In the previous instalment, we outlined how BL, under the driving ambition of Michael Edwardes, got in step with Honda, to collaborate on a new model. This time, we focus on the car itself and the choice of manufacturing plant, which took on almost as much significance.
“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.
Next time, I might actually write something about the car itself, and reveal more about LJKS’s surprisingly positive thoughts about it.