I’m sort of denying myself a bit of fun this week because the car I’m picking isn’t one I have nothing but contempt for. Usually, I like to write these because I can vent righteous vitriol at the most boring, lackluster cars ever slapped together by the hands of defeated humans. This time, I don’t think the car is awful, but it is sort of meh, especially in the context of whose name was on the car: the Triumph Acclaim.
Here’s the thing: the Triumph Acclaim was a Honda Civic four-door sedan. A very rational, well-built, well-designed, sensible car. There’s really very little fault to be found with Hondas of the early 1980s.
And that, right there, that’s both what made this car so great for Triumph, and such a problem.
You see, sensible, rational cars is just not something British automaker Triumph was really known for. Sure, Triumph had made their share of little FWD sedans, the 1300 and the Toledo and cars like that, but Triumph’s soul was all about its fantastic and fun and finicky and sometimes fragile sports cars: the Spitfire, the Dolomite, the Stag, the TRs 2 through 6 and even the wedges of the TR7 and 8.
Triumph did not make meh cars; they didn’t always make technically good cars, either, but they made cars that were full of character, were engaging to drive, and had a traditional British sports car look.
The Acclaim was not like these.
The Acclaim came to be because at the time in the early 1980s, Japan had a voluntary limit of 11 percent market for the total number of European market sales. A way around this self-imposed cap would be to build Japanese cars within Europe, which British Leyland, Triumph’s parent company, realized would be a great way to infuse their aging product line with some new blood. And that blood may not even leak out all over the driveway, constatntly.
British Leyland, parent of Triumph, and Honda began to talk in 1978 about co-developing a new small family car to replace Triumph’s charming but rapidly aging Dolomite sedan.
From what most people could tell, the extent of Triumph’s co-development was figuring out engineering solutions to the tricky problem of how to stick Triumph badges on a Honda. Don’t laugh, there were wreaths involved.
The Acclaim also had slightly nicer seats than the Civic (well, really Ballade, which is what the Civic sedan was called in most non-U.S. markets), and Triumph re-named the Hondamatic three-speed automatic transmission to Trio-matic, which just made everyone roll their eyes.
Other than that, the car was all Honda. It was built in Oxford, sure, but it used the same 1335cc engine as the Civic everywhere, though it did get a pair of carbs instead of one and made a just-fine 71 horsepower.
The build quality was, not shockingly, much, much better than what British Leyland had been producing for a very long time. So much about the Acclaim seemed like an anti-Triumph: it was a well-built, spacious, rational design that was quite understated and conservative, blandly handsome, but also sort of boring.
It didn’t have Triumph’s usual bold styling, even accounting for the loss of the curvilinear exuberance of the ‘50s Triumphs, or the crisp, yet slightly fussy charm of the ‘60s Triumphs. Even by ‘80s more sedate standards, the car felt more like a sensible bowl of oatmeal to the Triumph’s laden-plate full English breakfast.
Now. The meh-ness of the Acclaim comes from how well it works, and from the contrast to the whole history of Triumph. After Triumph’s last home-developed car, the TR7, the Acclaim seemed like Triumph was an old friend you used to party with, but almost OD’d and went to rehab and now just wants to talk you about loan refinancing and how you’re really not drinking enough water.
Triumph tried to capture some of their old excitement in commercials for the Acclaim, mostly through the use of sci-fi movie-style voice overs from actors who didn’t get to be on Dr. Who, soaring synth music, and lots of lights in deep blue fog:
It didn’t really cut it.
The Acclaim itself, though, absolutely did cut it. It was the only car Triumph was selling at all after 1981, and it had less warranty claims than any other British Leyland product. This is one of those cases where the meh car is clearly a good car, but, in the context of a Triumph, it’s a meh car. Which, really, is exactly what Triumph needed at the time.
The Acclaim was the last car Triumph ever built, which is sort of both ending on a high note and ending on a note that screams we couldn’t really hack it anymore.
The Acclaim was the competent, caring new stepfather with a good job, and, really, the kids are way better with him. Even so, he’s not as exciting as the drunk, erratic first old Triumph dad, who was always down for a good time, even if that meant having to walk yourself to school the next morning because he was passed out in a pool of his own sick/had no spark from a Lucas distributor.
This is one of the most conflicted Meh Car Mondays I’ve done. Is this actually a meh car, or just a normally-capable car with a strange adoptive family? I’m honestly not certain. I’m curious to see what you think. And to see how colorfully I can be called an idiot.