Chris Cowin delves into the history of building the Triumph Acclaim at Cowley, countering the myth it was simply a screwdriver operation unpacking and assembling Japanese kits, which is rather unfair to the people who worked there in the 1980s.
Triumph Acclaim: Totally equipped to Triumph
Both answers to the question in the headline are correct. Although derived from Honda’s Ballade and undoubtedly a Japanese car in conception, the ‘totally equipped to Triumph’ Acclaim had enough ‘UK content’ (largely because the body was pressed from British steel at Cowley) to count as a ‘British car’ for trade purposes. This was crucial to its success, ensuring it fell outside the 11% limit on Japanese cars in the UK, while giving it unhindered access to all EEC markets.
That set it apart from the first Nissan Bluebirds built at Washington, Sunderland in 1986, which were (initially) assembled from Japanese Knocked Down (KD) kits with very limited UK content and, as a result, did fall under those restrictions placed on Japanese cars.
A great deal was changing at the sprawling Cowley site in 1981 as BL geared up for the introduction of the Acclaim that October, as well as the shift of Rover production from Solihull by the year end. Beyond that, 1982 would see production of the Austin Maestro begin, first of the long-awaited LM range.
The Pressed Steel Fisher (PSF) plant, located where MINIs are now manufactured by BMW, built bodies for a range of BL cars including the Morris Ital and Princess, as well as the Rolls-Royce Silver Spirit bodyshell. Until October 1980, a section of the plant had been dedicated to upstream MGB production, with completed bodyshells then being trucked to Abingdon already painted and trimmed.
The demise of the MGB might have seen those halls falling silent, but instead work began on installing the press lines for Acclaim. When the project was first conceived, Triumph Acclaim production was projected for Canley, where it would have helped preserve the jobs of Triumph workers. However, Canley was then slated for closure as BL streamlined its manufacturing footprint, and building Acclaim at Cowley instead resulted in many people transferring from building MGs to building Triumphs (of a sort).
Just how British is British?
Re-equipping PSF for the Acclaim was part of a £70 million investment by BL of which they were very proud, and people who heard journalist Chris Goffey (on the recent BBC Reunion broadcast) jokingly describe Acclaim production as the ‘nailing together’ of Japanese kits should read the following description of how the bodies were in fact built (as published when Acclaim was launched):
‘Four press lines have been installed including a new fully automated line of 180-inch bed-width presses, for producing the one piece-body side and other major panels. These presses have been designed so that die changes can be made in less than an eighth of the conventional time.
‘This Press Shop development has created an opportunity for BL to participate in a major first for the British machine tool industry. Encouraged by BL Engineers, the firm of Wilkins and Mitchell has combined with the Hydraulic Engineering Company of Chester to design and produce the first large hydraulic press to come from British industry.
‘From the Press Shop panels are transferred to the body framing and sub-assembly area. Here the underframe, side and roof panels are united to form the bodyshell. This body-in-white facility features a combination of manual and automatic welding techniques. Of the 2700 welds needed to assemble the complete body, 550 are applied automatically. The car underframe, consisting of four sub-assemblies, is assembled by a robot welder and the bodyshell is constructed in an automatic framing jig before further welding operations are carried out and the door, bonnet and boot lid assemblies are fitted.’
No nails involved…
Acclaim bodies united with their running gear
At this point Acclaim bodies made their way through the enclosed conveyor bridge over the Oxford bypass, en route to the Paint Shop. They may have looked Japanese, but at this stage in the process they were almost 100% British by origin, put together from British steel.
The Paint Shop was brand new and accounted for £35 million of the £70 million Acclaim investment, though its capacity of 3500 bodies per week indicated it would play a role in production of other cars beyond Acclaim. The new cathodic electro-coating process ensured the Triumph Acclaim had a finish to compare with the best.
From here, the car bodies moved on to the assembly line in the North Works of the Cowley plant where they were mated with all the mechanical, electrical and trim components that went into production of a complete car. BL took on board a great deal of Honda’s manufacturing expertise to build Acclaim, with the production process involving new techniques such as stuffing up of powertrains into the bodyshell, all of which resulted in excellent build quality and warranty costs far lower than BL models of the past.
Many of the parts fitted on the line were indeed Japanese, shipped from Honda with crates arriving at Tilbury. These contained engines, gearboxes, suspension units and the moulded fascia panel. But much else that went into a finished Acclaim was British sourced, including driveshafts, radiators and seats. This was on top of the easy to find items which even a classic CKD assembly operation would tend to buy locally such as tyres, batteries, glass, seat fabric and carpeting. This shopping list of British components allowed boss Harold Musgrove to estimate that while Acclaim production supported 2000 jobs at Cowley, adding on jobs in the component industry brought the figure closer to 10,000.
All in all, BL was able to state that only 30% of the ex-works value of a Triumph Acclaim was Japanese, a figure which Manufacturing Director Andy Barr said he expected would fall towards 20% in the near future as more items were localized. There has always been some dispute over the figure for local content, which can be calculated in a variety of ways, but it was clear the Acclaim was not simply a car ‘manufactured in Japan and exported in kit form for overseas assembly.’
This was crucial because, if judged as such, it would have fallen within the restrictions which applied to imports of Japanese cars to Great Britain.
The Japanese Gentlemen’s Agreement
Commencing in 1975, and formalized in the Gentlemen’s Agreement of 1977, the Japanese car manufacturers had agreed to freeze their share of the British market at the 11% reached by 1977, in order to give companies like BL a breathing space to restructure. Such restraint would ward off, the Japanese hoped, more rigid import controls that Britain’s Trade Unions in particular were clamouring for.
The Acclaim alone was expected to take 3% of the market (roughly equivalent to all of Toyota’s UK sales volume) and would account for around 10% of Austin Rover’s annual production in the years to come. There was no way that could have been shoehorned into the 11% envelope (implying all existing Japanese brands including Honda would suffer a quota cut) without that system collapsing.
That was something many people predicted was imminent anyway, as the Japanese manufacturers and their dealers could claim their restraint had simply led to more imports from Europe rather than a recovery in Britain’s car industry. A parallel agreement covering light vans had already come unstuck and, in the near future, the Japanese would abandon similar voluntary restraint measures in the USA.
What’s classed as a Japanese car?
Bob Edmiston who owned the Subaru import business was someone who raised this issue before the Acclaim was launched, complaining that BL was allowed to import what he called car kits outside the 11% quota. But BL was able to retort (through the letter pages of The Times) by explaining that the Acclaim would have considerably more than 50% UK content and thus could not be classed as a Japanese car.
The 11% voluntary restraint, which the Japanese manufacturers reviewed annually, continued to be observed through the 1980s (to the relief of Austin Rover among others). When Nissan first started assembling the Bluebird at its new Sunderland plant in 1986, it was judged as a Japanese car and therefore came within the 11% quota, with Phase One at Sunderland being a classic assembly operation.
That was far less of a concern for Nissan as it was simply replacing the previous Japanese-built model with the Sunderland-assembled car, and sales continued on the same level, with Nissan owning 6% of the Japanese 11% share reflecting its strength (as Datsun) relative to other Japanese brands in the UK in 1977.
But if this issue had not been rendered a non-issue by the high British content of the Acclaim, then the project would have made little sense for either BL or Honda.
It should perhaps be added that,while France and Italy continued to operate formal quotas on Japanese imports (which dated back many years), the British Government (even under Labour in the 1970s) believed in free trade and felt introducing such protectionist restrictions contravened commitments made under the GATT process, and thus the Gentlemen’s Agreement was negotiated at a lower level between trade bodies (the SMMT and JAMA) and was voluntary.
However, it wasn’t just the 11% rule that made it crucial the Acclaim qualified as a British car.
Why the Acclaim made it to France and Italy
If the Acclaim had been classed as a Japanese car, it would have been difficult to export to countries which imposed limits on the import of Japanese cars including, as mentioned above, France and Italy, which were BL’s two biggest export markets in the early 1980s. The whole project would therefore have been undermined, from another direction.
The French, or more precisely Renault, had been hostile towards BL’s relationship with Honda from the start, comparing Britain’s car factories to a Japanese submarine or aircraft carrier. They were similarly agitated when the Honda partnership expanded, to include the manufacture of Honda cars in BL factories (from 1986), a venture described along with the Rover 800 as a ‘Trojan horse.’
This implicitly admitted that Honda-derived cars (or Hondas) built by BL with sufficient British (thus ‘European’) content could sidestep France’s strict 3% market share limit on Japanese car imports.
The Acclaim did, giving a modest boost to Austin Rover’s sales in France (which took around 3000 Acclaims annually) and paving the way for its Rover 200 replacement, which did better (6000 French sales in 1987). Despite a lot of sabre-rattling, there was little the French could do to keep out the Acclaim.
What was different about the Nissan Bluebird
It was different with the Nissan Bluebird one should note, which even after exports from Sunderland commenced in 1988 was barred by the French for a while based on insufficiently European content, even though the European content of Bluebirds had risen with the addition of engine assembly at Sunderland in 1988, and would soon surpass the 80% level beyond which nobody could quibble.
But if the French were all bark and no bite, it was different with the Italians.
During the spring of 1982, while Britain was focused on events in the South Atlantic, BL was fighting another skirmish over the invasion (as some termed it) of Italy with a car of Japanese design. Italy stuck rigidly to the terms of a 1950s agreement which restricted car trade between Italy and Japan to 2300 cars annually in either direction.
Signed at a time when the Japanese were concerned their home market might become overrun by Fiats, it now served to make Japanese cars virtually unobtainable in Italy. Fiat applied pressure to have the Acclaim considered as Japanese and the first batch of 88 cars were impounded in Milan.
However, BL was able to supply certificates of origin which detailed the European content of the Acclaim and, after the intervention of the British Government and the payment of a tax, the cars were released. It was difficult for the Italians to win without undermining the claim of their own Alfa Romeo Arna (a joint venture between Alfa Romeo and Nissan) to be classed as European rather than Japanese. (It was also sold in the UK briefly as the Nissan Cherry Europe).
That battle won, the Triumph Acclaim went on to sell well in Italy. It was a factor in BL increasing sales to 32,000 cars in 1982 representing 2.2% of the market and second only to France where BL sold 37,000 cars (1.9%).
The Acclaim advances in Europe
With France and Italy open to it, the Acclaim became a useful arrow in BL’s export bow on the continent. The agreement with Honda gave BL exclusive rights to market the Acclaim in all EEC markets where, classed as a British car, it escaped the tariffs that applied to imports of Japanese cars.
In addition, both Spain and Portugal (which were applying to join the EEC) imported the Triumph Acclaim, both being markets that were essentially barred for Honda. In years to come Austin Rover (then Rover) would see exports to Europe on an upward trend. The cars developed in joint venture with Honda, which could sidestep restrictions and tariffs that still applied to imports from Japan, proved popular across the Channel and, by the mid-1990s, Rover was selling as many cars on the continent as in the UK.
The Triumph Acclaim got that ball rolling, although the Triumph name baffled some as, in continental Europe, it was associated almost exclusively with sports cars. Triumph saloons had disappeared from most European export markets in the early 1970s with the exception of the higher-powered Dolomites (Sprint and, sometimes, 1850HL) which had remained available in some countries.
But, having sorted out all those manufacturing and trade logistics, what was the Acclaim like as a motor car?
Was the Acclaim a success?
It was first unveiled at the Earls Court Motorfair in October 1981. The Triumph name was appropriate in Britain as this compact, well-equipped saloon was aimed at a similar slot to the Triumph Dolomite (in 1300/1500 form) which had left the scene in 1980. The car in the back catalogue that came closest to Acclaim was perhaps the old front-drive Triumph 1300, which had been a great success for Triumph in the 1960s.
The Acclaim was equally successful in sales terms, obtaining 3% of the UK market at times, achieving production targets with over 134,000 built over three years and boosting BL’s European export trade.
However, while the Acclaim was successful as a consumer good, many car people lamented the storied Triumph marque had been applied to a car of patently Japanese conception which would, given the parallel death of the Triumph TR7/TR8 sports cars, prove to be the final Triumph.
The Acclaim was a lightly reworked version of Honda’s four-door Ballade sedan, a model itself derived from the Civic hatchback. This resulted in a rather cramped little saloon, which with Honda’s skills in packaging no match for BL, offered less interior space than many customers were accustomed to. In all probability, a Metro notchback (if built) would have rivalled the Acclaim for interior space, for the Metro wheelbase was only a fraction shorter than the Acclaim.
Why the Acclaim was such good news
The drawback of tight interior dimensions was, though, offset by the willing 1335cc aluminium Honda engine coupled to a smooth five-speed gearbox (or Triomatic as the Hondamatic auto box was hastily re-christened). There was an excellent level of equipment, and superb build quality which was achieved almost from the start by the Cowley production line, where (according to former employee Mark Etheridge) the Acclaim was termed ‘the best car we ever built.’
Even if many of the parts were British sourced, there had been little opportunity for BL’s Engineers to diverge from the Honda Ballade’s original design, with differences introduced for the Acclaim confined largely to damping, carburettors, seats (which were broader and based on Cortina frames), badging and trim. In that sense, this definitely was a Japanese car, with Acclaim looking almost identical to the “original” Honda Ballade (which was not a problem as the two were never marketed in parallel in any country).
Equipment levels certainly did justice to the launch slogan of ‘Totally equipped to Triumph’ with even the basic HL version offering features not usually seen in this class. Three models were available at the launch, the others being the HLS and the CD (a posh trim designation never used before or since by BL and generally taken to mean ‘Corps Diplomatique‘). Only during 1982 was a cheaper L model added to the range.
Making a financial success
Even though BL were paying Honda a royalty, the low warranty costs and limited discounting of this largely retail market car suggest this was a profitable venture. Colin Thirsk worked in the Parts Department of a BL Dealer at the time and remembers: ‘All we ever sold for this vehicle was service items and body panels. All the (replacement) mechanical parts that were part of the initial package went obsolete after two years and were written off. We’d never seen anything like it.’
Certainly, the project was a highly beneficial learning exercise for BL which contributed much to the ongoing design and production of vehicles, while also demonstrating that British workers could, when given the right conditions, build cars just as well as their Japanese counterparts.
The Acclaim certainly succeeded as a stop-gap during the three-year period it was on sale, with many customers who would have found the prospect of an Austin Allegro or Morris Ital unpalatable being kept in the fold by this Anglo-Japanese hybrid. But there was no denying the compromises they and BL had made when choosing the Acclaim.
Not the most progressive of designs
Honda came up with some very progressive designs in the 1980s, but this rather prim and prudish saloon wasn’t one of them (and indeed it sold poorly in its native Japan). A bigger car, potentially with a hatchback, would have been preferable for the British market (and was the original objective), but BL had to take what was on offer.
A hatchback cousin of the Acclaim later arrived in Japan as the Honda Quint, but this was only made available to BL customers in Australia (as the Rover Quintet of 1983-85. A built-up import).
Meanwhile, industry observers saluted the Triumph Acclaim which, after some early issues were overcome, turned into quite a success. Honda also thought the start of UK production compared well to their recent commencement of Accord production in the USA. What would become the Rover-Honda partnership had got off on a good footing.
So why has it become an established part of automotive folklore that the Acclaim was merely assembled by BL rather than built under licence, which would be a more accurate description?
In part, it must be down to that distinction between conception and manufacturing. It was a Japanese design with very little British influence and, in that sense, a Japanese car. Unless one follows the intricacies of international trade quite closely it may seem odd that it would qualify as a British car based on the origin of its components, with the steel body making a big difference.
This conundrum isn’t unique to the Acclaim of course. The Mini is undoubtedly a British car, but when built in Australia from mostly Australian parts (with over 85% local content at the early 1970s peak) they qualified as Australian cars (and you might have trouble persuading some Australians they were not). The Minis built by Innocenti had less local content, but some still refer to them as Italian cars.
With a few exceptions (like those early Bluebirds) cars built in the Nissan, Toyota and Honda factories in Britain in recent decades have counted as ‘manufactured in the UK’ and, in that sense, have been British cars, not Japanese. When international comparisons of car production are drawn up, they are credited to the UK and not Japan (which would occur if they were simply assembled from kits: the “CKD” cars assembled by British Leyland in Belgium until 1981 were credited to Britain’s car manufacturing total). However, they bear Japanese brand names so, depending which hat you’re wearing, it can be valid to call them Japanese.
But perhaps the British contribution to building Acclaim gets forgotten because the truth spoils a good story. For many the introduction of the Triumph Acclaim as the final car to bear the Triumph badge is seen as a form of national humiliation and, if you’re telling a tale of humiliation, there’s seldom room for nuance.
In pubs and chatrooms down the years the story of the Acclaim has been explained in a nutshell as simply assembly, as a screwdriver operation, or as nailing together. Indeed, any suggestion to the contrary is likely to earn the response: ‘Everybody knows it’s just a Japanese Honda with a Triumph badge’ – which, in a sense, it was of course. It’s a hard argument to win…