Not their finest hour : Morris Marina and Ital
We take another lighthearted look at some of the cars which will be forever remembered for all the wrong reasons.
Mike Humble takes another journey back in time and recalls the car which should have put him off BL related products for life, but instead, got him hooked…. The Morris Marina and Ital.
Practical classic, or dated shocker?
Milestone or Millstone:
No matter how hard you ponder and think about the worst cars BL threw together, the same three come to mind, for me, anyway: the Allegro, Marina and Maxi. Did the Allegro fail to hit the spot as a result of the way it drove? Probably not, try a decent 1500 or 1750 and you find they drive and go quite well. Same with the Maxi. Okay it looks as pretty as a black refuse sack after a rural Fox has visited the evening before bin day; but once again, ram the lever into top and the Maxi will cruise all day. And in decent comfort. At least with the Austins, they tried a little to offer something different from the norm – with Hydrolastic suspension and front wheel drive. But down the road in Cowley, it was a much different story.
They say the Marina went from drawing board to showroom in record time, and I think it shows – or rather feels it. One of my earliest motoring memories is my Uncle Tony buying a nearly new series 1 Marina 1800 in a vile bottle green colour. He kept it for about three or four years, citing its god awful handling as the main reason for selling it on.
A few years later, my father ran a T-plate 1.3LE two-door, which looked like the GT from a distance, I adored the metallic paint and vinyl roof, along with the cute-looking Cibie Iode 35 driving lamps in the grille. And the ‘coop’ was not a bad styling effort either. Ask it to drive on anything other than billiard table smooth roads at anything more than moderate speed, things got very scary indeed!
The ride or the fright of your life:
Remember that-gut wrenching feeling of terror and panic as a child, running down a grassy hill and not being able to stop? Eventually, your little legs would run away with themselves and suddenly, you would trip over, seemingly bumping and rolling along the hard grass forever before coming to a stop and feeling sick. For me, that pretty much sums up the handling of the Morris Marina.
You don’t need to bungee jump or try parachuting. If it’s unadulterated adrenaline and fear you seek, simply grab the keys to a Marina with tired front dampers and take a fast drive along an undulating country lane in the wet – and remember to take a spare pair of pants with you. Ride comfort? you can pass on that one too with the Marina, being far from anything like a Citroen.
Pushing down on the front wing you would see the bodywork bob up and down like a buoy in the sea which would indicate a soft floppy ride. Yet the low speed quality of ride was truly dreadful and the car would bottom out and crash onto its bump stops easily, especially if a few passengers were on board. Cornering was limited too, fine at normal speeds but apply a quick change of direction on the spindly wheel at speed and all hell was let loose – for those yet to experience a Marina, it really was borderline dangerous. Even the later cars with dual anti-roll bars and modified suspension geometry handled in a similar manner to watching your Physics teacher dance at the school Christmas disco – uncontrolled lurches.
Performance was not what the Marina was all about, though even the little 1275cc could put a decent show on if you were prepared for refinement akin to a washing machine on spin with worn bearings. The larger 1800cc B-Series and later 1.7-litre O-Series were blessed with useful torque and performance along with a more sympathetic axle ratio making high speed running easier on the ear. Rivals like Ford and Vauxhall had slick shifting gearboxes, which even today are held in high regard. But the poor Marina was dogged with an ex-Triumph Herald unit that would baulk and fight against you – especially when coming back down through the ‘box. Some early 1.3-litre models had a terrible issue with clutch judder in first and reverse gear – though cured in later variants.
Morris, the old guard soldiers on:
Later series two and three Marinas (1976 and 1978) seemed better cars, but poor handling and ride, with awful refinement remained a major bone of contention right through the car’s lifetime. Rust was also a huge problem, with many going to the breakers at an early age, thanks to ruined floor pans and major structural corrosion around the jacking points or chassis members. As far as the mechanics were concerned, Marinas were easy to work on. Even the more modern OHC 1.7-litre engine was simplicity itself, requiring nothing more than a roll of old carpet to lay down on and a washing up bowl for that regular oil change.
The Ital came along in 1980, and to be fair, was nothing more than a mild re-skin of the Marina. The 1275cc A-Series was reworked into the A+ and partly thanks to a revised installation, better sound deadening and a viscous cooling fan, became a fairly quiet car with superb fuel consumption. Front and rear light units were changed too. But no matter what was done, it was obvious the Ital was merely a stop gap car until more modern products came along. One of my first cars was an Ital 1700 estate, which cost me all of my apprentice wages. Only the engine was original, thanks to the rear axle failing. The gearbox ate itself, and rampant rust caused the damn thing to disintegrate in front of me.
So in practice anyway, the Marina and Ital were both truly shocking cars – a past remainder of the true low point in the turbulent times of British Leyland. Badly made, badly designed and pitifully out of date, even when launched but brimming with retro charm. Yet I still find myself thinking ‘oh bless’, when I hear that distinctive second gear whine and low rev burble from the tailpipe should a Marina or an Ital clank by. No frills and no nasty surprises (until you turn a sharp bend) the Marina and Ital actually offer a cheap entry into the classic car scene, and thanks to the mechanical simplicity, can be used as an everyday hack.
Proof that time does heal old wounds?