A History of the Stag

Many myths and legends exist surrounding the creation of the Triumph Stag and its foibles. This short history is an attempt to clarify inaccuracies often published by the classic car motoring press and repeated in volumes for decades.

Selected passages are quotations by the very people involved in the development of the Stag and the relevant acknowledgements are mentioned at the foot of this article.

It is a well coined phrase, but the Stag went from ‘zero to hero’ in around 20 or more years. It was doomed to failure from the outset due to a combination of poor development, inadequate maintenance training, poor reliability and a war in the middle-east!

Harry Webster, Standard-Triumph Director of Engineering & Development first discovered the talents of Giovanni Michelotti as Chief Stylist of a Turin based specialist coach builder, Vignale. After Michelotti had left to set up his own design studio and designed many of S-T’s models, Harry received a request in 1965 to supply him with a Triumph 2000, so that he could do a styling piece for the forthcoming Turin Motor Show.

Webster agreed, on the understanding that if  he liked what Michelotti produced, Standard- Triumph could have first refusal on the  concept and it would not be included in the  Turin Show.

Needless to say, the concept did not appear  and the Stag was born. The name Stag was  originally the ‘code’ name given to the model,  but was adopted as the actual name, as it  was preferred to all alternatives submitted for consideration during development in 1966.

The original idea was to take two years developing the concept to launch in 1968. It didn’t happen! It was late by a further two years due to many problems, not least by financial constraints following the merger between Leyland Motors and B.M.H. to become British Leyland in 1968; engine selection for the final production example played a big part. Many versions were tried, starting with the initial straight 6 cyclinder engine of the Triumph 2000 saloon, but ending up with a specially developed Triumph V8 3-litre power unit, exclusively used in the Stag model, after many months of running tests around the world. 

In essence this engine was developed from two banked 4 cyclinder Dolomite blocks developed for the Saab 99. By this time Harry Webster had been moved to Austin-Morris Division of the conglomerate and Spen King was appointed from Rover to further develop the Stag to launch. Spen’s quest for more bhp and lower end torque resulted in the increase of the V8 from 2.5 litres to 3 litres and the reversion to carburettors away from fuel injection, which would have eventually run into problems with US emission directives anyway.

Technically, the car was very advanced at launch in 1970, including independent suspension all round, servo-assisted disc/drum brakes and power steering and electric windows as standard. The launch model was a 4-speed manual with overdrive, originally an option, like the Borg-Warner 3-speed automatic box.

With its refined styling, distinctive roll-over bar (originally installed to stiffen the body to reduce skuttle-shake, rather than a safety feature often quoted by motoring press) and hard/soft top options, the car was widely acclaimed. Unhappily for British Leyland it was not so widely bought.

Hampered by numerous warranty claims in the US following its launch there, the Stag sold poorly in America, its prime target market. Further sales were lost following the Middle East Oil crisis of 1973/4 following revolution and outbreak of war (as indeed did most so-called gas-guzzling models). The Stag was withdrawn from the US market in 1973.

Sales at home, were also affected by reliability issues and a poor reputation for mechanical problems…some journalists labelling the model as the Triumph Snag! Only some of these initial problems were resolved, despite numerous improvements through its production run.

The Stag underwent a mild transformation from what became known as the Mk I, into the Mk II launched in early 1973 (although ‘sanctioned’ in late 1972 from Commission no. LD 20001). Mk II models can be differentiated externally by emblems changing from light grey background to black; sills and rear number plate panel being in matt black rather than body colour and the clear side panels in the soft top being removed to avoid creasing and splitting problems. Internally the instrument dial designs changed along with the removal of the map reading lamp fitted to the glove-box lid and also interior lights moved from ‘B’ post to the centre of the T-bar. The engine had a higher compression ratio along with redesigned domed pistons and combustion chambers.

At the outset sales projections were estimated by the S-T Sales & Marketing team at around 12,000 units a year. Sadly, sales achieved only slightly more than double that in 7 years production! 1973 proved to be the highest sales year remarkably! It quickly fell from its peak of 5500 units, to 3442 in 1974, then 2898 in 1975, stabilizing for two years until only 1800 or so units in its final year. Sales figures were never sufficient to earn a place in the line-up of a volume car manufacturer…and thus production ended in 1977.

Nevertheless, to the many thousands of fans of the car, not least that of the Stag Owners Club founder, Tony Hart, the car did not die. It currently thrives and it is estimated that at least 35% of the original production run of 25939 cars survive, which has to be one of the most remarkable events considering how the car became the butt of so many jokes and criticism, both during production and after its demise. 

Thanks to the army of owners and specialist parts suppliers who have engineered the foibles out of the car and further developed it into a reliable and prestigious car it was always destined to be.

Improvements continue today, with the assistance of Stag Owners Club Tooling Fund Limited (SOCTFL), which exists solely with the intention of ensuring that obsolete parts are remanufactured to further the existence of this unique Italian designed, but British made car. Each member of the Stag Owners Club owns one share in SOCTFL thus ensuring every members commitment to that goal.

Acknowledgements: The late Harry Webster and Brian Bayliss; “Triumph Stag”by James Taylor; British Motor Heritage Trust, Gaydon

Article written by Derek Athey - our Club Archivist

What it would have cost if you had bought one new

According to the Autocar road test of the Stag on the 11th June 1970, with soft top only it was £1995, 17s 6d. With hard top only, £2041 11s. 5d. and with both, £2093 15s 10d. Only £50 extra for the hard top! These were including purchase tax I reckon, as they also quote "Basic" prices of £1527, £1562 & £1602.