Saturday, November 03, 2007

The great Anglo-Japanese identity shift

Has it occurred to anybody else that in the mid-1990s Rover and Honda seemed to be trying to swap identities? Although the phenomenon reached its height around 1995, over a year after links were severed, the process must have started when their destinies were still shared.

Several Rover products of the time had the "technologically advanced and sporty" signature of late ‘80s to early ‘90s Hondas, yet were "stand-alone" Rover designs.

Examples were:
  • K-Series Vvti engine – a variable valve timing cylinder head with no Honda input at all.
  • R8 Tomcat – tried to cover the CRX and Prelude markets with one car.
  • R3 – Closer in character to the 92-96 Civic than the Honda’s own successor.
  • And strangest of all the MGF – a grown-up Honda Beat, although it’s unlikely the two cars shared anything other than the odd switch.

For Honda’s part, the mid ‘90s products were characterised by a change of direction when the management decided to face Toyota, Nissan, and Mazda directly instead of producing leading-edge cars which often created market sectors all of their own. It's surely no coincident that the start of the gestation period of this first wave of dull Hondas coincides near-exactly with Soichiro Honda's passing from life in August 1991.

Examples were:

  • 96-00 EJ Civic, possibly the second-dullest Honda ever, replaces the brilliant split-tailgate E
  • The distinctive CRXs disappear to be replaced by a neat but uninspired US-made two door fastback.
  • The prescient Civic Shuttle gives way to the Odyssey, an unremarkable "me-too" MPV.
  • The three-door Accord Aerodeck, a car whose only competitors are the discontinued Lancia HPE and Reliant Scimitar GTE, is replaced by a mainstream five-door wagon.
  • The tall City (original Jazz in the UK) is replaced by the dreary Logo, a car which made the Toyota Starlet look positively alluring.

You get the idea… The Swindon Accord and Civic amply demonstrate that Honda learned the value of one of Rover’s most loyal customer groups, the affluent late middle-aged, and courted them most effectively with not only shiny grilles, wood, leather, and chrome, but also an attentive dealer network.

What’s dispiriting is that the Honda plan worked – they are now the world’s second most valuable car manufacturer. Meanwhile the mid-90s sporting Rovers and MG were merely a entertaining sideshow to the increasingly desperate "English Patient" drama, already unfolding before the last R8 Tomcat left the production line.

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