A SHIFT IN DIRECTION

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By Stuart Grant with images from Ronan Sanderson

The word ‘chicane’ comes from the French verb chicaner, which means ‘to quibble’. It also means trick or subterfuge. In racing terms it is an artificial feature creating turns on what was a straight section of a track in order to slow vehicles for safety reasons. For the sake of simplicity imagine driving down a straight, swerving around a curb or obstacle before continuing in the direction you were originally travelling. Here’s a look at the South African-built Triumph Chicane that saw the luxury saloon head off in a different direction to its international counterparts.  

When launched early in 1973 the Triumph Chicane was by no means a brand new car. In fact it was simply a combination of the Michelotti-styled Mk II Triumph 2000 and 2.5PI models that had been available on our shores since 1970 and 1971 respectively. The MkII 2000 featured a 1998cc motor fed by twin Stromberg carburettors while the 2498cc in-line 6-cylinder 2.5PI got its fuel by means of fuel injection. Local Leyland engineers decided to detour from the modern trend and dumped the primitive and inconsistent Lucas fuel injection from the 2.5 and revert back to a pair of Stromberg 150CDs as seen on the 2000.

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Reason for this change was more than likely to circumnavigate the expense of the injection system and the resultant price increase the 2.5PI had over the original 2-litre 2000. Oh yes, and then there were the constant client complaints about rough idle and the fact that not every mechanic in every dorp was knowlegable in the ways of the Lucas system. Whatever the reason though the change was an inspired one, as the car they badged the Chicane could almost equal the 2.5PI in performance while still remaining in a reasonably affordable price bracket. The rest of the world, also fighting the same PI gremlins, took note. Australian Motor Industries in Port Melbourne, Victoria, which assembled Triumphs were the first to echo the SA car in 1973 with its 2500TC while the UK introduced the carb variant in mid-1974. South Africa changed it up though in 1975 when the Strombergs were replaced by SU carburettors.

Visually the South African Chicane differed from the regular MkII by means of ‘Chicane’ badging, and rear quarter panels covered in black vinyl that sported ‘TC’ (Twin Carb) lettering centrally mounted. A black rocker panel and ribbed rear number plate holder were added and Rostyle-looking wheels kept the look updated. Like the overseas PI the Chicane interior moved away from vinyl to brushed nylon seat inserts and a sporting leather-rimmed steering wheel. Dashboard finishing stayed true to the British classy look with full width woodgrain, which housed a well-stocked cluster with speedo, rev counter, trip meter, fuel, water temp and battery condition gauges. Warning lights for oil pressure, indicators, main headlight beam and choke were there too and so was an electric clock.

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Leyland claimed that a 3-speed automatic Chicane would accomplish the zero to 100km/h sprint in 12.8 seconds and would make the magical 100mph ‘ton’ with a top speed of 165km/h. Although test figures are scarce we estimate that the 4-speed manual with overdrive in third and fourth gears would go a touch quicker than this. These figures that would pit the Triumph up against the likes of the Mercedes-Benz 230-6 of the time were made possible thanks to 77kW at 4750rpm and 185Nm of torque at a low down 2200rpm. Where the Chicane just lost out on power it made up in the price department selling for R3 585 in 1973 as opposed to the Benz’s R3 732. For R3 935 a South African buyer could have ordered the 97kW, 207Nm Triumph 2.5PI model but the extra oomph and added niggles of the injected model clearly wasn’t enough of a swing to get the consumer to splash out the extra.

In 1973, 1 479 Chicanes left the showroom floors while only 139 PIs made it to the streets. Leyland then applied the Chicane name over to the injected (97kW, 207Nm) offering, referring to it as the Chicane PI but the carb version continued to outsell the Lucas-fed injected Chicane by a large margin. Injected Chicane production ceased locally in 1975 while the proper carb Chicane soldiered on until 1978. According to Auto Digest Data a total of 5 733 carburettor Chicanes were sold while only just over 327 Chicane PIs found homes. 

With McPherson struts up front and fully independent rear suspension the twin-carb Chicane handled well. This, combined with rack and pinion steering, had road testers of the time praising the handling with words like ‘tremendously responsive and safe in enthusiastic motoring, while at the same time extremely comfortable’. Stopping power was also praised with the servo-assisted discs at the front and drums at the rear capable of stopping the 1 161kg adequately.

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With the decent amount of torque offered, the Triumph proved a capable tow vehicle and perfect family car where all occupants could sit comfortably in the well-appointed interior. Leyland products of the 1970s get a bad rap for poor quality and finish but the Chicane somehow managed to keep a high standard, and even today the interior seems to age admirably (close, in fact, to a similar-aged Mercedes).

The compromise between performance, comfort and easy driving had Car magazine even loading the title of best Triumph they had ever tested, on it. Although none of them mentioned it, the sound from the silky straight 6-cylinder motor is difficult not to love either. And the Michelotti styling, with its shark-like nose and Kamm tail rear is not half bad. The slightly hoodoo publication Scope, got it right in 1978 listing the Chicane as one of its top cars of the year, summing it up as ‘Plush and luxurious, the Triumphs come from a line of cars with a long tradition of sporty motoring. The Chicane is a smooth performer and looks very British with its walnut facia and door trim. With overdrive the 6-cylinder becomes one of the most economical sixes around.’

So is the Chicane a South African special? It’s a tough call. It is named and badged differently to any other Mark II Triumph 2000 or 2.5, so yes, it is unique. The rest of the world markets saw the benefits of what the Leyland engineers down here accomplished and followed suit, so no, it is not unique. What it is though, was a leading light in taking Triumph saloon thinking in a different and unexpected direction to where it thought it was heading. The Chicane was a ‘chicane’, a trick we shouldn’t miss, and deserves a decent spot on the list of South African-made classics.

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