Although the Triumph 2000 made little impression on American buyers, it was a very significant car for the British market, the first salvo in a bitter war between traditional big sedans and upscale “premium” offerings that still rages today. In this installment of Ate Up With Motor, we look at the origins of the 2000 Mk 1, its links to its Rover P6 arch-rival, and the first 2.5 PI.
FROM VANGUARD TO ZEBU
If we discount both the cheapest and most expensive ends of the market, much of the automotive business has long been engaged in a perpetual tug of war between status and value for money. Prestige brands routinely court middle-class buyers with smaller, cheaper models while bread-and-butter automakers try to claim a chunk of the luxury market by offering greater size or more features for less cash. The reasoning is not hard to understand: Luxury and status command higher prices while increased sales volume usually translates into lower unit costs and higher profits. If you can strike the right balance between those factors, you can carve out a lucrative niche.
These were the sort of considerations on the minds of the directors of the Standard Motor Company in the mid-1950s. At that time, the company had a solid middle-class product in the form of the Vanguard, which had a storied name borrowed (with the permission of the War Ministry and the Admiralty) from a long line of distinguished Royal Navy vessels, but was otherwise a quite ordinary mid-price sedan with a big 2,088 cc (128 cu. in.) four shared with contemporary Ferguson tractors and of course the Triumph TR2/TR3 sports cars. By American standards, the Vanguard was rather small, but to Britons, it was a midsize family car, competing with rivals like the Austin A90/A95 Westminster, Vauxhall Velox/Cresta, and Ford Zephyr. The Vanguard was in no way remarkable, but it sold in respectable numbers.
The dilemma for Standard was that it was a medium-size company grappling with giants. Ford and Vauxhall were subsidiaries of two of the world’s largest automakers. Hillman, Sunbeam-Talbot, Humber, and Singer were all owned by the Rootes Group and in 1952, Austin Motors had merged with its longtime rival the Nuffield Organization to form the enormous British Motor Corporation (BMC). While Standard could to some extent fall back on its tractor business, matching its rivals’ economies of scale was a much more difficult proposition, complicated by the fact that BMC was busily snatching up suppliers like Fisher & Ludlow, which provided bodies for Standard’s smaller 8 and 10. Standard’s new managing director, Alick Dick, who had replaced the autocratic Sir John Black in early 1954, was already shopping around for merger partners, but to survive over the long term, Standard would need to rethink its product strategy.
It was perhaps for that reason that when planning began in 1957 for a Vanguard successor, codenamed Zebu, engineering director Harry Webster began exploring directions considerably more adventurous than the Vanguard, including front-wheel drive, independent rear suspension, and a rear transaxle. Some of these ideas may have been prompted at least in part by the latest developments from Citroën and Lancia, but such plans suggested that Standard was already envisioning Zebu as a more sophisticated and probably more expensive car than the Vanguard.
Curiously, Standard originally planned to retain a separate chassis rather than adopting unitized construction. (The company took the same approach with the smaller “Zobo,” which became the Triumph Herald.) Webster later insisted that maintaining body-on-frame construction was to facilitate CKD assembly for export markets, but it’s hard to believe the growing uncertainty over body suppliers didn’t have something to do with it; BMC’s Sir Leonard Lord had already rebuffed Alick Dick’s proposal to have Fisher & Ludlow produce the Zobo’s body shell.
The idea of making Zebu front-wheel drive was discarded early on (although Standard would later return to FWD for smaller cars) and the transaxle was dropped when it proved to have insuperable vibration problems, but independent rear suspension was retained, probably as much for the sake of ride comfort as handling. The engine, meanwhile, was to be a new OHV six derived from the four-cylinder in the 8/10 and Zobo, which would be smaller but considerably smoother than the agricultural 2,088 cc (127 cu. in.) four.
As with the English Ford and Vauxhall products of the time, Zebu’s styling borrowed many elements from contemporary American design. Zebu was to be a pillarless four-door hardtop with reverse-slant sail panels reminiscent of some late-50s Mercurys and Lincolns, although the sloping nose smacked more of Citroën. Based on surviving photos, it was not an unattractive design, but it would probably have dated very quickly.
A ROVER RIVAL
Back in 1954, Standard had explored the possibility of a merger with Rover, whose managing director, Spencer Wilks, was Alick Dick’s brother-in-law. (Both were also related by marriage to Sir John Black, but that familiarity had merely strengthened Wilks’ reluctance to do business with Sir John.) While nothing had come of those negotiations, both companies recognized the advantages of such an alliance and launched a new round of talks in early 1959. These discussions were no more fruitful than the first, but the merger discussions did give each company a glimpse of the other’s upcoming product plans.
It was in this way that Standard learned that Rover was developing a sophisticated 2-liter sedan, codenamed P6, which was intended to shake off the staid “Auntie” image of Rover’s existing P4 line in hopes of attracting younger buyers. This paralleled Standard’s own goals, and knowledge of the Rover program would have a strong influence on Standard’s plans.
Another pivotal moment came during a visit to Standard’s offices in Banner Lane from automotive journalist Chris Jennings, then the editor of the British magazine The Motor. Upon seeing the Zebu prototype, Jennings warned Webster and Dick that the new Ford Anglia 105E, set to debut later that year, featured similar reverse-slant sail panels. Since the Anglia was Ford of Britain’s smallest and cheapest model, such a resemblance would obviously not do the Zebu any favors, so the revelation sent Standard back to the drawing board on a design that had been close to final.
In September, weeks after selling its tractor business and severing its relationship with the tractor manufacturer Massey-Harris-Ferguson (which had acquired Ferguson back in 1953), Standard became part of a new holding company called Standard-Triumph International. The name reflected the board’s acknowledgment that the Standard marque was nearing the end of its usefulness: Standard’s cars were increasingly seen as dowdy and dated and in the automotive lexicon, “standard” was more commonly used as an adjective than a noun. Future development would therefore center on the Triumph brand, which Standard had owned since late 1944. Triumph had originally been a relatively upmarket brand and the name had more pizazz than Standard, undoubtedly enhanced by the popularity of the TR3 sports car.
LEYLAND, BARB, AND MICHELOTTI
As we’ve previously discussed, Standard-Triumph’s fortunes soured abruptly in 1960, the result of a sudden downward turn of the market just as the company had sunk most of its ready cash into an ambitious consolidation and expansion plan. Standard-Triumph soon found itself in a hole from which it extricated itself only through a merger late in the year with the truck manufacturer Leyland Motors.
The Zebu was already floundering as Standard struggled to find a new styling idiom and the financial crisis put the project on the shelf. In the interim, however, Zebu’s intended engine was installed in a new Vanguard Six.
Standard-Triumph revived the Zebu project in the spring of 1961, following the Leyland merger, but decided to scrap the previous designs and start over. The project received a new codename — Barb — and Standard commissioned new styling proposals from in-house design chief Les Moore and Turinese freelancer Giovanni Michelotti, who had already designed the Herald and the new TR4.
Barb’s development was on a very tight timetable. New engine or not, the Vanguard was clearly on borrowed time and Standard-Triumph wanted Barb ready by October 1963, which, as they were almost certainly aware, was when Rover planned to launch the P6. This left only a narrow window to create a clean-sheet design, but Les Moore understood the urgency and Michelotti was accustomed to working extraordinarily quickly (his design for the Zobo/Herald had been completed in less than 24 hours). Both proposals were ready by the fall of 1961. Of the two, the board preferred Michelotti’s, which Moore and Arthur Ballard, the chief body engineer, refined for production.
Barb was not a copy of the P6; although the two cars were similar in size (the Triumph rode a longer wheelbase, but the Rover was longer and wider overall), from a technical standpoint they were very different. However, the Rover probably served to codify Standard-Triumph’s thinking about how Barb should be positioned, including its level of interior trim and standard engine. Originally, in what appears to be a bet-hedging move, Barb’s base engine was to be the smaller 1,596 cc (97 cu. in.) six used in the Herald-based Triumph Vitesse, but fairly late in the game Standard-Triumph opted to make the 1,998 cc (122 cu. in.) six the sole engine. It was just as well; aside from the desire to achieve parity with the 1,978 cc (121 cu. in.) Rover, the 1.6-liter six was little cheaper to make than the 2-liter and had only 70 horsepower (52 kW), so it was attractive from neither a cost nor a performance standpoint.
For Barb, the 2-liter six got a new cylinder head with revised combustion chambers and a slightly higher 8.5:1 compression ratio (raised in 1964 to 9.0:1), a new intake manifold, and a pair of Triumph-designed Zenith Stromberg 150 CD side-draft carburetors, all of which brought output to 90 net horsepower (67 kW) and 117 lb-ft (159 N-m) of torque. The engine was tipped 10 degrees to the right to clear the sloping hood and linked to a four-speed all-synchro gearbox, basically the TR4 transmission with slightly shorter indirect ratios. Laycock de Normanville overdrive would be optional, as would a three-speed automatic.
In technical specification, the biggest change from Zebu to Barb was the adoption of monocoque construction, with body shells produced by Pressed Steel Ltd. at its plant in Swindon. All-independent suspension was retained, with MacPherson struts in front and semi-trailing arms on coil springs in back, both mounted on rubber-isolated subframes. No anti-roll bars were fitted and spring rates were relatively low, although damping was fairly firm to maintain body control. Steering was rack and pinion and disc brakes were fitted at the front.
By the time Barb began pilot production, the last Standard passenger cars were gone — the final production car, a four-cylinder Ensign, had come off the line earlier that year — and with them most of the familiar model names. The new model would be called simply Triumph 2000, a designation last used in 1949 for the Vanguard-engined versions of the postwar 1800 roadster and saloon.