Billed as the car that was totally equipped to Triumph, the Acclaim was really the marque’s last chance saloon.
And in the end, the Acclaim failed to bolster Triumph enough after its launch in 1981 to save it from oblivion. And as Keith Adams explains, it was through no fault of its own.
The end of the line
For those within BL who lived through the dark times of the mid-to-late 1970s, the turn of the new decade must have seemed like the beginning of a bright new future. The slinging out of the old Union guard was high on the agenda, following Derek Robinson’s sacking in 1979, as was Sir Michael Edwardes’ much vaunted ‘Product led recovery’, and making good the groundbreaking joint venture with Honda. And it was the latter, more than anything else, that led to BL management, sales and servicing people to breathe a huge sigh of relief…
The first manifestation of the ‘Product led recovery’ was the Austin miniMetro, launched in October 1980. It was BL’s first all-new product since the Rover SD1 of 1976, and when it was shown to dealer principals and senior salesmen on a ferry in the middle of the North Sea, it reduced them to tears. Tears of joy. But there was no time to waste, the Metro was destined to sell well, but it could not carry the BL range single-handedly – and there was a three-year gap before the arrival of the LM10/11 range.
And that’s where Honda would come into the fray. Under the codename Bounty, BL and Honda cooked up a plan that involved assembling its Ballade saloon at its under-utilised Cowley factory, helping clean-up the company’s mid-range. The main priority was to get customers back into the showroom, and offer them something genuinely new to look at. And so it came to pass – while the UK assembly lines were being prepared, BL engineers worked on Anglicising the Ballade.
And considering the Anglo-Japanese deal was struck on Boxing Day 1979, with a proposed introduction of the end of 1981, there was little time to do anything with Honda’s new saloon. They played with the damping, developed new front seats, and introduced Austin Morris-generic colours and trims, before finally nailing Triumph badges to the front and rear. Why Triumph? The Morris Ital was to continue, as were the Austin Allegro and Ambassador, leaving only the Dolomite to shuffle off this mortal coil. And the capable little Honda was more than capable of replacing the old Triumph, 1850HL and Sprint notwithstanding.
In true make-d0-and-mend fashion, the end result was actually rather good. In the post-Metro euphoria that BL fans were enjoying, this was clearly another good news story, which was unveiled triumphantly (sorry) at the 1981 Motorfair at Earl’s Court. We all knew it was a rebadged Japanese car, but actually we didn’t mind at all – that meant reliability; that meant quality; that meant dependability. All things that – sorry to say – the Great British buying public felt that BL cars were lacking in.
In short – if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.
The Acclaim picked up useful sales during its all-too brief life – 133,625 between 1981 and 1984 – and despite holding its head high with honour and restoring faith in Triumph brand, it was replaced the a slightly more Anglicised version of the next-generation Honda Ballade wearing, gasp, the Rover badge. It was a marketing decision taken at a time when the brand equity of Rover was probably the strongest within BL, and easily understood. But it did mean the end of Triumph – a great marque that had been around since 1923, responsible for some of Britain’s finest sports cars, had gone out with a whimper, not a bang.
Being the last Triumph was an epitaph that hung heavily over the Acclaim for many years. It took the Triumph community a long time to come to terms with its existence, and it severely overshadowed all that was good about the compact saloon. For one, the Acclaim was reliable, and had true Swiss watch levels of engineering – Honda’s core values had survived intact their journey to Cowley. And that meant something even more fundamental had been proved by the BL-Honda joint venture: British production line workers were capable of building high quality cars.
From here, the BL-Honda alliance had the potential to go on and create some amazing things…
Whether that actually happened is still open to debate over 30 years on, but the fact that the UK could build high quality cars after years of being in the wars was good news. And that probably led to the arrival of Nissan, and Toyota over the course of the next decade.
But what of the Acclaim itself?
I’ve owned two of them, and my experience has been overwhelmingly positive. You jump in, adjust to the fact you’re crowbarred in to a seven-eighth scale model of a real car, and reset your brain to Japanese ambiance and ergonomics. Once acclimatised, to this, fire it up, and rejoice as the 1335cc high compression engine bursts into life and settles to a near silent idle. It has excellent throttle response, too, and zips up and down the rev range, pleasingly. After the more lugubrious long-stroke fare served up by BL at the time, it must have been a bit of a culture shock.
To drive, the Acclaim’s nothing special – it’s small and light and relatively stiffly sprung and under-damped, so it tends to hop and skip around on typical British roads. But get it onto the motorway, slot it into fifth, and hum along at the national limit at just over 3500rpm. For a 1.3-litre car, it would certainly punch above its weight thanks to its 72bhp Civic S-spec engine, and although o-60mph in 12.7 seconds and a maximum speed of 95mph don’t sound great shakes today, it was more than enough to keep pace with the 1600cc repmobiles that plied our nation’s motorways at the time.
Consequently, the Acclaim has picked up plenty of fans in recent years. It’s easy to service, cheap to run, plays happily on unleaded fuel, and has plenty of classic appeal. And unlike its more successful replacement, the Rover 213, the Acclaim is actually quite resistant to rust and has an excellent survival rate.
My first was bought from Poulton-le-Fylde car auctions in 1991 for £350, and served with honour as my first ever ‘second’ car (to a Maestro Vanden Plas) for well over a year. It never missed a beat and unlike the Maestro, managed to bring a smile to my face whenever I drove it. The only mechanical failure was a single engine mount – and at the time, I didn’t actually notice anything wrong as a consequence for over a week, such was the smoothness of that four-pot. I’d have another today, given the opportunity…
I also have another nagging feeling whenever I get thinking about the Acclaim. Had its replacements been called Triumphs, I have a sneaking feeling that the marque might still be with us today.
But for now, lest we forget, the Acclaim was a cracking car, offered just at the right time, and its significance should never be under-estimated. A real unsung hero…