Honda recently announced that its flagship saloon will not be replaced when the current model is discontinued in March 2022. We remember the Legend.
The Honda Motor Company as we know it today was incorporated in 1948 and built its first complete motorcycle in the following year. Its rise thereafter was meteoric: just fifteen years later, Honda had become the largest manufacturer of motorcycles in the World. The company’s ambitious founder, Soichiro Honda, then turned his attention to automobiles and launched the T360 pick-up truck and S500 convertible sports car in 1963.
Although the diminutive S500 and 1970 Z360 / Z600 microcar achieved some export sales, it was the 1972 Civic that marked Honda’s arrival in the mainstream global passenger car market. This was a neatly styled front-wheel-drive B-segment model produced in three and five-door hatchback, saloon and estate versions(1). Its arrival coincided with the 1973 Middle-East Oil Crisis, which caused a huge increase in demand for small and economical cars, especially in the US. The Civic quickly acquired a reputation for excellent engineering, build quality and reliability(2).
Honda’s first tentative move upmarket was with the 1976 Accord, initially a C-segment three-door hatchback, built on a stretched Civic floorpan. This was joined by a four-door saloon version in 1977. By the early 1980s, the Civic and Accord had been replaced by second-generation models that built on the strengths of their predecessors and Honda was now firmly established in both the European and North American automobile markets.
Honda was, however, becoming increasingly concerned that the success of Japanese auto sales in the US might lead to calls for import restrictions to be introduced. The company needed a larger (ergo, more profitable) model to raise average transaction prices in that market, to mitigate any volume quotas that might be imposed.
It was at this point that an opportunity arose for a further move upmarket. Honda had already licenced its Ballade(3) saloon to the beleaguered British manufacturer, Austin Rover, and this was manufactured and sold as the Triumph Acclaim. The Acclaim would come to be regarded as easily the best built and most reliable car offered by Austin Rover, further bolstering Honda’s reputation in the UK.
Austin Rover desperately needed a new large saloon to replace the ageing Rover SD1, but it simply did not have the financial resources to develop this model alone. The company signed a partnership deal with Honda in November 1981 for a jointly developed model under the codename Project XX. This would be the designation for the Rover version of the new car, while the Honda version would be designated HX. Honda would bring its drivetrain and suspension engineering expertise to the table, while Rover had a proud history of producing luxury cars, albeit one that had become considerably tarnished in recent years.
The cars that emerged were the Honda Legend and Rover 800. They shared the same underbodies and a great deal of engineering but had completely different outer body panels. The Rover was sharply geometric with a six-light DLO, while the Honda was a more conservative four-light design that looked like an enlarged Accord saloon.
The Legend was unveiled at the Tokyo Motor Show in November 1985, eight months ahead of the Rover. Its conservative design incorporated single-pressing door skins with flush handles and near-flush glass, giving it an impressive Cd of just 0.32.
Intriguingly, the new Legend came in two sizes, both sitting on an unusually long wheelbase of 2,760mm (108¾”). The larger export version was 4,810mm (189½”) long and 1735mm (68¼”) wide, while the smaller domestic version was about 125mm (5”) shorter and 40mm (1½”) narrower. The reduction in dimensions was achieved with shallower bumpers and more subtly flared wheel arches, so the interior and boot space in both models was identical.
Why did Honda go to such an effort for no practical difference? The answer lies in Japan’s vehicle taxation system(4), where the shorter and narrower version, fitted with a 2.0 litre engine, occupied a lower tax band. The longer and wider version, fitted with a 2.5 litre engine, was intended to have more visual presence and prestige in export markets.
Both engines were all-alloy 90° V6 units with four valves per cylinder, operated via finger rockers by a single camshaft for each cylinder head. Short pushrods connected the exhaust valves’ rockers to the camshaft. According to Honda, this apparently complex arrangement allowed the engine to be more compact than would a traditional double-overhead camshaft arrangement have been, facilitating the low bonnet height that was becoming a Honda design signature.
The engines were fed by Honda’s own electronic fuel injection system and had a power output of 145bhp (108kW) and 123lb ft (167Nm) of torque for the 1,996cc version and 165bhp (123kW) and 155lb ft (210Nm) for the 2,493cc unit. The engines were installed transversely, and power was transmitted to the front wheels via a five-speed manual or optional four-speed automatic transmission.
The Legend was a showcase for Honda’s engineering prowess and featured the company’s own speed-sensitive variable rate power steering, traction control and ABS with disc brakes all round. Driver’s side airbag, seat belt pre-tensioners, electrically adjustable front seats, automatic climate control, automatic headlamp dipping, electric windows and central locking were available on the new model.
Honda’s target customer base for the Legend was the successful business person who might be looking to trade up from an Accord, but would previously have had to switch to other manufacturers’ products. Its transverse-engined FWD layout and long wheelbase made it as roomy as notionally larger competitors that were taxed more heavily in Japan.
Car Magazine road-tested the Legend in Japan and reported its findings in the January 1986 issue. The reviewer was critical of the car’s weight. At 2,840lbs (1,288kg) for the 2.0 litre version and 3,110lbs (1,411kg) for the 2.5 litre model, he thought it was at least 150lbs (68kg) heavier than its European competitors like the Renault 25 or Saab 9000. The weight, and the engines’ rather peaky power and torque curves, hampered the car’s mid-range performance significantly. The 2.0 litre automatic was fine in Tokyo traffic, but “too slow” out of town. The 2.5 litre engine, however, really came “on song” between 5,000 and 7,000rpm and performed “with great smoothness and flexibility”.
The cabin was comfortable and spacious, but the seat cushions were too short and some of the ergonomics were unsatisfactory, for example the low-set radio. Despite the low Cd, there was excessive wind noise above 75mph (121km/h) although this might have been a problem specific to the test car. The double-wishbone front and strut and separate coil rear suspension gave a ride that was supple and well damped, aided by the perceived stiffness of the body structure. The peaky power delivery compromised the handling somewhat, but the roadholding was “generally good” and the brakes “powerful”, although ABS was only available as an option.
Overall, the reviewer felt that the Legend had many strengths, including its styling, equipment, cabin space and ride comfort, but was let down by engines that lacked the low and mid-range torque for the smooth and effortless progress one would expect in a luxury saloon.
The Legend was launched in the US market in March 1986 under Honda’s new luxury Acura branding. It was launched in Europe later in the year and was joined by a coupé(5) version in February 1987, which introduced a larger capacity 2,675cc engine producing 177bhp (132kW) and 167lb ft (226Nm) of torque. UK Market Legends were initially built alongside the Rover 800 at Austin Rover’s Cowley plant, but quality issues led this arrangement to be terminated in 1988 after only around 4,400 cars were produced.
Car Magazine tested a coupé with the 2.7 litre engine in April 1987. The larger capacity engine answered previous complaints about lack of torque. 0 to 60mph (97km/h) took 8.0 seconds in the manual and 9.1 seconds in the automatic version, while the claimed top speed was 133mph (215km/h). For the coupé, Honda reverted to its traditional double-wishbone rear suspension(6) and the ride was notably firmer than the saloon’s, happily without any significant loss in ride quality or refinement. The reviewer’s only significant complaint was his perception that the styling of the car was rather “featureless and anonymous”. He thought this a “major problem” in trying to compete with Mercedes-Benz and BMW in such an image-conscious market sector.
The first-generation Legend saloon and coupé continued in production until 1990 when they were replaced by all-new second-generation models in October of that year. The US market was by far the largest for the Legend, with a total of 268,847(7) sales over five years.
The Legend continues in Part Two of this series.
(1) The bulk of export sales were of the hatchback variants.
(2) But not corrosion resistance: early Hondas rusted just as enthusiastically as most of their contemporaries.
(3) A higher-specification version of the Civic saloon, sold through a different dealership network.
(4) This explains why the Rover 800, particularly in facelifted R17 form, always looked rather narrow for its overall length.
(5) This model was all Honda’s own work and bore no relationship to the later Rover 800 coupé.
(6) The saloon’s rear strut and coil arrangement had been stipulated by Rover, allegedly.
(7) All sales data from www.carsalesbase.com.