The Carchive: The MK2 Honda Ballade

Welcome back to the Carchive, where we look at the dealer literature of the past through the magnifying glass of hindsight, and give me an excuse to hoard vast quantities of old crap into the bargain.
The ’80s were a fascinating era for cars, with lots of great new ideas and crazy blind alleys being explored, sometimes with lasting resonance. Then you get peculiar stylistic and developmental tangents which seemed like a good idea at the time. Today we look at the nothing-if-not-individual 2nd generation Honda Ballade.

“The starting point for the design and development of the Ballade was Honda’s unique ‘M.M Philosophy’. It’s a philosophy of minimum space for mechanical components.”
The Ballade name became associated with a booted version of the Civic in 1980, with the sedanised Civic being built in the UK with minor changes as the Triumph Acclaim, a car which I’m (perhaps misguidedly) very fond of. That car, the last to carry the rapidly devaluing Triumph name, disappeared for the 1984 model year. This new Ballade became its de facto replacement.
In the same way as the old machine had been tarted up for British tastes, the new car was to form the basis for a new entry-level Rover. The project name was SD3 and it eventually brought us the Rover 200 series, marking the next stage in the relationship between Austin-Rover and Honda.
From the perspective of design, just as the Civic had evolved, the new Ballade was a far more contemporary product than the dowdy old one had been.
“The conventional ‘three box’ saloon has been with us for years. But with the Ballade, Honda have broken the mould and created a car whose classic lines achieve a timeless, understated elegance”
Beauty is, as we have discussed on here zillions of times, definitely a subjective thing. Though the nose of the Ballade had all the slimline, streamlined low-profile attributes we were beginning to expect of modern European and Japanese cars, the side profile was something of a shock. It was certainly contemporary; you could see how the roofline and trunklid outline had been arrived at through the expedient of maximised space efficiency, but timeless, understated elegance was possibly a bit of a stretch.
If anything the outline, with its steeply raked rear screen puts me in mind of an MN12 Mercury Cougar, or a ’70s Cadillac. Certainly something American. Maybe an ’89 Pontiac Grand Am? The last thing it looked like was a Rover, but that wasn’t going to stand in the way of the Austin marketing people.


“Settle yourself behind the wheel of the Honda Ballade and one of the first things you’ll notice is the feeling of being in complete command”
It was a very fuss-free layout, everything neatly contained on one control-shelf, for want of a better phrase. The instrument binnacle was clear and well stocked with warning lights should your Honda turn into a Rover all of a sudden, even if the stereo was so far offset to the left a passenger could end up performing DJ duties.
The Rover version of this car was typically much better equipped than the Honda. EX specification was roughly equivalent to the Rover SE trim, and there were Vanden Plas and Vitesse models more senior in the range. A Vanden Plas would come with slabs of reasonably convincing wood nailed in strategic places, and a centre console playing host to better sited controls for the electric windows and stereo setup. Leather Trim was near obligatory.
The Vitesse, by the way, was related in name only to the SD1 with that name applied. We’re talking appearance, gearbox and suspension changes only.
“The Ballade’s suspension system has also been designed to take up the minimum amount of room while providing agile handling with limousine levels of ride comfort over all surfaces”
“Designed to” was the operative phrase here, just as the Edsel Citation was “Designed to” be a desirable car which would stand the test of time and not be referred to mockingly for years to come. In reality the Honda Ballade ride was very much in the traditional Honda mould, e.g absolutely nothing like a limousine. Unless we’re talking about a stretch Town-Car with the springs removed and the shock absorbers welded up.
Of course, this affected the Rover, too. However generous the interior equipment might have been the driving experience wasn’t quite the featherbed that Rover clientèle wanted.
This didn’t seem to matter though, and the Rover 200 sold extremely well, massively outselling the Honda probably owing to the widespread Rover sales and service network. The Rover badge pulled people in, and once they took ownership the Honda build quality and engaging road manners appealed. So the lack of Roverness to the actual product actually turned out to be a blessing.
Of course, there had to be SOME home grown content, so Rover installed their own 1.6 S-Series engine (as well as the Honda 1.3) in lieu of the clever Honda 1.5 unit. Just ‘cos.
“From any standpoint- style, luxury or performance- the Honda Ballade offers an altogether higher standard of motoring that ordinary saloons find hard to match”
One of my schoolmates had one of these and I have to say I was quite impressed with its ground-covering speed. He was not a graceful driver but the Ballade responded obediently to his scruff-of-the-neck inputs, and that triple-valve engine (his was the carburetted EX with 85 very willing horsepower, as opposed to the fuel-injected 100hp EXi) was enough to hurl the Honda fairly impressively down the road. But of course, I was seventeen and probably quite easily impressed.
It shouldn’t have been too much of a surprise that these were quite good to drive, though. The Ballade name also begat the CRX which remains pretty legendary to this day for its willingness to be abused on a twisty road. After this generation of Ballade it was decided the name was silly, its replacement the Concerto went on to form the basis of the next generation Rover 200. But that’s a scintillating story for another day.
(All images are of original manufacturers publicity material, photographed by me. Not very well, and especially badly in that blurry dashboard one. I’ve got a new ‘phone, you see, and I haven’t really got my head around it yet. Copyright remains property of Honda Motor Co)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

The maximum upload file size: 64 MB. You can upload: image, audio, video. Links to YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and other services inserted in the comment text will be automatically embedded. Drop files here

  1. dukeisduke Avatar

    That had to be one of the goofiest model names I'd ever heard of – Super Snipe pales in comparison. It's almost TMI.

    1. Hatchtopia Avatar

      I'm just trying to figure out how to pronounce it. In my mind, it's something fancy, like "buh-LAY-d" or "buh-LAH-day"

      1. Peter Tanshanomi Avatar
        Peter Tanshanomi

        It's pronounced "BALL-ade." Like testicle sweat fortified with electrolytes.
        (Just kidding, I have no idea how to pronounce it either.)

      2. Vavon Avatar

        Ballade; French word, meaning; stroll, short walk, or shortish drive.
        Pronounciation: BA-lad (short A like in "LA")
        EDIT: crap, that's Balade with one L…
        Ballade is a song or a poem… What a ridiculous name for a car!
        Pronounciation: Ba-lade (it ends a bit like the sound "duh").

  2. mdharrell Avatar

    "…the Triumph Acclaim, a car which I’m (perhaps misguidedly) very fond of."
    No, that's fine; I wouldn't mind having one of those myself. Your views are therefore perfectly normal.

  3. Devin Avatar

    Used to own an '84 Civic, though in hatchback form, and I've got to admit every time I see one I kind of wish I still did.

    1. 993cc Avatar

      Still have an '87 Civic wagon, driven summers only as a cottage car. Still great fun to drive, but the frame is reaching the no-longer-weldable-to-pass-inspection stage.