UK’s rarest cars: 1978 Triumph Dolomite 1500 SE, one of only a handful left

Andrew Roberts
1979 Triumph Dolomite 1500 SE - owned by Andrew Burford 

During the 1970s, British Leyland offered a spate of limited-edition versions of its cheaper models. Any true Marina devotee craves a “Citron”-coloured 1.8 TC Jubilee, while no fan of the Austin Allegro could ignore the automotive majesty that is the 1500 Special LE in “Tara Green Metallic”.

Meanwhile, almost any Triumph enthusiast would opt for the 1978 Dolomite 1500 SE (standing for Special Edition), the car with “a quiet air of confidence”.

One of the few surviving examples is owned by Andrew Burford, who finds that “it is often mistaken for a Sprint”.  The SE was also one of the last incarnations of Triumph’s quite incredibly complex array of light-medium saloons.

The original 1300 of 1965 was the first front-wheel-drive Triumph, and in 1970 it was replaced by two models – the rear-wheel-drive Toledo, which was the successor to the Herald, and the upmarket, front-wheel-drive 1500, which featured a longer boot.

The 1971 Dolomite combined the more substantial body with a “Slant-Four” engine and rear-wheel drive to create a replacement for the Vitesse, and the 16-valve Sprint joined it in mid-1973. 

Note the black paintwork, 'go-faster' stripes incorporating SE badging and 'sports wheels' from the Triumph Spitfire

These developments meant that the 1500 was now the sole front-driven car in the Triumph line-up and the rear-driven 1500 TC superseded it in late 1973, but the five-car range would not share the same bodyshell, and Dolomite badging, until early 1976; BL did have a reputation for chaotic marketing to uphold.

The 1500 HL, 1850 HL and especially the Sprint were often driven by dashing sorts who knew their way around the menu for their local Berni Inn, while the more understated basic versions with their “stylish rectangular headlamps” appealed more to retired bank managers.  

To such ultra-respectable motorists, the 1500 was a more attractive proposition than the 1300, for at least there was multi-adjustable driver’s seat, and the upholstery was fabric rather than “expanded vinyl”.

However, as Burford points out, “the body shape was getting a little tired and the sales were not that good”, with a large number of Dolomite 1500s “stood outside in primer” and Leyland’s solution was to create the SE.

The SE lacked a tachometer, despite its sporty pretensions. It did, however, feature light grey velour on the seats as well as walnut veneer for the facia and the door cappings. Other features included tinted glass and a push-button radio

The sparsely furnished dashboard was still devoid of a tachometer, but there was now a front spoiler, “sports wheels” (from the Spitfire), a black paint finish with very late 1970s silver “go-faster” stripes and tinted glass. There was even a push-button radio. 

The adverts advised prospective buyers that they ran the risk of becoming “hypnotised by its striking good looks” and that for only £3,925 they could own “Britain’s fastest moving car this year”.  

Burford regards the cabin as “without doubt the SE’s best feature”, with seats trimmed in very late 1970s grey velour and walnut veneer for the facia and the door cappings.  

The performance “is the same”, says Burford, as the more aggressive-looking 1500 HL but although overdrive was an optional extra on the 1.5-litre Dolomites “no SE was fitted with it, and that was a real oversight, given that BL wanted to get rid of the cars”.

The Special Edition - a snip at £3,925 - was a commercial success, with 2, 163 sold. This car's owner Andrew Burford says that the interior is the SE's best feature

The Special Edition proved to be a commercial success, with sales figures of 2, 163 helping to maintain the profile of the model before the end of production.  

Burford acquired his SE in October of last year, joining his 1975 Toledo and 1976 Dolomite 1300 – “many sites list 11 still existing but I believe realistically that there are less than 30, including those in parts as well as the few on the road”.

He thinks that while “most believe the Sprint to be the one to have, but this is quite lively enough and gives less trouble – and it is far more exclusive”.

And the 1500 Special Edition certainly lives up to the sale copy’s promise of “sweeping down the highway, nonchalantly acknowledging the admiring glances”. 

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