Afterglow

The Acclaim did not live that long a life, but, in a quiet and unnoticed way typical of the car itself, its legacy can be considered to be enduring.

TA late
A late Triumph Acclaim – taken in the Heritage Motor Museum.

“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.”

1984-1990-rover-213-216-4225_9556_969X727
An early, top-of-the-range, Rover 213 Vanden Plas

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.

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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.

800 Scoop
How Car got excited about the then-upcoming XX (source – Car Magazine)

In the next – and final chapter – we’ll look at how effective the XX/ HX collaboration was to prove and the wider perspective of the post-Acclaim landscape of the British motor industry.

Author: S.V. Robinson

Life long interest in cars and the industry

11 thoughts on “Afterglow”

  1. Many events at the time appear to be business as usual. It´s only with a good stretch of time between one and the events can one see that a particular bit of “noise” in the roar of history is actually, metaphorically speaking, the sound of a pin being pulled from a handgrenade.

    I for one am more and more puzzled by the silence of the British press around the time of Triumph´s shuttering. And the passive acceptance of the 213 as a Rover continues that mystery, like the dog that did not bark. On the one level, the Acclaim and 213 represented strenuous attempts to make the best of a bad situation. They were as serious as amputations yet viewed more like sticking plasters.

    Triumph was an important part of the UK car market and yet it faded away in a about a decade; Rover made one car and didn´t make it all that well. Was there not something more to this odd prioritisation that meets the eye? Or is it another example of the undertow of English conservatism which is “it´s not worth the trouble to save it” (which characteristic explains why once fine English towns are now a cacophony of acid-coloured vinyl shopsigns and PVC window-frames where once there was Georgian, Victorian and Art Deco craftsmanship.

  2. As I recall from the time, the management of ARG decided they only had the resources to reinvigorate one brand from their extensive (though largely moribund) portfolio.

    Morris, Wolseley and Riley were dead, the former two since the rebranding of the 18/22 series (Princess) in 1975, the latter after the demise of the Elf (a booted Mini) and Kestrel (an 1100/1300 variant) in 1969. The Austin brand was inextricably linked with BL’s poor quality and unreliability, a reputation alive and well in the guise of the Metro, Maestro and Montego . MG was widely (although slightly unfairly) perceived as no more than a badge engineered Austin with similar problems. Triumph was reduced to a single model which, although commendably reliable and well made, was obviously a Honda in all but name. The controversy about this occurred when the Acclaim was launched, not when it died, and took the Triumph name with it.

    So, they settled on Rover. Granted, it produced only one model, the SD1, which was itself no paragon of quality and reliability, but the association with the highly regarded Land-Rover and Range Rover models was seen as very valuable in (subliminal) marketing terms. Rover was also considered the most suitable brand for a push upmarket, with the perceived benefit for profitability.

    For a while, it worked, at least to a point. The R8 200/400 series models were good looking and reliable, and perceived to be upmarket of the Escort and Astra, against which they sold well. However, the company began to believe its own hype and got greedy. They pitched and priced the replacement R3 200/25 against the Astra when it was originally intended to be a supermini. Likewise, the HH-R 400/45 was pitched and priced against the Vectra and Mondeo when it was scarcely bigger than the Astra and Escort. Worse, HH-R was perceived to be a poor replacement for the R8, dowdy looking and lacking its predecessor’s “semi-premium” image.

    The rest, as they say, is history…

    1. The death of Triumph occurred before the Acclaim production ended, about 1980/1981 when the TR7 and Dolomite passed away, with 1977 the end for the 2500 saloon. I suppose the SD1 was supposed to cover the market served by the 2500. They gave up
      on sportscars. Triumph had a range of cars and Rover didn’t. Odd choice, really.

  3. Very true, Richard, although the Triumph range was pretty outdated by the late 70’s, with the exception of the TR7, which was a niche product in any event.

    The thing that strikes me when examining the tortuous history of Rover and its antecedents (extensively and expertly documented by AROnline) is the huge amount of intellectual and financial capital wasted on the development of vehicles that never made production. Has any other motor manufacturer ever had such a poor conversion rate?

    For every concept/prototype that reached the market, there must have been five that were killed off by management indecision and/or ineptitude, or jealous infighting between the brand fiefdoms. Those that did make it through this minefield were, more often than not, very late to market, hopelessly underdeveloped, and unappealing to the target customer. The Maxi and Allegro are just two notorious examples, but the Maestro and Montego had a similarly troubled development history and weren’t much better at launch.

    Although undoubtedly a brilliant engineer, Alex Issigonis (and those who failed to manage him properly) must share the blame for this failure. The Mini was a truly remarkable piece of engineering, but a commercial failure in that it never generated sufficient (any?) profit to finance a successor (or anything else). Issigonis was revered and, apparently, feared within BMC. He should have been reined in and persuaded (or forced to accept) that engineering excellence, purity and integrity was insufficient in itself for success in the market.

    The Marina and Allegro were the polar opposite of each other, but neither was what the market really wanted. Had the development money been spent on a single, truly competitive mid market saloon, hatchback and estate range, the story might have been very different.

    The above is, of course, a purely personal perspective, and I’m more than happy to read any counterpoints.

    1. The Triumph range withered because BL let it wither. Lots of companies run into cash-flow problems and borrow their way out of them. The roots of Triumph´s survival lay in planning a set of new cars in the mid 70s for launch in the 1980s. In the end none were planned, so yes, by 1980 the range was outdated.

      The BL conglomerate was jammed together from different companies, like large fish put into a small tub of water. They were bound to fight with each other.

  4. Not just odd, Richard, downright barmy and so wrong.
    Only peri WW2 did Rover have a range of cars, but from the Fifties on used just one bodyshell for different engines. Even the delicious Three-, later 3.5-litre coupés were just saloons with a few inches lopped off the glasshouse.

    Triumph had a wide range, so by the 1970s, after Herald, Spitfire, GT6 and Vitesses there were still TRs, Stag, the Dollies, 2000/2.5/2500, 1300, 1500 and Toledo. But their biggest engine was usually the 2088cc borrowed from Standard Vanguard (which I believe had started in a tractor). The 2500 straight six design was filched for Rover for its 2300 and 2600 SD1s.

    That US V8 was presumably the clincher.

    1. The story has metaphorical value, epitomising the tragic injustice of the class system. This interpretation must make me the first to put a Marxist spin on the product planning of BL: untalented but loud-mouthed Rover tramples over the lower-ranking but more competent and hard-working Triumph. Rank trumps capability.

      I would not expect to find in the social network around Rover management a “better” set of connections to BL senior management than Triumph had. I notice that Triumph´s last task was to take the risk if the Honda tie-up failed. “Let´s badge the thing Triumph, Geoff, in case it doesn´t succeed….if it is succeeds we´ll badge the next one a Rover…”

      What a ghastly, ghastly story.

    2. I rather like that, Richard. After all, even the most apparently individualistic designer/engineer swims in a current of social forces, which are indeed often in competition with each other. (This is of course way deeper than actual industrial relations at any particular manufacturing plant.)

    3. I would suggest this reading does the Rover company something of a disservice. Rover (in pre-merger form at least) was a long way from being untalented, having amongst them some very fine engineering talent and quite a far-seeing management. Rover was ahead of the curve in many areas, both in product and engineering terms, lets not forget.

      From my understanding, under BLMC and even more so BL LTD (post-Ryder), Rover’s management and engineering corps was cast to the four winds- certainly, it would appear that comparatively few Rover people had much influence over SD1 – it being very much a centralised BL programme.

      The issue really lies with the manner in which BL was managed. Much of the product decisions made were centred around marque stratification. It wasn’t so much a case that BL behaved badly towards Triumph, but that they (in the words of Jaguar’s James Neville Randle), behaved badly towards everyone.

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