It was a brave new world for BL – a Honda built in the UK but, in many ways, the Triumph Acclaim represented so much more.
When launched in 1981, the Acclaim was heralded as the first of a long line of Honda/Rovers but, more importantly than that, it proved once and for all that British assembly line workers were among the best in the world.
Say hello to the Japanese
In 1978, Mark Snowdon, the Director of Product Development at Austin-Morris had started to look at the idea of cooperating with another car company. The idea was to produce a new mid-sized car intended not only to replace the Triumph Dolomite, but also to give BL a middle market shot in the arm.
The wisdom within the company was that BL was in no position to develop a new car quickly and cheaply enough to get on the market much before the LC10 cars were launched. The Triumph SD2 was long dead and any further new model programmes would be a distraction for the company, which was putting all its efforts into the development of the next generation of mid-sized cars.
Snowdon initially looked at European manufacturers, but concluded that companies such as Renault and GM, with whom the company had held exploratory discussions, were much larger organisations and would soon come to dominate BL in any future joint ventures.
Joint ventures into the future
A long and exhaustive search into potential suitors then followed and a serious investigation into which suitable competitors would a) BL like to cooperate with, b) not feel engulfed by and c) had a suitable mid-sized car in development.
According to internal documents on the subject, the companies that were shortlisted by BL were:
- Chrysler (US)
- Chrysler (UK)
As Ray Horrocks stated at the time, ‘Chrysler UK was number one and Honda was number two.’ Much groundwork was covered in pursuing the Chrysler deal, and the project, which was called Dovetail, would have involved a partnership, a rationalised range of factories (Longbridge, Poissy, Cowley, Ryton, Solihull and Browns Lane), and a slimmed-down range of cars.
The combined BL-Chrysler range of cars would have looked like this: (BL) Metro, (Chrysler) Horizon, (Chrysler) Alpine, (BL) Princess and (Chrysler) C9/Tagora, Rover, Jaguar, sports cars and the off-road vehicles.
So, should BL have gone with Chrysler?
Looking at the plan, and putting aside the relative merits of the cars on offer, it did seem to have a firm footing. But the deal with Chrysler fell through when the US parent company pulled out of the UK, leaving the company to be bought by PSA (Peugeot-Citroën).
Negotiations continued after the sale but, following a final meeting between Michael Edwardes, David Andrews and the Chairman of PSA, Jean-Paul Parayre on 6 September 1978, it became clear that PSA was not interested in hiving off any of its UK operations to the British company.
BL was eventually relieved about losing Chrysler UK to the French – once PSA started running the company, it quickly became apparent that the Anglo-French operation had actually been in worse shape than it was thought to be!
So, should BL have gone with Renault?
Serious talks with Renault had also been taking place since early 1977 and, by the following summer, discussions had reached a point where a collaborative plan was being finalised. The intention was for Renault to offer BL the upcoming R9 model to produce in return for marketing rights for the Land Rover in Europe and the USA.
However, Edwardes felt that Renault viewed BL as a weaker partner and the terms of their agreement stacked heavily in favour of the French. The Renault 9 would only be marketed as a BL product in the UK – and the company would have no rights to export it anywhere else under their own name. Worse than that, some high-ups within Renault felt that they should be allowed to continue to sell their version of it in the UK.
In fact, speaking in the early months of 1978, Michael Edwardes had stated that he would have liked to increase his cooperative links with Renault but, due to delays, the deal was never finalised and so, on 1 April 1978, Edwardes found out by reading in the Financial Times that Renault had, in fact, decided to partner with AMC in the USA – and market Jeeps worldwide. The deal was off. It was always felt that the company would eventually engulf BL, because of their relative sizes – and this was something that no one in the company felt was desirable.
Honda enters the fray
With the French out of the equation, it became apparent that the second choice of Ray Horrocks was now the best option left. When presented with the idea of a possible collaborative partnership with Honda – and after much persuasion – management eventually agreed that the Japanese company could be a suitable partner to do business with.
As soon as the BL Board gave the go-ahead to pursue talks with the company, Michael Edwardes put the feelers out in Japan regarding how Honda would feel about collaboration. When the soundings came back as positive, Edwardes asked his colleague on the Chloride Board and ex-Ambassador to Tokyo, Sir Fred Warner, to telex the President of Honda, Kyoshi Kawashima, and ask him to consider a deal with BL.
Shortly after, a positive response was forthcoming, and arrangements were made to begin talks on neutral ground in San Francisco between the management teams of both companies. BL’s delegation was led by Ray Horrocks, David Andrews and John Bacchus, and they jetted off to Japan in October 1978 to begin formal talks with Honda.
This was a shrewd choice of partners because, at the time, Honda was approximately the same size as BL, and it was regarded as an innovator and as being the most ‘European’ of all the Japanese car companies.
Project Bounty kicks off
Negotiations were long and hard, but good progress was made – the negotiation groups talking with Honda were shown the likely product that the joint venture could be based upon, and the news coming back the UK was all good thus far. In early 1979, Mike Carver, BL’s Head of Business Strategy, flew out to Japan to detail more concrete plans with Honda and sound out what products they could offer and see how it would fit into the BL range.
After seeing the prototype of the then yet-to-be launched Honda Ballade (above), a notchback version of the second-generation Civic, Carver was pleased with what he considered to be a product that would fit in nicely with the future slimmed down BL range of cars. In no way did Carver reflect to Honda the mild sense of disappointment that the BL negotiation group had felt when they saw the Ballade – they felt that a hatchback would have been a more preferable option.
The relationship between the two companies’ negotiating and engineering teams mirrored that between the Ballade and the BL range. Indeed, once a rapport was established, the nuts and bolts of the collaborative effort were brought to a satisfactory conclusion at a very rapid pace. Traffic between Birmingham and Tokyo was thick and fast, so much so that, on Boxing Day 1979, Sir Michael Edwardes flew out to Japan to meet Honda President Kyoshi Kawashima and officially sign the collaborative deal between the two companies.
The deal is done – Honda and BL join forces
It was then that Project Bounty was born, and the plan to develop the Ballade into a Dolomite replacement began. It was down to the Jaguar Rover Triumph (JRT) division to tune the Ballade to appeal to more European tastes.
Production was earmarked for the Canley factory, where Dolomites were then built, but this coincided with Edwardes’ streamlining of BL’s factories. The internal re-organization that resulted in JRT being phased out in favour of the Light Medium Division meant that the Acclaim would be incorporated into the Austin-Morris range and be built at the under-utilised Cowley factory in Oxford.
Following initial market research, BL strategists became more bullish about the chances of Project Bounty’s success on the British and Continental markets. As a result, BL upped its production targets for the new car. The view within the company was that the this car, to be marketed as the Triumph Acclaim, was so complementary, that it would not steal sales from the Metro or the LM10, both hatchbacks.
Potential opportunities emerge
The Acclaim was emerging as good enough to be regarded as much more than the stopgap it was intended to be. It might have been earmarked as a replacement for the Dolomite, but marketing strategists knew that as the Morris Ital and the Austin Allegro were fading in the market, potential customers would look at the Acclaim as a natural alternative instead of the competition. That was the hope, anyway.
Ray Horrocks already knew that the ‘discreet collaboration programme’ with Honda was going to be more far reaching than a simple licence deal to build the Ballade in the UK. It was obvious that the car would form part of the model range after the launch of the new British middleweight cars. The production targets for the Acclaim were set at 1500 per week.
It would prove to contribute more to the British economy than people may have initially predicted, using 80% British-sourced parts, contributing to 70% of the ex-works price being British. Horrocks also dropped hints that, although the car’s 1335cc engine was produced in Japan, it could be built in Britain, if the volumes dictated it.
A Honda-engined Metro? If only…
Horrocks also dropped a very subtle hint that it was ‘conceivable’ that the engine could be used in other BL products. The fact that the Austin Metro would require serious and expensive changes to its floorpan in order to accommodate the engine did not stop tentative investigations into this very plan.
Before the launch of the Acclaim, plans were drawn up to extend the collaborative deal and codenames were allocated: HD9 was to be a hatchback version of the Acclaim, HD14 was to be a very small car and the HD17 was an executive car. The HD9 and HD14 amounted to nothing more than paper projects – there was no need for them in the then-current Austin Rover range.
However, the HD17 would go on to become the XX or Rover 800 as it eventually appeared. Significantly, these codenames and projects would indicate that, even as early as 1981, BL were looking at Honda to ‘assist” with the development of their future models – and that, following the Montego in 1984, there would be no more entirely British saloons produced by the company.
Enter the Triumph Acclaim – totally equipped…
Politically, the Acclaim was a very interesting proposition. During the 1970s, the European car makers had looked upon the inexorable march of the Japanese with great suspicion and, once BL’s collaborative plans entered the public domain, the French and the Italian Governments, in particular, began to raise concerns that Project Bounty was, in fact a Japanese ‘Trojan Horse’, a way the they could circumvent the import quotas set by the Europeans.
In a strongly worded letter to The Times just one week before the official launch of the Acclaim, Sir Michael Edwardes defended his product in the strongest terms: ‘The launch of the Triumph Acclaim, which results from a unique piece of collaboration between BL and Honda, will not go without significant debate.
‘Some people will see the project as a realistic response to the rapidly changing nature of the world automotive business, being fully in line with BL’s business and market requirements. Others will find it unacceptable and, to put it crudely, describe it as prejudicial to the Triumph name, a ‘sell-out’ to the Japanese and in conflict with BL’s opposition to the import of Japanese cars into Britain.’
Edwardes: The Triumph Acclaim was no Trojan Horse
What Edwardes was saying in emotive terms was that the Acclaim was a ‘proper’ British car in as much as that it was directly responsible for saving 2000 jobs at the Cowley factory and helped maintain countless jobs in the UK component industry.
Yes, this is undoubtedly true, but in 1981 inter-manufacturer collaboration with the Japanese on this scale was yet to become fashionable, so competitors and commentators remained unconvinced.
So politically, the Acclaim may have been a hot potato, but what about the car itself? Well, BL Engineers at the newly-opened Gaydon facility had worked feverishly on the Acclaim during its gestation period in order to tune the car into the tastes of the intended customer base.
Niggles during testing and development
There were dark mutterings of ‘things that broke’ during testing – the usual things that happen during vehicle development, but Honda would never acknowledge that anything was wrong at all, even if they would quite happily share the fix. Mechanically, the Acclaim was pure Civic/Ballade with the same 1335cc engine, end-on gearbox and independent suspension, front and rear by McPherson struts.
It had a 91-inch wheelbase, barely longer than the Metro’s, and a low roofline, which meant that, whichever way you cut it, the Acclaim was a cramped car inside.
BL’s contribution to the car was the re-designed seats (that were actually very good – and used Ford Cortina frames) and ‘Europeanisation’ of the interior trim and colours. The seats were smaller than the original Honda items, but did not free up enough space from a car that had none.
Triumph Acclaim – on the road
The ‘Edwardes letter’ aside, the lead-up to the Acclaim’s launch was very quiet and it failed to grab the public’s attention in the way that the Metro’s had. The public perceived it as the re-badged Japanese car that it was, but did not condemn the car for that, reasoning that if it was built in Britain, it was as British as the (German-built) Ford Cortina, if not more so.
Triumph traditionalists may have looked on aghast, but many of the Dolomite’s customers did return and buy an Acclaim when it came to trade-in time. The road testers found that they had a further BL product that they could test and not be embarrassed by the fact that there was so little to be excited by (like the Ital).
It was praised for good performance, excellent economy, high levels of build quality and an appealing, engaging nature. Betraying its Japanese origins, it also had an excellent level of equipment – things that road testers and customers alike looked upon in a positive light. BL had swallowed some pride and learned some lessons from the Japanese.
What the papers said: mostly good news
In its road test of the Acclaim against established rivals, What Car? magazine summed the car up very favourably: ‘The new Triumph Acclaim is a good new car and it displays all the qualities needed for success in this section of the market; refined engine and transmission, fine crisp handling, creditable comfort and a good economy potential.
‘Perhaps just why the Acclaim was not voted top by either our (customer clinic) panel or ourselves could therefore be a subjective matter concerning its image – the car is clearly just a Japanese design dressed up very thinly by the odd plastic Triumph badge, and so BL are really due little credit in engineering though they may be in production if they continue to match Honda’s high standard.
The Acclaim’s market appeal does seem to be rather questionable in view of the fact that one associates Triumphs as traditionally British cars, but of course that is something for buyers to judge.’
Grappling with the Anglo-Japanese question
Clearly, the magazine’s road test staff could not come to terms with a ‘British’ car being so oriental, but it did not stop them being impressed with the way the car performed. ‘…the Acclaim’s engine is already a known quantity, and a smooth and responsive unit it is too.
‘There is never a hint of harshness at any point in the rev-range; the Triumph eagerly accelerates to 60 mph in 12.7 seconds and the rev counter needle easily flicks round to its 6000rpm red line.’
Also, ‘the gearchange is very light and direct with well chosen ratios, although fifth is a pure overdrive of little use at any other time apart from cruising – top speed in fourth is actually one mile per hour faster, at 90 mph.’
Sales success follows positive launch
Nevertheless, the Acclaim did prove popular, reaching a best of 2.71% market share in 1982, slightly shy of BL’s bullish predictions of 3% once it became a fully-fledged Austin-Morris product. In line with BL’s private concerns, it did feed off the Allegro and Ital to a degree, but also helped restore some pride in the products of the beleaguered company.
The car suffered from no reliability issues (as the trade would often say ‘It’s a Honda, isn’t it!’) and secured itself a niche in the market, being beloved of those sometimes referred to as the ‘Eastbourne set’. They survived well with nary a trace of rust on them, the engines in rude health, thus proving that the Acclaim was indeed an amalgamation of the good points of Japanese engineering and British assembly work.
BL quickly learned much from the Japanese and gained much knowledge on how to improve the standard of assembly of their own cars: ‘The most critical thing it achieved was to prove to BL Engineers that BL Assembly Workers could achieve good quality if the product was DESIGNED FOR ASSEMBLY, which previous cars manifestly had not been,’ is how one insider related the situation.
Smoothing-out the Acclaim’s styling
The sketches, penned by the BL Styling Department, clearly show that the Designers initially worked under the false assumption that they would be able to alter the car’s styling – as was the case with the next collaborative venture, the Rover 213/216. This was not to be the case.
Goodbye Triumph, hello Ronda
Whatever, both BL and Honda were pleased with what they had produced with the Triumph Acclaim and, as things proved, it was the precursor of more, much more, to come. This car only had a three-year production run (1981-1984), and it was the last Triumph-badged car, but don’t consider it to be a failure in any meaningful way.
The Acclaim may also have been the product of a marriage of convenience, but it led directly to the range of 1980s and ’90s Rovers and a partnership that resulted in Hondas being built in Longbridge, Rovers being built in Japan and Honda setting up a production plant in Swindon.
A total of 133,625 examples were made and, ultimately, it was the start of a lasting and largely harmonious partnership between Honda and BL – later Rover Group. It’s an industrial tragedy that British Aerospace decided to scatter the Honda-BL joint venture to the four winds, when it sold the Rover Group to BMW in January 1994.