gas-turbine powerplant as soon as a suitable production unit became available (which, of course, it never did…). The simultaneous release of two new, groundbreaking cars in the same market segment was a remarkable event in itself, and the press would exploit the inevitable opportunities for direct comparisons between the two 2000s many times in the years ahead. The Rover undoubtedly scored on novelty value and perhaps in terms of prestige as well, had a rather higher top speed than the Triumph, and was considered by most magazine road testers to enjoy marginally better handling as well, despite its soft springing and considerable bodyroll when cornering. Against that, the six-cylinder Triumph was much more flexible and refined than the four-cylinder Rover, more accelerative away from rest, offered considerably more passenger room – especially in the rear – and was rather cheaper to buy, even if specified with the optional overdrive or automatic transmission (neither of which was even available on the Rover). During those first, important years, the Triumph 2000 consistently outsold its Rover counterpart, even if the P6 did secure more press plaudits, not that the Triumph was in any way deficient in this latter respect.
Indeed, it was not just representatives of the press who found themselves impressed with the Triumph 2000, both in terms of the basic product and for its future prospects. BMC, Ford and Rootes all viewed with alarm the 2000’s potential impact on their own large family car models whilst, at the upper end of the market, Jaguar founder Sir William Lyons is known to have written to Sir Henry Spurrier of Leyland congratulating him on his achievement and expressing the opinion that the new Triumph had the edge over its competitors. Admittedly, with Jaguar’s reputation in the marketplace, bolstered by its recent acquisition of Daimler, Lyons could afford to be generous in his comments to his old friend Spurrier, but subsequent developments at Browns Lane would show that Jaguar certainly appreciated the potential impact of the 2000 on its own business too. On the other side of Coventry at Standard-Triumph’s Canley works, significant and far-reaching organisational changes were taking place, Stanley Markland resigning in a dispute over Leyland’s management succession, to be succeeded as Chairman by S-T’s ebullient Sales Director, Donald Stokes. There could be no doubt that Leyland and Standard-Triumph meant to succeed in the car business, and the successful launch of the Triumph 2000 was to be but an early step in their ambitions.