We often blithely talk about design classics without actually pondering about their effect on society…
Well the Marina doorhandles are most certainly a classic in our times, and as Robert Leitch explains, one that the industry couldn’t get enough of…
The Wilmot Breeden Syndrome –
Life and times of the Marina doorhandles
Innovative, distinctive, much-imitated, a minor design classic
NONE of these are words even the most ardent ADO28 aficionado could credibly apply to the Morris Marina, yet they could all describe one relatively minor component, the car’s vertically-hinged door handles. Flush-fitting they may have been, but they stood out visually from the otherwise curiously familiar coachwork like escapees from the carrozzeria aisles of an international motor show.
In the manner of the true design classic, they were to take a life of their own far beyond their original application, appearing on a startlingly wide spectrum of vehicle types for nearly three decades after the Marina’s launch in April 1971. Towards the end of the 1960s, legislation and fashion were reshaping door-handles. Statutory pedestrian protection and anti-burst requirements would bring an end to the streamlined blade-like push-button creations of the 1950s and early 1960s, often discreetly integrated into chrome strips and swage lines, and would usher in instead a variety of near-flush flap handles.
Fiat’s finely detailed chromed handles on the 124, 125, 127 and 128 were trend-setters, bringing a touch of the exotic to day-to-day cars. In Britain, the Hillman Avenger and Ford Cortina Mk III followed the Italian example, probably driven more by US federal legislation than the emulation of Latin flair. The door handle, our first point of tactile contact with any car, had become a design statement in itself, rather than an apologetically concealed necessity.
The Marina’s handles appear to have arrived well into the project’s evolution – as well as showing significant Vauxhall Viva influence, this 1969 prototype is fitted with rather Volkswagen-ish door furniture. In its less eclectic production form, ex-Ford designer Roy Haynes’ saloon and coupe transparently displayed the influence of Ford’s Escort Mk.I and Cortina Mk.II – the doorhandles were one of the few elements utterly alien to the Dagenham visual vocabulary.
A search of the European and Japanese production cars and design concepts of the period immediately preceding the Marina’s launch, reveals few precedents for these distinctive door-handles. Two from the pen of Marcello Gandini at Bertone may have been inspirations, but they appeared only around a year before the Marina went on sale. The handle on the production version of the Alfa Romeo Montreal is similar in principle if not in proportion. Appearing at the Geneva Show of Spring 1970, this particular feature differs totally from the near-invisible fitment on the prototype shown at the Canadian Expo in 1967.
The Lamborghini Urraco exhibited at the Turin Show in the same year has a similar handle. The baby Lamborghini was to be a huge influence on all mid-engined supercars which followed, but the case for it inspiring the designers at Longbridge is not proven.
Both the Alfa and Lamborghini handles are a little too sculptural and playful in their proportions. The Italians were unable to resist entirely the temptations of the sinuous and the sensuous – the Marina handle differs in evincing an expressive but functional Bauhaus rigour – oversized and near-symmetrical with a textured alloy faceplate contrasted against the matt black finger recess in an industrial designer’s chiaroscuro.
The blocky but pure geometry and use of texture suggest a designer familiar with thinking beyond the narrow mid-Atlantic scope of much British automotive design at the time. Dieter Rams’ work for Braun in the 1960s shows a similar use of pure orthogonal shapes and softened corners, and even closer in thought to the Marina handle is an iconic Italo-German collaboration, Marco Zanuso and Richard Sapper’s 1964 T502 Cubo radio for Italian manufacturer Brionvega.
However, it’s a fair assumption to make that with Harris Mann and to a lesser extent, Roy Haynes, both influenced by the US car industry, the design for the Marina’s handles actually came from Stateside. As part of the feedback process for the first release of this piece, we had several suggestions that the major inspiration for the doorhandle design came from American Motors.
Looking at the AMC range from 1968 – starting with the AMX, it’s clear that the Americans were indeed the first to adopt the design.
Part of the corporate furniture
It was no surprise that the Marina’s handles would also feature on the 1973 Austin Allegro. When the Triumph TR7 was introduced in 1975, initially only for the lucky Americans, the same handles sat far more comfortably on its wedge-shaped flanks than any of us might have expected. If further evidence is required that the fitments were intended for a highly diverse range of Leyland applications, witness their appearance on this 1971 CV154 van prototype.
With their US federal approval and distinctive design, the handles were soon appearing on more expensive and sporting machinery. In May 1974 Lotus introduced the striking new Elite, their first four-seater, featuring a pair of Marina door handles, undisguised in any way to conceal their lowly origin. The Eclat and Esprit followed, and Reliant adopted the handles for their 1975 Scimitar GTE SE6.
The destiny of the Marina handles as a 1970s Leyland corporate motif seemed less certain as the 1975 Princess and 1976 Rover SD1 appeared with quite different horizontally hinged flap types. In mid-1980, it really seemed that they could be outlived by the car on which they first appeared, when the Morris Ital arrived with completely new horizontally-hinged flush fitting handles amongst a host of visual ameliorations memorably described at the time by the Financial Times’ James Ensor as ‘combing the hair of the corpse’.
Elsewhere in the BL body corporate, moves had been afoot which would see the ubiquitous door furniture attain something close to immortality. In 1981, an astonishing eleven years after the original three-door’s launch, an official five-door Range Rover finally went on sale, featuring the vertically-hinged Marina handles. Remarkably, the first known five-door prototype, from 1972 also used the handles. Parts rationalisation, and perhaps a little sentimental attachment, ensured that although the Range Rover application ended with the arrival of the 1995 P38A, the handles remained a fitment to the Discovery for a further three years until the Series II edition appeared.
The designer of the Marina handle would have been flattered by the number and variety of imitations which appeared in the years which followed its first appearance. The 1978 Peugeot 305 had a shameless copy which was also used on the 1979 505. Before this, Fiat’s 1972 132 used a strikingly similar handle, as did Alfa Romeo, firstly on the 1976 Alfasud Sprint, then on the larger 1977 Giulietta and its 75 and 90 successors.
Japan’s contribution appeared on the 1982-85 Toyota Celica A60. The handle design was sufficiently close to the Marina item in size to allow its substitution on the 1985 Lotus Excel. Lotus were owned by Toyota at the time, and the front-engined Excel was a heavily-updated final iteration of the 1974 Elite, altered to utilise the parent company’s parts wherever possible.
Lotus’s rejection was but a minor rebuff in the distinguished career of a set of components which would still be in large-scale use twenty-seven years after their first appearance on an inexpensive fleet saloon, remarkable only by default for the unadventurousness of its styling and engineering.
Is the Editor of the Parkers website and price guide, formerly editor of Classic Car Weekly, and launch editor/creator of Modern Classics magazine. Has contributed to various motoring titles including Octane, Practical Classics, Evo, Honest John, CAR magazine, Autocar, Pistonheads, Diesel Car, Practical Performance Car, Performance French Car, Car Mechanics, Jaguar World Monthly, MG Enthusiast, Modern MINI, Practical Classics, Fifth Gear Website, Radio 4, and the the Motoring Independent...
Likes 'conditionally challenged' motors and taking them on unfeasible adventures all across Europe.