In Memoriam : Morris Ital 1.3L Automatic

Mike Humble

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?

Ital dwindling away - the base model 1.3 auto extinct for over 12 years

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 The Marina had benefited from some technical improvement in 1978 with the replacement of the outdated, yet respected 1.8-litre B-Series engine by the new alloy head OHC 1.7-litre O-Series plant.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!

Mike Humble

Mike Humble

Upon leaving school, Mike was destined to work on the Railway but cars were his first love. An apprenticeship in a large family Ford dealer was his first forray into the dark and seedy world of the motor trade.

Moving on to Rover and then PSV / HGV, he has circumnavigated most departments of dealerships including parts, service and latterly - the showroom. Mike has owned all sorts of rubbish from Lada to Leyland and also holds both Heavy Goods & Public Service Vehicle licences, he buys & sells buses and coaches during the week. Mike runs his own automotive web site and writes for a number of motoring or commercial vehicle themed publications
Mike Humble
Posted in: In Memoriam
Mike Humble

About the Author:

Upon leaving school, Mike was destined to work on the Railway but cars were his first love. An apprenticeship in a large family Ford dealer was his first forray into the dark and seedy world of the motor trade. Moving on to Rover and then PSV / HGV, he has circumnavigated most departments of dealerships including parts, service and latterly - the showroom. Mike has owned all sorts of rubbish from Lada to Leyland and also holds both Heavy Goods & Public Service Vehicle licences, he buys & sells buses and coaches during the week. Mike runs his own automotive web site and writes for a number of motoring or commercial vehicle themed publications

29 Comments on "In Memoriam : Morris Ital 1.3L Automatic"

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  1. David Price says:

    Correct – there were a lot of BL-era cars slammed as being dreadful, but which weren’t, like the Princess and TR7.

    However, the Ital was pure unalloyed grot. The Marina from which it came was lowest common denominator stuff when launched 12 or so years before and, aside from the O-Series engine, the Ital was, as you say, just a Marina. The Marina did, at least, have a pretty coupe model and the front end 4 light treatment looked neat and of its time. Sadly, this was dropped with the Ital.

    We Leyland disciples have to be truthful to be credible and the Ital was very poor – even by the standards of the day. Only when we ‘admit’ this, can we be taken seriously when we say certain other Leyland cars were far better than their Top Gear-style ‘bar room verdicts’ suggest.

  2. James Riley James says:

    I have to say that, whilst I agree with all of the points made, I did have an exception.

    Bought in 2007, the 1981 Zircon 1.3L I had was almost Mint, had 60,000 miles on the clock and didn’t miss a beat during the two years I had her – even after sitting for weeks, she fired up first time, drove smoothly and wasn’t too terrifying to drive. She certainly got looks from people, it helps to have such a dodgy car in good condition because people see past the horror and see a fine old gal still running on the road.

    Sadly, in the end, she had to go but not because she went wrong – I just needed something else. I can see though how disappointing the car must have been in 1980. They should have just kept the Marina running until the Montego – the change of name alone must surely have cost already dwindling sales.

  3. David 3500 says:

    I must admit that I have never been a fan of the Marina or Ital although I actually found the updated Ital to be better looking than the original Marina and wished that British Leyland had carried on offering the more stylish Coupe version. Look at the way the dashboard sweeps away from the passenger to give them more legroom – very 21st Century BMW.

    The press photo of the Estate version featured is interesting as, going by its registration number and those issued on Press demo Montegos, it would have been issued very near to the Montego’s launch in April 1984.

  4. The Rockabilly Red says:

    An interesting, if slightly misleading piece. I was a PSF Engineer on the Ital (ADO73 1980 F/L) in my younger days. The Ital was significantly different to a Marina! It might not look it, but it is. Aside from the obvious changes to the skins, even parts like the bonnet hinges, fuel tanks and side repeater lamps are different.

    The fuel filler pipe was a noteable work of genius from Longbridge. The change in vehicle attitude meant that the fuel filler swan-neck could make an airlock, which could cause a blow back up the pipe – soaking the man holding the fuel nozzle in petrol. However, to solve this, Longbridge fuel system engineering added a length of bundy pipe to the filler pipe, to act as a vent. The only problem was that the pipe vented into the boot – filling it with petrol fumes!

  5. Jason18tc says:

    The last Marinas were nice looking cars – the four headlamp arrangement (as previously mentioned) the matt black chin spoiler and flatter rear light clusters (which, I think, found their way onto a Sherpa at some point) took advantage of the Marina’s already clean lines and were a testament to Roy Haynes’ abilities.

    The Ital facelift made it look a bit frumpy although the back end was tidy enough. There must be a reason as to why the radio was designed pointing away from the driver! I think this dash was influenced by an old Morris model, but can’t remember which.

    I believe that the 2.0-litre was only available as an auto due to the current manual ‘box not being up the job but can anyone confirm that?

    Truth be told, I have owned around four or five since 1991 as every day cars and a couple as things to tinker with and never had a problem – in fact, I had a 1700 HLS which was quick and reliable.

    However, with the Cavalier MkII and Sierra on the way, what hope did the Ital have? It was a sort of ‘Tesco Value’ car…

    I’d have one again.

  6. Jonathan Carling Jonathan Carling says:

    I passed my driving test in Septmber 1981, having learnt to drive in my parents’ modern, swift Renault 14TS. I was much looking forward to ferrying my mates around in that when the parents had a buy-British guilt trip and purchased an Ital 1.3HLS – taking delivery the day after I passed my test.

    I had, as a petrolhead, advised them of the folly of their ways (‘buy a Cavalier Mk2 – that’s British too’) but they were determined and so the Ital arrived. I was pretty disgusted, I can tell you!

    It must be said that British Leyland did a good cosmetic job with the Ital. The seats and interior trim were soft and covered in nice material – it even extended to the doors. The car was decently quiet, having benefited from BL’s NVH reduction programme. With the vinyl roof of the HLS, my mother could be heard to say how proud she felt looking at the Ital in the drive. Even my mates sometimes commented on the smoothness of the ride and the comfiness of the seats.

    Those were the reasons the car kept selling. Non-car people, used to the Cortina, Marina, Allegro, Escort etc didn’t know any better and were taken in by a successful cosmetic exercise. I struggled to get it to do 80mph on a dual carriageway whilst impressing a girlie on the way to our French ‘A’ level exam.

    Mind you, it all came to the sad end of course – I had told them so. Several trips to an uninterested dealer to have the choke sorted and glue stains removed from that nice door trim culminated in a £500 bill for a new gearbox at about 15,000 miles. The Ital was replaced by a Volvo 340 and the parents never bought British again – well not until a late 1990s Honda Civic but by that time the world had moved on.

  7. KenS Ken Strachan says:

    Mike, they told us at the time that the reason why the 2.0-litre was auto-only was that the manual gearbox wouldn’t take the torque. This could explain why the prototype for Chinese production had five on the floor…

  8. Angus says:

    My girlfriend had a black 1.3 for ages which I used to drive for a lot of the time. The driver’s seat collapsed and I drove it with a piece of old shelf under the seat to keep it together. The trouble was that made the seat really high so my head was literally touching the roof! The handling was even more interesting sitting “on top of” as opposed to “in” the car!

  9. Will says:

    I seem to recall my dad borrowing a yellow Morris Ital from my uncle. The black vinyl seats were a nightmare on a sunny summer’s day.

  10. Mike Humble Mike Humble says:

    @The Rockabilly Red
    Ah, but that was my whole point – regardless of new hinges, fuel tank et al, it still looked the same and pretty much drove the same as a Marina with all the usual crude faults that came with that.

    • Kev says:

      The real issue was that it was the best we could do with the tiny amount of money we had left in the company. After pretty much every bean had been thrown away on Spen king’s SD1 disaster, the Ital was about all we could manage – it was simply a way of keeping some cash flow until the Acclaim came on stream. You must remember that the Marina was never meant as anything more than a stop-gap, until ADO77 replaced it (and the Triumph sedans). After the massive drain of King’s SD1 debacle, the ADO77 was cancelled, along with any chance of replacing Mini. It also meant the death of Triumph saloons. That left the Marina to soldier on for years longer than it was ever intended to.

  11. Jason18tc says:

    I suppose the Marina was tarted up as the Ital for a bit of a longer run before the Monty. Anyway, basic as the car was in 1971 and scheduled for replacement after just a few years, it still sold a million.

    I think it’s unfair to draw comparisons with what else was out there in 1980 because it was never really meant to be there in 1980! I reckon that, had the design brief for the Marina in 1968 envisaged that it would be still in production in 1984, it would have been a very different car.

    The Ital was a car from another era, a previous generation. I believe that, had road testers tested the forthcoming Montego against a 1971 Cortina and Victor, the Montego would have been world class – does that making sense? Ha! Thought not! Anyway, at least I know what I mean…

  12. Rover Mark says:

    My father had a 1.3 HLS in Silver with the black Vinyl roof and it was a very reliable car and he kept it for a couple of years. The local British Leyland Dealer (Caffyns) serviced it and was quite surprised BY how good it was!

    Incidentally, from what I remember, the 2.0-litre was automatic as the Triumph-derived Longbridge gearbox could not withstand the torque and the larger LT77 five speed gearbox would not fit without altering the floorplan and that was deemed to be too expensive. British Leyland regarded the Ital as a stopgap model until the Maestro arrived.

  13. Dominic Roberts says:

    This isn’t an Ital story but it’s still worthy of a mention. My dad bought a V-reg Marina fitted with a 1.8 diesel lump out of a Sherpa for a massive £250 in 1992. The fuel economy was great but the car would have been better if it hadn’t sprayed a fine mist of diesel under the bonnet. It was brown and, when he hit the brakes, the rear seat used to fall off its mountings. Deep joy!

  14. Hilton Davis says:

    An interesting, thought provoking feature from Mike. One of my company’s clients had a Marina 2 firm’s car in Russet Brown which he loved despite its shortcomings.

    I never cared for the Ital much, but I think the rear end/tail lights design was an improvement. Mind you, that’s more than can be said about the front – I think twin headlights (a’la Allegro 3) would have looked a bit better than the oblong units.

  15. Ken Robinson says:

    I used to work (1964 – 1983) in the BMC Film and Photographic Dept. based in S Block, South Side, Morris Motors, Cowley. I have therefore, as you can appreciate, seen many secret project cars. However, one I liked was a Morris Marina with an ITAL decal underneath the Marina badge – it was a lovely looking car until (with design changes) it was released.

  16. Craig Tetlow says:

    @James
    I totally agree, James – I had a similar experience with my Ital.

    I bought mine as a temporary runabout whilst my Rover SD1 was having a bodywork restoration and found it totally reliable. Its 1.3-litre A-Series engine always started first time and always stayed in tune with no flat spots, coughs or grumbles. My Ital was a 1.3L and so was very basic but it never failed to put a smile on my face when driving it and always got lots of attention. I always regretted selling it.

    I’m too young to remember the Ital being launched but, to be honest reading a lot of different magazines from the time, most journalists weren’t too disappointed by the Ital simply because they never expected too much from it. They weren’t fooled by the name change and understood it to be a cheap stopgap before the Montego. Most magazines were impressed at its mere £5 million makeover, price, ease of servicing and standard equipment – only its handling came in for major criticism.

    The Ital was obviously dated and needed to be replaced by 1984 but I wonder how many loyal MORRIS owners actually traded their’s in for an AUSTIN!

  17. Mikey C says:

    A Marina by any other name would smell just as whiffy.

    British Leyland made a terrible mistake in not replacing the Marina during the mid-1970s – even allowing for the bust finances – when you consider how much money Ford made from the Cortina. Would a new, larger body and some better suspension – could they have pinched something from the TR7 – really have been unaffordable?

    Maybe they should have bitten the bullet after the Cortina Mk3 was launched in the early 1970s and cancelled the Princess to pay for it.

  18. David Dawson says:

    Ultimately crap, yes. However, if viewed as a simple workhorse, not totally pointless. I can remember that an HLS estate in the right colour was even vaguely appealing, but do bear in mind I was eleven years old when the Ital was launched!

  19. Marty B says:

    I for my sins once pootled around in a custard yellow 1.3 Marina estate – what a slow crock of crap it was, with the scariest handling in the world. The Ital? Well, you can’t polish a turd…

  20. Waynos says:

    The Morris Ital was my first ever car – I paid £300 for a five year old example which was an Apollo Red 1.3L.

    I have one particularly vivid memory of mine which involved the backend starting to slide, terrifyingly, at 30mph on a gentle bend which every other car I’ve owned cruises easily round at 50mph!

    I also remember being hit on a country lane by someone driving an Astra Mk2 which struck my rear wheel arch leaving a very small dent. I filled that with Araldite and painted it over but the Astra looked destroyed with the bumper, wing and bonnet all mangled out of shape! The Ital was crap, but it was also pretty strong!

  21. Richard says:

    The Marina did pretty well considering it was only supposed to have a four or five year run.

    My father had two – the last one being a 1.8 TC saloon in Flame Red (I think). Both served him ok(ish) if I remember him correctly although the first one bought in 1972 (a 1.8 Super De Luxe saloon) was ordered in Bedouin (light beige to the rest of us) but, when it came after a wait of two months, it was in Harvest Gold.

    The Dealer shrugged his shoulders and contacted Cowley. The respnse was there’d be a wait of another three to four months for the correct colour. No apologies, just take it or leave it. With that kind of attitude it’s hardly surprising BLMC went bust.

    Anyway, for my sins I bought a nearly-new Marina 1.3HL Coupe in 1980. It was comfortable and spacious, but the choke cable came out in my hand one evening when it had only 6,000 miles on the clock and the cylinder head cracked at about 15,000 miles. My garage did the repair at half price after British Leyland refused to look at the car. A year or so later the garage became a Vauxhall/Opel Dealership.

  22. David Dawson says:

    I was sitting at my desk today and suddenly recalled a comment I had read at the time of the Ital’s launch. It was in the short-lived Company Car magazine (I think that only four quarterly issues were ever published).

    I distinctly remember that the summary included this comment: “With this car, BL are a force”. The magazine obviously recognised the fact that ‘Marina with a freshen up’ would appeal to many Fleet Managers and loyal private buyers alike.

    We should also remember that the Cortina was hardly state of the art, technically speaking.

  23. James Riley james says:

    @Craig Tetlow

    Hey Craig, your Ital story is similar because you sold it to ME!!

    She was a venerable old girl and got more looks than anything else I’ve had. I’d have another if I had the space. Hope your fleet is doing well.

    Cheers

    James

  24. Davey says:

    Don’t forget that British Leyland used to have an advertisement where the punchline was “When its your own money you want a Morris Marina” and although the design goes back to the Morris Minor they did have a point. The 1.3 Morris Marina was by no means as bad as some people make out. The one that I owned was fitted with an Ital engine and the car was easy to maintain, cheap to run and quite fast enough provided that one was satisfied with less than the magical “ton”. There was no infernal timing belt to snap and cause a major upset. The weak rear springs were not to my liking however so a pair of van springs were fitted. Before the Morris I had a Cortina 1.6 estate but IMHO it was a piece of junk with very poor build quality (there was no paint inside the doors for example) It had weak rear springs and that infernal VV carburettor and of course a greatly despised cam-belt. The engine lacked torque and it was very poor in traffic. At the MOT even though the emissions were a pass the smart Alec MOT tester said “Oh I can get it better than that” and leaned-up the mixture. The next morning the grumpy engine almost catapulted me through the windscreen! Clunk Click every trip! Whilst all makes of cars have improved somewhat there are still cheap brands that have no paint inside the doors and hollow box members. To get durability galvanised steel called “Zintec” can be used. Another method is to immerse the body shell in anti corrosive primer. This is called a Full Body Paint Dip. Top brands now give a 25 year anti-perforation warranty and the makers will even guarantee the car for the lifetime of its owner (not for 17 year olds of course!) Caveat Emptor!

  25. Darren says:

    Don’t knock the Ital- it made money for BL/Austin-Rover as did the marina before it.

  26. mark m says:

    My first road car was a Marina 2 1.3 estate in Brooklands Green. Was fine until I upgraded to a MK 3 Escort. That was also fine; until the Escort had to go and I had to go back to the Marina. OMG. What were they smokiing?

  27. Daniel Russell says:

    Remember the Ital and Marina very well, as growing up in Stourbridge, Brierley Hill and Halesowen, I was in BL heartland! My dad had two Marina estates, a 1.8 and a 1.3 (late model 1980 V reg) which were tough workhorses, regularly transporting a family of six and their luggage. My great aunt and uncle had a brand new Ital 1.7 estate in cashmere gold metallic, with brown velour, it looked much more exotic than my dads marina (incidentally looked great in pageant blue) and it was garaged and serviced regularly and polished once a week, I do hope it has survived.
    My best friend’s dad had a Ital 1.7 HL too in chocolate brown and it was their family car for 18 years until it was scrapped and replaced with a montego diesel.
    Love the Marina and the Ital and wish there were some left to preserve as if you had a good one, they were strong as an ox and the estate was so versatile.

  28. Graham Pearson says:

    I remember one of my neighbours having an orange HL or HLS spec Morris Ital with OHC engine and grey hubcaps. Options could have included alloy wheels.

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