Lost Legend (Part One)

Honda recently announced that its flagship saloon will not be replaced when the current model is discontinued in March 2022. We remember the Legend.

1988 Acura Legend Sedan and Coupé. Image: curbsideclassic.com

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 By the early 1980s, the Civic and Accord had been replaced by second-generation models that built on the strengths of their predecessors and Honda was now firmly established in both the European and North American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.

Not a Legend: the Rover 800. Image: klassikierweb

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.

Inconspicuous: 1985 Honda Legend. Image: favcars.com

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”.

1985 Honda Legend saloon interior (first-generation). Image: favcars.com

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.

1987 Acura Legend Coupé (first-generation). Image: autoevolution.com

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.


Author: Daniel O'Callaghan

Shut-line obsessive...Hates rudeness, loves biscuits.

18 thoughts on “Lost Legend (Part One)”

  1. I have always quite liked these, but even after 30 years I’m not sure, even if you forced me to, I could precisely articulate quite why. They don’t really tick any of the boxes I usually look for in a car – they’re larger and a bit more barge-like than I would usually be interested in; the styling is broadly inoffensive but hardly earth-shattering, very ‘family Honda’; the performance and dynamics are quite acceptable but far from peerless even in their day. Perhaps it as simple as that I grew up with a positive perception of Honda and the ‘best’ (or at least most expensive) one was bound to get the halo effect a bit. I will say, I do recall Honda had strikingly effective advertisements in Ozstraya in those days.

    Or perhaps it reflects a hidden truth that had been in plain sight all along. Quite recently, I read this review by a journo who, over the years, I have established is not dissimilar in his preferences to me:

    Click to access Honda-Legend-article-Wheels-May-1986-PDF.pdf

    Note the following remark:

    “Finally, however, it is not some kind of hybrid German car that the Legend most strongly recalls, but the Lancia Thema. There is a similarity of line and eagnerness of performance.”

    Striking similarity to a Thema – cars I have shameful thoughts about. In my book, that’s tantamount to saying you can’t go wrong…

  2. An interesting subject and read, Daniel, as ever. Reading this back, two things come across to me. First is that BL/ ARG were the obvious beneficiaries of the XX/ HX project, not Honda. Note the way that the Australian journalist expected the Rover version of the Legend to build upon the attributes of the Legend with a more opulent and desirable interior than the Honda. Second, one can go further than that and state that Honda made compromises for the HX to accommodate BL/ ARG that it seemed to instantly regret. One example was the chassis; no way would Honda have gone with a rear strut set up were it not for ARG’s insistence. The fact that Honda reverted to double wishbones at the rear for the coupe confirms that in my mind. Second was the agreement for ARG to assemble Legends at Cowley, which instantly undid one of Honda’s key attributes; build quality and reliability.

    It makes me wonder at what point Honda’s management effectively wrote-off the initial Legend as an interesting yet ultimately failed experiment and focused instead on getting the next generation right and how they wanted it? I can’t recall there was ever any question of them partnering with Rover Group for that car.

    1. Yet, despite Honda making concessions to ARG in the HX/XX design, ARG wasn´t happy about the XX´s narrow body, short front wheel suspension travel, and the Honda V6´s lack of torque at low revs…it was a severely compromised project. For me it´s still a bit surprising the Legend success in the US market (even more seeing its plain Super-Accord looks).

    2. Good morning all. Yes, it’s hard to see exactly what Honda got out of the XX/HX deal since, rear suspension apart, the first Legend was fundamentally an enlarged Accord in both engineering and appearance. Maybe there was some cost-sharing benefits in the development process?

      S.V., the final paragraph of your post is very much on the money, as we shall we in Part Two. Stay tuned!

    3. I would posit the view that the XX/HX programme was viewed as an expedient toe in the water enterprise at Minato; a chance to ascertain the depth of demand for a higher-margin model, while sharing some of the risk involved. So while there was a good deal of compromises on both sides, Honda management probably felt they were worth bearing – for one model cycle at least. And so having established that an appetite existed (the US market at least), they felt emboldened to craft the later models along more progressive lines – not wishing to step on Part Two’s toes…

    4. Thank you for the article, Daniel.

      As for what Honda got out of it, there’s cost sharing, as already mentioned, but also sales of components to BL. Valuable experience would have been gained of working with the British ahead of the opening of Swindon, later in the decade, too.

      I’m baffled by the UK quality control problems; the Acclaim showed that with the right equipment, British workers could do an excellent job (and indeed had previously been creative in making old machines perform). I’ll have to look in to that further.

      On another topic, the Volkswagen Taigo – a compact SUV – makes its European début, today. I mention it, as I can hardly contain my excitement, as I’m sure you’ll understand. I do hope there’s a nice range of greys to choose from to complement a dark, monotone interior, full of lovely hard-wearing plastic. One can dream.

    5. I understand the point about the compromises on the 800 which came from sharing a platform and engineering with Honda’s Legend, but then everything beneath the skin came from Honda and not BL, so it goes without saying that the Rover would have to manage. What’s the expression … beggars can’t be choosers?

    6. Hi Charles. Good manners dictates that I thank you for the heads-up regarding tbe new VW Tigger (or what T…g… name they’ve given it this time) but, oh dear, it’s about as interesting and exciting as a new beige anorak. Yes, it’ll be fine, as in broadly competitive, and people will buy it, but please take me out and shoot me (metaphorically speaking!) If I ever admit to considering anything like this:

    7. Honda was committed to XX to the extent that they put the coupé’s double-wishbone rear suspension in the saloon for 1988, so the failed experiment would be Austin Rover’s contribution.

    8. And talking about the quality of the made in Cowley Legends…what about those XX made in Japan by Honda? I barely know something about them.

  3. The first have heard of the Accord (and presumably the Prelude) initially being built on a stretched Civic floorpan.

    The one thing that stands out about the Legend would be the fact Honda had the opportunity to easily develop a V8 from the 90-degree V6 for use in both the NSX and the Legend along with a few other models including the Rover 800 and Discovery-based Honda Crossroad. The addition of a V8 would have made the transition from the RWD Rover SD1 to the FWD Rover 800 less dramatic then it was.

    A FWD Legend / 800 V8 would have not been out of place during the mid/late-1980s if the likes of the Lancia Thema 8.32 V8 or the Cadillac Allante and 3rd gen Cadillac Seville, etc, yet could see later versions making use of AWD.

    1. Agree. Honda needed the V-8. They were begged to prepare one by their dealers (especially by those in the USA) for years. They arrogantly refused. The result is that they lost sales. In more recent times a Honda executive admitted the lack of a V-8 was a mistake.

    2. Indeed. Taking the maximum 93mm bore and 91mm stroke into account a hypothetical Honda C V6 derived V8 would feature a displacement of about 4945cc (with the same bore and stroke translating to a 3709cc V6), there is the question of if Honda would produce the C based V8 after 2005 after the C V6 is discontinued or seek to replace it with a newer V8 design.

      Recall reading a story where one Honda dealer’s demands for a V8 were such that American Honda actually sent them a shipment of V8 tomato juice.

  4. An enlightening story, Daniel well told. Looking forward to reading round two.

    And a sad day at Swindon where 35 years of Honda U.K. production ends, tomorrow.

    And a dismal day that VW unleash yet another turgid lump on unsuspecting idiots. How much more of this nonsense can we take?

    1. Thanks, Andrew. And, yes, it is a sad day, both for Swindon and the UK auto industry. There was nothing wrong with with build quality or productivity, they just weren’t given the right vehicles to manufacture.

      Incidentally, you have, inadvertently or intentionally, suggested a perfect name for the next VW crossover, one that fits the T…g… naming convention perfectly.

      I give you…the VW Turgid!

    2. I remember driving a fairly new Swindon-built Accord in the early 90s. The trim was peeling off the door cards. The owner subsequently bought a CRV, which gave him years of good service. By the time he came to to change it, CRVs were made in Swindon, and that one gave him grief. He didn’t buy any more Hondas ….

  5. b234r – I had no idea that Rover 800 production took place at Honda’s Sayama factory. Every day’s a school day (I’m pleased to say).

    I’ve looked in to the Legend’s UK production history, and it’s true that a few cars that didn’t meet Honda’s standards were used as factory transport. That said 126,000 Concertos were produced between 1989 and 1995 (at Longbridge), so Honda can’t have been completely dismissive of Austin Rover’s ability to produce quality cars. They also seem to have benefited from AR’s body engineering knowledge when developing the Legend.

    I feel a bit guilty about having a downer on the Taigo. It appears to be available in some attractive colours. It fits in between the Polo and the T-Cross, which I have to say is a paper-thin niche. The logic is that it’s coupé-like, which is an area where VWG is lacking products, apparently. I guess there could be SEAT and Škoda versions, so that’s something to look forward to. Possibly.

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