Ripples

The bland Triumph which owed everything to a low-key Honda led to the next collaborative effort which Car Magazine headlined as a ‘Bland Rover’. From such inauspicious beginnings came something of a revolution.

Project XX in launch guise. (c) Classicandperformancecar

“England Expects – but Austin Rover Struggles to Deliver”. Cover of Car Magazine in the issue which covered the launch and first drive of the Rover 800.

Looking back, the 800 could probably be acclaimed as a commercial success, in the UK at least, but its launch and early years were dogged by poor quality, bad reliability and uneven capabilities. It represented a faltering of the emerging track-record of BL-Honda cars in terms of reliability.

From the outside looking in, it is easy to conclude BL/ ARG’s increased involvement in the development of XX was at the root of the car’s quality issues. Never again was the British side of the partnership to have so much of a hand in the development of one of their jointly developed cars.

In 1984, in preparation for the advent of the Honda-badged, BL-built cars, the Japanese firm established a facility near Swindon in order to undertake pre-delivery quality checks on the Ballades and Legends that Cowley produced. And, thus, was the first operational plant of a Japanese manufacturer established in the UK. It was reported (by Car Magazine, for example) that the people in Swindon were kept busy in the early days of the Cowley Legends, with significant re-work required on most cars they received.

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Following the signing of a further agreement with the UK Government in 1985, Swindon became a fully-fledged assembly plant for Honda in 1989, the latter having invested £300m. At that point it took a 20% share in ARG, in exchange for which, British Aerospace bought a 20% share in the Honda holding company that owned Swindon.

Other Japanese manufacturers clearly took note of Honda’s strategy. As the 80s progressed, the level of Japanese imports grew in many EEC countries and there came a growing clamour for an EEC-wide quota for restricting Japanese imports. A leading lobbyist was Jacques Calvet, then Chairman of PSA (previously an aide to Valery Giscard d’Estaing).

As the terms of such a quota took shape in the late 80s and early 90s (a 20% cap came into effect in 1992 and lasted until 1999), so the incentive increased for Japanese makers to invest in building plants within the EEC.  The Conservative Government recognised this as a window of opportunity for attracting Japanese firms into the UK to replace the comparatively inefficient and moribund facilities owned by indigenous manufacturers.

Cabinet papers (referred to earlier) reveal that there was no real belief that the BL Corporate Plan and BL itself would succeed in the long term. Hence, the Government knew it had to create conditions that would attract Foreign Direct Investment. The UK labour market was being transformed by its policies to redress the balance in employee relations. In addition, the UK Government adopted a welcoming stance to Japanese firms establishing production facilities in the UK. Finally, in BL-Honda, it had a believable, live, case-study to provide credibility to the proposition.

Overall, it proved to be a winning combination. Nissan started production of the Bluebird T12/ T72 series started at Sunderland in 1986, and then Toyota produced the Carina E (the “E” standing for “Excellence in Europe”) at Burnaston in Derbyshire in 1992. Although Japanese implants did occur elsewhere in the EEC, the UK was, by far, the major beneficiary of this overseas investment.

Arguably the nicest aspect of the 800 – the warm and thoughtfully designed and textured interior. (c) Rover800.org

This provoked the wrath of the likes of Calvet, who famously likened Britain to “a Japanese aircraft carrier off the coast of Europe”. In 2012, Japanese-owned factories produced almost 54% of the UK’s car production, over 80% of which is exported. Nissan’s plant in Sunderland is recognised as the most efficient in Europe and makes over half a million cars a year, more than the entire output of Italy.

BL and Rover have now long gone. British Aerospace sold its 80% share to BMW at the beginning of 1994, forcing Honda to exit shortly afterwards.  BMW’s exit and MG Rover’s subsequent demise in “the naughty’s” is a well-documented tragedy. There is no longer such a thing as an indigenous, UK-owned, mass-manufacturer of cars, and yet car production thrives in the UK (at least, it has until ‘Brexit’ cast its shadow of uncertainty)

In the beginning, there was the Triumph Acclaim.

To be clear, it’s not my intention or desire to make grand claims for the last Triumph. The Acclaim’s sales success was modest, and, at the time of writing, only 126 examples survive in the UK. Its looks were unexciting in a way that at least had the benefit of managing the expectations of the owner and driver.

It was not an enthusiast’s car, more of a consumer’s car. Driving it resulted in a pleasant surprise; the light weight and above-average power output of its relatively small engine provided greater zest and agility than the looks suggested. It’s probably justifiable to claim that it was the most thoroughly engineered, best built and most reliable car ever to sport the Triumph badge.

It did not save British Leyland, nor its successors. It was barely a model in its own right – even the ARNA was more of a mutually collaborative effort than the Ballade/ Acclaim. If one wants to be bold about such statements, it would be a step nearer to the truth to say that the Honda Ballade could make such a claim, but it’s still erroneous. It’s nothing more than a simple fact that the Ballade/ Acclaim was the first fruit of the deal between Honda and BL which, with hindsight, proved to have such significance in the industrial history of the UK.

I could not resist this slightly cheesy metaphor for what became of BL/ Rover and its collaboration with Honda. (c) gomotors

It’s also a pretty safe assumption that what came after Project Bounty outside of the life of BL (i.e. the UK Government’s successful courting of Japanese car companies) would probably have come to pass.

That said, ‘Bounty went well enough to prove that the employees from the two sides of the deal could collaborate effectively. They delivered a significant and quite complex project together in relatively short timescales, which in turn produced a quality product from the outset.

Each side found enough in common in terms of strategic need and cultural morals and standards to make the relationship work. The Acclaim proved a number of theories for a number of different interested parties. It marked a turning point in the downward trend of experience, opinion and received wisdom that BL, and, by association, British workers were no longer capable of building a car good enough to compete.

Sir Michael Edwardes and his management team have the right to be congratulated on the choice of Honda as a collaborative partner. Honda proved remarkably patient and loyal to the venture, even after the debacle of the build quality those early Cowley-built Legends. The collaboration arguably peaked with the R8 Rover 200/ Honda Concerto, and MG-Rover leveraged the Rover 400/ Honda Civic platform to its dying days over 20 years after Project Bounty.

Bland and quite inoffensive, the Ballade/ Acclaim was a low risk choice as a first product for the nascent BL-Honda collaboration. “Fit for purpose” (rather than “Totally Equipped”) is probably the most appropriate description of the car in every sense. It was an unremarkable car with a remarkable story which left a significant political, economic, industrial and social legacy.

Post Script: this is the final instalment of this story, but, as promised, in due course I’ll leave the final words on the subject to L.J.K.S.

Author: S.V. Robinson

Life long interest in cars and the industry

12 thoughts on “Ripples”

  1. The 800 was let down by the usual quality gremlins, but I remember it being an outstanding piece of industrial design for the time. The Rover/Honda partnership finally hit its stroke with the 200. Well turned out and built properly, the 200 was a properly competitive product, elevated pricing justified by a mechanical specification and an interior ambiance that knocked rivals into a cocked hat. Indeed, I would go so far as to suggest that the original 200 was Rover’s last unambiguous success, selling well both at home and in Europe. Unfortunately that success was not to be repeated, Rover trading crisp tailoring and tasteful industrial design for rotund radii and heritage grills.

  2. The 800 was supposed to reinvigorate Rover in the USA, badged as a ‘Sterling’. Let’s be clear, this was a core element of the strategy to put AR on a sustainable footing.

    It was an unambiguous disaster, fatally undermined by awful quality problems. It was so bad that Rover had to withdraw from America before the two door coupe (designed for Americans) even made it to market.

    Once again, British management proved incapable of running a car company properly. Honda was exactly the right partner, but AR didn’t learn the most valuable lesson – quality had to improve.

    The 200 was a decent and clever reskin of another Honda, but it was a modest sales success. Latterly, Rover shifted more in Europe but only because they dropped the price.

    Again, a British company made the mistake of believing its own hype and over charging for its products.

    1. I think it can be argued that BL did learn from Honda in terms of quality improvements after the initial horrible build issues of early 800s/ Sterlings/ Legends – the R8, for example, was far, far better built than the those early XX/ HX cars. A main factor in that was that much of the actual engineering and production engineering was done or led by Honda for cars like the R8, 600 and later 400s. With the exception of the later 400, ARG had input into key design areas and influenced things like packaging, core interior structural aspects like dashboard layout, centre console, etc.

      I agree that successive management teams got carried away and ended up believing their own hype, charging a premium for models where none was justifiable. Without the Honda collaboration to lean on, I think BL/ ARG could have been dead by the mid 80s. I still wonder why Honda so patient and generous for so long – I know they charged licensing fees for engines and gearboxes, etc., but they also compromised their own designs to enable BL/ AR’s requirements to be accommodated.

  3. Thanks for that. Ironically, I find the forgettable Acclaim more memorable than the supposedly prestigious 800. I can´t see how it qualifies as good industrial design. All that was intereting about British cars was expunged and nothing came to match it. Yes, the interior is nice in a way, the materials look Jaguarish. The centre console and binnacle don´t tie up though and the result is a collision. As ever, Rover showed an ingrained inability to do the job properly. That other companies make perfectly decent products using the same labou force indicates Britons can build cars. Rover Group didn´t know how to achieve that. Of all the executive cars of the period the 800 stands out as the least appealing then, and now.

    1. I never got on with the 800’s blacked out A posts and body-coloured D posts. I always preferred the contemporary Granada/Scorpio which had the inverse.

    2. John, that’s an interesting thought, especially given that the current XJ is often castigated for having similar blacked-out D posts. Comparing the 800 and Granada/ Scorpio of that era is an amusing exercise – in some respects they were similar, but their respective designers and manufacturers ended up with very different solutions. I liked both in different ways when I was younger. The Granada seemed huge at the time, the Rover more compact – both were surpassed by a good many rivals of the time, though.

  4. S.V, which rivals do you have in mind? I loved the Granada/Scorpio at the time, it seemed to be the culmination of the design journey that Ford started upon with the Sierra. Nowadays it seems almost forgotten about, with the Mk 1 and Mk 2 garnering all the attention.

    I used to wonder why they made it hatchback only initially given the criticism the Sierra received for not offering a three box offering. Then I remembered that the development programme probably started in 1980, two years before the Sierra went on sale. It always surprised me that Ford developed whole new switchgear for the Granada/Scorpio when they’d done the same for the Sierra only three years earlier.

    I like the 800 too, although in profile it has a lot of horizontal feature lines going on. The Granada/Scorpio is a simpler design, but it can appear bloated around the rear three-quarters from some angles.

    1. I had in mind … the Audi 100, the Saab 9000, the Alfa 164 (when it finally emerged), the Peugeot 605 and the Lancia Thema. I think even the older Renault 25 and much older Citroen CX were superior in some ways to the Granada and Rover. Those days Merc and BMW were a complete echelon apart.

      I have a very similar recollection about the interior and switchgear of the Granada, but manufacturers did things like that in those days to help differentiate the quality and price gap between models. These days, manufacturers are less likely to provide different dash components for different classes of car – it’s an area where they clearly try to reduce costs through component sharing thus creating economies of scale. Sit in a Mazda 2, 3, 6, CX-3, CX-5 and MX-5 and one can have a lot of fun (OK, I need to get out more) spotting the same HVAC controls or infotainment controllers across the range.

    2. The major stylistic issue with the Granada/Scorpio of that era was that they suffered from a slightly narrow rear track, which lent the car the visual impression of the body overwhelming the wheels – something akin to that of the W140 Mercedes. I recall seeing a first-gen Scorpio hatchback with a set of wider wheels and tyres, and the difference to the car’s stance was quite striking. It transformed the car for me.

      I always liked that Generation of Granada. I drove a lot of them at the time and I always found them really pleasant. Good steering, progressive handling – (less wayward than a Sierra) and a lovely compliant ride. Like so many Fords of the era however, the dampers tended to go off rather quickly.

      I never drove an 800 – Rovers were poison in ’80s Ireland. I always felt the 800 was a bit of missed opportunity, stylistically. Also, as John points out – too many lines along the flanks lent it a slightly fussy appearance. It felt like a visual letdown following the SD-1. And like its forebear, they started to look very worn, very quickly.

  5. Hi John and S.V. I think the Mk3 Granada and X351 XJ respectively demonstrate how and now not to handle a blacked-out D-pillar. The Granada is competently resolved, with the DLO brightwork carried around the D-pillar top and base to form a continuous loop across the rear window:

    My only criticism is the way the door and tailgate shut lines cut into the roof above the DLO. This looks a bit fussy. It would have looked much neater if these shut lines could have been aligned with the brightwork instead. It’s also a slight shame that aerodynamic requirements necessitated the application of a plastic strip to the D-pillar to break up the airflow. (This was a lesson learned on the Sierra, where early models suffered from instability before a similar strip was fitted behind the third light.)

    By comparison, the XJ’s arrangement looks like a complete afterthought, particularly where the side DLO is outlined in brightwork rather than the optional black. The blacked-out D-pillar just crashes into the brightwork without aligning to anything. Moreover, the boot shut line meets the D-pillar at a very awkward angle, giving the (incorrect) impression of a weird change of profile at its base:

    This photo doesn’t actually show the problem at its worst, but it’s the best I could find.

    1. Great comment, Daniel! At least the plastic aerodynamic strips on the Granada were a lot slicker than the “Kinnock ears” hastily fitted to the Sierra (for those who don’t know, Neil Kinnock is a British politician who had a serious car accident in an early Sierra, possibly caused by crosswind instability). And Eóin succinctly nailed the stylistic issue with the Granada that I was struggling to describe. I wonder if the slightly too narrow rear track was an engineering consequence of using a lengthened (but presumably not widened) Sierra floorpan? The extra width is apparent on the later Mk3 Granada estate which used the rear lamps from the Sierra estate but with a noticeably wider gap between them.

  6. I know quite a few people (particularly at AROnline) rate him, but I fail to come up with a single Rover whose design was overseen by Roy Axe than could even remotely match David Bache at his best.

    The latter’s CV may not be entirely spotless either, but when he was good, he was very very good. However, Austin/Rover design under Axe was, well, ‘okay’.

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