The Last Triumph
By Andy Bannister
Nowadays the memory of the Triumph marque is fast-fading except among diehard fans of classic British roadsters. Most enthusiasts will tell you that the last of the line was the controversial wedge-shaped TR7 and its faster TR8 sister, which petered out back in 1982.
In Britain and continental Europe, however, there was one final Triumph car, the Acclaim, an unremarkable-looking little four-door which was, in its own quiet way, a motoring revolution.
Triumph, once a very promising name fit to be mentioned in the same breath as BMW and Alfa Romeo, was yet another of the casualties of the industrial catastrophe that was British Leyland. Despite being best known in North America for mechanically simple, open-topped sports cars, it also once had a thriving trade in sporting saloons.
By the close of the 1970s, though, Triumph was in a pretty desperate state. The rather brave TR7 design was dying on its feet due to poor quality control at a strike-prone factory, and the company’s other sporting roadster, the tiny Spitfire, was an archaic throwback to the 1960s. The company also had an ageing range of small saloons, badged Dolomite.
State-owned British Leyland was desperately trying to keep its head above water and had ploughed all its efforts into a new range of front-drive Austins, the first of which was the ultra-small Metro hatchback of 1980, which proved an unexpected sales hit.
There was, therefore, no money at all to replace the elderly Dolomite, a deeply dull-looking four-door which in 1300cc and 1500cc form sold mainly to retired people who appreciated its traditional appearance and interior, complete with walnut dashboard.
British Leyland’s Chief Executive, Sir Michael Edwardes, hit on the idea of borrowing a design from another manufacturer to replace the Dolomite and keep customers coming into the company’s showrooms while they waited for the bigger and supposedly high-tech front-wheel-drive Austins due from 1983 onwards.
This was, of course, a far cheaper solution than developing a new car from scratch, and the once-proud company had fallen so far that few would quibble with the wisdom behind such a move. At the time it was touch-and-go whether the new government of Conservative Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, would continue to bankroll the chronically loss-making company, which was a hotbed of the socialist trade unions Thatcher so despised.
Leyland’s first choice of partner was just across the English Channel in the shape of Renault, which was undergoing significant expansion and was hungry to widen its range and gain new sales outlets. Renault was particularly interested in a quid-pro-quo, in the shape of the European marketing rights to Leyland’s successful Land Rover models.
Discussions evolved based on plans for a version of Renault’s upcoming new 9 small saloon to be assembled in Britain and sold by British Leyland, but these somehow never quite came to fruition.
In retrospect, this may have been a good thing, as the 9 turned out to be the blandest Renault in many a long year, and is not fondly remembered for its reliability either, despite winning the European Car of the Year award in 1982.
Leyland’s loss was American Motors’ dubious gain, however. The 9 (and later its hatchback brother, the 11) ended up going into production in Wisconsin as the Renault Alliance and Encore. Instead of Land Rovers, Renault was left attempting to sell Jeeps in Europe, some with ill-suited Renault diesel engines.
It turned out British Leyland had jilted Renault at the altar in favour of a tie-up with the increasingly-successful firm of Honda. The deal struck with the Japanese was far more favourable, with Leyland winning the exclusive right to build and sell the new car in the UK and across the European Economic Community (the precursor to today’s European Union). In contrast, Renault had wanted the British edition of its 9 to be sold in the UK only and even still import its own version of the car as a direct competitor.
The chosen Honda was a saloon derivative of the second-generation Civic, called the Ballade, which had typically staid Japanese styling. It was guaranteed not to frighten off those loyal Triumph Dolomite buyers.
Development of the British version of the car – christened Triumph Acclaim – proceeded at breakneck speed. Stylistically very little was changed, and the smooth 1335cc mechanicals were pure Honda, but the British managed to create a more comfortable interior using local materials, despite the rather cramped dimensions dictated by the very short wheelbase.
The Acclaim was launched in 1981 with the (literally true) marketing slogan “Totally Equipped to triumph”. It was pitched in traditional Triumph territory, as offering something a cut above the usual Ford, Vauxhall or Austin, and soon became a steady seller, particularly in its plush, profitable CD version, which was loaded with equipment.
I said at the start of this article that the Acclaim was a revolutionary car, but not in the sense that it offered anything new or radical. In fact it was one of the most conservative cars British Leyland (a notably daring – some might even say foolhardy – company when it came to radical new designs) had ever put into production.
The Acclaim was a revolution, none-the-less. It brought unerring reliability to a British-made automotive product for the first time in many a long year, and proved that the company’s much-maligned workers could actually successfully build a trouble-free car which made money. Soon they even stopped going out on strike.
It also caused waves far beyond Britain’s shores. At the time the governments of France and Italy, in particular, were still terrified of competition from Japan and had put in place fearsome import controls which kept Far Eastern sales to a minimum.
For them the Triumph Acclaim was a Trojan horse, a means for the wily Japanese to circumvent these import barriers, and they hated the fact that European rules meant there was nothing they could do to stop this British-made car going on sale in their countries. It was the beginning of the end for protectionism and state interference in the auto market.
Despite their vastly different corporate cultures, British Leyland and Honda got on like a house on fire, and the success of what was originally a very modest deal went from strength-to-strength in the next decade and also helped open the doors to other manufacturers following the same road. Japanese firms soon began to think about the possibilities of building their own factories abroad, with a trickle of such cars becoming a flood in very short order.
The Acclaim itself lasted only three years and around 134,000 were sold – a paltry number, by most standards. Despite this, it was the first-ever Triumph to figure in the top 10 bestsellers in the UK, and what was meant to be a stopgap model gained a following that British Leyland could not afford to give up.
It did end up being Triumph’s last hurrah, however. When the Acclaim’s replacement was being readied – based on the next iteration of the Honda Ballade – British Leyland took a look at its cluttered and confusing line-up of badges and, having already just ditched Morris, unsentimentally decided Triumph was another marque too many. The TR7, TR8 and Spitfire had long gone, and a one-model brand made no sense at all.
Leyland became Austin-Rover, and the Acclaim’s replacement therefore carried Rover’s Viking longship badge, and was known as the 213. It was the smallest Rover ever, and continued a fruitful partnership with Honda which flourished for another decade or so until an ill-judged sellout to BMW began the company’s final spiral towards doom.
Today, BMW still hangs on to the Triumph name, and until the recent recession there were periodic rumours of a revival of the brand alongside that other survivor of the British Leyland era, Mini. If a new Triumph ever does come out of BMW it will most certainly not evoke the spirit of the company’s little-recognised last model.
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