Triumph Acclaim

When a proud name is in decline, should you turn to Japan for help? Triumph did
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Indy Lifestyle Online

The Triumph Acclaim is the sort of car that really winds up folk in the classic car "movement". What's to like, they ask? It was just a re-badged Honda Ballade. It was designed in Japan, not Coventry, and it is about as far removed from a thoroughbred Triumph as it is possible to get.

You want more? It was unremarkable to drive, and not remotely in the best sporting traditions of the Triumph company (or the Honda company, for that matter). It didn't look that great, being more or less a contemporary Civic with a boot tacked on the end of it.

The cars tend not to be welcomed like long-lost sons at gatherings of Triumph enthusiasts. I hear that Acclaims, if they're allowed in at all, tend to be ushered into a remote corner, embarrassing reminders of what became of a once-glorious marque. It was the last car to wear the Triumph name (which is now owned by BMW, as it happens).

Except that the Triumph marque wasn't always that glorious. It only started making cars in 1923 (late for a British name). For a while, Donald Healey was there engineering some nice ones before the Second World War, but Triumph was bust by 1939. After the war it was reborn, starting almost from scratch, thanks to a takeover by Standard and what was then Leyland Motors. That's how Triumph came to be part of British Leyland, or BL.

During its glory years, Triumph was responsible for such much-loved classics as the Herald, the Spitfire and the TR series of sports cars. The company did a great job of exporting them to America and the Commonwealth.

Somewhere, though, things went wrong and, like most of British Leyland, Triumph had pretty much had its day by the end of the 1970s. The Dolomite range was old, the Spitfire even older and the TR7 younger but compromised by poor-quality controls and challenging styling. What to do with this respected but superannuated badge?

Save it, was the answer, and in doing so save what was still our biggest motor manufacturer, BL. So Michael Edwardes, the charismatic chairman of BL, flew out to Japan on Boxing Day in 1979 to finalise a deal with the Honda Motor Company that would see BL build a Honda under licence.

A deal was urgently needed. BL's market share was plummeting and its mid-market cars - the Austin Allegro, Morris Marina and Dolomite - were beginning to look aged and incompetent against the likes of the Volkswagen Golf, the Ford Cortina and Escort and the burgeoning imports from Japan. Honda was thought to be an ideal partner because, at that time, it was about the same size as BL in production terms, was product-led and had a tradition of front-wheel-drive engineering, just like the home player. In those day both companies made about 600,000 cars a year; now Honda produces in excess of 3 million a year, and BL... well, we know what happened there.

As a replacement for the Dolomite, the Ballade/ Acclaim was similar in size and appeal, a comparatively lively performer in a conservative sedan body.

The Tory government of the time was a bit perturbed about the prospect of a Japanese "invasion". Margaret Thatcher, left to her own devices, would have been quite happy to see BL and its communist shop-stewards go to the wall, but some of her ministers and civil servants were more patriotic, or soft-hearted, or both. They fretted about the hollowing-out of British manufacturing industry, but it was Edwardes himself, who was driving a prototype Austin Maestro at the time, who reached the conclusion that BL had, in any case, just about lost the ability to design its own cars.

The Japanese agreed to the deal, and the Acclaim was ready for production in record time. In fact, many components on the car were made in Britain, and it became, inevitably, BL's most reliable model; proof perhaps that what was wrong with the British car industry was the quality of its designers and managers rather than its workers.

It was the first of many Honda-derived or jointly developed models produced in a spirit of ever-closer cooperation until British Aerospace, which had taken over BL/Rover Group in 1988, sold out to BMW in 1994, without so much as a word of warning or thanks to the Japanese. No more "Rondas" were conceived after that, though the Rover 45/MG ZS that was still being built at Longbridge when it went down two years ago still owed something to a Honda Civic.

Indeed, the Rover Group as a whole owed quite a lot to the Honda/Triumph Acclaim. I have a bit of a soft spot for the car, because I learnt to drive on a Triumph Acclaim. I started on Ford Escorts and Fiestas and moved on to the Acclaim when I changed to another driving school.

The Acclaim was a bit of a revelation after the Mark 2 Ford Escort Popular. It was plush. It had crushed velour seats. It had lots of switches and buttons. It had tinted glass. It was snuggly and comfortable and immediately made you feel at home. It made driving lessons much more fun and, while I wasn't testing the dynamic limits of the Acclaim, I was able to see why it was, even then, so favoured by pensioners; easy to drive, and reliable. (In due course, the instructor sold the Acclaim and bought a Polski-Fiat. I was mortified, though I still passed my test in it.)

Nowadays you rarely see an Acclaim, but when I do glimpse one for sale on eBay I always feel a twinge of affection and an itch to buy it. The top-of-the-range CD model was expensive in its day and well appointed ("Totally Equipped to Triumph", went the slogan), but these days tidy examples can be picked up for a few hundred quid. For all the good the car did, it's just not loved, you see.

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