Cowley’s Japanese Boy

In this fourth part of our look at the Triumph Acclaim, we dwell on what at times seemed to be a bitter-sweet truth for BL; everyone knew the latest car from Cowley had a heart made in Tokyo.

Ah, 1981, wasn’t it so … androgynous! It’s Duran Duran, for those too young or old to remember or care.

“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.

If only Triumph’s Japanese Boy had been No1 in England.

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”.

An unrepeatable event in the future? 1981 and La Royaume Uni wins Eurovision thanks to Bucks Fizz. Perhaps Cheryl should become the new Brexit Minister?

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.

Next time, we’ll be looking into and providing a perspective on the Acclaim’s legacy.

Author: S.V. Robinson

Life long interest in cars and the industry

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