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A free pencil
publication date: Sep 7, 2015
author/source: Dave Moss
by Dave Moss
In 1968, the Triumph Stag and various other shadowy prototypes were eclectic survivors in the new BLMC stable.
At the time, marque plans were being fiercely guarded and nurtured by previously-independent operations recently joined in an uneasy merger.
But the speedy, far-reaching model rationalisation that should have followed never quite happened, allowing the Stag project to develop and flourish.
The 45th anniversary of the car's 1970 launch invites a look back at the career of one man central to Triumph's 1960's success and who, almost accidentally, provided the Stag's launch pad.
For, despite its looks in production form, the car was neither a clever marketing initiative or a natural development of an existing Triumph dreamed up in a now long-demolished Canley corridor. If the Stag has an evolutionary background, it’s in Turin, not Coventry.
Giovanni Michelotti was born in 1921, the son of an engine machine shop foreman. At 16 years old, he was an apprentice at Carozzeria Farina, gaining experience before and after the war in the marriage of skilled coach-building craft with gloriously artistic style.
His first major project was the Alfa Romeo 6C 2500, built by Farina in small quantities in 1947, after which it was a natural progression to establish his own styling and prototyping operation - Studio Technico e Carrozzeria G. Michelotti, Torino. By 1949, he was a consultant to several top Italian studios of the time, amongst them Allemano, Ghia, Bertone, and Vignale.
Folklore suggests that a chance meeting with Triumph's design chief Harry Webster in the mid-1950's led to Michelotti's involvement in the styling of a long succession of Standard Triumph production cars.
The first of these was the 1956 Vanguard saloon, alongside work on the semi-official Triumph Italia 2000 coupé, made in limited numbers by Vignale.
Michelotti also sketched Project Zobo, which emerged in 1959 as the stylish Triumph Herald, a simple but effective design embracing saloon, convertible, coupé, estate and van formats. After this, almost all Triumph's 1960's and 1970's products drew upon the Michelotti magic. The Herald line developed to include the Vitesse, the Spitfire and its six- cylinder hard-top relation the GT6.
The flowing lines of the TR4 and TR5 followed, along with a sequence of four-door 1300, 1500, Toledo, Dolomite and 2000 and 2500 saloons. After the Herald, the only Triumph cars where Michelotti was not involved were the Acclaim, and development of the TR5 into TR6, which was the work of Karmann.
Though its finalised style suggests otherwise, the Stag was not directly conceived as part of the Triumph 2000 saloon family. It was initially created by Michelotti as a concept car for the 1966 Turin Motor show - and hastily acquired by Triumph in their search for promising designs suitable for the US market.
It then underwent extended development, which continued through the 1968 BLMC merger to a public launch in 1970.
As with all the great stylists, Michelotti came up with several Triumph designs which never reached production, but may well have influenced other projects.
Amongst them was the mid 1960's Fury, a monocoque-design, Triumph 2000 based roadster in the style of a larger Spitfire, and the Lynx, seen at various times as a potential GT6 or Stag replacement. Even today marque aficionados still discuss the relative significance of these two concepts in the Stag's evolution.
Another stillborn project was the Bullet, Triumph's planned TR6 follow-up. This was abandoned when BLMC chose to pursue themes and styling cues developed by BLMC designer Harris Mann for Zanda, a 1969 promotional show car which made use of early computer aided design techniques.
This led to the initially controversial hardtop TR7 and TR8 - and here Michelotti returned for his final Triumph project, penning these cars' soft top derivatives.
Following the BLMC merger, Michelotti presented several unsuccessful proposals elsewhere within the corporation. These included the Mini-based open-top ADO70 and ADO74 hatchback, the sleek ADO76 MGB update, a facelifted 1100/1300 series, and what was briefly known as RT1 - an early stage in what became the Rover SD1 project.
Amongst the failures, one project from the time that later became enduringly successful was in the commercial vehicle field, the Leyland National bus.
Triumph and its successors played a 20 year role in Michelotti's career, yet overall that work ranks almost as a sideline - for his project list includes over 1200 cars. They ranged from the humble to the exotic - from the Daf Daffodil to a list of sporting Ferrari and Maserati models, on to Volvo, BMW and others - plus a "spider" for Renault, from which the A110 Alpine emerged. His signature also graced Japanese marques as diverse as Daihatsu and Hino.
Michelotti's last major work was a prototype battery electric city car on the Fiat 126 platform. After that, in failing health in the mid-1970's, he briefly turned to scooters and yachts, though one last commission became fleetingly familiar to British motorists - the Scimitar SS1 sports car, a first proposal for which reached Reliant during 1978. Unfortunately Michelotti never saw it on the road: he died from cancer thirty-five years ago in 1980 aged 58, though his son Edgardo kept the famous studio alive. The Reliant contract was completed by chief stylist Tateo Uchida, son of a Hino director for whose company Michelotti had styled the Contessa Sprint - and who was so impressed, he moved to Turin in 1964, to begin a career as a junior stylist.
The Scimitar SS1 was Michelotti's final sports car, launched at the 1984 British Motor Show. Changing times and fast dwindling work forced the studio's closure in 1991, and the confidential nature of the business means we'll probably never know much more about Michelotti's work.
Interviewed by Italian magazine Quattroroute in 1977, looking back on his prolific career, he was reportedly asked for a feature title. "Call it A free pencil," he is said to have replied....
So much great work, captured in so few words.
© Dave Moss
The Scimitar & Its Forebears. Author: Don Pither, 1987,1990. Court Publications. ISBN: 0-951287-30-3
Rebel Without Applause: Reliant from inception to zenith. Author Daniel Lockton - ISBN 1-870519-64-7 - Bookmarque Publishing, Minster Lovell, 2003. 256pp