1981 was a tough year in Britain. There were riots in many cities that summer, against government policies, or more accurately the perceived lack of effect—or even negative effect—of government policies in the face of economic woes. The Thatcher government appeared to be losing the fight to lead Britain’s recovery from the 1970s, and pro-active objection and even civil unrest seemed valid options.
In parallel, by 1977 to 1978, the truth about the state of British Leyland and its options for the future in its contemporary state started to hit home. By 1979, BL, and those who chose to understand it, had come to a series of conclusions about its future and its preparedness and the economic and political realities of the 1980s. The company was not big and strong enough, financially, in engineering capability, in production volume or product wise, to survive and prosper alone in its current form.
The idea of three ranges of cars – the Austin Allegro and Maxi, Morris Marina/Ital, the Princess which was sold through Austin-Morris dealers and the compact, sporting more upmarket but very dated Triumph Dolomite – although nominally complementary, but actually competing against each other in the middle of the market, was not logical or sustainable.
That Margaret Thatcher’s new Conservative government would not unquestioningly send money to BL like a gullible parent to a student was obvious to all, as was the fact that the company had to continue to address and resolve the industrial relations issues , even at the cost of short term disruption and strife.
Above all, any product had to be good, well made and attractive enough to compete effectively against European and Japanese competition. BL could no longer rely on Britain buying the cars out of patriotic duty.
Longer term, it was almost inevitable that the Thatcher government would want to divest itself of all of BL, and would be prepared to break the company up to do so. So, some tough decisions were needed, and were taken. BL had a new leader in Michael Edwardes, hired from outside the motor industry with no loyalty or preference to any particular constituent part of BL.
The sports cars (the Triumph Spitfire, TR7 and TR8, MGB and Midget) went and were not replaced, as the cars were conceptually dated, fading or failing in the market, and the development funds were not available in competition with core product replacements. The sterling to dollar exchange rate was a crucial factor in this, as sterling reached $2.40 to the pound at one point, and BL lost out as the pound got stronger against the dollar.
BL claimed that the TR7 and TR8 had never made any money and that Abingdon, the home of MG for over 40 years, lost £26m in its last year. It was closed for good in late 1980, to much enthusiast and public outcry. Factory rationalisation was sped up – the extension to the Rover factory in Solihull, built for the Rover 3500 SD1 in 1976 was closed in 1981, and SD1 production moved to Cowley, and the Triumph factory at Canley in Coventry closed for production in 1981 (of Dolomite and TR7s) as well, although it remained BL’s engineering and design (what used to be known as styling) centre.
Product wise, it was glaringly obvious BL had a severe need for a competent, salable mid range car, as the Allegro and Marina/Ital were rapidly falling way behind, the 1968 Maxi never had been good enough, the Princess not had achieved its potential and the Dolomite range was now very dated, being based on the 1965 Triumph 1300, and crucially was starting to suffer from serious quality issues, many traceable to old and very worn tooling. The Austin mini-Metro came on stream in 1980, and did well at the entry level into the market though.
BL was looking for a saviour, and found one. Enter Honda, who signed a collaborative agreement with BL in December 1979 to produce a small saloon, which for BL would replace the Dolomite range – the Triumph Acclaim. What was not made so clear, at least publicly, is that at this time BL effectively committed to developing the next full size Rover with Honda, which would become the 800 series (or Sterling 825) in 1986.
The Acclaim was nothing more than a licence built Honda Ballade (essentially an alternate version of the gen2 Honda Civic with modest external sheet metal changes) assembled at Cowley, alongside the Ital and Princess. The car had some trim and badging changes from the Honda version, which was not sold in Europe. The engine was the 1335cc Honda OHC, with an ability to rev to 6000rpm and a five speed gearbox – both unusual traits for BL in 1981. A three speed automatic transmission, named Trio-matic and of course a Hondamatic H3, was an option. The suspension was by Macpherson struts front and rear, which was allegedly tuned by BL for European tastes. Thing is, you can tune, but if you can’t increase wheel travel the options are limited…
The weakest point about the Acclaim was the size – the wheelbase was just 91 inches, just 3 inches longer than the Metro, and significantly shorter than the Allegro, and the roof quite low, so interior space was at a premium. But BL had no choice – Honda was the only show in town, as talks on co-operation with Renault and Chrysler UK had come to nothing, and this was the product Honda could offer.
The interior, as well as being relatviely tight on space, was totally Honda, except for the steering wheel badge. Frankly, it was so Japanese that we Brits were fortunate to drive on the left, like the Japanese, or else the steering wheel would have been in the wrong place.
Assembly of the car was completed at Cowley in Oxford, alongside the Morris Ital, Princess and, later, the Rover 2000/2300/2600/3500 SD 1 range. This was assembly though – many parts were imported from Japan, including the engine and gearbox, although BL managed to claim that 70% of the ex-works cost was British, including the manufacturing labour and overheads.
Sales wise, the car was reasonably successful, taking nearly 3% of the UK market at one time. It wasn’t a car to get excited about at all – its real significance was in the industrial context.
There were 3 versions of the car, differing only in trim and equipment, with the plushest specification, known as the CD, having electric windows, headlamp washers, chrome bumpers, velour upholstery and the headrests denied to the rest of range, presumably because they made a small and cramped interior seem even smaller and more cramped. Even this version missed out on the traditional British wood trim, although the aftermarket converters soon offered trim kits.
By 1982, BL had formally (if quietly) given up the idea of running a VW and Audi kind of pairing between the mass market cars and the premium products, and bowed to the inevitable by grouping all the car manufacturing businesses, except Jaguar, under the Austin-Rover banner. Finally, only 30 years after the original merger that created BMC, and 15 years after BLMC had been created, BL had an integrated UK dealer and distribution network. The Acclaim benefited from this, as owners came back for another Allegro (“perhaps if we get a blue one, we’ll be alright?”), saw the (Triumph) Acclaim, thought “Japanese” and “reliability” and had a new reality of their own.
It therefore kept BL, and the dealer network, on a sort of life support in the market whilst the midnight oil was burned on the development of the 1983 Austin Maestro and 1984 Austin Montego.
One thing the Acclaim did do was disprove the theory that cars assembled in Britain were all unreliable. It soon gained a reputation for being as reliable as a Honda, and showed that the British plants could make build a reliable car. The missing ingredients had been basic factors, such as proper tooling, dependable sub-assemblies and the principle of designing for assembly and manufacture from the beginning.
After 3 years and 134,000 copies, the Acclaim was retired, and the Triumph name died too, although BMW have kept the rights to it, even now. One of the features of a joint venture like this is that BL, as the junior partner, was confined to Honda’s product cycle for this car, which was replaced in Japan in 1983. Today, an Acclaim is a rare sight – corrosion claimed many and there are perhaps 200 roadworthy cars left.
The Acclaim had done well for BL and was successful enough not only for the policy of using a Honda as a basis for a compact premium BL product, but for that product to be promoted up the BL hierarchy to the Rover brand, as the Rover 213/216 series, based on the significantly larger 1983 third generation Civic, and with a lot more Rover input, including some Rover engines. BL stated that this marked significant progress in the recovery of the business, as it was the first time in over 10 years that BL were replacing a car that had achieved its target, that “we’re satisfied with”.
By my reckoning, BL could say that only twice more in the next 20 years.