The Triumph Herald was a unique small car arrival in 1959 which makes it a sensible classic, as Donn explains

One of the more endearing qualities of older classic cars is their individuality. Today’s vehicles may well be hugely competent, but in the current era of computer-inspired designs, it is easy to be confused by a sea of lookalike cars.

Contrast this with the models of yesteryear. When three relatively low cost, small British saloons arrived in 1959 they could not have been more different in the way they looked and, indeed, drove. The Ford Anglia, BMC Mini and Triumph Herald all targeted the same market, yet how different they were.

Fifty years ago I was road testing a new Herald on Auckland roads, but the model had already been around for five years. The Motor Assemblies plant in Christchurch was fast off the line putting the Herald into CKD assembly in 1959, but reports that the car launched in New Zealand on April 22 that year — the same day of the car’s international unveiling at the Royal Albert Hall in London — are surely more fiction than fact.

While I was only in third form at secondary school (and likely to miss the odd relevant news item), a scan of primitive Gestetner-printed copies of Motorman magazine from that era reveal the Herald actually went on local sale in December 1959, where it was being lauded as a challenger to the Morris Minor and VW Beetle. The replacement for the elderly Standard 8 and 10 was in New Zealand showrooms well before the first Minis and Anglias in early 1960. In Australia the car was also warmly received, with the Triumph dealer in Sydney attracting more than 1000 visitors on the day the Herald was released.

Around half a million Heralds would be built at Coventry in the UK, India, South Africa, Ireland, Malta, Sri Lanka, Peru, Australia and, of course, New Zealand in a 12-year model life that ended in 1971. That the design should be somewhat adventurous is surprising, given Standard Triumph was fighting financial difficulties at the time.


Apart from the 948cc overhead valve, pushrod, four-cylinder Standard 10 engine, there was little carry-over from the marque’s outgoing small car. Yet management was likely economical with the truth when it said the reason for the body being bolted to a separate chassis was to facilitate those countries that would assemble the model when, indeed, CKD production worldwide was already proficient in screwing together full monocoque passenger cars.

The chassis and bolt-on panels gave the Triumph Herald its character, and also made it easy to adopt different body styles, with a whole front-hinged body lifting forward to provide marvellous accessibility to the engine and front suspension. It was no problem unbolting sills and even the roof, so with little work the two-door saloon could be transformed into a convertible. Coupé production was much less than saloon, and there were even fewer factory genuine convertibles, so these are rare collector items today.

Many original saloons survive, and you can pick up a late model Herald for as little as $400. A tidy 1960 Herald coupé was recently listed online for $5000, while a 1968 convertible was seeking offers from $1100. In Britain recently a 1961 Herald saloon was valued at between the equivalent of $30,000 and $40,000 — although, admittedly, it was a one-owner example never driven on the road, and with a genuine 20 miles (32km) on the clock!

Unsurprisingly, UK buyers have a much wider choice of well-preserved Heralds. A clean 1968 saloon with service history and 77,250km driven was available recently for £1900 ($3,800) while the owner of a similarly aged convertible sought more than twice this amount.

Owner enthusiasm

Aside from the smallest turning circle of any production car, the all independent suspension, lack of grease nipples, longer service intervals and ease of repair, the Herald’s almost elegant lines immediately sparked owner enthusiasm. The razor-edge styling that gave amazing 93 per cent all-round visibility came from the ingenious Giovanni Michelotti who did so much design work for Triumph, including the TR4, Triumph 2000/2500, Spitfire, Dolomite and Stag.

Harry Webster, who headed engineering at Standard-Triumph and then British Motor Corporation, was a personal friend of Michelotti, and said the board of Triumph thought the sun shone out of the Italian’s backside. Coventry came up with a basic idea for the Herald, and Michelotti drew up the car’s shape in 20 minutes, according to Webster. Triumph liked the idea of using Michelotti, not only because he was so talented, but in light of arch-rival BMC using the contrasting Pininfarina design studio.

The Herald was scheduled to be built in a new assembly building at Canley, where future industrial labour problems would be a millstone around British Leyland’s neck. Because Standard-Triumph lacked its own pressed steel body plant, the body was designed to be made in relatively small sections, mostly in another new plant at Speke, near Liverpool.

It was more costly than the Anglia and Mini, and while this may have been something of an initial handicap in Britain, the Triumph was an immediate success in New Zealand where it was perceived to be upmarket with its wood veneer-finished instrument panel. This was in spite of jibes about the fascia being made from grey pressed fibreboard or papier mâché.

In New Zealand the £918 ($1836) sticker price for the saloon remained unchanged for several years, despite gradual improvements. By 1964 the local retail for a new Herald coupé was actually cheaper at £907, while the station wagon version was £982, but these were usually only available with a Sterling funds deposit. Just how many coupés and estates were assembled in Christchurch is unknown, but the numbers would have been small. With the change to decimal currency and ongoing inflation, an NZ-assembled Herald 13/60 saloon had risen to $2149 by 1968.

Local road-testing

The original Herald was a modest performer with its 34bhp (26kW) 948cc engine, needing just over half a minute to run from standstill to 100kph, while managing a top speed of just 114kph. In fixed-head coupé form, the motor gained twin SU carburettors and a higher compression ratio of 8.5 to 1. Top speed went up by eight kilometres per hour, and the coupé reached 100kph in a more respectable 25.5 seconds. The coupé was slightly lighter than the saloon, and used a different back axle ratio that gave a six per cent reduction in engine revolutions.

When I tested the Herald in 1964 the car had been upgraded to the longer-stroke 1147cc engine producing 38kW (51bhp), resulting in a more acceptable top speed of 127kph and slightly better acceleration. The CKD models came with a warmer Spitfire camshaft, a higher compression and improved exhaust system. By then there were nine variants spun from the initial concept, three differing engines and five body styles, although not all were offered locally.

For our market the Herald saloon was known as the ‘E-type’ — a nomenclature not found in other markets.

The 1964 New Zealand–built Herald was a cross between the 12/50 and 1200 models, and for the first time a new Herald was readily available without buyers needing overseas funds. In addition to the coupé, convertible and station wagon, Triumph had introduced the Herald-based six-cylinder Vitesse in 1962 and a Spitfire sports car, while small-volume car-maker Bond had the Equipe, and Fairthorpe was selling the low-volume Rockette.

The E-type now boasted a new grille with the bumpers still covered with white rubber, but a significant change was higher gearing, which meant the car was a much better cruiser than the old 948cc Herald. Much needed revised seating had thicker padding, even though the front seats still required more rearward adjustment. Our light blue painted test car had matching dark blue upholstery, but overall assembly quality was only fair, and owners were already reporting that Herald bodywork was prone to deterioration unless they were carefully maintained. Two-colour paintwork became popular, and fabric fold-back sunroofs were commonplace on Heralds in the UK.

Drum brakes were fitted all round (front discs came later) and were up to the task, but it was the precise rack and pinion steering and riding qualities on poorly-surfaced roads that won most admiration in the Motorman’s 1964 test.

“Being shod with Dunlop C49 cross-ply tyres assisted in making the Herald very controllable and predictable,” said the report. “With little body roll the Herald feels stable with high speed cornering. There is little tendency to oversteer unless pushed to extremes, and the absence of the usual swing-axle-induced oversteer made it fun to drive.”

In fact, Heralds became known for their rapid switch to oversteer once the car reached a certain limit, and the rear suspension went into its notorious jacking act.

The Nelson Heralds

Triumph found the labour-intensive manufacturing of the Herald made it expensive to build, and in 1964 the coupé ceased production since it was a direct competitor to the Spitfire. Meanwhile the Motor Assemblies plant in Christchurch closed in 1965, and Herald assembly switched to the Standard-Triumph Nelson plant in October that year.

In 1967 the 12/50 was replaced by the 13/60 Herald with its new, if less distinctive, grille and headlight treatment. The 13 related to engine size and the 60 to engine horsepower, and the most significant advance was the replacement of the 1147cc engine with an even bigger-bore 1296cc motor giving 45kW (61bhp). This newer power unit was also being used in the Triumph 1300, and employed a four-inlet-port cylinder head originally incorporated in the Spitfire’s motor.

To cope with the extra power, a larger clutch and stronger half-shafts were fitted and front disc brakes became standard.

British Herald

I was reunited with the Herald while living in England in 1968, and soon found the extra power and torque and upgraded dashboard all big improvements. Yet the question marks over the car’s swing axle rear suspension, transverse leaf spring and radius rods set-up remained.

Again, handling up to a point was good and quite neutral, but then the car gave a sudden breakaway at the rear. In the wet the Herald was twitchy on slippery British roads, even at moderate speeds.

In my 1968 test report, I wrote: “With increasing standards being set by new models, the newer, more powerful Heralds would be better with slighter wider feet (wheels) and perhaps radial ply tyres. We found a fully laden boot or a full quota of passengers assisted to a certain degree.”

After nine years in production, we reckoned by the late ’60s that the car’s road manners near the limit could only be considered average. But the 13/60 was a good deal quieter and more refined than earlier Heralds, while being much livelier and more responsive. The characteristic first gear whine was still present, but the synchromesh on the upper three ratios was strong and effective. The floor-mounted gearchange was positive, but engagement of reverse and first was often notchy, and by 1968 the absence of first gear synchromesh was an anomaly.

Despite the foibles, the Herald is something of an enthusiast’s delight and fun to maintain. The driveshafts might need greasing and the front suspension lower joints occasionally cry out for gear oil from a grease gun, but the easy accessibility to the front-end mechanicals have always been a plus. Only two chassis points need greasing every 6000 miles (just under 9700km) and a further four every 12,000 miles (19,300km). Soon after the car’s introduction, Herald front suspension components became popular for open-wheeler racing cars.

Last of the line

In May 1971 the two-door Triumph Toledo 1300 went into Nelson assembly, replacing the Herald in New Zealand. Even though it lacked the front disc brakes, excellent visibility and all independent suspension of the Herald, the more conventional Toledo was an obvious improvement, if never likely to be as memorable as its predecessor.

Following the absorption of Triumph by Leyland Motors and then British Leyland, model after model disappeared, and after 61 years in the car-making business the once-proud marque finally disappeared in 1980, nine years after the last Heralds rolled off the company’s Midlands assembly line.

Sedan, coupé and convertible Heralds are all sound classic car choices, but be prepared for rattles and creaks on poorly-surfaced roads, a reminder that their major body components are bolted rather than welded together. The rare coupé is especially sought-after and handles a little better than other versions, but the saloon is also a desirable machine because of the qualities that made it such an advanced new arrival 55 years ago.