As Phil Blank piloted his Triumph Vitesse towards me I briefly mistook it for a Herald, and no wonder.
For the Michelotti-designed Herald, introduced in 1959, shares most of its body panels with the Vitesse, the giveaway being the slanted, four-headlight nose design. And once he was in earshot, the engine.
Yes, this car is just 3885mm long, but it sports a six-cylinder cast-iron engine up front — Phil’s 1968 model fielding a 71kW 2.0-litre six — boasting a 12-second zero to 100 time, which led to the advertising tag-line: “The Two Seater Beater.”
It’s more powerful than the 1.6-litre built from 1962, but there were problems. With a heavy great lump of metal up front, and a Herald-derived swing-axle transverse-leaf rear suspension, the car didn’t handle too well and was renowned for how keen it was to spin. I thought that’d be a problem for Targa veteran Phil, but his race car is another Triumph.
No surprise, then, that he’s secretary of the Auckland Triumph Car Club.
You’d be mad to own a classic and not join a club, he reckons: “So many mechanics don’t know the tricks you need for them.
“The amount of knowledge I picked up from just joining a club was huge,” he says.
He’d never had a Vitesse before, but had a Triumph 2000 six-cylinder, with effectively the same powerplant as the one shoehorned into this car.
A classic motoring Triumph
Phil’s grandfather started the Triumph bug. He had a MkI Triumph 2000. Phil was getting his licence in Fiat Bambinas,, but as a teenager he went away on holiday with grandad.
“It wasn’t uncool then, and he let me drive. I’d had my licence less than six months, and he was letting me drive!”
Roll on to 1986, and Phil needed a family car so he went for a 1968 Triumph 2000. “I had young kids, a single income and a new car was dear. That was before the tariffs came off; a new equivalent in 1988 was $53,000 — ridiculous — think what you get for that now.”
It helps that his wife is tolerant of his classic obsession, though she’ll only drive autos. “I’ve had a thing about old English cars. I’d had a Torana six-cylinder, a number of Bambinas, I’d had a Vauxhall. What led me to that initial Triumph was I guess the whole nostalgia kick. I was in the first year of my law partnership, and for me it was a bit of a splash. Then it kept going from there.”
He met this Vitesse thanks to a Targa Tour – a Targa rally-lite that trails the main event – when he got talking Triumph to another entrant who had a Vitesse in Christchurch he was thinking of selling.
“The missus and I flew down to Christchurch, and a week later I flew down and drove it home.”
This is Phil’s first Vitesse, and it’s a New Zealand-new car.
Like a few old cars it’s had a few mechanical woes, but nothing major. Phil drove it over 1000kms home without any hiccups.
“I’m a bit of a perfectionist. I like the safety measures to be 100 per cent.”
So, being a seriously hands-on mechanic — he’s a lawyer by trade — Phil overhauled the brakes and put new tyres on.
He’s had more than a dozen Triumphs through the years, but the current three are keepers.
“I would never buy a Herald, I like that big, smooth, torquey six. It’s a very flexible engine, the MkI, the MkII would rev, but this one, you change up to fourth [top gear] quite fast, and leave it there.
“When I drove it north it wouldn’t rev past 3500rpm thanks to an air cleaner cut-out, and I only went below third gear three times, apart from round town. All those hills — I couldn’t believe it.”
It has no power steering – and at 930kg is heavier than you’d expect. But it has an impressively tight turning circle and it’s very easy to drive. Like all classics you need to be firm with the controls but the brakes are nicely progressive and effective.
Anyway, it doesn’t get driven fast, he says. He wants to keep it standard, and as it doesn’t really handle well enough to race in the Targa, he uses the Vitesse as his commuter car about twice a week.
“It’s good in traffic, the boot is quite roomy, but being brutally honest, on the open road you feel a bit exposed.”
“I love it.”
I love it. It's so totally different - I've never had so many people look at, and ask about my car. It has a lot of street appeal, people over 45 know what it is.