Wagons roll – Martin Buckley compares two very different apporoaches to load lugging. Unlikely bedfellows, in-house rivals… market-defining game-changers? Considering the Triumph PI Estate and Range Rover. Words Martin Buckley. Photography James Mann.
If you tried to explain to somebody under 40 that British Leyland, the butt of so many gags for so long, offered two of the most forward-thinking and desirable luxury multi-purpose vehicles in the world in 1970, you would be greeted with a look of incredulity. If you then went on to point out that the vehicles in question offered a blend of technology, innovation and fashion that simply was not available elsewhere – least of all from the cautious German brands – you would be humoured but probably not believed.
The truth is, good and innovative things did occasionally happen at Longbridge, Solihull and Canley, contradicting the often-repeated stories we tell ourselves about the dark days of British Leyland. Certainly they were times of strikes, poor quality and indifferent design; yet we tend to ignore the fact that there was a lot more to the output of this chaotic industrial giant than the miserable Marina and the tragic Allegro.
‘The 95-100mph Range Rover was marginally more expensive than the Triumph, rather slower and much thirstier’
While its very public industrial agonies provided a constant stream of material for The Two Ronnies, second only to British Rail and its curly sandwiches, the rambling Stokes empire built a vast range of products that really did have something for everyone – from Daimler limos to Minis and everything in between. It’s odd to think you could still buy a Morris Minor or Oxford new in 1970, and yet what many considered to be the best saloon in the world, the Jaguar XJ6, came from the same untidy stable. The new Range Rover was certainly the best of its kind by a huge margin. But if you didn’t need its four-wheel drive, yet still wanted the space and had about £2000 to spend, there was always Triumph’s 2.5 PI Estate.
Here was Britain’s first petrol-injected family car that started the trend for fast, upmarket estates years before the Germans caught on. Citroën, Peugeot and Mercedes-Benz offered injection but not in station wagon-type cars. Thus, at least for a while, the PI was the only injected estate car you could buy, anywhere. The Range Rover requires little introduction, a V8-engined, full-time four-wheel-drive, three-door estate that was almost as accomplished on the road as it was devastatingly effective off it, the first all-terrain vehicle people wanted to drive for fun, not necessity. Rover created it, almost casually it seems now, to cater for a supposed market of gentleman farmers who wanted a car they could use in fields and in town.
High and low ratios, a lockable differential and smooth low-down torque from a low-compression version of the famous all-alloy V8 made the Range Rover undefeatable in the hills. Buyers loved it equally for its commanding driving position and the air of elegant adventure – be it hauling antiques or towing powerboats – that its superbly contrived looks promised.
There were no real guarantees anybody would even want such a thing in 1970, yet it fulfilled the role like nothing else. Landed people did buy them, naturally, but the Range Rover created its own parallel following among those who saw it purely as a status symbol. It inspired dozens of imitators from all over the world and, really, changed the look of our roads forever. The Triumph 2.5 PI was in refreshed MkII form for ’69, so it was neither truly ‘new’ nor intended for mud-plugging. The Lucas fuel-injected PI was the most powerful version of an urbanely handsome wagon that had been around since late ’65 as the Triumph 2000 Estate.
Based on the popular Michelotti-styled 2000 saloon, the car that with the Rover 2000 had created a new ‘compact executive’ niche, it was arguably the best-looking estate car in Europe. I cannot think of another load-carrier of its generation where the demands of styling and accommodation were so seamlessly resolved.
Rover, doubtless preferring to concentrate efforts on the Range Rover, never committed itself to an official P6 estate. The ungainly Panelcraft conversion, sold as the Estoura, is a visual testament to the wisdom of that decision.
Created alongside the 1963 saloon, the Triumph 2000 Estates were built up by Carbodies. Using lots of lead-loading, the roofless saloon shells had their fuel tanks and spare wheels rearranged for an unimpeded load area. The only evidence the body had started life as a three-box was a subtle drop in the trajectory of the waistline under the rearmost side windows.
With a £250 price premium, the £1500 Estate emerged into a scene where British family wagons were mostly lumpy and utilitarian, and rarely upmarket. In some ways it was almost as much of a shot in the dark in terms of its perceived market as the Range Rover was five years later.
Front struts and semi-trailing-arm rear suspension, and a much lighter, more efficiently engineered unitary body than its Standard Vanguard predecessor, made the 100mph six-pot Triumph a far handier car to drive than the lumbering Ford, Humber and Vauxhall 3-litre opposition. It had a much younger and more thrusting image than those cars, setting the rules in the quality 2-litre saloon class for years to come. Particularly when the Lucas petrol-injected version, the 2.5 PI, arrived in 1968.
Marketed as the car for ‘the power elite’, this 132bhp 2½-litre was Britain’s first mass-produced fuel-injected passenger saloon and Triumph’s answer to the now in-house threat posed by the Rover 3500 V8 – or the Three Thousand Five as it was called at first.
The PI was short-lived in its original form: only 371 MkI PI estates were built before the MkII Triumph 2000/2500/2.5 range emerged at motor show time in 1969.
Wisely resisting the temptation of facelifting the still strong-selling 2000 internally, the task was entrusted to Michelotti who did a fine job of bringing his shape up to date with a simpler nose treatment. This would give the saloons and estates a family kinship with the still secret Stag, while extending the life of the bodyshell well into the latter half of the 1970s.
In fact, 2.5 PIs gave way to the 2500TC in ’1975, so only 4102 MkII injected estates were produced as opposed to 100,000 three-door Range Rovers through to the mid-’80s. Total Triumph estate production, of all engines, was 22,000.
This PI Estate, owned by Triumph enthusiast Bradley Davis of Bristol, must be one of the last, with the desirable overdrive and power steering. Davis unearthed it, bizarrely, in France close to Le Mans, where it had lain unused since the ’80s on its original UK plates. On repatriation it was discovered to be very sound and is still very much ‘as found’, complete with ’70s Chelsea parking tickets and fuel dockets in the glovebox.
The Range Rover, kindly furnished by Chris Sturgess, was restored by Chris Bishop of Bishop’s Heritage and is ‘as new’ in every respect – perhaps better. With a mileage under 60,000 and original cloth seats that don’t look as if they have ever been sat on (they were covered by rugs from new by the original Scottish owner), three-door Range Rovers don’t get better than this.
Classy and elegant, the Range Rover still has huge presence on the road. It is shorter but much wider than the Triumph, which on its dinky 13in wheels looks narrow and petite alongside almost anything modern. The 95-100mph Range Rover was marginally more expensive new than the Triumph, rather slower and much thirstier at 14mpg; a PI with its injection working properly can return a very respectable 25mpg or more.
The reasons for this are not difficult to work out: the high, boxy RR with its separate chassis and hefty drivetrain weighs in at a good 1000lb more than the PI, which on virtually identical horsepower would top 115mph and get to 60mph before the off-roader had hit 50.
In real life they don’t feel dramatically different in terms of straight-line surge, with strong torque from low revs and a silky feel in both cases. The Range Rover’s V8 is almost silent at tickover and gives a smart step off the line, with meaningful acceleration through the ratios. The transmission, with various trains of cogs and sprockets in the transfer box, and permanent four-wheel drive, is probably the noisiest thing about these cars and the chunky feel of its long movements is very much part of the character.
The Range Rover will romp along happily at motorway speeds all day, the ‘as-new’ element of this one a reminder that refinement was comparable with a saloon car. As was the supple ride afforded by soft coil springs that were also the secret of its superb axle articulation off-road.
Your line of vision and the picture windows all round give the Range Rover’s Minimalist interior a cheerful feel with the classic ‘Airfix’ dashboard, massive transmission tunnel and impressive seats with built-in seatbelts.
The PI, with its dark Ambla plastic seats, is gloomier inside but it feels a more solid production, with doors that fit well and shut with a solid clunk. In what other estate did the wooden door cappings run through the load area? Its plush carpet looks a little posh for tip runs, too.
Its waistline is low and the generous rear legroom makes up for the lack of width. A new dash was part of the MkII package, with rationally laid out instruments on a concave panel and all the important functions on column stalks behind the good-looking, adjustable and leather-trimmed steering wheel. Oddly for a fuel-injected car, the PI has a manual choke. The seats are substantial, befitting its executive appeal, and the relationship between wheel, gearlever and pedals is well thought out.
Pressurised by a boot-mounted pump, which is actually an adapted wiper motor, the PI’s once troublesome Lucas injection has its origins in military equipment. Look under the forward-hinged bonnet and it’s hard to reconcile this long-stroke pushrod engine with the lusty, BMW-like feel of the Triumph’s performance – though the throttle bodies and injectors, fed by a metering unit, give the ‘six’ an air of purpose.
The Triumph’s slightly uncertain tickover smooths out under load, and the flat torque curve means you don’t have to push the engine hard in the gears to extract acceleration. With its sharp throttle response the Triumph feels lively in its notchy-shifting lower gears, squatting down and growling hard towards 4000rpm, revs that will maintain 100mph in overdrive quite peacefully with surprisingly little road noise.
The Range Rover would be maxed out at that speed, even with the optional Fairey or GKN overdrive, but the security of its on-road handling has an edge over the faster Triumph. Certainly the high build tends to exaggerate the body roll but, once you grow accustomed to this, the all-wheel drive means it hangs on tenaciously, with smoke coming off the front tyres if you are really trying on a slow, tight bend.
The power steering is not the last word in feel, but neither is it over-boosted. Unhappy memories of driving an early Rangie without PAS would make it non-negotiable for me.
The Range Rover has brakes that rarely cross your mind; likewise in the 2.5 PI. Cornering ambitiously, the Triumph has much more conventional limits and is one of those cars that probably corners well (which it does) despite its feel-free power steering negating the benefits of its rack-and-pinion mechanism and a respectable three turns from lock to lock.
There’s a lot you can do to sort these big Triumphs but, as standard, it rolls quite a bit, betraying its ’60s origins. You learn to trust in the safely understeering PI’s ability to hang on; it feels as though it would be good fun in the wet. These oddly complementary British Leyland products were early-’70s ‘lifestyle’ cars that competed for the attentions of well-heeled buyers who required utility that was not utilitarian, status without ostentation.
Darling of the middle classes, the handsome Triumph Estate almost had the field to itself for five years and, in MkII PI form, had reached the peak of its development curve.
The Range Rover, in many ways the car that took over from the Triumph Estate as the horse trailer-pulling town-and-country machine of choice, was just getting started by that stage. Not even its hopeful parents could have guessed at what was in store for it, and the rest of the British motor industry, in the five decades that have followed since it was introduced.
Thanks to The Triumph 2000, 2500, 2.5 Register (triumph2000register.co.uk); Bishop’s Heritage (bishopsheritage.co.uk)
1969 Triumph 2.5 PI Estate
Sold/number built 1969-’1975/4102 (MkII Estates) Construction steel monocoque
Engine all-iron, ohv 2498cc straight-six, with Lucas mechanical fuel injection
Max power 132bhp @ 5450rpm
Max torque 153Ib ft @ 2000rpm
Transmission four-speed manual, overdrive on third and fourth, RWD
Suspension independent, at front by MacPherson struts rear semi-trailing arms, coil springs, telescopic dampers
Steering power-assisted rack and pinion
Brakes discs front, drums rear
Length 15ft 2in (4629mm)
Width 5ft 5in (1651mm)
Height 4ft 8in (1422mm)
Wheelbase 8ft 10in (2692mm)
Weight 2701Ib (1225kg)
0-60mph 9.2 secs
Top speed 110mph
Price new £1869
Price now £8-10,000
Left to right: familiar straight-six traces back to the Standard Vanguard; overdrive a key option; padded and veneered dash. Low and purposeful, the PI Estate is arguably the earliest truly fast wagon – a trailblazer for the likes of BMW, Mercedes and Audi.
Triumph fan Davis and his late Chelsea-via-Le Mans Estate.
1970 Range Rover 3.5 V8
Sold/no built 1970-’1988/96,331 (to end of ’1981)
Construction box-section chassis, steel and aluminium body
Engine all-alloy, ohv 3528cc V8, twin Zenith-Stromberg carburettors
Max power 135bhp @ 4750rpm
Max torque 205Ib ft @ 3000rpm
Transmission four-speed manual, high and low range, 4WD Suspension: front Panhard rod rear A-bracket, self-levelling struts; live axle, coil springs, radius arms f/r
Steering recirculating ball, optional power assistance Brakes discs
Length 14ft 8in (4470mm)
Width 5ft 9in (1778mm)
Height 5ft 10in (1778mm)
Wheelbase 8ft 3in (2540mm)
Weight 3800Ib (1724kg)
0-60mph 13.9 secs
Top speed 95mph
Price new £1998
Price now £12-30,000
Left to right: small dials ahead of the huge wheel; well-defined and classy transfer-box lever; Rover V8 is as good as new.
Plenty of roll from the near 6ft high and very upright Range Rover when pushed – but the shape has aged well.
Split-hatch Range Rover boot offers more headroom, but the Triumph is spacious and versatile. Spare wheel intrudes in RR more than in the relatively sunken load bay of the Triumph.
The wood-panelled Triumph is a picture of British Leyland – the Range Rover’s airy interior (left) is classy and more considered.