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Journalists love to hate Triumph Stags

Written by Rob Avis

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I recently met a fellow who didn’t know about my penchant for Triumph’s oft-maligned Stag. He charged full gallop into his pet hate, Pommy cars, with a special revulsion for the worst of them all – Triumph’s big GT, the Stag. I didn’t bother trying to defend the car because he knew all about them. He’d never owned one, but friends of his apparently did. These friends, hearsay would have it, either died in debtor’s prison from trying to fix their Stags, or died from being hit in the head by bits that fell off while being driven. This is rubbish, of course. Stags were so bad that they weren’t capable of being driven long enough for any bits to fall off. Obviously, this acquaintance’s loathing for the Stag knew no bounds. Is there any information in circulation that reinforces his view? The short answer is “yes.” The long answer you are reading now.

Slovenly journalism shows an abysmal grasp of reality, being riddled with unresearched regurgitation or gross inaccuracies. To assume that a car is still driving around with problems it had in the 1970s, problems long since identified and rectified, is deplorable. And yet I warrant you that magazine reports on the Triumph Stag reflect this very shoddy journalistic negligence. Told and retold, misinformation generates its own legitimacy purely because it is the written word. When such fabrications are read uncritically, their falsity becomes accepted as truth

Triumph_TR3_1Never a huge company, Triumph suffered from having to perform in the market place against far larger, better financed opposition. Economies of scale not only left Triumph at a disadvantage, but on several occasions, broke it financially, leaving it in the hands of the receivers. On each occasion, the new owner did not dismantle it, scattering its resources and talent. Why not? The talent bank had always produced so much that was often exceptional. One needs to look no further than the TR range to see what could be produced on a shoe-string budget. The Herald range begat the Vitesse, Spitfire and GT6 cars utilizing the same underpinnings. A brilliant utilisation of common components to produce four vehicles.

 

 

Herald

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stand-vangu3When Standard bought out Triumph, its ‘bread and butter’ production car was the Vanguard saloon. Apparently constructed from railway girders, it took its styling clues from American cars but by the end they were a decade out of date. Triumph replaced the decidedly unfashionable Vanguard with its elegant, pretty, technically advanced two litre six cylinder saloons, using an improved Vanguard motor. They were built up to a price, not down to a budget. Gearboxes had full synchromesh, five years ahead of the MGB which soldiered on to the end of its life hamstrung with horse and buggy cart springs under its rear.

 

Mk1_2000The Triumph’s independently coil sprung body was soft riding, compliant, precise and safe and the Mk1 2000 begat the Stag. In Australia, the same amount of cash needed to buy a new Stag could buy you two Holden 5 litre V8 Monaros. The Stag’s intended market was exclusive, small and discerning. Aimed squarely at the best luxury touring products from Germany, Italy and even Jaguar, the Stag had great expectations thrust upon it. In theory, it was their match. Always priced under its classy rivals (sometimes half), Triumph’s Stag fitted a market niche that was its alone. Sold as a 2+2 with soft top, hard top or topless and powered by a unique ultra-modern V8 of three litres, it had all the credentials of a world beater. The Stag’s nickel-iron block was topped off with alloy overhead camshaft cylinder heads, tuned conservatively to produce 145 horsepower. It had no rivals in its market segment.

Stag-Rons-shot1Most motoring journalists liked it. The order books filled rapidly. Waiting lists for delivery of new Stags grew from months to nearly a year. Critical journalists knocked the Stag for its moderate power, its comfortable ride compromise, its lack of absolute bone jarring grip and its average ¼ mile and top speed capabilities. They were correct on all counts.

As a sports car, the Stag was less than mediocre at its best. Those journos were right on the money. Except for one small but highly significant point: the Stag was not a sports car. It was never intended to be. More importantly, factory press releases and period advertising did not describe the Stag as a sports car. Presumably, motoring journalists can read, though the evidence here seems to prove otherwise. The words “sporty car” were in vogue in the 70s. Some journalists called it a sporty car, but not a sports car. The literacy-challenged writers still insisted on comparing the Stag with the contemporary crop of outright sports cars and understandably found the GT wanting. What it was really wanting were writers with an understanding of the more or less unique niche it slotted into.

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Triumph’s Stag was aimed at trans-continental touring. It was designed to move quickly over vast distances, cosseting the occupants in comfort whilst surrounding them with luxurious trim. Consider this list of standard appointments: power steering, rake and reach adjustable leather-bound steering wheel, large, fully adjustable reclining bucket seats, arm rests with red rear illumination and under-door puddle illumination, full complement of Smiths instruments set into a walnut veneer dash, parcel shelf under the lockable glove box, Borg Warner automatic or overdrive manual transmission, massive map or document pockets in the doors and behind the seats, long travel coil sprung independent suspension and quad quartz-halogen headlamps. Naturally the windows were electrically operated. Add 93 million miles of headroom and you have the Stag. Plus one clincher: the best exhaust note in motoring history. And it’s a pretty car.

So what sank this titanic step forward in Triumph’s future? British foundry workers who cast the engine blocks didn’t always bother flushing all the casting sand from the cooling galleries. This lack of care was often discovered by the second owner after removing the heat-warped cylinder heads. If they didn’t discover it then, they certainly did after the heads bent for a second time.

Stag_engine_2In the 1970s, any coolant better than muddy tap water was considered extravagant. All vehicles with alloy heads were considered frighteningly complex and utterly unnecessary. Holdens didn’t have them. So therefore nothing else should. Consequently, Stag owner number two didn’t bother with corrosion inhibiting coolant. Service personnel weren’t forthcoming with this vital information, even when they were aware of it.

Naturally the alloy heads grew onto the head studs, and dissolved aluminium silted the radiator, further blocking coolant flow. Another set of heads gets warped. Owner one, two or three gets turned off British Leyland products for life. From those cars afflicted early enough, warranty claims flooded the company and the coffers drained away. Instead of fixing the problem, BL actually fitted smaller radiators to the last of the Stags, and never replaced the standard poor quality head gaskets. What were they thinking? Word of mouth (journalist’s mouths) reported the failures and BL couldn’t give Stags away with Corn Flakes.

Stag_engine_1Continued production declined. Buyers deserted the Stag in droves. A few fixable production issues were allowed to sink the model. Just over 25,000 made it into owner’s hands. Introduced in 1970 with great fanfare, the last few rolled off the assembly lines in 1977. Today no-one will touch them. Stags are absolute lemons to be avoided at all costs. Pretty cars; dreadful engines.

Well, that’s not quite true. In England the Stag has the unenviable reputation as the most stolen classic car. Thieves don’t steal lemons that have no market or demand. Many owners with re-engined Stags are replacing them with the original “troublesome” units. Many specialist firms cater for the current crop of owners and new or remanufactured parts are plentiful.

The horror stories? All true. For a small minority of cars. In the 1970s. More worrying was the butchery of amateur mechanics (and a few professionals) who created far worse problems than any manufacturing defects. How many Stags survive? An estimated 50% are still going. Why haven’t they all died? Why aren’t they all contributing to landfill?

As the Stag’s problems are well understood, solutions have been developed making the Stag as reliable as any 40 year old classic car, if not moreso. What do motoring publications report today bearing in mind that the original problems had been eradicated a decade ago? More importantly, what’s the public perception today?

Slovenly journalism is as prevalent as it always was. This article has been designed to counter the hoary old myths still presented as fact. Well maintained Stags, even driven with gusto, even driven daily as commuters, are utterly reliable if coolant is flushed yearly, fluid levels maintained, radiators kept in top condition and cam chains replaced as soon as they begin to rattle. Isn’t this the case with all ageing vehicles? Surprisingly, we now have access to far better quality head gaskets than British Leyland bean counters would allow.

Instruments1The Stag has been slashingly denigrated. It was excellent in concept, but victim to shoddy workmanship like most 70s Leyland products. What an absolute shame. Everyone who has had the pleasure to ride in a well maintained or lovingly restored Stag cannot fail to be impressed. If they impress 40 years on, what a joy they must have been when new. When my Stag’s restoration is completed, it will be better than the day it rolled off the assembly line. I look forward to that first drive, and every subsequent one, with every part I restore. I will easily disprove the popular motoring press falsehoods about overheating, coolant pumps running dry, heads warping regularly and cam chains snapping without warning, launching eight pistons into sixteen valves simultaneously.

Where is reality? The Stag is a magnificent car! It is well worth owning, and a pleasure to drive. True, maintaining one is more costly than a Holden Monaro. Which would you have? Rough red and Jatz crackers or Champagne and caviar? A Monaro that costs triple but is half the car? I’ve made my choice and wouldn’t change it.

HK_327_MonaroI test drove a near new Monaro in the mid 70s and rejected it as horribly handling, poorly braked, door rattling, seat belt constantly slipping off, wheel trim jettisoning, non heater equipped, no radio excuse for an Aussie muscle car. Its 186S nearly had an asthma attack trying to haul the body along. I later tried a 253 V8 equipped one with minimal performance increase that did little to offset the above mentioned problems.

And for the Belmont lovers, there was the base model Monaro – an offering so awful that everyone must ask the General what he was thinking. 161 cubic inch low performance six, unassisted drum brakes, 3 on the tree column shift without synchromesh on low, standard vague recirculating ball steering and rubber floor coverings.

Stag_to_match_HK_poseMe? I’ll stick with power rack and pinion steering, 6 on the floor all synchromesh (overdrive) box, power assisted disc/drum brakes with separate circuits and proportioning valve, precise handling and comfort from all independent coil suspension, standard electric windows, beautiful comprehensive Smith’s instruments set in very British traditional wooden dash, and fuel economy that contemporary Holden owners could only dream of. With 100 horsepower less than Holden Monaro’s big 327 V8, it was only nine miles per hour slower, but ten miles per gallon more fuel efficient. And it’s a convertible that seats four and has a hard top too. That’s Stag ownership in the real world.