Selling England by the Pound

In an anti-climax to the series on the Triumph Acclaim, we summarise the legendary LJKS’s first review of the car for Car Magazine.

Car November 1981
Oddly, Car failed to feature BL’s Triumphant Acclaim on the cover of its issue in which LJKS’s legendary review appeared (Source: Pinterest).

“It is a delightful car to drive, but it is so ugly that too few people will ever discover that. Or so I thought when I was fresh from trying the Acclaim, lamenting the need to fetch customers into the showroom and put them into the car and onto the road before they closed their minds to the purchase. If only they could drive it first, and not see it until later!

The best engine-makers in the world have given their Ballade, on which the Triumph is so very completely based, such wonderful zestful life as probably no rival in its class can emulate; but where is the expression of that life in its shape – unless theirs is the art that conceals art?” LJK Setright, Car Magazine, November 1981.

Car Magazine’s first drive commentary (Car, November 1981) was written by LJK Setright. As mentioned above, he greatly appreciated the way the car drove and was engineered, even if he initially feared the worst for the car given its aesthetics.

Then I began to discover that other people did not see the Acclaim in the same way.  They did not think it bloated and ugly; they saw it as smart, neat, crisp and a little formal”.

ljk-setright
Talk about iconic … (Source: themagicrobot.files.wordpress.com)

Setright’s piece (as was often the case with his articles) was an in depth appreciation of the thought, technique and skill that went into the engineering of the car and how that translated into the way it performed on the road and in everyday life.

For instance, regarding the advantageous power-to-weight ratio, “This is the most outstanding result of the Acclaim’s beautifully judged combination of minimal weight and ample power. It can cruise at 69-and-a bit mph with just 3,500 rpm showing on its tachometer, when the mean piston velocity is a moderate 1,883ft/min and when the engine is capable, should circumstances dictate that the throttles be opened wide, of developing its maximum torque. Such an amble may be almost as easy in several other cars – but the Acclaim does not take ages in overcoming inertia and other resistances in order to attain speed. When its full power is unleashed, it accelerates with a verve that outstrips all its rivals, reaching 60mph from standstill in about 12 secs.

Setright goes on with a very thorough appreciation of the car’s engine design, semi-automatic transmission, and even the noise-vibration-harshness benefits of how “ … the rubber-mounted mass of the radiator … was used by them [the car’s engineers] as an harmonic damper tuned to take vibrations out of the steering system.

Turning to the interior “… where the Acclaim is almost entirely English and as good as Triumph interiors (especially in the matter of seating adjustment) have traditionally been.”, Setright describes the facia moulding as a “masterpiece”. He continues: “the whole thing is made in one piece, which is not remarkable as far as the visible part of it is concerned, but it is rendered stiffer and stronger and quieter, and the aggregate is made significantly lighter, by having the air-blending ventilation ducting incorporated as an integral part of the moulding.

Triumph_Acclaim_(2)
A final treat for your eyes! (Source: classics.honestjohn.co.uk)

He sums up the advantages of the Acclaim’s engineering, as follows: “Is it no wonder that the car behaves so impeccably.  That is not to suggest that its cornering power is exceptional, but to convey that the car betrays no bad manners of any sorts as its limits are approached. Although the steering is very responsive indeed, although the car is always ready to change direction at the driver’s command, it remains a car to which directional stability is natural. This combination is still rare in cars, …”.

If Setright’s article seems unexpectedly enthusiastic, it apparently wasn’t anything born of the usual jingoism that surrounded the launch of BL cars at the time. It was more to do with the fact that the car’s engineering philosophy owed much to its company’s motorcycle manufacturing roots, a company he much admired; the sentence quoted above closes as follows “…, although long apparent in good motorcycles. There, I have mentioned them again; is that a coincidence?

Of course, Triumph Cars and Triumph Motorcycles were not the same company, but, then, Setright was not referring to Triumph. LJKS nearly always expressed an admiration of Hondas and was especially smitten with the Prelude. Hence, I suspect that his appreciation of the Acclaim was for a great part due to its true parentage.

ljks-1
LJK Setright with the Prelude he admired so much. Would that such a noble writer emerge among the modern breed of motoring journalists (Source: carpeek.wordpress.com)

Incidentally and interestingly, another journalist I admire greatly, Keith Adams (to whom we should all be grateful for the most excellent AROnline) recently had a little sideswipe at the Acclaim in his monthly column in Modern Classics. The main subject of his missive was the ARNA (MC had Alfa as a theme for that edition) which he chose to elevate in relative terms by treading on the Acclaim.

I’ve only ever seen one ARNA (and even then it was in Nissan Cherry Europe guise) and never sat in, let alone driven one, so I can’t really comment, but he has piqued my interest. In the past I admit I have been lazy in dismissing of the ARNA/ Cherry Europe for the obviously apparent reasons; however, I think I should take it from his comments that, like the Acclaim, there is more of a story (and a better car) than that which immediately meets the eye…

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And that’s it, really. I’d like to thank Richard for initially pointing me in the direction of Setright’s verdict from an old issue of Car in his collection.

Author: S.V. Robinson

Life long interest in cars and the industry

20 thoughts on “Selling England by the Pound”

    1. Hi, it is strange, but it was that graphic of LJKS which reminded me of that album and track. I didn’t research as to whether the picture is from the same year or era as ‘Pound, but I mentally linked the one’s appearance with the other’s sound and lyrics.

      This has become such a long series that I ran out of imagination and puns around Acclaim or Bounty and so found links with what was my favourite band in the late seventies and early eighties which was the Bounty/ Acclaim era. I Éoin gave me the idea of songs when I realised he was using that approach a little while ago.

    2. Works for me! I’ve greatly enjoyed your Acclaim project, S.V, it’s been very informative and you’ve changed my mind on the car. Had it been the first blast of the trumpet of co-operation with Asia to iron out quality bugbears, a sort of reverse version of the post-war Austin-Datsun partnership, then we might have remembered the Acclaim as the first step towards saving the British car industry. As it was, it was merely the harbinger of the reheated Hondas, a venture that seemed to do more to bring the Japanese into the British market than to take British products overseas. A pity, but honestly even by the time of the Ryder Report the whole mess was probably beyond saving. It’s been years since I’ve last seen an Acclaim, but next time I do I shall raise a glass.

    3. I may have mentioned this before, but there is a nice anecdote in Sir John Egan’s memoir, ‘Saving Jaguar’. He talks of a senior BLMC management meeting during 1974 at Quaglino’s in London, where Donald Stokes and John Barber were outlining the UK government’s proposals for the failing car business to the top 100 BLMC managers – (Egan heading Unipart at the time).

      Chatting to Stokes at the urinals (as one does), Egan recounts that he said to the BLMC kingpin, “give them [the UK government] Austin-Morris and walk away. You’ll be making £40 million a year and you’ll be a hero.” Stokes, he said, appeared anguished and replied, “we can’t break up what we have created.” As Egan pointed out, the other parts of the business were profitable and were likely to remain so, given the required investment. He stated, “I do not think at the time he had any other choice. He had committed the cardinal sin of running out of cash. When that happens, you are helpless.”

      It is widely accepted that the ultimate tipping point for the BL business came in 1977. From then on, it was probably beyond saving. Ironically, this was the same year that Edwardes was appointed. It’s possible that had the UK government sought out someone of his abilities, and given him a similar unbending remit in 1975, that doom might have been averted, but that’s pure speculation of course.

      Another counterfactual lies within Bounty itself. Had BL signed a deal with Honda several years earlier, it might have been possible to have spun-off a number of BL-specific models off the Civic/Ballade platform, which might have obviated the need to develop the Metro and Maestro from scratch. There is a strong possibility they might have been the better products for it too, heretical as that might sound.

      Hindsight eh?

  1. I remember reading this review in CAR back in 1981. Leonard Setright’s elegant prose and thoughtful insights were always a delight to read. Thanks for the reminder.

    1. Periodically I dive into the waters of eBay and dive down to obtain from its rippled sandy floor old copies of Car. One of the nice aspects of this is to read Setright´s prose, about anything.

  2. Hi Eòin. Is it just me, or was it very telling that BLMC, a company down on its uppers, thought it appropriate to entertain a party of over 100 at an upmarket London restaurant? Interesting to hear how they were spending our money at the time.

    As you rightly say, hindsight, eh?

    1. Daniel, it wasn’t necessarily lost on me either – speaks volumes doesn’t it? During the BLMC era, the waste of money was astonishing – a lot of it legacies of BMC, which Stokes never quite got to grips with.

      Mind you, when this dinner took place, it was not the public’s money they were spending, as none had by then been doled out. Doesn’t alter the fact that such an affair could have been conducted somewhere a good deal less salubrious.

      When I worked for a large UK media company, we were frequently (and often quite lavishly) wined and dined, often at events where we were told just how badly the business was doing. (One in particular concluded to the strains of Dido’s ‘White Flag’, which contained the unforgettable line “I will go down with this ship”, but I digress). My understanding was that these corporate events could be written off against tax.

  3. Yes, they can be written off against tax, but you have to be making a profit in the first place and paying tax in order to take advantage of the potential write-off!

  4. Dido and the Triumph Acclaim seem a suitable duo; both seemed to appear with (a bit of a ) bang and then left without a trace. Sad really. But i too shall raise a glass to the next Acclaim seen. But I have no Dido on my playlists…

  5. Dieter Rams worked for decades producing some pretty humane and enduring work. He distilled from that experience some general lessons. So, far from being “just” a theorist, he derived his generalisations from practice.

    As a researcher I can see the value of practice and the value of theory. I think practice without reflection is liablet to ossify and theory without practice is liable to melt into abstraction. Like so many areas, both are needed. I tend to find the Anglo-Saxon dismissal of theory harder to bear and the Continental drift to abstraction vexing. I can relate in a way to J.S. Mill who said he felt like a conservative among liberals and a like a liberal among conservatives.

  6. The Car cover is really lovely. Among the many reasons I don´t buy Car is the *iss *poor graphic design. At this point everyone´s covers are horribly busy. A totally simple cover would stand out in the way that adding more exclamation points and more text won´t. Everything about these magazines is wrong: layouts, content and style. Are they not aimed at people who won´t be buying a car any way?

    1. Couldn’t agree more. Car used to be a good read, containing intelligent reviews on a wide range of cars and interesting insights on the automotive industry. It has morphed into a lifestyle magazine, obsessed with supercars. I finally gave up on it when they started a monthly review (in reality, a promotion) of very expensive watches.

    2. The half page on watches struck me as utterly pointless. Do you imagine it is a hidden paid-for advertisement? How much can it raise anyway? There wasn´t for me a particular thing that made me gave up buying car other than little by little the reasons to buy it vanished and I was left with a habit which I decided was not worth the 90 kr it cost. For about a year I bought the magazine and read only a part of it and eventually none of it. We´ve covered the topic here before so I will only say that some general non-news writing would have been good. They could have added some articles about the industry and design. There is a new editor at Car, finally. Maybe he will renew the magazine but I doubt it.

  7. My horizons broaden with every post. The car has and always will be a mainstay but naturally it’s the detail and devil which constantly leads me into broader spheres. At eight years old my thoughts were on crashing Matchbox cars, not Latin. Forty years hence I have so much to learn…more please!

    1. You are welcome. I will convey your comments to S.V. who has braved this topic with remarkable enthusiasm. I also want to say a big thanks for the fact the car has got some comprehensive analysis rather than the narrow focus of the tests and reviews of the day. In isolation it is just a re-badged Honda and yet it is also, more ironically, a symbol of a turning point in the UK car industry and it´s a story that goes off in many directions. It´s laden with ironies.

  8. Ah, a 75 pence car magazine! I wonder who won the Lotus Turbo? Did they appreciate and adore the beast? Or thrash it and sell and it quick for, perhaps a quieter life in say, an Acclaim. I doubt we shall e’er know akin to magazine styles as you say. Such a brash world, an Acclaim would never fit, then or now.

  9. Thanks for the nice comments about this series. I originally wrote it some years ago now with a slightly different aim and audience in mind and it was an amusing diversion from a dull working period.

    Hopefully, that’s the Acclaim put to bed on this site.

    Turning to the Car discussion, I blame Top Gear Magazine, the appearance of which disrupted the entire UK monthly motoring magazine scene. It’s appearance sucked sales from other corners of the middle shelf in newsagents. It led on the multi-feature cover and, I think, the dreaded flap on the cover, inside which more thumbnails of content were exposed. A lot of Car writers have defected there over the years, but I have never warmed to it – it’s like one of those football teams that buys star players but they don’t work well together on the same pitch. It also seems to shout at you all the time and moves at a busy pace.

    I still subscribe to Car and Evo. The latter treats subscribers to a bespoke, single frame, collectors edition cover, which is like the one at the top of this article. Some of them are quite stunning photos. The problem with Evo is that it’s too super-fast car centric and a bit up itself-all that ‘the thrill of driving’ hooey and using its name as an adjective about the cars it tests: ‘Evo-ness’ and all that. But some of the writing is very good and the writers are not afraid of course creating long and thorough articles.

    Car is a shadow of its old self, but Georg still manages some good interviews (a couple of years ago he did Marchionne and it was spine tingling), and Gavin Green still wants to provide the definitive view on everything he reviews and writes about. It’s still my monthly read of choice, but only just and too often I never read all of it, whereas there was a time when I devoured every page when it first plopped through my door.

    Ah well …

    1. My most recent edition of TopGear is from June and some of the layouts inside manage calmness. The front covers are as vile as those of Car. As you say, they have quite a lot of journos from Car – they don´t shine there though. I bet they don´t even meet at the same office much. They don´t have to with the business they are in. I imagine that in the pre-computer days there was more of a team-spirit under one office roof.
      Evo is far too millionaire for me. Yes, it is of a much higher quality. Do they every do obscure stuff though? Or think-pieces? Who needs another 2500 words on the limited-run Scaglietti bodied Ferrari 234i Americano with the rare V10 and seats by Connoly? Missing from car journalism is themes and the long view and the sideways view.
      I tried reading the Fiesta review in TG the other day and it was indigestible.

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