England’s Alfa?


Tell us about Triumph, says the editor, and make it personal. But that’s exactly Triumph’s problem. For someone like me – mid-thirties, passed my test in ’92 – a brand that died in 1984 doesn’t figure much in our car consciousness. My personal experiences of Triumph are all of the jokey-ironic variety. There was the work experience kid we had when I was road test editor of car magazine who showed up in a mint early-eighties Triumph Acclaim every day, rather bravely parking it among our Ferraris and Lamborghini’s, and expected us to take him seriously as a car enthusiast. (It didn’t do his career any harm: he’s still at the magazine.)

Or there’s the beautiful ex-girlfriend, a Notting-Hill dwelling media guru who, despite showing zero interest in cars while we were together, completely inexplicably went out and bought a poo-brown Triumph Dolomite after we split and parked it proudly between the Range Rovers and Porsches of W14, possibly seeking to replace me with something even less reliable.

Dolly Sprint: great potential – bad build quality

And yet, and yet… there must be something about Triumph to have made BMW retain the rights to the name – along with Riley – when it was happy to relinquish MG along with Rover.

Go back beyond the Acclaim, TR7 and Dolomite to the bigger, Michelotti-styled 2000 saloon and its successors, and to sports cars like the Spitfire and the Stag, and you see a British Alfa Romeo emerging.

Like Alfa, Triumphs were often good cars ruined by woeful build quality, lack of engineering investment and appalling mismanagement. Unlike the Italians, we were prepared to follow financial logic and let a swathe of famous names, including Triumph, die.

Vitesse: evoked European style, not just in name

But death isn’t terminal in the car industry. When the German brands were busy brilliantly re-imagining British brands like Rover, Range Rover, Rolls-Royce, Bentley and most relevantly Mini in the nineties and early noughties, Triumph was always just one boardroom vote away from resurrection.

You can see the appeal to punters of an affordable, charismatic, utterly British sports car: it’s the obvious gap in our revitalized national line-up. Trouble is, pure sports cars sell in small numbers, so they have to be expensive to make money. The Mazda MX-5 has the affordable roadster market wrapped, and BMW already does sporty saloons of the type Triumph used to make.

Spitfire: worthy of the noble moniker?

But as the car market fractures into more and more sub-niches – I’ve lost count of how many Mini sub-variants there are – the chance of a gap opening for Triumph increases.

But should Triumph come back? Does it mean anything, now that it’s been gone so long? It is one of the world’s great car names, but also a massive hostage to fortune and headline writers if the car BMW puts the badge on is anything less than stellar.

BMW is reported to have recently re-registered Triumph and the laurel leaves as a European trademark. It might just be legal housekeeping, or there might finally be something brewing in Munich. If there is, I doubt they’ll call it a Spitfire.