In the first of a series of articles about a car already surprisingly well (or not so well) referenced in Driven to Write, 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 attempt 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.
In the next installment, the Acclaim is launched and LJK Setright gets excited by BL’s new Triumph.