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The Carchive: The Triumph Acclaim

Chris Haining February 10, 2014 Cars You Should Know, The Carchive 16 Comments

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Welcome back to The Carchive, where we run a coarse net through the North Sea Ancient Car Brochure reserves and see what we can trawl up.

No theme this week, but having been inspired by the first instalment of Honda Prelude week, I thought we’d stop to take a look at what happened when British Leyland asked Honda for a favour for the very first time.

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“Totally equipped to Triumph”

In fact, the plan (first mooted in ’78) for Honda and BL to join forces and develop a small car together would be of equal value to both parties. For the Brits it meant a great injection of knowledge and expertise in the cutting-edge of small car design, and for Honda it meant the opportunity to have an impact on the European market without running foul of the 11% maximum import market share rules that the EEC imposed.

In the end, the actual British Leyland design input amounted to virtually nothing at all. The new car was a facsimile of the brand new Honda Ballade, a car itself spun from the Honda Civic. Of course, there’s nothing much wrong with a Civic. And, as would become apparent, there was nothing much wrong with the Triumph Acclaim.

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“The distinctively styled front-wheel-drive, four door saloon is a sparkling performer.”

In truth, British Leyland had been in dire need of a sparkling performer for quite a while. The Morris Ital and Austins Maxi and Allegro were due to be shot any day now, a long overdue mercy-killing. The Triumph line itself hadn’t seen a new car since 1975, and that new car had been the TR7, which still divided opinion several years after launch. And the poor old Dolomite had been in series production since the Magna Carta was signed. And so it was that the Triumph name was chosen as a badge to attach to the suspiciously Honda-shaped emblem spaces on the new car.

The platform, incidentally, was like no other British Leyland car to date. The suspension was MacPherson Strut all round, the engine the all-alloy 1335cc twin-carb unit from the Civic. There was none of BL’s beloved Hydrogas or Hydrolastic shenanigans here. The result of all this was exactly the kind of thing that BL needed as a shot-in-the-arm. The only slight tragedy was that it didn’t really have an identity.

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“The top-of-the-range CD has the looks, the refinement, the carrying capacity-and the performance- of a much larger car”

Looking at the spec sheet of the Acclaim CD in 1981 must have been like reading a science fiction novel. Here was a small, Escort-sized car with electric windows all round and even the option of air-conditioning. The refinement was as good as, well, a Honda, and the luggage capacity was generous. The interior wasn’t spacious, though, thanks to its wheelbase being similar to that of an Austin Metro (or Civic, natch). And it would crack 90mph without fuss, reaching 60 somewhere around 12 seconds in.

Behind the wheel, aside from that Triumph laurel wreath emblem, you could have been driving any of the contemporary small Japanese cars; the dashboard styling being about as un-european as things got. And this was, of course, seen as an affront to the legion of brown-ale drinking, bearded Triumph loyalists who were upset that their once-proud marque should be sullied by being attached to the rump of a reliable, fun to drive, up-to-date car which didn’t leak oil everywhere. But you can’t please everybody.

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“Trio-Matic- Totally equipped for easy driving”

The insults just kept flying in. Trio-Matic was, of course, Hondamatic; the three-speed automatic ‘box you could get in the Civic. Better to ignore all that and just stick with the regular five-speed manual box, which remains one of the very finest I’ve ever rowed with short, slick, positive changes and a lightning-fast synchromesh.

The bit that nobody realised was that the Acclaim was a brilliant car to drive. That body looked dowdy with the big boot on the back, but the extra bulk at the rear end served to balance the car better, in my reckoning, than the equivalent Civic. The result was that, within the modest grip limits imposed by 155 tyres, the Acclaim was a responsive, engaging car to drive point-to-point across country. Avon Coachworks obviously picked up on this, developing a turbocharged version with 35 more horsepower and I would give vital parts of my anatomy to drive one.

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“An impressive technical achievement”

The Acclaim was an interesting case study. Far from being a box-of-bits, and though the engines themselves were crated in from Japan, there was enough local content for the Cowley, Oxford-built car to be classified as a truly British car. It’s also worth mentioning that the Acclaim can proudly boast the lowest warranty claim rate of any BL machine. It was built well and mechanically durable. It was also surprisingly rust resistant if kept on top of, though the galloping tinworm would ultimately consume the majority. I wish I had been able to squirrel my own one (my first car) away for safekeeping. Alas, no.

It served as a useful lesson for the future, and paved the way for far more confident joint projects like the SD3 (the joint developed Rover 200 and Honda Ballade, both of which would be UK built) and Rover 800 which would come later.

I wonder, though, whether BL could have done something more clever about the branding? The decision to use the Triumph name was perhaps a little cynical, and probably attracted and repulsed potential buyers in comparable numbers. What it BL had introduced a new brand for the project, like GM were to do with Geo several years later? “Acclaim by Leyland” might have worked. What do you reckon?

(Disclaimer: All images are of original manufacturer publicity materials, photographed by me. Copyright remains property of, oh I don’t know, BMW? Could be anyone, really. Actually, the rebirth of a the Triumph brand is a fantasy I daydream and doodle about with alarming frequency)

  • I Think Not

    It's a kind of bittersweet thing, isn't it? On the one hand, I can't help but approve of more Hondas in the world — but on the other, it feels as though BL, storied and with plenty of memorable marques and cars to its name, was throwing up their hands and declaring they just damned well couldn't do any better, so they might as well just get in on the Japanese action.

    Also, I had to find out more information about that Avon Acclaim, so I did, and here's a bit of what I found for the rest of you:

    <img src="http://www.aronline.co.uk/images/avonacc_04.jpg"&gt;
    <a href="http://www.aronline.co.uk/blogs/cars/triumph/acclaim/avon-acclaim/” target=”_blank”>http://www.aronline.co.uk/blogs/cars/triumph/acclaim/avon-acclaim/

    • Ate Up With Motor

      Well, British Leyland/Austin Rover Group was stuck in an awkward position: They needed to replace the Triumph Dolomite (which, whatever its problems, had sold pretty well), but BL had been forced to cancel the planned replacement, the peculiar-looking SD2, back when the company had nearly tanked in 1974 and the company still had very little development capital. As for Honda, I think it was a combination of wanting to find new avenues to expand outside of Japan, where they wouldn't have to do battle directly with Toyota and Nissan, in an era when a lot of countries were starting to freak out about the rise of Japanese industry and make ugly noises about trade restrictions (which led a few years later to the various voluntary import limits). Setting up JVs and cooperative agreements with countries in other markets made a lot of sense in that regard.

      • HSA❄

        Right. What Honda got was primarily a way to enter the European market. What's more, they wanted to learn to make their cars appeal more to the Europen customers. If you take a look at the interior of any 1980's Honda, it looks a lot like that of a Rover of the same age. Specifically the instrument cluster mounted on top of a low dashboard tells the kinship, and it's very much different from those of the Toyotas and Nissans.

  • Neen85

    So is the turbo charged version a turbo EN Honda engine?

    BTW I would totally rock one (as I nearly do in my 2nd Gen civic wagon)

  • Van_Sarockin

    Nice 1st gen Accord. An awkward transition into a real older brother for the Civic, but a worthy first step.

    • Ate Up With Motor

      It's not an Accord. The Acclaim is a rebadged Honda Ballade, which was essentially a second-generation Honda Civic four-door sedan with a different grille and taillights. In Japan, the Ballade was sold through Honda's recently founded Verno sales network alongside the Prelude. Other than the minor styling and trim changes, the main difference between the Ballade and Civic sedans was that you could get the Ballade with either the 1.3- or 1.5-liter engine, whereas the original Civic four-door had only the 1.5.

  • StephenJmcn

    It always puzzled me why they made the alloys on the top CD model look exactly the same as the base model's steelies. And the door mirrors were quite enormous.

    • I always wondered this, but it turns out they weren't really Alloys at all, but wheel finishers over the regular steels!

  • Another worthwhile car damned by a name that invited unwelcome comparisons to an iconic predecessor (or in this case, a slew of them).

    Ask the Holden-based GTO how bad that can be.

  • Rover1

    Austin Rover stylists automatically assumed that restyling would go further than repositioning badges and even came up with an answer. But it never went past some drawings by Gordon Sked. The rear looked quite Alfa 90ish.
    <img src="http://www.aronline.co.uk/images/lc8dev_12.jpg"width=550"&gt;
    <img src="http://www.aronline.co.uk/images/lc8dev_11.jpg"width="550&gt;

    • Van_Sarockin

      That's alright. Maybe not enough to justify a reskin, but a big improvement.

  • Hey! Do you use Twitter? I’d like to follow you if that would be
    ok. I’m definitely enjoying your blog and look forward to new updates.