Morris Marina (1971 – 1980)


Although not as famous, or in this case infamous, as the Austin Allegro, the Morris Marina has often been placed as a contender for worst car ever made ever, a point I find very confusing when you really think about it. I’ve heard so many people at car shows mention how it was the bane of the British motor industry, how it set us back 20 years and was such a massive failure that it made the Allegro look like a Rolls Royce Silver Shadow in comparison!

But is it true? Is the Morris Marina, that car we all know and love for the various onslaught of spontaneous piano drops, really the most awful thing to come out of Britain’s automotive history?

The Morris Marina was launched in 1971, and immediately inundated with problems, largely because of what it was replacing, that symbolic and beautiful piece of post-war British design, the Morris Minor of 1948. The 23 year old design had long passed its sell-by date, and the Marina was meant to be the superb next step for the 1970’s. The design

The original Morris Marina styling included a split grille.

and styling was done by Roy Haynes, famous also for the facelifted Mini Clubman and the Ford Cortina, and externally the car was, dare I say, quite handsome. I know, shock horror, but despite being considered repugnant by many, I honestly believe the Marina doesn’t actually look that bad, following what appeared to be a design staple of its time with the Hillman Avenger, the Vauxhall Viva and the Ford Escort sharing very similar bodyshapes.

But styling was the least of the Marina’s problems, as in a bid to get the car into production in 18 months, the hashed together design was based almost entirely on the Morris Minor it was built to replace. Essentially, underneath the new 1970’s body, the Morris Marina is nothing more than another Minor, sharing a majority of parts including the suspension, with some models being powered by the BMC A-Series engine from the

An early Morris Marina van, which became quite common among craftsmen.

Mini. In fact many people cannibalized Morris Marina’s back in the 1980’s and 90’s so as to keep their various Morris Minor projects alive due to the high parts compatibility.

Nevertheless, 18 months of development (in spite of the recommended 32) later, the car hit the showrooms on the 27th March, 1971, and was made available across the Commonwealth under a variety of badges during its production life, including the Leyland Marina in Australia, the Austin Marina in North America, and the Morris 1700 in New Zealand. It was also available in a selection of trim tabs, including a 4-door saloon, a 2-door Coupé, a camper variant, a panel van and as a pickup truck.

Much like the Allegro, the Marina did sell well initially, being the 2nd highest selling car in the UK behind the Ford Cortina in 1973, but was not without major public issues to begin with.

During initial reviews the poorly put together press cars suffered from terrible suspension trouble which resulted in the cars finding it near impossible to take corners.

The Marina was also available as a pickup truck, but didn’t sell in any great numbers.

Although this problem was later rectified, 39,000 cars still went out with this original poor suspension without recall to fix these issues.

But after the initial design faults came to light, the production quality faults were the next issue. Much like the Allegro, during strike periods, strike cars left the factories with major components missing, or pieces of trim not in place or not functioning properly, or suffered heavily from malfunctions, be they mechanically or electronically. At the same time the sheer lack of rustproofing on these cars meant that showing them a damp cloth would result in the bare metal brown of death appearing in more places than one.

Even so, the car did continue to sell, and achieve the goal of being basic, simple motoring for the masses despite all its faults, and remained in production until it was replaced by a facelifted version that would become synonymous with lazy ideas.

In 1980, the nine year old Marina was given a new look dubbed the Ital, a name obviously spun to try and draw in the masses for people who thought that this car had been designed by the same people who gave us the Maserati Merak, the Alfasud, the

The Marina went on sale in the United States under the Austin brand. Austin was much more established in America thanks to the Mini.

DeLorean and the Lotus Esprit. In fact the truth of the matter is the Morris Ital was a lie in its name, as ItalDesign had only been asked by British Leyland to provide creative consultancy to the company during development. Although Ital did take a look, the final product was the brainchild of Harris Mann, BL’s chief engineer who had been known for other strange concoctions like the Triumph TR7, the Princess and the Allegro. Not all blame can fall on Harris Mann though, by God I’m sure he tried, indeed many of his preliminary designs for the Allegro and the Princess looked magnificently space-age, but after some watering down by the folks at British Leyland head office, these things were very much less than stellar.

Other than that though, the Morris Ital, for all intents and purposes, was exactly the same as the Marina that preceded it, same running gear, same door panels, same dashboard, same everything, except this time it had big chunky headlights and tail-lights. In fact you could say that the Morris Ital internally dated back to 1948, seeing as a majority of its internal parts were simply handed down from the Minor! Reliability hadn’t improved much and the car was still very basic in terms of equipment. From its launch in 1980 the car was sold as a pickup truck, a van, and a 5-door family estate, although plans for a Sport Coupé were ultimately scrapped. Some cars were also produced in Portugal at the British Leyland factory in Setubal, with these cars being outshopped with 1950’s B-Series engines that gave the dizzying power output of 37hp!

Estate versions of the Marina were extremely popular in the UK, although their profile was somewhat obscure, especially at the rear.

Sales however were reasonable, largely due to its low price and running costs, but its reliability and build quality left a lot to be desired. Eventually only 175,000 cars were produced by the time production ended in 1984, the car being replaced by the new Austin Maestro and Montego. The Ital however does have the distinction of being the last production car to wear the Morris badge as after this no other cars were given this name, although this was briefly placed on the Morris Metro van. The Ital did, for some very strange reason, gain a revival in 1998, when the First Auto Works Group of Sichuan province, China, started building the cars again as the Huandu CAC6430 until the closure of the factory in 1999, another very obscure revival of a British Leyland product, but oddly enough 15 years after the last Itals were built!

Today both Marina’s and Ital’s are near impossible to come by. Of the 809,000 Marina’s built, only 670 remain on the roads, whilst of the 175,000 Ital’s sold, only 174 continue to exist. As mentioned, most Ital’s and Marina’s were taken apart as spares donors for the older and far more popular Morris Minor, seeing as a majority of their parts they shared. This is not helped by the running gag on the BBC car show Top Gear, where whenever a Marina appears on the show it is destroyed by a randomly falling Piano dropped by the helicopter Piano haulage company ‘Careless Airways’.

The classic Marina shape, a staple of 1970’s British car making.

But either way, despite all its criticism, I personally don’t think the Marina is as bad a car as the world gives it credit for. Even the Ital I’ll give some credit as a form of basic motoring, and from some angles it does look quite handsome. Sure it’s basic, not well equipped, slow, unreliable and prone to rusting, but as a small family car that ambles about the countryside, it’s not as bad as some obscure Eastern Block models, and even today holds a place in the hearts of many as either a happy-go-lucky little runabout, or a cautionary tale of how not to build a car.