1935 Triumph 8C Dolomite: The Big One….Is Back

1935 Triumph 8C Dolomite: The Big One….Is Back

Jonathan Wood, Don­ald Healey’s 8C Tri­umph Dolomite. Wether­by, York­shire: Jonathan Turn­er & Tim Whit­worth, 2017, 300 pages, pro­fuse­ly illus­trat­ed in col­or and b&w, $275. Avail­able from the pub­lish­ers. Writ­ten for The Vin­tage Tri­umph Register.

Donald Healey’s Dolomite

In 1977 I wrote the pre-World War II chap­ters of Tri­umph Cars, now reap­pear­ing in an expand­ed new edi­tion, thanks large­ly to my co-author Gra­ham Rob­son (bla­tant plug, please order).

At the time, though, there was lit­tle to describe about Triumph’s most impres­sive fail­ure, the leg­endary straight-eight Dolomite. The only one built by the fac­to­ry had come to grief (along, almost, with Don­ald Healey) at a rail­way cross­ing on the 1935 Monte Car­lo Ral­lye. Don­ald of course con­tributed what he knew, and we put in what we gleaned from con­tem­po­rary press reports and fac­to­ry doc­u­ments. All we could con­clude was that that a car with so much promise remained “The Big One That Got Away.”

DolomiteGra­ham soon helped us to learn more. Promi­nent col­lec­tors restored both Dolomites. Now, Jonathan Wood pro­duces The Big One’s his­to­ry.  Here is a leg­end none of us will ever own, only two of which were built, only one by Tri­umph. (There were three chas­sis, and parts for six engines.) The book exists through the efforts of the two cur­rent Dolomite own­ers. Any­one who loves Tri­umphs will be grate­ful to both pub­lish­ers and author.

The straight-eight Dolomite was the pre­war company’s finest hour. Nev­er again would there be a Tri­umph like it. In its time, a two-liter car that could do 110 mph bid fair to be the quick­est tour­ing sports car in Eng­land. It was a Tri­umph in the gener­ic as well as the spe­cif­ic sense. Dri­ving it was to expe­ri­ence the clas­sic pre­war Eng­lish sports car in its most high­ly devel­oped form. It was a Don­ald Healey masterpiece.

Dolomite lore

False sto­ries about the Dolomite cir­cu­lat­ed for years. Some said Tri­umph built six, maybe eight. We heard of sedans and coupes. An old fel­low had one in a barn but wouldn’t let any­one see it. Alfa Romeo sued Tri­umph for copy­ing their 8C 2300 road­ster. (Reminds me of Churchill’s sup­posed peace offers to Mus­soli­ni in World War II. They’re in a water­proof bag at the bot­tom of Lake Como, and if you can’t find them you just haven’t looked hard enough.)

Jonathan Wood has looked hard enough. He puts paid to all those rumors. He deliv­ers exhaus­tive details on both cars—one built by the works, one from parts. Noth­ing escapes his net. The result is a clean­ly designed 10×12” cof­fee table book, laden with large-for­mat illus­tra­tions and author­i­ta­tive text.

Method­i­cal­ly, Wood con­ducts the nar­ra­tive. The pre­lude is 1931 when Bent­ley, Britain’s pre­mier sport­ing car, stopped rac­ing and entered receiver­ship. Sev­er­al com­pa­nies vied to fill the void: Riley, MG, Squire. At Tri­umph, exper­i­men­tal man­ag­er Don­ald Healey was tak­ing a look, encour­aged by auto writer Tom­my Wis­dom. Their eyes fell upon Vit­to­rio Jano’s Alfa Romeo 8C 2300, one of the most beau­ti­ful pre­war sports cars. It was the Dolomite’s inspiration.

Triumph’s saga

The pre­lude spans eighty pages of Tri­umph his­to­ry: ori­gins of the com­pa­ny under Siegfried Bettmann, its revival under Claude Hol­brook, its impres­sive ral­ly­ing suc­cess­es; its love­ly pro­duc­tion cars, like the Glo­ria and South­ern Cross. Plen­ti­ful illus­tra­tions include maps show­ing one-time works locations.

The Dolomite was styled by Tri­umph body engi­neer Frank Warn­er. Who was Frank Warn­er? In one of his exten­sive side­bars, Wood pro­vides Frank’s life sto­ry. Like­wise Bettmann, Hol­brook, Wis­dom, Jano, design­er Wal­ter Bel­grove, and of course the great Don­ald Healey.

The straight-eight pro­gram offi­cial­ly end­ed in April 1935, but in Tri­umph Cars we showed a 1936 advert for a “very spe­cial ‘Con­ti­nen­tal’ sports saloon” relat­ed to it. Jonathan Wood has tracked that sto­ry down too. This beau­ti­ful long wheel­base saloon by Wal­ter Bel­grove (since van­ished) was part of an extend­ed line of cars planned around the Dolomite’s Alfa-like dou­ble over­head cam straight eight engine. Wal­ter Belgrove’s ren­der­ings of a body styles show what could have been “Triumph’s flag­ship line.”

Recent History

We next delve into the Dolomite’s sub­se­quent his­to­ry: Tony Rolt’s and Robert Arbuthnot’s acqui­si­tions of Healey’s car, rebuilt after its col­li­sion; parts suf­fi­cient for a sec­ond com­plete car; the rac­ing career of the rebadged HSM (High Speed Motors); Giulio Ram­poni, whose Cor­si­ca body betimes graced a chas­sis. Pro­fuse pho­tos show both cars in their var­i­ous guis­es and appear­ances through the years. The best of these are dou­ble page col­or por­traits of both cars today, restored to per­fec­tion. The end­pa­pers of the book are col­or close-ups of their beau­ti­ful engines.

The last third of the book is a chrono­log­i­cal, account of the his­to­ry and known own­er­ship both cars: DMH1 (Don­ald Healey’s, now owned by Jonathan Turn­er), and DMH2 (Tony Rolt’s ex-HSM, now owned by Tim Whit­worth). It is amaz­ing how many peo­ple actu­al­ly knew about the cars over the years; it took Wood to put their tale together.

Wood reprints dri­ving impres­sions from 1935 on, but Patrick Blak­eney-Edwards, who restored DMH1, prob­a­bly knows the Dolomite as inti­mate­ly as any­one. “On the road it just feels fan­tas­ti­cal­ly com­pe­tent,” he says—“it’s as good as any pre­war car I’ve dri­ven. The brakes are stu­pen­dous, the steer­ing light and the ride excel­lent. It’s per­fect for unstressed high-speed motoring….For me it feels as though it was built for com­pe­ti­tion, par­tic­u­lar­ly around a cir­cuit such as Le Mans….”

Above all this book is a trib­ute to Don­ald Healey, whose grand­son Peter con­tributes the Fore­word. Writ­ing Tri­umph Cars, I had the fun of know­ing him, and bug­ging him about his years with the com­pa­ny. An advanced auto­holic, Don­ald liked noth­ing more than reliv­ing old times, the good, the bad and the ugly. A kinder, more gen­er­ous and tal­ent­ed man nev­er exist­ed. He’d love this book.

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