Articles: Triumph Vitesse & Triumph 2.5.PI – Team Triumph – 188

Words: Tim Nevinson
Photos: Jared Clark

Tim goes to Pukekohe to sample two classic but different Triumphs of the same era to find out how they end up with the same lap times.
I have a weakness for ’60s and ’70s British saloons. It could be argued they have enough  weaknesses of their own without mine to add to them, but to me they have an innate charm  about them — even more so when they’re adorned with chunky Minilite-style wheels, or finished  off in period competition team colours.

I am sure John Tomlin and I are not alone in the  world, but we speak the same language. None of your Lucas ‘Prince Of Darkness’ jokes here, thank you very much.

John Tomlin has been racing a long time, Formula  Vees and sedans before the usual family and business commitments meant that racing aspirations were  placed firmly on the back burner.

Once his company (New Zealand Business  Telephone Company, which distributes Leader 1000 telephones to commercial users) had created the disposable income required for a resumption of racing activities, a return to the race-track was on the cards.

While John may have fancied himself as the next Michael Schumacher, his mates let him know that the German had a 20-year head start, didn’t smoke, didn’t drink, and had a couple of millimetres advantage on the waist line. They suggested that rather than spend up on the latest single-seater, John might consider looking further afield. John looked no further than the end of his paddock, where a Triumph 2.5PI shell had been grazing for a while.

Six Hour Success

John had been mildly aware of the success Triumphs had in the Benson and Hedges races in the ’70s, with such luminaries as David Oxton at the wheel. He had a soft spot for these old beasts, and a little research showed that the old Trumpet had been a pretty useful rally car, used by the Leyland works teams for events when heavy duty was required.

This is where a little bit of lateral thinking was Landcrab a few years ago. Never mind that it was a heavy old beast used for rallies when heft was required rather than agility, and that rallying is a million miles from circuit racing when it comes to ideal set-ups. Who cares what it goes like when it looks great? (Well, John does actually, he is fanatical about it).

Fortunately, the Tracer Leisuretime Classic race series is set up like one of those schools at which it’s not the winning that counts — it’s about taking part. It doesn’t matter how much money or aggression you throw at it, the Tracer Leisuretime formula equals everyone out. Nobody really cares who called for, not to mention a large leap of faith. ‘What about making the old Trumpet into a classic race car, and make it look like those wonderful works cars?’ he thought. Classic racing, all sorts of different cars (enough differences to cover up any rustiness in your driving armoury, and not exactly on the cusp of the world championship), and no pressure. Well, none from anyone else, anyway.

Now I am totally with John on this, having gone all weak-kneed when I saw a race-prepped Leyland wins, cars aren’t used as weapons, and everyone enjoys themselves. The cars are raced in groups with similar lap times, with reverse grid and handicap races thrown in to even out the winning. Having a car that is not ideally suited just doesn’t matter, so long as it is safe — hence the regular sight of a MkVII Jaguar racing against an Escort. An Escort or Alfa Sud is the obvious choice for this type of activity, but John wanted to be different.

Giving it the Works

He took the old garden grazer shell to Andy Culpin of RaceFX and said, “I want you to build this up into a classic race car, to look exactly like the works 2.5PIs.” Andy’s first question was quite probably — why? Sadly short of realistic answers, John was given a couple of weeks to think about it before Culpin set to work on the’ 70s luxury sedan. Sure enough, and still without a rational answer, a few weeks later John gave the go ahead to start the project. The body shell was fully stripped, acid dipped, extensively lightened, seam welded, and given a full Group A-spec roll-cage — all carried out by Race FX. The factory wiring was completely removed and replaced with a custom-made loom (thereby banishing those ‘Prince Of Darkness’ jokes) and the dashboard was customised to fit around the new cage and recovered by Dashboard Restorations. There are few people who would bother to get a dashboard recovered after fitting a roll cage, but this gives you some idea of how Tomlin approaches things. The seats are Momo with three-inch, five-point RJS cam lock safety harnesses.

John is a fairly big chap, and Andy wanted him down as low as he could get him: by using a Dolomite steering column attached to a Triumph Herald rack, John is set well back and fairly reclined, with the steering wheel sat in his lap.

Morris Turner at Stag 4×4 provided the Triumph bits, the Herald rack was used to get a ratio that suited without too much weight. A Tilton fully adjustable pedal box was inserted (I noticed a very big throttle pedal), and the remote reservoirs for the front and rear brakes came from AP Racing.

To look after the stopping department — and to keep costs down — John fitted Range Rover front-vented discs, which work with Nissan Skyline Turbo four-pot callipers and EBC Yellow race pads supplied by Lyall Zohs at EBC Brakes. The callipers hang off MacPherson Struts, with Koni Classic fully adjustable shocks and King springs on fully adjustable towers with camber/ castor adjustment at the top.

The front sway bar is custom made and fully adjustable. At the rear the brakes are Nissan Skyline Turbo two-pot callipers, while the suspension is fully independent. Adjustable platforms with Koni Classics and King springs are used. The rear sway bar is a modified Toyota MR2 front bar. All the bushes and joints have been replaced with a combination of Nolathane and rose joints. The whole suspension specification was fine-tuned by Edgar Saltwegter at George Stocks. John was absolutely delighted with the job RaceFX did on the body, and the rest of the installation work done by George Stocks and EBC.

Cash Injection

Fuel-injected Triumph engines were alleged to give a lot of trouble — and they usually got worse if someone tried to fix them, which was one of the reasons Triumph made the carburetted 2500TC available. The TC became very popular, but the PI was something of a rarity. With a reputation like this behind it, one would have thought that John Tomlin would have plumped for carburettors on his Triumph. Not a bit of it. “The works cars had mechanical PI, so my car is going to have mechanical PI.” He would live to regret that decision, but there it is in our photographs — petrol injection, and the car is now going as strong as an ox. John is nothing if not persistent.

In his first year of competition he went through a whole pile of engines, and played mind games with the injection unit. It turns out that the injection unit works fine, always did — the problem was with the fuel pump, it simply wasn’t pumping enough fuel. Once he fitted an Audi A8 fuel pump, the old Fergie-derived engine went like a sewing machine. Perhaps it is a little impolite to call it an old Fergie — a tractor engine never looked this good, or revved like this. The Lucas mechanical injection breathes through a custom-made air box and ram tubes, with a K&N Filter — all force fed from the front headlight aperture. Fuel is fed to the original metering unit, which has been modified and mapped by John and his father.

Dad’s Engine

The engine was assembled by John’s dad, an A Grade mechanic and ex service manager for Spencer Allen Motors in Papakura. John senior went out in the car to test the engine, but he didn’t like it: too noisy. Jim at West Auckland Trade Tools supplied parts and oils, and Terry at Franklin Engine Reconditioners did a fantastic job on the engine machining. There was quite a lot of it, as the motor isn’t entirely standard. It has larger exhaust valves (Nissan L20), a Kelford full race cam and Ford BDA valve springs. Triumph Spitfi re cam bearings are fitted, the oil galleries enlarged, and the sump enlarged to nine litres with a full gating system and a windage tray which incorporates a crank scraper. The oil pick-up for the pump is lengthened and relocated to the centre of sump, and Andy Culpin’s ‘regulation’ two-litre Accusump was fitted.

The exhaust headers are three-into-two-into-one (which will soon be changed to a two-into-three-into one system). The crank, rods, pistons, timing gear and rockers are all standard, but nicely machined and balanced. On the back, the fl ywheel is lightened with a carbon fibre/ceramic combination paddle clutch to disengage the Toyota Supra W55 wide ratio five-speed gearbox. John originally used the Triumph four-speed with overdrive, but found the overdrive engagement to be too unpredictable for racing. Much of the experimentation and engine tuning was done by Tony at Short Motors Takanini, who has dyno, tuning and mechanical services on site.

The result of all of this effort was beautiful when it first rolled out (after 10 years of racing it looks a little battle scarred, but still looks sensational). As John had asked for a replica, Andy gave him a big hole in the front guard like the works cars for cooling, a bubble in the bonnet and big holes in the front apron. Sitting low on chunky 15×7 Performance Minilites and 205×55 Dunlop R tyres, the car looks ready for Andrew Cowan or Paddy Hopkirk to jump straight into.

Special Tuning

Brian Culcheth was British Leyland’s key works driver when the first works Triumph 2.5s appeared — anything weird and wonderful from the Leyland Special Tuning division usually had Culcheth at the wheel. John has spoken with Culcheth a number of times about his project, and has been given pictures and encouragement by the works driver but, having originally developed the 2.5 for rallying, Brian could only be so much help.

“As there was nobody who could really give us any advice on how to make a Triumph saloon go quick, most of the costs have been in R&D. For what it has cost to get it to this stage I wouldn’t get any change out of $100K, but knowing what we do now I guess we could build another for around $40K.”

This Triumph’s Achilles heel was the sliding spline driveshafts; necessary for the semi-trailing rear suspension. Curiously enough, John has chosen to remain with this system.

“It does chew them [driveshafts] out, but on the road it was more due to them getting gunked up than the power being put through them. I could put a Nissan Skyline roller bearing set-up in there, it would bolt straight in. We have the problem right now, compounded by the fully locked diff, but it’s a known quantity”

Development is like that. Basically it’s another word for fixing things that go wrong, and making sure they don’t do it again. The Triumphs were tough old birds, as Benson and Hedges results attest, but once you start modifying something you just find the next weakest link.

“The chassis, suspension and brakes are well sorted now so the next development is to build a quick engine — the one we have is relatively standard. So over the next 18 months we will be developing another motor using some goodies out of the UK and USA. That should see around 195kW (261bhp), which with a little bit of a diet for both car and driver should see time dip into the low 1.13s at Pukekohe.

Short and Simple

The result of all his current work, apart from a lot of fun and considerable pride from admiring looks, is a Pukekohe best of 1.15.4 seconds, and 48.1 around the old track at Taupo. This is where Barry Garland and our second Triumph — a Vitesse — enters the picture.

Barry comes from Tirau where he and his partner, Steve, are sand and earth moving contractors. Barry gives John Tomlin a lot of competition on the track. Using the same powerplant, Barry shifts around Pukekohe in about the same time as the bigger Triumph, and fl ies around Taupo a second or two quicker. Between you and me, Barry hasn’t spent as much money as John. When we looked inside the boot of John’s car we saw that RaceFX had installed a Jazz fuel safety cell, with a bulk fuel loader for long distance events, an expensive-looking Bosch fuel pump, and lots of Aeroquip hoses. In the boot of Barry’s Vitesse we found a deck chair and a trolley jack. How does Barry match times with John? The answer revolves mainly around the 200kg that John lugs around with him every lap. If Barry was to carry three passengers around with him things might be a little different. As it is they trade laps with each other, and one is quicker in places than the other.

Barry’s Triumph Vitesse, apart from being lighter, makes a considerably smaller hole in the air along the back straight. It is also nimbler through the esses. However, as Barry’s car utilises a relatively standard shell — using the narrow chassis construction typical of Heralds and Spitfires — it isn’t as torsionally rigid as the highly modified PI. As the Vitesse is narrower, lighter and with a much shorter footprint than Tomlin’s car, this means that on the high speed undulating curves it is considerably more nervous than the big PI, and starts bouncing towards the Armco, causing Barry to lift when John has his foot firmly planted into the firewall — making the most of his momentum.

Toute Vitesse

Round the back of Pukekohe Barry has it all his own way, easily pulling away under acceleration, whilst when stability and rock solid handling is required around the front of the circuit, John has the advantage. It all makes for a very entertaining cat and mouse situation.

It also makes you wonder why the Triumph works did not make more of the Vitesse in competition — the combination of a huge powerplant in a very light body makes sense for this application. As a road car they were a very rapid and comfortable tourer, a sort of forerunner to the BMW 325.

The Vitesse never came with a 2.5 engine, they carried either 1.6 or 2.0-litre motors, but it’s an easy swap to slot in the larger capacity six. Barry’s Ross Calgher built engine is fed by three, twin-choke 40mm Webers, with power transmitted through a lightning quick Quaife gearbox and limited slip differential.

Early Heralds and Vitesses had a bit of a reputation for tucking their rear wheels under on cornering, but this was solved on later models with a lower tie rod and modifications to the transverse leaf installation. Barry has made his own version of this, and keeps the wheels safely in negative camber.

There is little wrong with Triumph Herald front suspension and steering, their parts are regular cannibalised for racing and sports cars, some with a very high pedigree. Barry has fitted Spax adjustable dampers with a stiff 22mm sway bar on the front and 16mm sway bar on the rear. The front brakes are Wilwood, but drum brakes remain at the rear.

Barry found his car back in 1992 as a dismantled basket-case — ripe for restoration. He decided immediately to make it into a racing saloon, but has not modified it drastically — just made a really nice job of the transformation. Barry also has good experience as a driver, having competed in the Heatway and other rallies using a Mini, achieving second in class one year. His lap times are near identical to John Tomlin’s at Pukekohe, but at Taupo, Tomlin would have to work pretty hard to keep ahead of the Vitesse — Barry’s laps being a good second quicker than the big PI’s.

Widely differing approaches

The ongoing success of the Tracer/Leisuretime series is down to the ingenuity of Ray Green’s rules, which allow spectators to watch almost standard cars competing fairly against purpose-built modified cars without it becoming a cheque book exercise. Both these old Triumphs give their owners and spectators a lot of pleasure, despite their widely differing approaches. Much as I admire the Escorts and Alfas which compete in the race series, it is the variety of cars that make the Leisuretime and Tracer series what they are. I sincerely hope there are more people out their who have the inspiration and wherewithal to create other cars which are as nostalgic and slightly off the wall as these two Triumphs.


Engine Six-cylinder, ohv
Capacity 2498cc
Max power 124kW (166bhp)
Max torque 206Nm (152lb/ft)
Fuel system Triple twin choke 45 DCOE Webers
Gearbox Triumph with Quaife kit
Suspension Coil and wishbone front, transverse leaf rear, with Spax dampers
Steering Rack and pinion
Brakes Wilwood discs front/ drums rear
Wheels Performance Minilites
Tyres Yokohama AO3212, 205/60/13


Width 1524mm
Height 1280mm
Overall Length 3886mm
Kerb Weight 970kg


Max speed 209kph (130mph)
0-100kph never timed (probably quicker than John’s!)


Engine Six-cylinder, ohv
Capacity 2498cc
Max power 153kW (205bhp) at 6000rpm
Max torque N/A — but plentiful
Fuel system Lucas Mechanical Injection
Gearbox Toyota Supra W55 wide ratio five-speed
Suspension MacPherson strut front, semi-trailing rear
Steering Rack and pinion
Brakes Vented discs
Wheels 15×7 Performance Minilites
Tyres 205×55 Dunlop R (dry) 205×60 Falken Azenis (wet)


Length 4528mm
Width 1690mm
Height 1335mm
Kerb Weight 1151kg


Max speed 204kph (127mph) at the end of Pukekohe’s back straight
0-100kph Never timed (but bloody quick)

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