Classic Triumph car in red
Chloe Allen

Chloe Allen

Our Digital Marketing Executive Chloe is in charge of our e-newsletter. There's no one better placed to inform and delight you every month, so keep your eyes peeled for her newsletter hitting an email inbox near you soon.

Read time of 5 minutes.

They just don’t make cars like this anymore. 

In today’s world, cars are built to emphasise safety and comfort. 

But even with all the innovation and progress that’s been made in the last few decades, modern car design now lacks a certain panache that was present in the past.

The Triumph brand had said panache in spades, making what were arguably some of the most beautiful cars of the 20th century.

So, what is it about Triumph cars that elevates them to classics? 

Maybe it’s the sporty vibe that still makes them, after all this time, undeniably cool. Maybe it’s the retro dashboards refreshingly free of infotainment screens and wireless charging ports.

Or just maybe it’s the fact that despite not being a petrolhead in any way, shape or form, this writer would immediately go out and buy a fully restored Triumph GT6 Mark III in magenta if she won the lottery tomorrow.

No regrets: we all have an improbable dream.

So why is it we don’t really see Triumph cars on our roads anymore if they were so iconic? And why has car design changed so much in the last few decades?

Turbulent origins

Now viewed as one of the formative classic carmakers in the UK, Triumph’s origins were significantly more humble than you may expect.

Founded in 1885 as a bicycle company, it didn’t even make its first car until 1923. Obviously, the company saw an exciting future in cars because they became the Triumph Motor Company in 1930 and took their first step onto the automotive stage.

But it wasn’t smooth sailing.

The company changed hands and went through several iterations leading up to and during the disruptive years of the Second World War, with its main site being completely destroyed by bombing.

By 1944, Triumph was almost defunct – until the Standard Motor Company stepped in and snapped it up, breathing new life into a brand that would go on to take the UK by storm.

Triumph in the 20th century 

When Standard took over, they took Triumph in a completely new direction.

The pre-war models weren’t revived and production moved to Candley, Coventry. And in 1946, the new and improved Triumph released its first new model, the Triumph Roadster.

Intended to challenge Jaguar, the Roadster was a remarkable car in many respects. A steel shortage caused by the war meant that the usual materials were not available for production and the Roadster’s body was mainly aluminium.

But it’s the Roadster’s unique peculiarities that make us love it. 64-inches wide, it boasted three-abreast seating and required three successive windscreen wipers to keep the view clear on rainy days.

The Roadster also came with a dickey seat that had its own folding windscreen and a step on the rear bumper to make access easier.

Funky, right? And not something you’re likely to see on anything other than a true antique – the Triumph Roadster was the last British model to be built with this special feature.

The Roadster was followed by the Renown, a large saloon car that resembled the prestigious Bentley saloons of the time. Like the Roadster, its principle panels were constructed from aluminium.

As of 2016, it was estimated that at least 250 Renown models still existed worldwide.

Shortly following the Renown was the Triumph Mayflower, a four-seat, small luxury car that was manufactured between 1949 and 1952. A relatively short run when considering the longevity of other classic makes and models (the Ford Fiesta springs to mind).

Sadly, sales of the Mayflower – and the Renown and Roadster before it – simply failed to meet expectations. Competition was fierce and it’s possible that these three early models didn’t find a ready market.

So, in the early 1950s, Standard decided to switch things up – and the result was an absolute game-changer for Triumph.

Triumph GT6 Mark III in Magenta parked up at the seafront

A sporty niche – our favourite Triumph models

Triumph found its niche with a range of sports cars that took the UK by storm in the 50s, 60s and 70s.

Why? Possibly because they had renowned Italian sports car designer Giovanni Michelotti at the helm. You may not know his name, but you would undoubtedly recognise his work.

His designs were prolific across the automotive industry and his style was absolutely timeless. And he was notable for contributing not just to Triumph, but also to top luxury carmaker Ferrari.

Michelotti was personally responsible for designing many of the most beautiful cars we’ve ever seen on our roads across multiple brands. He transformed the look of the sports car in a groundbreaking way.

So, his hand in Triumph’s sports car success is undeniable.

Under Michelotti’s reign, we were blessed with such models as the Triumph Herald, Triumph Spitfire and Triumph Stag to name a few.

But the GT6 and the Spitfire are our absolute favourites of all of Michelotti’s designs for Triumph. And we can’t wax poetical about them enough.

It’s telling that 61 years after its first iteration appeared on our roads, the Triumph Spitfire still consistently appears in lists of the best British cars ever made.

Relatively inexpensive, comfortable and effortlessly stylish, the Spitfire continued to fly out of the showroom for almost twenty years. By the end of production in 1980, over 314,000 Spitfires had been produced. 

Not bad when you consider that this was before cars were exclusively mass produced by machines.

The most valuable iterations as of 2021 are the odd numbers: the Spitfire MK1, the MK3 and the 1500. The very best MK1’s can reach a value of almost £25,000 – not a bad investment on a decade’s old sports car.

The GT6 was born from the Triumph, added as a coupe that took on a life of its own. With three different iterations (the Mark I, Mark II and Mark III), it’s one of the most distinctive models Michelotti produced for Triumph.

With a sleek fastback design, the GT6 resembled an E-Type, but at a fraction of the cost. The Mark I and III in particular are very pretty designs, but if we had to pick, it’s the Mark III that comes out on top in terms of style.

In top condition, the value of a GT6 today can exceed £30,000 at auction – not bad if you’ve got the cash lying around.

Given how beloved Triumph cars still are among car enthusiasts, it seems bizarre that the marque was retired. Nevertheless, the brand was officially retired in 1984 by its then owners, marking a shift in the industry that prioritised practicality and aerodynamics over fun and flair.

Why has car design changed so much? 

Everything changes with the slow march of time.

In the first instance, the iconic designers who are responsible for so many classic cars – Michellotti among them – have left the industry, or passed on entirely, leaving a new generation of designers at the wheel.

The production process itself has also changed. 

That hand-crafted look and feel is basically a thing of the past, with most cars now being mass-produced in factories and built by machines instead of people.

Many of our iconic British carmakers have also become defunct, or been bought out by larger companies. A handful of conglomerates are now responsible for producing most of our cars, so there are bound to be heavy design similarities between certain brands where a chassis is shared.

And even where car makers aren’t using the same chassis and design concepts across multiple brands, the fact remains that style itself is no longer the crucial element of car design.

That wide range of interesting and beautiful body shapes is a thing of the past as contemporary designers focus on making vehicles that are aerodynamic and efficient. This is not necessarily a bad thing; cars are safer now than they have ever been.

However, we do miss the variation in colour. Look out at your local high street and the new cars you see will be grey, black, white, blue or red (unless you’re driving a bright little Fiat).

Long gone are the days of a magenta Triumph cruising down the road; the world is a much more monotone place than it used to be. While cars are safer and boasting a range of modern tech that’s not to be sniffed at, a lot of the fun has gone out with the colour.

But while car design has evolved with the times, there are still great looking cars out there – even if the look is distinctively different than it once was.

If the Triumph marque was still active, no doubt it would have evolved too, to reflect the values that are so important in modern car design. While we can never know exactly what that would look like until the brand is revived, concept cars are an interesting way to explore possibilities for any future designs.

In fact, that’s exactly what’s happened with Makkina’s (a non-public facing design consultancy service) Triumph concept which was released last month.

The 21st century concept

We love a concept car as much as the next person, but they can be controversial. It’s always a risk when proposing a new updated version of a much beloved design.

So, what did we think of this theoretical 21st century update to the Triumph marque?

Take a close look at the Triumph TR25 by Makkina and you’ll basically see a silver brick on wheels. 

While it is supposedly influenced by the Triumph Jabbeke TR2, we see none of the flair of that classic in this modern reimagining. 

We can certainly see nothing of Michelotti’s formidable influence on Triumph in this monotone brick - and more’s the pity. In removing everything that made Triumph’s designs remarkable and long-lasting from this 21st century update, Makkina has completely missed the mark.

And, we’d argue, completely missed the point.

Had it been shown in a different colour – mustard yellow, or a deep magenta perhaps – Makkina might have redeemed this design just a little bit.

Blocky, boring and (let’s face it) just a little bit ugly, this is as far from what we love about Triumph as it’s possible to get. But we’d love to see another Triumph concept car though, one that pays a better homage to its rich history.

As it is, we’ll say no thanks to this particular 21st century update. The TR25 might be uninspired, but the originals are never going to go out of style.

Car design is constantly evolving and we’re excited to see what shapes it next.