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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.