The Triumph Stag could have been a legend but was let down by its poor reliability, says Giles Chapman

Before giving the many reasons why the Triumph Stag was one of the most maddening British cock-ups of the 1970s, I must just tell you about my evening in a hotel bar in Covent Garden. I was out with the missus and we were getting rosy-cheeked on Californian white and misty-eyed about the days when after-dark London belonged to us, not the mass of adolescents streaming past outside. On the street near by was parked a parade of the finest modern performance cars - a Nissan 350Z, a Subaru Impreza Turbo and a Mercedes-Benz SLK. There was an Aston Martin DB7. But sandwiched between them was a white Triumph Stag, somebody's pride and joy rather trustingly left on the verge of one of London's nightlife throughfares.

Before giving the many reasons why the Triumph Stag was one of the most maddening British cock-ups of the 1970s, I must just tell you about my evening in a hotel bar in Covent Garden. I was out with the missus and we were getting rosy-cheeked on Californian white and misty-eyed about the days when after-dark London belonged to us, not the mass of adolescents streaming past outside. On the street near by was parked a parade of the finest modern performance cars - a Nissan 350Z, a Subaru Impreza Turbo and a Mercedes-Benz SLK. There was an Aston Martin DB7. But sandwiched between them was a white Triumph Stag, somebody's pride and joy rather trustingly left on the verge of one of London's nightlife throughfares.

My goodness, was that car getting some attention. Scantily clad 17-year-old girls ran their fingertips along its paintwork. Washed-and-brushed-up young men mouthed their admiration to their friends. Tourists peered inside to ogle the wooden dashboard and brushed-aluminium steering wheel. The occasional middle-aged couple gawped with suddenly recalled yearning.

If the Stag were made today in its original form, you'd have a sure-fire hit on your hands. So it's most upsetting to recall how ham-fistedly British Leyland launched this four-seater rival to the Mercedes-Benz 280SL 35 years ago, squandering yet another potential niche product that could have made Britain proud. For there was very little to compare to the 1970 Triumph Stag. Its creators forged a new market sector, the four-seater fully convertible sporting grand tourer that Mercedes-Benz had overlooked.

An Italian design consultant called Giovanni Michelotti had created the styling for every Triumph since the 1959 Herald, and the Stag concept - a four-seater convertible using a Triumph 2000 saloon as its basis - was his idea. Michelotti enjoyed a close friendship with Triumph's director of engineering, Harry Webster, and the understanding between them meant the Stag was given an instant green light in 1965.

Triumph was a tightly-run organisation in which Webster wielded enormous power; anything that he believed in was usually passed by the board.

The padded roll-bar was a unique feature, as were the generously sized rear seats. The Stag was the first Triumph sports car to have unitary construction, with MacPherson struts in its front suspension and coil springs and trailing arms in its independent rear system. The disc front brakes were servo-assisted and the whole braking system was dual-circuit. And the Stag was the first British car to feature an inertia-operated fuel cut-off in the event of a road accident. There will always be controversy, though, about the Stag's V8 engine. Why did the car have a bespoke block instead of Rover's well-proven 3.5-litre V8, which was readily available after Triumph became part of British Leyland in 1968?

The answer is that Triumph and Rover, long-standing rivals, had been forced together under the Leyland umbrella only months after the Stag project began. Harry Webster, a British Leyland powerbroker, declared that the Rover engine was impossible to fit in the Stag (not true - it did), so the go-ahead was given to push on with Triumph's own double overhead-camshaft 3-litre V8, which had been under development since 1963. This was essentially two Triumph 1.5-litre slant four-cylinder engines joined on a common crankshaft.

The engine became the Stag's Achilles heel. The water pump was mounted too high (between the V of the cylinder heads), so, if the coolant level dropped, the pump would be left high and dry. Overheating became a notorious fault, while blown cylinder-head gaskets and poor quality control led to many warranty claims on wrecked engines. Ironically, many individuals did convert their Stags to trusty Rover V8 power, in which form the car worked a treat.

With 145bhp, the 3-litre V8 gave the Stag a top speed of 118mph and a 0-to-60mph time of 9.3 seconds. The car was very well behaved around corners, boasted a comfortable ride and was a refined cruiser.

Production began in 1970 and initial reactions were encouraging. The British press and public liked the new car, but US pundits homed in on its indifferent build quality, gutless automatic transmission and lifeless steering. The attractive optional hard-top was heavy and awkward to fit. As if these factors didn't already put it outside the rarefied Merc SL orbit, it was finished with plastic upholstery, a manually-operated hood and tacky-looking wheel trims.

Some of the problems were fixed in the Mk2 of 1973. Reshaped combustion chambers and higher compression pistons with domed tops made the V8 engine smoother and more reliable, a smaller steering wheel enhanced its feel and the car received improved seating and five-spoke alloy wheels. But sales failed to respond. By 1976, when the car was ditched at the height of the British Leyland debacle, only 25,939 Stags had been sold.

While the Mercedes-Benz SL residual values were rock-solid and kept the cars out of the wrong hands, the price of second-hand Stags plunged.

When you peruse contemporary Stag road tests, it's shocking just how many detail aspects of the car were wrong and frustrating. Yet it's also clear that everyone loved its exotic styling and terrific concept. Today the car is a much-loved stalwart of the classic car scene, its plus points enjoyed and its faults benignly endured.

Moreover, almost 30 years since the Stag's launch, I discovered by chance that if you really want to make an impression in the world's most exciting capital then it's evidently the car to have.

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