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

Classic Car Weekly (UK) - - This Week -

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…

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