Critical Acclaim?

In this third chapter, we find out more about the fruit of the Bounty, and review some of the prose written by esteemed journalists on the cuckoo Triumph.

What came before – a very nice example of a 1972 Dolomite

“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.

Honda Accord
Not the Triumph Acclaim – nice shade of beige, though

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.

It’s here. at last! In this brochure, BL’s marketing team compare specs with a few competitors and, joy-of-joys, it wins!

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 Part 1 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.

Probably as flattering an image as you could find …

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?”

An early interior, you can tell by the steering wheel and old-school (non LED or LCD) ‘digital’ clock.

I feel I might have missed something … or someone? Anyway, next time, more on the inescapable fact that the Acclaim was designed and engineered and much of it even built in Japan, and why that was a big deal in 1981.

Author: S.V. Robinson

Life long interest in cars and the industry

3 thoughts on “Critical Acclaim?”

  1. Interesting read. What about a future piece on the Rovers 213/216?
    They were mostly rebadged Civics but they put again Rover on the map.

    1. A Honda car dealership I worked for as a young man used a Honda Ballade as a company hack for running erands.

      It was dull but unbreakable (believe me, we tried).

  2. The Acclaim was certainly a bit fussy and old-fashioned, even for 1981, but it probably appealed to the same demographic (i.e. more mature drivers) as the Dolomite it effectively replaced. I imagine they enjoyed its reliability and relative refinement.

    AR was in a state of flux over its branding and used Triumph as a stop-gap, not wanting to distract attention away from the forthcoming Maestro and Montego. They still thought there was life in the Austin brand, but early quality issues with both new models effectively killed it. The later Montego, carrying no maker’s brand, as much improved, but was still not considered good enough to carry the Rover name.* Necessity still forced the company to rebrand the Metro as a Rover, despite its outdated design.

    *Except in India, apparently.

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