Triumph Herald

Its name implied quality. But all the tinny Triumph Herald heralded was the death of Britain's motor industry, says Brian Sewell
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Indy Lifestyle Online

On writing of a thoroughly nasty little car of long ago, much perverse pleasure is to be had, pleasure akin to recollection of one's first caning at school or the humiliations of the squaddie as a National Serviceman.

Driving a Triumph Herald was never as painful as the thwack of cane on buttocks, nor as beastly as scraping the crystalline deposits from the urinals of a barrack block in Aldershot, but its multitude of discomforts lasted much longer than the one, and in certain circumstances, it was a great deal less safe than the other.

Triumph, now remembered primarily for its rugged sports cars of the TR series 2 to 6 (not 7 and 8), was between the wars a firm that had a worthy reputation for over-bodied and underpowered family cars of only 1,087 and 1,232ccs, rivals for Rover and Riley rather than Austin and Morris.

Its first post-war model in this category was the frightful Mayflower, a short-lived late Art Deco jelly-mould of a saloon that attempted to mate slab-sided streamlining with knife-edged aristocracy, its gutless engine a pre-war Ten (1,247ccs) provided by Standard, Triumph's parent company. Introduced in 1949, it was laid to rest in 1953, and six years elapsed before the next small car appeared - the Herald.

Herald was a Standard name in line with Vanguard, Ensign, Pennant and, indeed, Flying Standard, as the marque was briefly known in the later 1930s. It is a name intended to suggest some quality - courtly ceremony and chivalry, the favour and the joust - but in the metal, the car was no noble breastplate, cuisse or greave, just a horrid, tinny rattletrap that was a common urban fashion accessory of the early Sixties (and I use common in the snobbish sense).

With Birmingham house-wives in mind, tile taste-makers of Coventry decided that the Herald should be marketed in contrasting pastel shades of milky blue, milky grey, milky lavender and milk. Triumph had turned to Michelotti for advice on styling chic; I have never seen his drawings for the Herald, but his designs for Lancia and BMW suggest that much more panache might once have enlivened the Herald's sharp, dart-like profile, the long straight line that runs from hooded headlamps to incipient rear wings, for these characteristics were marred by incoherent detail and an odd tin roof that gives the impression of an afterthought rough-cut from another car and crimped into position.

It was immeasurably improved in the drop-head version, which eliminated the fussy treatment of the rear window and rear quarter-lights, and when the hood was black it lent weight and simplicity to the line - but it was, alas, more often white, which, with white-wall tyres, made the whole thing look like a toy for fat brats in California.

But not too fat, for this was a narrow car, elbow-clashing in the front, hip-crunching in the rear, the bench seat there cramped by the substantial intrusion of wheel arches. Nothing about the car's interior spoke of warmth and comfort - indeed, until very late in life (production did not stop until 1971) the heater was an optional extra.

The front seats were made to sit upon - no more; they offered no lateral support, hugged no shoulders and as their cold plastic covering allowed no sweat to evaporate, the driver often emerged from his Herald damp in crutch and with the seat of his trousers clinging to his buttocks.

Nor was it quiet; closed or open, the Herald rattled, creaked and let in wind and water. Over rough roads the doors shook so much that they seemed on the point of opening, and at speed the windows, though wound shut, fluttered as air pressed through the door seals. This was a car that felt old with abuse before it left the production line.

The engine was another Standard discard, the 948cc lump from the dreadful Ten that was about to go out of production, sturdy enough with 38.5bhp at 4,500rpm, but mated to a top-gear ratio that gave only 13.5mph for every 1,000rpm, it screamed its head off; in the close-coupled coupé version - a closed two-seater - it gave 50.5bhp at 6,000rpm; in both, at motorway speeds, the racket was intolerable. In terms of handling it was nimble, the steering thought by most drivers to be ideally geared (sans power, it was three and a half turns from lock to lock and the turning circle was only 25 feet accompanied by the tooth-gritting sound of tyre scrub), but the swing-axle rear suspension could make fast cornering disconcertingly adventurous even on dry roads - the swing-axles as could jack up and the rear wheels lean outward, making the car skip to face the radial point of the bend.

Was there anything to say for the Herald? It had a chassis entirely separate from the body and so it was easy to introduce a four-seater drop-head version and a station wagon as well as the saloon and coupe; all these bodies were remarkably easy to repair or replace; the accessibility of the engine was matched by no other car of its time or since (bonnet and front wings swung up and away at the front bumper; and, best of all, it was vastly improved during the course of manufacture.

In 1961 it was given though a new square engine of 1,200ccs; with this it could reach 77mph (though this was no better than the bluff Morris Minor), but its petrol consumption was a hefty 28mpg - on the wretched seven gallon tank no driver could risk a longer journey than 200 miles.

The real leap in quality came in 1962 when Triumph introduced an upmarket version, the Vitesse (an old Triumph name), with a narrow-bored version of the Standard Vanguard engine; for the extra weight the chassis had to be stiffened and reinforced - of which the unplanned benefit was a tough and rigid Herald.

In 1967 the Vitesse was given the Triumph 2000 engine and the advertisements boasted that it was a "BMW Beater.'' It was not; fewer than 20,000 sold before production ceased in 1971.

The Herald too died that year, and the very last of the half million, the 13/60, was a car worth having but far too late, the capacity of the engine raised to 1,296ccs, its power 61bhp at 5,000rpm, but its top gear so low that still it deafened its occupants at motorway speeds.

Any man mad enough to think the Herald a classic should buy the drop-head version with this engine, and no other. Better still, find a Spitfire, the open two-seater that the Herald pupped, and best of all, the GT6, the underrated baby E-Type, the only Herald derivative with a decent top-gear ratio, a petrol tank a dribble short of 10 gallons, and a top speed of 110mph at 5,500rpm.

But even this the makers could not get right at first, and when they did, could not keep it so - go for the Mark II, not I or III, though III at a pinch will do.

If the Herald heralded anything, it was the miserable end of the British motor industry.

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