In Memoriam : Morris Ital 1.3L Automatic
A look at some of the less likely extinct cars in the UK, according to data supplied by the brilliant How Many Left? website based on DVLA data.
4: Morris Ital 1.3L Automatic – died out in 1998.
Austin Morris lightly revised and re-styled the Marina, while at the same time, dropping the decent looking two door coupe. A new decade, a new name – the 1980 Morris Ital is now just left in penny numbers. Was it really as awful as people thought?
Yes, I will confess to having owned an Ital. Mine started out as an X reg 1.3 HL estate in brown but ended up as a 1.7 HL in British Telecom yellow. I have owned well over 40 cars in 23 years of driving and can hereby now say, on record, that the Ital – or, at least, mine was utterly bad. However, am I perhaps being a bit harsh on the Ital or was it really a heap of average British Leyland metal confirming all that was wrong with the car industry in the 1970s and 1980s?
By the late 1970s Austin Morris was perhaps at its lowest ebb, state-owned and in the spotlight for all the wrong reasons. Michael Edwardes and his gang of senior managers were grappling with the Trade Unions and other forces hell bent on seemingly destroying our car maker’s dreams and fortunes. The Marina was seen by the company as being the rival to the Ford Cortina but, unfortunately for British Leyland, they built a car which was barely bigger than the Escort and, as a consequence, the Cortina simply ran away and hoovered up all the glory and sales. Every version of the Cortina was either a number one or top ten selling car.
Indeed, with the exception of the Range Rover, it seemed that Austin Morris had the reverse of the Midas touch ie: everything they touched turned into a brown smelly mess. The Marina had benefited from some technical improvement in 1978 with the replacement of the outdated, yet respected 1.8-litre B-Series engine by the new alloy head OHC 1.7-litre O-Series plant. No real money was ever available for a new car so updates and improvements were all the Marina was ever going to get and, at best, the Marina could only be regarded as being very average and in some cases – very poor!
The styling was, in fairness, clean and uncluttered and it had a reasonable amount of room inside, was a doddle to work on while having a good sized boot. Its gutsy engines, especially in 1.7-litre O-Series form, offered reasonable fuel economy even if they were a little gruff in refinement. The estate versions were very spacious indeed with the Marina Estate being the chosen model of the self-employed Window Cleaner and Painter/Decorator. Its Achilles heel was its suspension – the ride comfort and handling were nothing short of rubbish, actually border-lining on dangerous. Leaf springs and lever arm front dampers were Victorian compared to its rivals and thank god for its 1980 replacement – the Ital.
The styling was tidied up here and there with big bold front and rear light clusters, new door handles and, erm… not much else. Aha! I hear you cry, what about that awful lever arm/torsion bar front suspension with leaf springs at the rear? Surely they were banished to the pages of history? Well, have no fear reader, the Ital was fitted with that awful lever arm/torsion bar front suspension with leaf springs at the rear. This just went to show how parlous the situation was within Austin Morris at that time – a replacement was on the way, but it would be another four years before its successor – the Montego – would be on line. The Ital was left to limp on like a lame dog.
The Ital’s 1.3-litre engine was now known as the A-Plus unit, which became the engine in the Metro. There were many refinements over the outgoing 1275cc engine such as a stiffer block, improved fueling and very good fuel economy along with a slight hike in power, up to 60bhp from 57bhp. The larger 1700cc unit remained unchanged with the exception of some minor production detail work whilst the same applied to the cumbersome Triumph-derived manual gearboxes. Interiors were little changed from the later Series 2 Marina cars with only different seats being noticeable to the eye. How then, did the Ital still manage to soldier on and continue to sell after being so little improved over the outgoing Marina?
Well, that’s quite simply because the Ital was cheap to buy, came well equipped, offered a reasonable turn of speed and needed little more than the most basic of servicing. Fleet managers liked the Ital because of its simplicity – it was fairly reliable and had conventional running gear, while Joe Public liked its plain interior with no frills, its big boot and, especially in 1.3-litre form, good fuel consumption. Indeed, for the first couple of years of its production run, the Ital sold in fairy respectable numbers, never coming near to the ever conquering Ford, but enough to make a modest profit. That said, the Ital was a ghastly affair in the grand scheme of things.
The Ital, on launch in 1980, was offered with three power units 1.3-litre, 1.7-litre and 2.0-litre with the latter only available in auto form. Trim levels were L , HL and HLS with automatic options available on the two smaller engines. The base model Ital L 1.3 auto became extinct in 1998 but, in fairness, never sold in massive numbers. The A-Plus plant struggled to offer any kind of performance when allied to the three speed Borg Warner slush box and a top speed of somewhere near 90mph was about all you could expect with acceleration to 60mph being painfully slow. The Ital offered little more over the outgoing Marina and, even at its launch, was hopelessly outdated, outclassed and quickly running out of time. The Morris Ital was finally put against the wall and shot in 1984.
My own Ital did nothing but conk out, play up and give me a never ending headache. Its call of death came after towing a mates Toledo home after his clutch fork snapped and for no reason and with no warning, the gearbox became jammed into second. Looking back, it was funny to see two crippled Leyland cars in the same street!