40 years since the last Triumph Stag
The Triumph Stag had its issues way back when, but it’s a different proposition now. Richard Heseltine celebrates a classic V8 cruiser
Few mourned the Triumph Stag’s passing when the last example rolled off the production line on 24 June 1977. Here was a car that promised much but, in so many ways was just another British Leyland model that came unstuck due to poor build quality and even worse reliability. However, it has outdistanced its almost-but-notquite reputation 40 years on and enjoyed something of an image overhaul. It’s about time.
That said, the Stag never really realised its full potential. It had all the necessary ingredients to make magic, but the end result, while undeniably ambitious, was anything but magical. No amount of rose-tinted spectacles can get past the fact that it was once a running – and more often than not a non-running – joke that foretold British Leyland’s tragicomic future. Small wonder that just 25,877 Stags were made over a seven-year run – some way short of the 12,000 annual production originally envisaged.
Much of the Stag’s appeal then as now centres on its distinctive outline, styled by prolific penfor-hire, Giovanni Michelotti. It followed on from his earlier Herald, 2000 saloon and TR4 roadster, progressing many established styling themes. In 1964 ‘Micho’ requested a donor car on which he could build a new show-stopper – mass manufacture wasn’t on the agenda at this stage. Triumph’s engineering director, Harry Webster, duly dispatched a shop-soiled 2000 saloon development hack to Turin, which Michelotti proceeded to slice ’n’ dice into a new 2+2 convertible. It never did make its show appearance, though – Webster immediately identified it as a must-build production model, and its future was set.
Webster clearly felt that the Stag would lend Triumph a more aspirant image, create its own niche and – crucially – earn the company lucrative Yankee dollars by undercutting exalted German offerings.
Tellingly, it stumbled before it was halfway out of the starting gate. While early developments centred on the 2000/2500 saloon’s proven straight-six, a V8 was deemed essential if it was to stand any chance of success on the US market. And what an engine – two of the firm’s new slant-fours were combined on a common crank, the resultant lightweight alloy-headed unit producing a relatively humble 145bhp at 5500rpm but a meaty 170lb ft of torque at 3500rpm. Unfortunately, what should have been a game-changing engine was rushed into production before all the wrinkles had been ironed out. It didn’t help that the purchasing department found a cheaper source of cylinder head gaskets, which may have saved BL a few quid, but tended to warp with alarming alacrity. And let’s not forget clogged waterways in the cylinder block, which in some instances were found to be filled with swarf left over from the manufacturing process.
It could have been so different. With a launch price of £1995 as a soft-top, £2041 with a lift-off roof or £2093 with both, it was certainly keenly priced and its only obvious challengers were the Pininfarina-styled Peugeot 504 convertible and the Mercedes-Benz 350 SL, which it undercut by around £3000. The press loved the Stag, too, praising it for its styling, performance (118mph top speed, 0-60mph in 9.5 seconds), relative sophistication and, most of all, value for money.
Unfortunately, word soon got out about cars ruining their bearings and cylinder heads not being torqued down properly. Negative ink in the media swiftly followed and the Stag was placed on suicide watch. Sales in the US tanked as warranty claims piled up and it was withdrawn altogether in 1973. Its fate was pretty much sealed from then on – only minor cosmetic changes were made to it for the most part thereafter and production finally ended in June 1977.
The Stag’s lack of sales success in standard form had the knock-on effect of hindering spin-offs that might just have saved the Stag. Several key figures within Triumph wanted a fixed-lid derivative to enter production, but only three Fastback variants were ever made – two designed by Michelotti and one penned inhouse – and a typical lack of money meant that the project soon stalled. Two four-wheel drive Stags were also made by FF Developments but, perhaps predictably, the project came to nought.
The passing of four decades has done much to smooth over the bad times. Today, the Stag is viewed as a genuinely desirable sports-tourer which, when maintained properly and treated to relatively simple minor tweaks, is a usable prospect in the real world. What’s more, there’s a thriving club scene and plenty of survivors to go round.
Prices are still keen – around £20,000 buys a minter, with good ones closer to £12,000 – but values are slowly on the rise, as modern buyers increasingly fall for its striking looks, decentsized boot, room inside for four people and an engine note to die for.
The Stag’s life may have been short and rather troubled, but it had few rivals in period and little has changed since.
Among the proposed variants were a full convertible (top) and a fastback coupé. Lack of cash stalled both…