Rearview Mirror: Ridiculed Triumph Stag belatedly earns respect

The Triumph Stag was plagued due to poor build quality but enthusiasts have resolved those issues and the car is now very popular

Poor build quality meant the Stag was plagued by mechanical problems.
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At the end of the Swinging Sixties, Triumph, a British marque that had established a sporting pedigree through the decade, unveiled a beautiful, bonnet-bulging roadster that was to be the equal of any Italian or German sports car. With eye-catching Italian styling and a snarling British V8, it had all the ingredients to compete with the best in the world, such as the iconic Mercedes SL. It was hoped the Stag would proudly take its place in the long line of British sports cars of international renown, such as the Austin Healy, Jaguar E-Type and the MGB. But reliability problems soon saw this dream turn sour and Triumph's flagship earned the staggering sobriquet of "the Snag".

After earning a reputation for sporting prowess and smooth, head-turning lines with the Italian-styled RE series, director of engineering Harry Webster turned his sights to the challenge of breaking one of the most competitive markets in the world: America. Wishing to retain the winning formula of British engineering and Italian styling, he supplied designer Giovanni Michelotti with the company's modern saloon, the 2000, to create a concept car for the 1965 Turin motor show. If he liked the result he reserved the right to bring the model into production to be a stablemate of the popular TR5. With elegant, swooping lines, a distinctive roll bar and aggressive grille, it was acclaimed by the motoring press. Looking a little like a hybrid between a sports Fiat and a low-slung Mercedes, Webster was confident the model could edge out its rivals and become a hit on the other side of the Atlantic.

But the story of the Stag is a tragic chapter in the story of the slow, sad demise of the British motor industry when poor build quality undermined the promise of dashing designs and ingenious engineering. The 1970s was a decade that saw excellent models such as the XJS and Mini, each bristling with technological advances, ultimately prove unprofitable. The Stag shared their fate. By the time it got the green light to turn from prototype to production, the British motor industry had merged into one huge, bloated corporate monster run with all the pen-pushing inefficiency of a government department. It had subsumed all the proud post-war marques, including Triumph. From the outset, bureaucratic cost-cutting produced flawed cars from state-of-the-art designs.

This was seen in the choice of powerplant for the Stag. An obvious choice would have been Triumph's smooth straight six or Rover's powerful, indestructible V8. But the former was considered under-powered and Webster refused to use the engine of Triumph's old rival Rover, however well suited it was. Instead, they chose to invest in a brand new V8 specifically for the Stag, in a 2.5L and later 3.0L specification. It was to prove a costly decision, in every sense. Though its styling won many plaudits, sales soon slowed once news of reliability problems were reported. In particular, the Stag was prone to overheating due, in part, to a lack of investment and testing of the new engine.

On its release, its classic styling was complemented with modern technology such as power steering and electric windows. Triumph hoped this fusion of the classic and the convenient would lure customers from Mercedes and Lancia and bring 12,000 sales a year. A large percentage of those were hoped to come from the lucrative American market. But this was soon exposed as wildly optimistic. In fact, only 26,000 were sold in a seven-year production run, with less than 3,000 crossing the Atlantic. Despite early diagnosis of the mechanical problems, these were not addressed and enthusiasts were forced to make their own solutions and upgrades to make the car reliable. This damage to its reputation was compounded by slow sales during the oil crisis of 1973. By 1977 it was selling less than 2,000 a year and the decision was taken to cease production.

Triumph itself limped on with the dated Dolomite, the wedge-shaped TR7 and the ill-fated Acclaim, a Triumph-badged Honda Accord. By the mid-eighties Triumph was yet another proud British marque consigned to history.

But though the Stag had a chequered past, it went on to become one of the most sought-after Triumph models and it is estimated about one third are still on the road today, cherished by owners and winning admiring glances. As with many works of art, it is remembered more fondly than it was received.