S.V. Robinson discusses the political and industrial shenanigans that presaged the Triumph Acclaim, sired by Project Bounty.
“Would the Government be prepared to throw away this pioneering agreement between a British and a Japanese motor company, which might encourage wider moves to transplant the benefit of Japanese technology and efficiency to Britain?” Sir Michael Edwardes, ‘Back from the Brink’.
As a car, the Triumph Acclaim can claim little of note that is ground breaking. It is a car that, infamously, was not conceived as a Triumph. More subtly, by the time Acclaim came to be, Triumph itself was a brand without a range of cars, just a single model, built in Morris’s Cowley factory to design, engineering and production specifications developed in Tokyo.
Were it not for BL’s product planners’ persistent and ultimately futile attempts to avoid cannibalisation across its brands and products, the car should most logically have been an Austin, or, with the benefit of hindsight, a Rover.
The car’s significance lies elsewhere. Given the context of the times and circumstances, as a manifestation of industrial strategy it was, in many senses, bold in its conception. Politically, it was also an intriguing statement in that it was the first Japanese car to be built in Europe. It was the first car in a collaborative deal with Honda that was to sustain BL, temporarily at least.
Some commentators state that it proved once and for all that British assembly plant workers were among the best in the world. However, the car itself merits recognition as, had the Acclaim not been competent, inoffensive and, moreover, reliable and as such a BL car to which it was difficult to take exception, none of the above areas of significance could have been claimed today.
The Acclaim was the first bounty of the BL – Honda deal. ‘Bounty’ was the joint name given to the project run by the newly-wed partnership, although it was possessively also given the less colourful BL designation ‘LC9’ (Leyland Cars 9). The deal was announced as signed on the 26th of December 1979 with much publicity.
The deal and therefore the car itself was close to never happening at all as the then newly-elected Conservative Government under Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher put British Leyland and its recovery plan under intense scrutiny. Government Cabinet papers from that time, recently published and available from the UK’s National Archive, demonstrate vividly the conflicting stances taken in that tense period.
The fundamentally monetarist, ‘laissez-faire’ beliefs of the leadership of that Government, led from a philosophical stand-point by the Industry Minister, Sir Keith Joseph, were the motivation behind a broader policy of withdrawing government subsidies from ailing, ‘lame duck’, nationalised industries.
This contributed significantly to what was to become a huge shift in the political and fiscal psyche of those that worked in the public sector (i.e. no more Treasury-sourced ‘safety-net’ to support unproductive jobs in uneconomic, loss-making nationalised companies), industry leaders, and what was being seminally re-branded ‘the tax-paying public’.
This decisive, sudden shift from Left to Right was a stark and shocking response to what were interpreted as being the causes of the British industrial decline and malaise that so miserably dominated ‘70’s life in the UK, culminating in the final ‘winter of discontent’ of that decade.
Every nationalised industry became subject to this almost religiously applied principle of ‘sink-or-swim’, and, in the early days of the policy at least, the leadership of the Government seemed hardened to any potential or indeed resultant public outcry as the likes of ship-building and steel making in the UK shrank rapidly, causing job losses measured by the tens-of-thousand every week.
The independent television newscaster, ITN, ran a barometer every Friday night on News at 10 just to keep total of that week’s job losses. Amongst all of this, the focus on BL was intense. The stimulus was the BL Board’s submission of its Corporate Plan for 1980 via the National Enterprise Board (NEB) (the body accountable for overseeing all nationalised industries at the time) to the Department of Industry (and thereby the Cabinet).
The BL Corporate Plan, written and submitted annually, spelt out the planned activity for the year ahead, and, critically, the government/ tax-payer funding requirement for the coming 12 months. For 1980 alone, BL wanted £300m.
Sir Michael Edwardes, BL’s Chairman, appointed during the previous Labour Government’s tenure, subsequently described how, along with a number of positives relating to how his management team was addressing the key policy area of employee relations (i.e. winning a secret ballot on its restructuring programme, sacking Derek ‘Red Robbo’ Robinson, linking a ‘tough’ 5% pay deal to the acceptance of a significant change to working practices), the proposed joint-venture deal with Honda played a role in the arguments he put forward for gaining agreement for that funding:
“A similar argument applied to the collaborative deal which we now had ready for signature with Honda. Would the Government be prepared to throw away this pioneering agreement between a British and a Japanese motor company, which might encourage wider moves to transplant the benefit of Japanese technology and efficiency to Britain?”
Cabinet documents of that time (i.e. letters between ministers, the company and others; civil servants’ briefing documents), recently made available in the National Archive, demonstrate how ministers and their advisors (most notably Patrick Jenkin) did not give BL’s management a realistic chance of turning the business around. These documents also make clear that the prospective Honda deal alone provided no justification for agreeing to the funding request as it was seen as just a stop-gap measure (whereas it was seen quite differently inside BL, even at that pre-signature stage).
In the end, it seems that the potential, deeply negative, economic and PR impact of not backing the 1980 Corporate Plan convinced the Government to provide its support. Those Cabinet documents stress how Edwardes himself had strong public support for putting into practice changes that nudged the country towards the ‘realism’ which ministers were preaching so fervently.
Hence, on Christmas Eve, Edwardes was given the go-ahead to fly out to Tokyo and signed a contract with the President of Honda, Kiyoshi Kawashima two days later. It is remarkable, and an indicator of the importance which Edwardes attributed to the deal, that he went ahead with the trip, even though, the day before, his father had died of a stroke and, having signed the Honda contract, he immediately flew to South Africa for the memorial service in Port Elizabeth.
Discussions with Honda had started in September 1978. BL had previously flirted with Renault, PSA and GM; for differing reasons, each of these came to nought. Edwardes commented, “Their size, their engineering skill, their remarkable track record, and a number of other key factors, made Honda the most desirable partner.” The original intent was to use the Honda link to solve the biggest product related challenge BL faced at that time, “how to fill the yawning gap until the long-awaited launch of Maestro in early 1983?”
The prospective deal was publicly announced to employees and the press on the 3rd of April 1979, provoking quite dramatic headlines: “Honda and BL: lifebelt or Trojan Horse?” (Financial Times); “Sir Michael’s gamble.” (Daily Telegraph). As highlighted previously, BL’s affairs were played out very openly in the public eye, and Edwardes was to write numerous letters to the Times during his tenure as Chairman in order to get his (and BL’s) point across, “communication being everything.”
In the week before the Acclaim’s launch, in the face of concerns raised by the French and Italian Governments that Bounty was indeed a Japanese Trojan Horse to circumvent import quotas set by Europeans, Edwardes wrote again to the Times: “Some people will see the project as a realistic response to the rapidly changing nature of the world automotive business, being fully in line with BL’s business and market requirements. Others will find it unacceptable and, to put it crudely, describe it as prejudicial to the Triumph name, ‘a sell-out’ to the Japanese and in conflict with BL’s opposition to the import of Japanese cars into Britain.”
Edwardes stressed that the Acclaim should be considered British in that its manufacture at Cowley was directly responsible for saving 2,000 jobs there and indirectly supported a multiple of that number in the UK component industry.
In line with the great emphasis the company was placing on transforming employee relations, Edwardes informed staff that the deal would, “… involve a licensing agreement to manufacture a new car being developed by Honda. Employee representatives through participation have been given full details of the joint proposal and a representative of the shop floor accompanied the BL team which visited Honda in April. …… the current thinking is that BL will manufacture a new passenger car designed by Honda which will have a high technical specification and will be a Triumph. BL will have exclusive rights to sell it in the EEC and in Britain.”
Edwardes later noted that that representative of the shop floor, a steward, came from Canley which was originally earmarked to produce “Bounty” and ended up being closed as part of BL’s streamlining programme.
“According to Ian Forster, the men from Honda, who have been worried by problems with ‘orange peel’ in the paintwork of their own cars, are learning to minimise it by adopting BL’s techniques.” Steve Cropley, Editor, Car Magazine.
The choice of model for Project Bounty, it seems, was largely determined by Honda. Hattori Yoshi (Car, November 1980) explains, “But why did BL pick the Ballade? Well, they didn’t. The fact is that BL picked Honda as being the Japanese company with the most compatible technology and went cap in hand in search for a car – any car – to help them keep going.
On the face of it, the Quintet looks a better bet for BL in that it would provide a hatchback where at the moment there is only the old Maxi. Why didn’t they have that? ‘Because we want to sell the Quintet in Europe’ said Honda. And the new Civic notchback? ‘Of course.’ So BL actually picked a pig in a poke and then set about altering the range to suit it. The reason for this is that BL have very little scope for altering the Ballade to produce their Bounty. … It will presumably replace the Dolomite but in practice some of the bottom of the Ital range as well.”
Although somewhat unkindly intonated, this account, together with the very aggressive timeframe (18 months – but it ended up slipping by 3 months) for getting ‘Bounty’ to market, helps to explain why Acclaim so closely followed the design of Ballade. Design sketches by Gordon Sked of BL’s Styling Services department dated January 1981 demonstrate that its designers at least hoped to have opportunity to distinguish their car.
Interestingly, Honda updated the Ballade in 1983 with a restyle that owed a remarkable amount to Sked’s sketches, but BL did not take advantage of the same changes – it’s probable that it didn’t want to incur the costs related to such an exercise.
If BL was to make little impression on the aesthetic of its new car, the production of that car was to have a profound impact on BL. What was to prove to be, perhaps, the most impressive aspect of the Acclaim (and benefit to BL) was not immediately obvious to the eye: build quality and reliability.
Apart from the politics and employee relations issues surrounding it, BL was probably best known at the time for the poor reliability of its products. It bordered on being a public joke. So, the Guardian was somewhat generous when it printed an article headlined, “Cowley Wizard will Head Honda Tie Up”.
The piece concerned Andrew Barr, “who ran BL’s Cowley assembly plant while it became one of Leyland’s most successful factories” and had thus been promoted to be manufacturing director for BL’s Rover-Triumph Division, and in turn had landed responsibility for “the British version of the new Japanese Honda car”.
Of more relevance, reference is made to the fact that, although Cowley had broken productivity records (within BL), was less trouble prone than the plant at Longbridge, and had regularly achieved more than 100% of the programmed output, Cowley was only approaching “Continental” levels of productivity. Moreover, “the time taken to build cars … is not yet up to European standards”.
Put another way, at that time, being acclaimed as the most efficient factory in the Leyland empire was to be damned with faint praise, and comparisons with the performance of peers in the EEC (as it then was) were similarly unambitious. Furthermore, productivity and time-to-build did not talk to quality. BL needed a quantum leap in all three areas: the Acclaim and Honda gave them the opportunity to learn of, and develop, all three.
Japanese manufacturers, with their integrated, multi-disciplined, new product development project teams, ‘just-in-time’ component supply and delivery approach, lean-manufacturing techniques, experience of automated assembly, and extreme approach to managing component quality to extremely tight tolerances, were masters of product development and production engineering.
A BL development engineer of the time comments “I worked on the Bounty development team at Longbridge and Gaydon [which was the development centre for BL Cars]. One of the first things we did was get rid of the adhesives used in the body in white construction. This ruined the durability of the vehicle on the Belgian pave durability cycle at MIRA.
Lesson learned, the ‘unnecessary’ adhesives were reinstated. The body shells when built as Honda intended did twice the mileage that BL engineered products could endure on pave, at which point we declared them effectively unbreakable.
On high speed testing on the autobahns in Germany the Ballades kept the test drivers in gainful employment when the powertrains in their BL models were being repaired! Again the Hondas were a revelation, and their durability achieved legendary status within the company.”
So it seems that, in the case of the Acclaim at least, BL people came to accept Honda’s standards. It’s notable that Car Magazine’s feature article on the Acclaim’s launch focused on the investment that BL had made (using tax-payers’ money, agreed as part of the Government’s acceptance of the 1980 Corporate Plan) in the Cowley plant.
“Sparks Fly as BL’s robots make Triumph Acclaims with a quality that impresses even their Honda creators.”
The article, which is dominated by pictures of skeletal Acclaim bodies in various stages of assembly in a thoroughly modern-looking plant, emphasises how the £70m investment in ‘modernisation’ at Cowley had been spent on five main areas of production: stamping, body framing, assembly, paint and testing.
Ian Forster, then BL Cars’ director of Southern Operations is quoted. “This money we’ve spent for the Acclaim project underpins the whole modernisation of Cowley. Eventually the new plant we’ve installed will benefit other new models as well as the Acclaim.”
It’s reported that the steel and production of the panels was almost entirely British, providing the vast majority of the 70% British content claimed for every Acclaim (this was important, not least because it enabled to Acclaim to be sold outside of the ‘gentlemen’s agreement’ of an 11% quota for Japanese cars in the UK at that time). The article’s author, Steve Cropley, notes that “the labels on the robots say ‘Honda Engineering’”, and there’s a whole section of the text explaining how the £30m new paint shop included state of the art solutions to deliver the highest quality finish.
In what reads like a bit of propaganda that attempts to address any cynic’s perception that the transfer of intellectual property was entirely one-way, Cropley writes, “According to Ian Forster, the men from Honda, who have been worried by problems with ‘orange peel’ in the paintwork of their own cars, are learning to minimise it by adopting BL’s techniques.”
The flow of the story-line follows that of the production phases and ends with a description of what were then state of the art (and new to BL), end-of-line electronic test stations which examined electrical systems, front and rear wheel alignments, steering lock and performance on a computer controlled rolling road. It’s noted that “On the basis of our observation, the vast majority of them go through without a hitch.”
In the weeks building up to the launch, BL tried to build anticipation of its new car. Huge bill-board posters appeared at road-sides around the country, showing an Acclaim, visible in the breaking dawn mainly by dint of its illuminated head and side lights, flanked by the all upper case script:
“TRIUMPH ACCLAIM. REVEALED OCTOBER 7TH. THE NEXT GREAT CAR FROM BL.”
The advertising agency wanted to recapture some of the fervour of the miniMetro’s launch of the previous year, and the poster did reflect a sense within the company that the Acclaim gave BL a second new model of which it could be proud, and, more importantly, which would enable it to stem and even reverse its shrinking market share. BL hoped to build and sell 80,000 cars a year and set up its production facilities accordingly.
“The Triumph Acclaim is a good replacement for the aging Dolomite. It is fast, comfortable, economical, and should be very reliable. Providing that the self-imposed restrictions of Japanese imports remain, the car should produce a handsome return for BL, but if cars like the excellent four door Accord become readily available, will people be prepared to accept less Honda for about the same price?” AutoTEST, Autocar, w/e 24 October 1981 (BC – Before Cropley!).
A review of technical specifications reveals that there is little that is remarkable about the three box, four door, saloon that was launched as the Triumph Acclaim on the 7th of October 1981. It had a modern, 1,335cc, four cylinder engine with eight valves and a single overhead camshaft, driving the front wheels via a 5 speed all synchromesh gearbox. The chassis was a steel monocoque, with a suspension system of coil springs over independent MacPherson struts and an anti-roll bar at the front.
A few aspects and features did give brochure-drafters and motoring journalists something to write about. First, as well as the standard 5 speed ‘box (which was rare in cars of this ilk and price in the early 80s), it could be specified with an unusual three-speed semi-automatic transmission.
Second, the engine was powerful for its displacement (developing 70 BHP (DIN) at 5,750 rpm and 74 lb.ft of torque at 3,500 rpm) and was capable of running on 2-star (92 RON) fuel. Third, at 1,810 lbs (821 kgs in Europe), it was light for its class. The resultant favourable power-to-weight ratio delivered very competitive performance and official fuel consumption figures.
On the debit side, journalists and owners decried the short wheelbase (barely 2” longer than the miniMetro’s) which made the car uncomfortably cramped for those relegated to occupation of the rear seats.
The Acclaim was positioned as a replacement for the venerable Triumph Dolomite in BL’s disparate range of products which was itself wrapped in its portfolio of historic British brands. BL also had the then recently launched Morris Ital (not a new car, but a face-lifted, rebadged and repositioned Marina) and Austin Allegro 3 (which benefitted from the “A+” engine first deployed in the celebrated miniMetro) to sell, and hoped to minimise the extent to which the Acclaim would steal sales from within.
The name “Acclaim” provided no line of continuity with previous Triumphs (Dolomite, Toledo, 2000, Stag …) and had no link to the “M—-O” nomenclature, initiated by the (mini)Metro, that BL was moving towards for the other new products that were in development at that time. Deliberate or not, the closest name association was with another company’s product: “Accord”.
At launch, the Acclaim came in three levels of trim (HL, HLS and CD), all of which provided a well above average level of standard equipment (these were the days when the provision of remote opening of the boot from inside the car was something of a USP), hence the car’s marketing strap-line at launch: “Totally Equipped to Triumph”.
The Acclaim’s marketing appeal was narrowed by the lack of engine and body-style variants. Furthermore, with only the Acclaim in its range, the Triumph brand did not benefit from marketing spend invested in other BL marques; it is difficult to maintain the momentum of a product (and brand) when there is nothing new to say post launch.
No doubt with this in mind, the car did get a mid-life refresh of sorts, with a new design of steering wheel, a new trim level (‘L’), and minor changes to equipment (including an LED digital clock), but this was barely headline material. At launch, the range was priced between £4,688 and £5,575, which meant that it was positioned to straddle the small (e.g. Escort) and medium (e.g. Cortina) saloon markets.
In 1981, this part of the market was populated with an eclectic group of cars of quite uneven qualities, a number of which had designs dating back to the 1960s. This was a period of transition, when traditional 3-box saloons were losing favour to hatchbacks. Ford had just replaced its RWD Escort saloon with a sharply styled FWD hatchback of the same name. Vauxhall’s Astra (aka Opel Kadett) came as a saloon and a hatch, albeit they shared the same 2-box silhouette.
VW’s Jetta (a saloon based on the Golf hatch) and Peugeot’s 305 were other modern, capable rivals, as were the somewhat older Alfa Romeo Alfasud and Citroen GSA. Competition of sorts also came from the Talbot Avenger, Vauxhall Chevette, Datsun Sunny, Mazda 323, and the (internecine contenders) Allegro and Ital – although this grouping suffered in comparison either from aged design and technology, or, in the case of the Japanese cars, from having their sales restricted by quotas.
As per the quote from LJK Setright used at the head of this grosse oeuvre, this Triumph could not claim to be handsome, and, to most eyes, held less attraction on this score compared with most of the above-mentioned rivals. From the side elevation, there is no rising window or feature-line to suggest speed or dynamism.
The panels are scored with four horizontal lines between the bottom window-line and the sills, which gives a very cluttered view of the side of the car. The short wheelbase does not help proportions and chrome-strip detailing around the windows, on the side rubbing strips and surrounding the headlamp and grille ensemble, which are meant to add class, only serve to clutter surfaces.
The wheel design must rate as one of the most visually busy ever to grace a car of this type. Overall, the effect is fussy and overly-ornate, although, to some people it might pass as being quite smart. Some of the colour schemes did not help, most notably what came to be known as “hearing-aid beige” (befitting a car which found particular popularity with what in the UK is known as ‘the Eastbourne set’) and it probably looked its best in silver or Zircon blue metalics.
The interior is better, with velour seats and door-cards for the HLS and CD. Controls and instruments are, in the main, clear and logically placed (the radio was an exception, being tucked right behind the steering wheel) on the very complete and modern (no wood!), if rather cliff-like edifice of a facia. The design did not hold much Triumph DNA, most of the more recent examples of which (TR7 aside – and didn’t it show!) had been styled by Michelotti and, arguably, formed the most cohesive, well-proportioned range in the BL portfolio.
When Autocar undertook its comprehensive AutoTEST of w/e 24th October 1981, it measured a maximum speed of 92 MPH (achieved in 4th gear), the 0-60 MPH benchmark sprint in 12.9 seconds, and (in third gear) the 30-50 MPH and 50-70 MPH increments in 6.6 seconds and 8.9 seconds respectively.
These were very competitive figures for the class, indeed, the comparison section of Autocar’s test showed that the Acclaim had a higher top speed than the best-selling 1,600cc Cortina, and was faster on the 0-60 MPH benchmark and more parsimonious with fuel than any of the five other cars with which it was being compared, which were the Talbot Solara, the VW Jetta, the Peugeot 305, and the Mazda 323 4-door, as well as the Cortina. So, the Acclaim did have some incremental advantages of which one could speak.
Autocar’s narrative gave modest praise of the Acclaim’s performance (“lively”), economy (“potentially good”), road behaviour (“unfussed”), and brakes (“competent”). However, it mildly criticised noise levels (“a lapse in refinement”) commenting, “the little engine emits a lusty growl – acceptable enough for the young-at-heart driver, but what of the retired couple who have replaced their trusted Dolomite with its quiet, docile ways, with what they had assumed was its front-drive successor?”
“We shouldn’t call this car British. When BL took over the standard of their cars went down. There’s no pride left in their work, only pride in opening their pay packets”; a quote in an article in Autocar from its survey of 200 members of the British public at the time of the launch of the Acclaim.
The best known and remembered aspect of the Triumph Acclaim was that it was originally designed, engineered and manufactured by Honda as the Ballade. Indeed practically every written reference to the Acclaim that can be researched from that time makes early, direct reference to the fact.
For example: The Daily Express Guide to 1984 World Cars: 30th Edition: “ Triumph Acclaim (GB) – A well equipped saloon based on the Honda Ballade but built at Cowley”; AutoTEST, Autocar w/e 24th October, introductory summary: “Triumph Acclaim HL – Triumph’s new four door saloon, which is really Honda’s Ballade”; L’Auto-Journal, 1st March 1982, Banc d’Essai 82, heading “Triumph Acclaim HLS – Le triomphe de la ballade”.
BL’s changes to the design specification of the Ballade were superficial, including: badging, repositioned wing mirrors and side indicator repeaters, minor alterations to the grille and bumpers, BL range paint palate for the exterior, the steering wheel, the choice of cloth trim and the front and rear seat frames (the former sourced from the Ford Cortina).
The suspension benefitted from development by BL, including the fitment of different dampers, and the front disc brakes were slightly larger. At the time, BL made much of the fact that many of these changes were subsequently retro-fitted to the Ballade.
BL also specified the fitment of twin Keihin SU-type carburettors, which helped raise the output of the 1,335cc engine from 60 to 70 BHP, helping to provide that well-appreciated power-to-weight ratio. All in all, it amounted to quite a startling non-transformation.
Interestingly, Car Magazine’s first review of the Ballade in November 1980 (written by its Japanese Editor, Hattori Yoshi) struck a less enthusiastic tone to that a year later about the Acclaim. Yoshi’s headline stated: “Gap-filler for the Japs, face-saver for the Brits – this is BL’s new Bounty [a reference to the joint project code name for the Acclaim at the time]”.
The review continued: “So, what is the Ballade? Well, it starts with the underfloor of the Civic [Mk 2] five-door, and Civic powertrain and suspension, to which a long rear floor is added for the boot. Then, there are completely new skin panels to produce a simple-looking three-door saloon with an overall length of 161in and a wheelbase of 91.3in. Although the styling is pleasant enough, it is not different enough to win over sales. On the other hand, it is the sort of shape that someone who is not too interested in cars might well buy. A shape you can live with, rather than the dazzling sex-symbol you might dream about”.
The review continued, “On the road, however, the Ballade is quite endearing. The engines are lively and responsive, and the gearshift is very good, and the transmission is not harsh. Also, the steering is precise, if dead, and the Ballade handles and brakes reasonably well. The car is certainly well appointed, with a simple if comprehensive specification.”
For reasons outlined previously, BL’s re-use of the Ballade was not entirely one of its own choosing, but, it can be argued with hindsight that the features outlined above helped to enable the Acclaim to be judged at least as a qualified success. The styling was inoffensive to most eyes and unmistakably Japanese in origin – it very much looked like the Honda Accord’s slightly younger (and less handsome) brother. It was enough of a blank canvass for BL to affix the Triumph badge. It was light and easy to drive. Moreover, the Ballade made an adequate Honda, and hence gave BL the opportunity to build a reliable Triumph, which was something well worth doing.
So, the Acclaim was born to be known as “BL’s Japanese car”. As such, it was the first of its kind, and caused controversy at the time. This caused a dilemma in BL’s marketing department. On one hand, given the past weaknesses of its products and the Japanese reputation for quality and reliability, there was a temptation to emphasise the Acclaim’s Japanese origins to attract sales. On the other, there was still a strong “Buy British” lobby and ethos in the UK, primed in part by the likes of Sir Michael Edwards, which manifested in Japanese marques doing poor business in the critical fleet markets.
In the end, it can be argued that BL played it both ways. The styling, of course implied it heavily, but advertising and brochure collateral made no mention of the Honda link. In the PR surrounding the launch, BL was content to talk to the benefits of the broader collaborative deal with its new partner, the investment in production and manufacturing that accompanied it, and, more quietly, the potential appeal of the car’s mixed heritage.
Hence, Tony Ball, then head of BL Europe and Overseas, the division of the company that would sell the car was quoted in Autocar as follows: “The car is a Triumph Acclaim. A product of BL, manufactured at Cowley. When Honda talk to us about it they refer to it as ‘your car’. We are looking to the Triumph owners and that’s a very discrete body.”
In the same article, the Sales Director, Trevor Taylor cited the Japanese connection as a positive factor: “I think it is going to add to the acceptability of this car. Something like 200,000 people buy Japanese cars in the UK each year. I am convinced that they judge cars on merit, not by the country of origin and this will be a way to ease their conscience and bring back Japanese car owners to buying British.”
This last sentence was redolent of the time. Autocar had surveyed 200 members of the British public in a specific attempt to discover reactions (and prejudices – remember this was early-on in ‘Thatcher’s Britain’) relating to the new car and the overall link between BL and Honda.
“The most significant finding of our questioning was whether they regarded the new Triumph as British. Just over 55 per cent said they did not. … But equally important – especially to the salesmen – is that over 77 per cent of our sample said that the Japanese content would not put them off buying an Acclaim. And 73 per cent thought it was a good idea for BL to join forces with Honda …”.
Some of the verbatim comments printed as part of the article conjure up a quite vivid idea of relevant public opinion and social attitudes of the time:
“People of my age are a little bitter about the Japs but things have changed”;
“The longer we stick our heads in the sand and think British is best the longer we continue to slide”;
“BL should stand or fall on its own merits …”;
“BL may even learn something”;
“If we continue to do this we will end up as a subsidiary of Japan. BL should look at the long term effects”.
How prescient was that last comment!? Over thirty years after this article was written, what is really notable is the extent to which the public held quite strident opinions about BL and the deal with Honda, if not so much about the car itself (the article notes that many of those interviewed had little idea about what it was).
This is not so surprising when one remembers that, in 1981, BL was very much in the public eye, a subject of public debate, public owned and, therefore, reliant on Westminster political decision making regarding its future.
“NO OFFENCE. Reliability, something not always associated with BL products, was the most memorable characteristic of our LTT Triumph Acclaim, though the spritely Honda drivetrain also won it approval”. Title of Car’s Long Term Test article regarding an Acclaim HL which it ran over 28,000 miles in 18 months.
So, the Acclaim did achieve a reputation for reliability.
Ian Forster would have been delighted to read that “the men at Cowley … can be pleased with the paint and the rustproofing, which has remained impervious to nature’s most determined efforts during almost 18 shelter-free months.” Car reported that “the only persistent problem has been with the non-standard BL-badged cassette radio, which lunched on Vivaldi rather too often.” The article concludes with the following sum-up:
“The Acclaim is the first vehicle to be attached to its usual user’s household for a while that has not been given a name; a measure of its lack of charisma, really. The overriding feature of the car is that is represents efficient, comfortable and in concerned hands, frugal transport; a task it has performed with excellence. It hasn’t missed the tender loving care, and it doesn’t encourage it either.”
Such an assessment, although delivered with a somewhat “glass-half-empty” undercurrent, counts as being somewhat astonishing for a BL built car of the time. The much more hyped miniMetro and the Maestro/ Montego that respectively preceded and followed the Acclaim, developed poor reputations for build quality and reliability.
Ironically, in the Autocar edition of w/e 10th of October 1981, which featured the Acclaim’s launch, there was a progress report on its Long Term Test Austin Metro HLE which was subtitled “Many Faults”. Contrast the following statement from that report with that from Car’s long term test of the Acclaim:
“Despite BL Car’s claims for attention to detail and rigorous inspection, the Austin Metro HLE has proved one of our more troublesome cars.”
It is reported that the Acclaim achieved the lowest warranty claims of any prior BL (or any of its antecedents) car. One BL insider is reported as saying, “The most critical thing it achieved was to prove to BL engineers that BL assembly workers could achieve good quality if the product was DESIGNED FOR ASSEMBLY, which previous cars manifestly had not been.”
The Acclaim proved to be the last Triumph car (the brand name is now owned by BMW). BL Cars was rationalising its brand portfolio and had decided that the Rover name held greater potential than Triumph in terms of prestige and cachet. The fact that BL had, from the mid to late 1970s, allowed Triumph models to cease in production without replacement meant this this had become a foregone conclusion.
With hindsight, this could have been a mistake. As mentioned earlier, Triumph had a visually cohesive range of neatly stylish saloons, estates and sports cars that, in spite of reliability issues, held the affection of middle England as being affordable cars to which one could aspire. Styling-wise, there was more than a little resemblance to BMWs of the time, even if the design and engineering of the Triumphs originated from a decade earlier.
If one ignores the Land and Range Rovers, Rover was a single car brand (SD1) and taking its name down the segments risked (as it was arguably proved) devaluing it unnecessarily. Overall, it remains a point of debate as to whether Triumph would have given BL a greater chance of developing a quality and sporting brand image with which it could develop and position its cars to take on the likes of BMW or Audi.
Production of the Acclaim ceased in June 1984 after less than three years on sale. 133,625 examples were built. At its peak, it achieved a market share of 2.71% – not far off the 3% for which BL, ever optimistic, had hoped. About a quarter of sales went to the fleet market.
The last Triumph’s replacement was the next generation Ballade, branded as the Rover 200 Series (initially only available as the 213, but later in its life appearing also as the 216, using BL’s own S-Series engine). The 200 received much greater levels of “Rover-isation” (as the press then liked to describe it) than the Acclaim, inside, out and underneath.
It proved very successful over its 5 year product life to the extent that in its final two years on the market, it outsold both the home-grown Maestro and Montego. Honda even allowed the Ballade to be built in Cowley for European consumption.
The fact that the 200 replaced a decent car (Acclaim) with a ground-up new model after less than three years was remarkable. It demonstrated another of the major benefits of the tie-up with Honda, i.e. access to 4-5 year product replacement cycles which turned out technically interesting and up-to-date cars that were thoroughly engineered to high quality standards. Here, suddenly, was BL’s new long-term business model and route to privatisation (effectively achieved by the sale of Austin Rover Group to British Aerospace in 1988).
The Acclaim, modest in looks and overall desirability, had done enough in terms of sales performance and warranty claims to draw BL closer to Honda and also mark the beginning of the end for BL’s solo efforts at new car development. The Montego, launched in July 1984, proved to be the last completely new, BL developed car to go to market.
The 200, Maestro and Montego were all replaced by Rovers that had been developed in the main by Honda, albeit with more significant input from the British company’s stylists and engineers than had been the case with the Acclaim and first generation Rover 200.
Sir Michael Edwardes’s management team had hoped from the start that the collaboration with Honda would quickly develop beyond the construction-under-license deal for the Acclaim. As early as February 1982, only four months after the launch of the Acclaim (hence, too early for either side to have much insight as to the Acclaim’s commercial success), the two parties signed an agreement to develop Project XX (or HX, as Honda knew it).
XX/ HX was to be a new large car to compete in the Executive market, replacing the Rover SD1 and giving Honda a model with which it could enter that sector. As Edwardes described the project ,“XX is a partnership of equals, with both companies deeply involved in the concept, its style and its design, and with both companies combining to engineer, manufacture and sell the vehicle virtually worldwide.”
He added, “It will be one of the most integrated collaborative projects ever undertaken in the industry, thus saving both companies millions of pounds, and much expert resource. Scale will be fully exploited by two-way sourcing of components: it will in truth be a world car, made in both Britain and Japan.”
Each marque’s version had its own distinct styling, with almost nothing shared in that department, and BL intended to deploy its own engines in lower powered versions. BL would build both its (the Rover 800 Series) and Honda’s (the Legend) version of the car at Cowley.
Although somewhat overblown by what reads like a self-valedictory, Edwardes was basically right to hail the ambition of two companies, coming from different places in so many respects (especially in terms of technical and engineering capability), working together to design and develop a product from the ground up.
The bland Triumph which owed everything to a low-key Honda led to the next collaborative effort which Car Magazine headlined as a ‘Bland Rover’. From such inauspicious beginnings came something of a revolution.
“England Expects – but Austin Rover Struggles to Deliver”. Headline of Car Magazine from the issue which covered the launch and first drive of the Rover 800.
Looking back, the 800 could probably be acclaimed as a commercial success, in the UK at least, but its launch and early years were dogged by poor quality, bad reliability and uneven capabilities. It represented a faltering of the emerging track-record of BL-Honda cars in terms of reliability.
From the outside looking in, it is easy to conclude BL/ ARG’s increased involvement in the development of XX was at the root of the car’s quality issues. Never again was the British side of the partnership to have so much of a hand in the development of one of their jointly developed cars.
In 1984, in preparation for the advent of the Honda-badged, BL-built cars, the Japanese firm established a facility near Swindon in order to undertake pre-delivery quality checks on the Ballades and Legends that Cowley produced. And, thus, was the first operational plant of a Japanese manufacturer established in the UK. It was reported (by Car Magazine, for example) that the people in Swindon were kept busy in the early days of the Cowley Legends, with significant re-work required on most cars they received.
Following the signing of a further agreement with the UK Government in 1985, Swindon became a fully-fledged assembly plant for Honda in 1989, the latter having invested £300m. At that point it took a 20% share in ARG, in exchange for which, British Aerospace bought a 20% share in the Honda holding company that owned Swindon.
Other Japanese manufacturers clearly took note of Honda’s strategy. As the 80s progressed, the level of Japanese imports grew in many EEC countries and there came a growing clamour for an EEC-wide quota for restricting Japanese imports. A leading lobbyist was Jacques Calvet, then Chairman of PSA (previously an aide to Valery Giscard d’Estaing).
As the terms of such a quota took shape in the late 80s and early 90s (a 20% cap came into effect in 1992 and lasted until 1999), so the incentive increased for Japanese makers to invest in building plants within the EEC. The Conservative Government recognised this as a window of opportunity for attracting Japanese firms into the UK to replace the comparatively inefficient and moribund facilities owned by indigenous manufacturers.
Cabinet papers (referred to earlier) reveal that there was no real belief that the BL Corporate Plan and BL itself would succeed in the long term. Hence, the Government knew it had to create conditions that would attract Foreign Direct Investment. The UK labour market was being transformed by its policies to redress the balance in employee relations. In addition, the UK Government adopted a welcoming stance to Japanese firms establishing production facilities in the UK. Finally, in BL-Honda, it had a believable, live, case-study to provide credibility to the proposition.
Overall, it proved to be a winning combination. Nissan started production of the Bluebird T12/ T72 series started at Sunderland in 1986, and then Toyota produced the Carina E (the “E” standing for “Excellence in Europe”) at Burnaston in Derbyshire in 1992. Although Japanese implants did occur elsewhere in the EEC, the UK was, by far, the major beneficiary of this overseas investment.
This provoked the wrath of the likes of Calvet, who famously likened Britain to “a Japanese aircraft carrier off the coast of Europe”. In 2012, Japanese-owned factories produced almost 54% of the UK’s car production, over 80% of which is exported. Nissan’s plant in Sunderland is recognised as the most efficient in Europe and makes over half a million cars a year, more than the entire output of Italy.
BL and Rover have now long gone. British Aerospace sold its 80% share to BMW at the beginning of 1994, forcing Honda to exit shortly afterwards. BMW’s exit and MG Rover’s subsequent demise in “the naughty’s” is a well-documented tragedy. There is no longer such a thing as an indigenous, UK-owned, mass-manufacturer of cars, and yet car production thrives in the UK (at least, it has until ‘Brexit’ cast its shadow of uncertainty)
In the beginning, there was the Triumph Acclaim.
To be clear, it’s not my intention or desire to make grand claims for the last Triumph. The Acclaim’s sales success was modest, and, at the time of writing, only 126 examples survive in the UK. Its looks were unexciting in a way that at least had the benefit of managing the expectations of the owner and driver.
It was not an enthusiast’s car, more of a consumer’s car. Driving it resulted in a pleasant surprise; the light weight and above-average power output of its relatively small engine provided greater zest and agility than the looks suggested. It’s probably justifiable to claim that it was the most thoroughly engineered, best built and most reliable car ever to sport the Triumph badge.
It did not save British Leyland, nor its successors. It was barely a model in its own right – even the ARNA was more of a mutually collaborative effort than the Ballade/ Acclaim. If one wants to be bold about such statements, it would be a step nearer to the truth to say that the Honda Ballade could make such a claim, but it’s still erroneous. It’s nothing more than a simple fact that the Ballade/ Acclaim was the first fruit of the deal between Honda and BL which, with hindsight, proved to have such significance in the industrial history of the UK.
It’s also a pretty safe assumption that what came after Project Bounty outside of the life of BL (i.e. the UK Government’s successful courting of Japanese car companies) would probably have come to pass.
That said, ‘Bounty went well enough to prove that the employees from the two sides of the deal could collaborate effectively. They delivered a significant and quite complex project together in relatively short timescales, which in turn produced a quality product from the outset.
Each side found enough in common in terms of strategic need and cultural morals and standards to make the relationship work. The Acclaim proved a number of theories for a number of different interested parties. It marked a turning point in the downward trend of experience, opinion and received wisdom that BL, and, by association, British workers were no longer capable of building a car good enough to compete.
Sir Michael Edwardes and his management team have the right to be congratulated on the choice of Honda as a collaborative partner. Honda proved remarkably patient and loyal to the venture, even after the debacle of the build quality those early Cowley-built Legends. The collaboration arguably peaked with the R8 Rover 200/ Honda Concerto, and MG-Rover leveraged the Rover 400/ Honda Civic platform to its dying days over 20 years after Project Bounty.
Bland and quite inoffensive, the Ballade/ Acclaim was a low risk choice as a first product for the nascent BL-Honda collaboration. “Fit for purpose” (rather than “Totally Equipped”) is probably the most appropriate description of the car in every sense. It was an unremarkable car with a remarkable story which left a significant political, economic, industrial and social legacy.
Selling England by the Pound
In an anti-climax to the series on the Triumph Acclaim, we summarise the legendary LJKS’s first review of the car for Car Magazine.
“It is a delightful car to drive, but it is so ugly that too few people will ever discover that. Or so I thought when I was fresh from trying the Acclaim, lamenting the need to fetch customers into the showroom and put them into the car and onto the road before they closed their minds to the purchase. If only they could drive it first, and not see it until later!
The best engine-makers in the world have given their Ballade, on which the Triumph is so very completely based, such wonderful zestful life as probably no rival in its class can emulate; but where is the expression of that life in its shape – unless theirs is the art that conceals art?”
Car Magazine’s first drive commentary (Car, November 1981) was written by LJK Setright. As mentioned above, he greatly appreciated the way the car drove and was engineered, even if he initially feared the worst for the car given its aesthetics.
“Then I began to discover that other people did not see the Acclaim in the same way. They did not think it bloated and ugly; they saw it as smart, neat, crisp and a little formal”.
Setright’s piece (as was often the case with his articles) was an in depth appreciation of the thought, technique and skill that went into the engineering of the car and how that translated into the way it performed on the road and in everyday life.
For instance, regarding the advantageous power-to-weight ratio, “This is the most outstanding result of the Acclaim’s beautifully judged combination of minimal weight and ample power. It can cruise at 69-and-a bit mph with just 3,500 rpm showing on its tachometer, when the mean piston velocity is a moderate 1,883ft/min and when the engine is capable, should circumstances dictate that the throttles be opened wide, of developing its maximum torque. Such an amble may be almost as easy in several other cars – but the Acclaim does not take ages in overcoming inertia and other resistances in order to attain speed. When its full power is unleashed, it accelerates with a verve that outstrips all its rivals, reaching 60mph from standstill in about 12 secs.”
Setright goes on with a very thorough appreciation of the car’s engine design, semi-automatic transmission, and even the noise-vibration-harshness benefits of how “ … the rubber-mounted mass of the radiator … was used by them [the car’s engineers] as an harmonic damper tuned to take vibrations out of the steering system.”
Turning to the interior “… where the Acclaim is almost entirely English and as good as Triumph interiors (especially in the matter of seating adjustment) have traditionally been.”, Setright describes the facia moulding as a “masterpiece”. He continues: “the whole thing is made in one piece, which is not remarkable as far as the visible part of it is concerned, but it is rendered stiffer and stronger and quieter, and the aggregate is made significantly lighter, by having the air-blending ventilation ducting incorporated as an integral part of the moulding.”
He sums up the advantages of the Acclaim’s engineering as follows: “Is it no wonder that the car behaves so impeccably. That is not to suggest that its cornering power is exceptional, but to convey that the car betrays no bad manners of any sorts as its limits are approached. Although the steering is very responsive indeed, although the car is always ready to change direction at the driver’s command, it remains a car to which directional stability is natural. This combination is still rare in cars …”.
If Setright’s article seems unexpectedly enthusiastic, it apparently wasn’t anything born of the usual jingoism that surrounded the launch of BL cars at the time. It was more to do with the fact that the car’s engineering philosophy owed much to its company’s motorcycle manufacturing roots, a company he much admired; the sentence quoted above closes as follows “… although long apparent in good motorcycles. There, I have mentioned them again; is that a coincidence?”
Of course, Triumph Cars and Triumph Motorcycles were not the same company, but, then, Setright was not referring to Triumph. LJKS nearly always expressed an admiration of Hondas and was especially smitten with the Prelude. Hence, I suspect that his appreciation of the Acclaim was for a great part due to its true parentage.
Incidentally and interestingly, another journalist I admire greatly, Keith Adams (to whom we should all be grateful for the most excellent AROnline) recently had a little sideswipe at the Acclaim in his monthly column in Modern Classics. The main subject of his missive was the ARNA (MC had Alfa as a theme for that edition) which he chose to elevate in relative terms by treading on the Acclaim.
I’ve only ever seen one ARNA (and even then it was in Nissan Cherry Europe guise) and never sat in, let alone driven one, so I can’t really comment, but he has piqued my interest. In the past I admit I have been lazy in dismissing of the ARNA/ Cherry Europe for the obviously apparent reasons; however, I think I should take it from his comments that, like the Acclaim, there is more of a story (and a better car) than that which immediately meets the eye…