The Triumph 2000 Story – The Big Triumphs in ‘Works’ Competition: 1964-1976

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Triumph 2.5 P.I. World Cup Rally Car XJB 304H

The origins of the Triumph 2000’s long and honourable career in international rallying came some considerable time before the car was even launched.  Although the Leyland takeover of Triumph had resulted in the total discontinuance of competition activities, some at least of Triumph’s new masters recognised that, for a maker of sports cars to be credible in world markets, a measure of factory-backed competition participation was necessary.  For 1962, therefore, a limited programme of rallying using TR4s was approved, the TRs later being joined by Vitesses in a number of events.  Although the Vitesse never made any significant impact during its short works rallying career, the TR4s were rapid and well-handling cars that enjoyed a certain amount of success during their first season.  Nevertheless, with international rallying increasingly favouring the use of high-speed stages over rough off-road courses, the light and low-built TRs were at a considerable disadvantage against the likes of the works Citroën DS19s, Ford Cortinas and Zodiacs, and Mercedes-Benz 220/300SEs.  Even the works Rover 3-Litres, rather hobbled by the Solihull firm’s insistence on using near-standard cars, were beginning to make their presence felt.  It thus became increasingly clear that, if Triumph was to maintain a worthwhile presence in rallying without resorting to the use of expensive homologation specials, it really had to have a large, strong and rapid saloon of its own.  That the forthcoming 2000 should find itself cast into this role was, therefore, almost inevitable.

Works Triumph 2000 on the '64 RAC Rally
The works Triumph 2000 on the ’64 RAC Rally

The story of just how Triumph’s competitions strategy came to embrace the 2000 has been recounted authoritatively by the then-Competitions Department Manager Graham Robson in his book The Works Triumphs, and does not need recounting in detail here.  Suffice it to say that, for 1964, Triumph Spitfires would be used for racing (primarily at Le Mans) and for the remaining high-speed, all-tarmac rallies.  For off-road rallies and endurance events such as the Monte Carlo and Spa-Sofia-Liège, the Triumph 2000 would be the company’s instrument of choice.  In order to maximise the cars’ chances of success, it was decided to prepare them in line with the then-current regulations for Group 3 (‘Grand Touring’) cars which permitted a considerable degree of detail modification to the production design, a tactic also being exploited by BMC with the Austin-Healey 3000 and Mini-Cooper and Ford with the Lotus-Cortina.  Four 2000s were thus laid-down, registered AHP 424-427B.  Externally, the cars looked fairly standard other than for their additional lights, black-painted bonnet panels (to minimise dazzle) and 15-inch TR4 wheels (to maximise ground clearance), but this unassuming appearance was certainly deceptive.  In addition to strengthening of the bodyshell and some other structural members, engines had been extensively modified with higher compression ratios, re-profiled camshafts, triple Weber carburettors and special free-flow exhausts to boost power to a peaky but extremely impressive 150bhp.  Transmission-wise, a shorter final-drive ratio and limited-slip differential were combined with a wide ratio version of the overdrive gearbox, overdrive being available on second, third and top gears to produce what was effectively a seven-speed transmission. Lastly, to ensure that the end result could stop just as well as it could go, larger brakes were fitted, albeit of the established disc/drum configuration.

Spa-Sofia-Liège Triumph 2000
AHP 426B on the 1964 Spa-Sofia-Liège Rally

All this, plus homologation of the basic car itself, naturally took some time, and the 2000’s first works appearance in international competition was on the Spa-Sofia-Liège marathon in August 1964.  Although not competitive on times with the very fastest cars, the three Triumphs entered on this fast and extremely punishing event acquitted themselves very well until the return leg through Yugoslavia when they suddenly retired with broken rear suspension mountings.  As already recorded, this weakness was quickly addressed, and all four works 2000s were entered for the RAC Rally, those of Roy Fidler and Terry Hunter taking second and third places in their class, behind Timo Makinen’s Austin-Healey 3000.

For 1965, the range of events for which the works 2000s were entered was expanded considerably, though entries had to be chosen carefully to maximise class marking advantages.  An additional car (EHP 78C), largely conforming to the proven specification but of left-hand drive format, was also built for new team member Simo Lampinen, but also used by other works drivers on Continental events.  The sole 2000 entry in the Monte Carlo rally retired with a blown engine, but successes quickly followed in the Circuit of Ireland, Tulip, RAC and Welsh rallies, Jean-Jacques Thuner and Roy Fidler taking well-earned first places in class on the Tulip and the RAC respectively.  Thuner’s Tulip entry, EHP 78C, was subsequently borrowed for test by Motor magazine which evidently enjoyed the experience, pronouncing it to be one of the best five-seater sports cars it had yet tried!  Perhaps even more interesting if less spectacular was Fidler’s RAC rally car (AHP 426B) which, in order to exploit class marking advantages in that event, had been rebuilt to the rather less exotic Group 2 specification with standard carburation, wheels and brakes.

About the only consistent weakness on these first works 2000s concerned their transmissions, which were put under a heavy burden not just by the power of the highly-tuned engines, but also the considerable all-up weight of the car.  A technical solution to this could undoubtedly have been devised but, unfortunately, this was not to happen.  Triumph’s competitions activities during this period would be characterised not only by tight budgets but also a considerable degree of organisational and political uncertainty.  It was entirely understandable that competitions spend should be balanced by a certain degree of success and concomitant enhancement of Triumph’s market image, but some of the Leyland management seem to have expected rather better results (i.e. overall victories with near-standard cars) than were reasonable given the circumstances.

FHP 993C Triumph 2000 rally car
FHP 993C pictured at Triumph specialists Canley Classics in 2007

For 1966, however, the pressures on the Triumph team would increase yet further, new regulations effectively outlawing the highly-modified Group 3 2000s.  Short of wholesale withdrawal from the sport, Triumph had two choices; either to revert to using near-standard Group 1 machines, or otherwise to build for sale sufficient Group 3 ‘replicas’ to permit such a vehicle to qualify for homologation.  Sadly, but probably realistically, there was never much chance of Triumph approving an ‘homologation special’, even in the rather more civilised form proposed for the 2000TS; hard-pressed production managers were unwilling to accept the inevitable disruption such a model would create (as competition bosses at BMC and Ford were also to find out), whilst the sales function had some understandable concerns as to the potential implications for the image of the ‘normal’ 2000.  In addition, Triumph’s competitions activities were being subject to ever-increasing financial scrutiny by its Leyland masters so, accordingly (and perhaps bouyed by Roy Fidler’s RAC Rally success in a near-standard vehicle), the decision was taken to participate in a reduced 1966 programme using Group 1 cars.  Three such vehicles (FHP 992-994C) were entered in the 1966 Monte Carlo Rally and, despite being pitted against considerably faster and more exotic machinery, Roy Fidler managed to take 14th place overall.  The remaining Triumph entries, however, did not finish and this, coupled with the controversy over the disqualification of many of the winning entries that year, indirectly led to Triumph’s complete withdrawal as a works team, though limited factory support would continue to be given to selected private entries.  Fidler was permitted to buy FHP 993C (slightly uprated with triple Webers and wide-ratio gearbox) as the basis for his own rallying programme and, despite retirements in the Gulf London and RAC rallies, did sufficiently well in a number of other events to secure the 1966 RAC British Rally Championship.

After the dissolution of the works team, another of the cars was de-registered and used as the basis for a racing saloon.  Considerably lightened and equipped with a fuel-injected version of the GT6R engine, the car was campaigned by Bill Bradley on a semi-works basis in the 1966 British Saloon Car Championship series.  Although a potent and impressive machine, however, this so-called 2000PI remained essentially the best package that could be put together using existing components, plus one or two other rally ‘tweaks’ already developed but not previously deployed, such as all-round disc brakes.  As a result, whilst not without potential, the car required much additional development in order to compete successfully with established racing saloons such as the BMW 1800s and Lotus Cortinas, let alone the highly-specialised 400bhp lightweight Ford Falcon Sprints which made their circuit racing debut that year.  Sadly, the necessary financial support was not forthcoming from those controlling the purse strings at Triumph, and after one disappointing season, the BSCC 2000 project was quietly discontinued.

The interior of GVC 689D
The interior of GVC 689D

Despite this discouragement, use of the closely-related TR5 engine in the saloon chassis was thought to have considerable potential for rallying, and in due course entries were obtained for the 1967 RAC Rally.  Two cars were prepared, one being a further upgrading of Roy Fidler’s 1966 car for him to drive, with a second (ex-press demonstrator) car to be piloted by Formula One Champion Denny Hulme.  Both were built in accordance with the contemporary Group 6 ‘Prototype’ category and were considerably more aggressive in appearance than any previous works rallying 2000s, with heavily-louvered bonnets, no bumpers and Minilite alloy wheels.  As is now well known, the Rally was cancelled mere hours before its planned start due to an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease along its intended route, and neither car ran as a works entry again.  In due course, FHP 993C was returned to Roy Fidler and the other car, GVC 689D, tested by Motor magazine for its ‘Given the Works’ series.  Whilst the resulting laudatory write-up could not have gone un-noticed by Triumph’s masters, neither must it have provided adequate compensation for what was clearly seen as yet another let-down, as Leyland once again terminated competitions activities at Canley!

This time, however, Triumph’s re-enforced absence from international rallying would be a short one.  With the creation of the British Leyland Motor Corporation in 1968, and the bringing-in to the fold of the former BMC Competitions Department (located in the MG factory at Abingdon, near Oxford), the decision was taken to base all corporate competitions activity there.  Although seen by some as a partisan move, this was in fact a fairly logical judgment, BMC having supported a broad-based and well-equipped works competition operation even after those at Jaguar, Rover and Triumph had ceased.  At the time of the merger, BMC’s principal rally winner was the Mini-Cooper, which was nearing the end of its effective competition life, and newly-appointed BLMC Competitions Manager Peter Browning was instructed to review the rest of the Corporation’s offerings for likely replacements, with particular emphasis to be placed on Triumph products.  All in all, the 2.5PI seemed to offer the greatest immediate potential as a rally contender and, as Abingdon had no prior competition experience with the 2000 range, it was arranged that a basically standard PI should be prepared by Triumph, then entered and maintained by the Abingdon team.  This car, registered UJB 643G, made its debut in the hands of Paddy Hopkirk on the 1969 Austrian Alpine rally, but suffered from persistent transmission troubles and retired before the end.  A much more specialised Group 6 replacement (loosely based on the two 1967 prototypes) was then built-up at Abingdon and entered for Brian Culcheth in the Scottish Rally.  Culcheth drove the car with considerable aplomb, holding down third position overall until differential failure and protracted delays in replacing the offending unit forced him to miss stages in order to stay in the running.  Even so, the car still finished second in its class.

Mark 1 Triumph 2.5 PI outside Special Tuning in Abingdon
A works Mark 1, possibly VBL 197H, outside Special Tuning in Abingdon

From that time forward, the bulk of BLMC’s rallying efforts would be concentrated on preparing for the 1970 Daily Mail London-Mexico World Cup Rally.  A 16,000-mile marathon running from London to Lisbon then, after a sea passage, resuming in Rio de Janeiro for the journey to Mexico City, the event was felt to offer not just the sort of international publicity that British Leyland sought from competitions participation but also, based on Abingdon’s experience with the 1968 London-Sydney Marathon, a very real chance of a BLMC victory.  Seven entries were obtained, four of these being for the yet-to-be-announced Triumph 2.5PI Mk2 models.  In order to gain further experience with the cars, three new Mk1 PIs (VBL 195-197H) were prepared for and entered in the 1969 RAC Rally, driven by Paddy Hopkirk, Brian Culcheth and Andrew Cowan, all three of whom were nominated as drivers for the World Cup entries.  Lightly modified in accordance with the Group 2 regulations of the time, the cars ran well but were hampered by unseasonably heavy snow on some of the stages.  Nevertheless, all finished and, led by Andrew Cowan, took the first three places in their class.

Simultaneously, work started on the Mk2 cars for the World Cup Rally.  As two of the RAC Rally cars were to be shipped to South America for reconnaissance purposes (practice/test 2.5PI UJB 642G already having been loaned to the rally organisers for the official route survey), initial suspension development was undertaken on an ordinary production Mk2 PI allocated to Abingdon for support duties.  After this, however, a complete brand-new test car (WRX 902H) was built, there never being any intention that this car should actually participate in the London-Mexico event, but merely be used to prove design and constructional features.  In due course, four more 2.5PIs were constructed as official works entries:

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The specification of the cars was comprehensive and included specially-reinforced bodyshells with some aluminium panelling, Police-specification overdrive gearboxes, Stag final drives (modified with Salisbury limited-slip differentials) and brakes, 15-inch Minilite wheels, twin auxiliary fuel tanks, and many other details.  Engines were effectively to TR6 PI specification, though with a lowered compression ratio to tolerate the poor-quality petrol likely to be encountered en route, whilst the fuel metering units were made cockpit-adjustable for the high altitudes of the South American Andes.

World Cup Rally Triumph 2.5 PI preparation
Triumph 2.5 PI in preparation alongside other BL works entries, prior to the 1970 World Cup Rally

In addition to the four works cars, two 2.5PI Mk2s would start the Rally as private entries.  The first of these – BYE 377H, rally No.1 – was entered by Robert Buchanan-Michaelson, partnered by Roy Fidler and Jim Bullough.  Of similar specification to the works cars, BYE 377H was actually built alongside them at Abingdon, but finish-prepared by Janspeed Engineering of Salisbury.  The second private-owner PI was UKV 701H (rally No.39) entered by Adrian Lloyd-Hirst and co-driven by Keith Baker and Brian Englefield, who was also responsible for the car’s preparation.

XJB 305H at the start of the World Cup Rally
XJB 305H, possibly at the start of the World Cup Rally – picture courtesy Brian Englefield/Jason Chinn

Much was expected of the works cars, as was made clear when BLMC Chairman Lord Stokes turned up at the Wembley start to see them on their way, but there was always going to be stern competition, principally from Ford with its large team of lightweight Escorts, and from the rugged and well-proven Citroën DS21s.  Despite an agreed strategy of taking things easy during the initial, European stages, the cars of Culcheth, Hopkirk and Cowan were running in sixth, eighth and eleventh places respectively by the Lisbon halt, though the Evan Green car had dropped to sixty-ninth place due to delays arising from a persistent engine misfire, not to mention an unscheduled off-road excursion down the side of a French mountain.  The same French Alpine section proved fateful for the Buchanan-Michaelson entry which fell victim to fuel starvation problems, these eventually causing the car to exceed its maximum allowed time and so be disqualified, the first of the Triumphs to drop out.

After a fortnight’s sea journey, the event restarted from Rio de Janeiro for the final 9,000-mile run to Mexico City.  The distances and challenges of the South American section were vastly greater than in Europe, and it was here that the process of attrition really accelerated.  First to succumb was the privately-entered 2.5PI of Adrian Lloyd-Hirst, which ran out of time in Brazil after suffering front suspension damage.  After an against-the-odds journey from Europe, the ill-fated Evan Green PI finally retired in Argentina due to engine failure, whilst on a later stage the Andrew Cowan car ended its rally in an overtaking accident that saw it leave the road and fall more than 20 feet to land inverted, an occurrence which virtually destroyed the car and put all three crew members in hospital.

Paddy Hopkirk's Triumph 2.5 PI in South AmericaBoth Hopkirk and Culcheth suffered troubles in Bolivia, Hopkirk with a sheared differential quill shaft and Culcheth with a broken windscreen for which the BL service crews found they had no suitable replacement.  Nevertheless, despite these travails and a subsequent ‘off’ by Hopkirk in Colombia, the two surviving Triumphs were well-placed by the beginning of the final Panama-Mexico section, and the end result was second place overall for Culcheth (behind Hannu Mikkola’s Escort) and fourth for Hopkirk.  By any conventional standards, this was an exceptional performance, and it seems likely that, had significant road improvements not been undertaken to key route stages in Argentina and Uruguay between the time of the route survey and the commencement of the rally itself, the average speeds posted by the Escorts would have been much slower, giving victory to the Triumphs.  A clear BL victory, however, is what Lord Stokes seems to have expected, and the ramifications of the team’s failure to secure this were to be far-reaching.

WRX 902H en route to winning the 1970 Scottish Rally
WRX 902H en route to winning the 1970 Scottish Rally

Almost immediately after the British Leyland team’s return from South America, Paddy Hopkirk and Brian Culcheth drove works entries in the 1970 Scottish Rally.  Whilst Hopkirk had reverted to his favoured Mini, Culcheth’s mount was the former World Cup test car (WRX 902H), now stripped of much of its long-distance equipment in the interests of lightness and in a rather higher state of tune.  Some of the car’s features were reminiscent of the original (Group 3) works 2000s, not least the use of a wide-ratio gearbox and fitment of triple Weber carburettors in place of fuel injection, the latter being somewhat controversial and not broadly publicised at the time.  Despite formidable competition from Ford, Lancia and his own BLMC team-mate, Culcheth steadily moved up the position board as the rally progressed and, after the leading Lancia was penalised for late running, took a well-earned victory.  By this time, however, the fate of the entire British Leyland Competitions Department was in severe doubt, Lord Stokes and other BLMC Directors considering that the lack of an outright victory on the World Cup Rally had failed to justify the very considerable expense involved.  Although plans had been made for a 1971 East African Safari entry using the World Cup Triumphs, Leyland’s historical ambivalence to motorsport remained sadly evident and, after corporate management refused to agree an overall competitions strategy, the BLMC Competitions Department was officially closed in October 1970.  With the exception of XJB 305H which was retained for promotional purposes, the various works 2.5PIs were eventually auctioned-off.

Brian Culcheth on the 1972 East African Safari Rally
Brian Culcheth on the 1972 East African Safari Rally

Perhaps more so than any other of the Abingdon works drivers, Culcheth developed an evident rapport with the big Triumph and, after intensive lobbying of industry contacts, won backing from Triumph and Castrol to undertake a limited series of events under the ‘Brian Culcheth-Team Castrol’ banner, using his World Cup 2.5PI.  Prepared by BL Special Tuning at Abingdon which, in addition to supporting private owners, had assumed responsibility for British Leyland’s remaining competitions activities, the car was entered in the 1971 Welsh, Scottish and Cyprus rallies, only narrowly missing an outright victory in Cyprus.  For 1972, however, Canley wanted to shift competitions emphasis to the new Dolomite Sprint, though the delayed introduction of that car meant that there would be very little ‘works’ Triumph activity during that year or 1973, much of Culcheth’s time being spent rallying Morris Marinas instead.  Despite (or perhaps because of) this, the 1972 season would start with one last outing for the 2.5PI, in the form of an entry in the East African Safari.  In place of the old World Cup car, a new vehicle – financed by Triumph’s Kenyan distributors and to be registered KNW 798 in that country – was quickly prepared at Abingdon, including a number of features taken from the World Cup specification, but in general very much closer to standard than those vehicles.  The rally itself was challenging to say the least, with the car arriving in Kenya too late for any serious in-country preparation, concerted opposition from Ford and others, and a series of mechanical and structural problems with the car.  Nevertheless, Culcheth and local co-driver Lofty Drews did take a class win, but finished only thirteenth overall.  After that, BL’s rallying activities concentrated on the Dolomite Sprint and subsequently TR7, though one final works entry for a big Triumph came in 1976, when BL supplied a 2500S (JHP 368N – previously the press launch and Autocar test car) for Tony Pond to drive in the International Caravan Rally.  The car, which was again prepared by Special Tuning and reportedly modified with a number of left-over works 2.5 components including triple Weber carburettors, was driven to second place.

XJB 305H in its Team Castrol livery
XJB 305H in its Team Castrol livery

Whether British Leyland could – or should – have kept the 2.5PI in top-class rallying for longer than it did is a complicated and emotive question.  Whilst Culcheth’s exploits during 1971 suggest that a properly-supported works effort might have brought additional successes, it has to be conceded that the big Triumph’s days as an international rally winner at a European level were definitely numbered.  As events progressively favoured ever faster and more demanding special stages, the natural replacement for the Mini-Cooper had not to be a large saloon like the PI, but rather something much closer to Ford’s RS Escorts and Lancia’s Fulvia HFs, a fact that was tacitly acknowledged in BL’s choice of vehicles (Dolomite Sprint and TR7) for later rallying work.  For ultra-long distance events, however, where endurance and reliability could be valued at a premium over outright speed and manoeuvrability, then the 2.5PI certainly had the makings of a winner well into the 1970s, and it can only be regretted that, due to company politics and economic restrictions, its competition career was ended so soon after its finest hour.

Further Reading

This article © Jonathan Lewis 2010

We would like to express our thanks to Jason Chinn for allowing us to raid his picture collection for this article.