Blog : Thirty years ago this month – Morris Motors RIP

Carole Nash Classic Insurance Specialists

Keith Adams

Ital was the final passenger car to wear the Morris badge
Ital was the final passenger car to wear the Morris badge

July 1982. It’s a long time ago now. In fact, more than a generation distant from where we are now. Back then, the talk was of recession, the Falklands War, and Bucks Fizz. And although hadn’t quite quite escaped the last vestiges of 1970s bleakness, the more visionary among us could see a bright new cellular driven future was just beyond the horizon. The modern world was tantalizingly close, the greyscale of the ZX81 was about to be overtaken by the full colour Spectrum.

BL’s management clearly felt that Morris wasn’t supposed to be part of this brave new world, and announced that it would be canning the marque – by leaving its only remaining passenger car, the Ital, to see out its years as the last of the breed (the Morris 310 Metro van would continue until 1985). It seemed a sad end for what was once the UK’s major players, especially as it was responsible for some of the UK’s brightest automotive stars – the ‘Bullnose’, the Minor, the Eight and the Mini-Minor were all important landmark cars, and continue to be loved to this day.

But Morris was an innocent victim of the ongoing retreat of British Leyland, and the latest in a long line of marques to shuffle off this mortal coil, following Austin-Healey, Riley, and Wolseley. At the time, it must have seemed like BL was cutting out Morris in order to strengthen Austin, Rover and Triumph, but clearly the company, under the control of Ray Horrocks and Harold Musgrove had a great many battles left to fight.

It was a sad end for Morris, though, given that a mere 10 years earlier, things looked so promising for BL’s Ford alternative and its Cortina-battling model, the Marina. That car has earned itself a reputation for being a little bit, er, rubbish – but back in the early 1970s, the Marina actually squared up to its rivals pretty well. Yes, the Cortina MkIII was rather larger and featured the new (to Europe) Pinto OHC power units, but it also suffered from all manner of refinement problems (NVH is a term that was popularised by the Cortina) and running problems with the Pinto. Compared with this, the Marina’s formative years went very smoothly indeed.

But where the Cortina evolved and improved, the Marina stalled and stagnated – and by the point it should have been replaced by the ADO77 project in the mid- to late-’70s, it continued on largely unaltered (the Marina 2 – ADO73 – should have been a thorough facelift, but even that was toned down to become a mere engine replacement job) until the arrival of the Ital in 1980. And even that was a light facelift. So, no, the Marina wasn’t a bad car – it just went on too long in an era of rapid change, and the world’s faltering steps into the modern age.

So when the final Ital rolled off the Longbridge (not Cowley) production line in 1984, it was a contemporary of such cars as the aerodynamic C3 generation Audi 100, Ferrari Testarossa and Peugeot 205GTI. Hard to believe. But that’s generation-bridging for you… and ultimately that’s why Morris had to die. It no longer had a place in the world of the Ferguson TX, Duran Duran and Ghostbusters.

Funny thing is that now – in an age of recession, possible war and dreadful Eurovision performances, a back-to-basics marque like Morris could fit in rather nicely. I have a suspicion that Renault’s iteration of that theme – Dacia – is going to flourish (and probably outsell its parent) in these sticky conditions. Wouldn’t it have been nice if we could offer something of the same ilk, called Morris Motors?

Keith Adams

Keith Adams

Editor and creator AROnline at AROnline
Created www.austin-rover.co.uk in 2001 and built it up to become the world's foremost reference source for all things BMC, Leyland and Rover Group, before renaming it AROnline in 2007.

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.
Keith Adams

36 Comments

  1. I’m sure I read somewhere that the last Morris was a Morris Metro van? Or is my memory playing tricks? (often happens!)

  2. I always felt the Marina/Ital was more comparable to the MkII Ford than the ‘flashier’ styling of the MkIII.
    As for driving, (and the figures may tell me otherwise) the Fords seemed to be faster and handle better. This came at the expense of being relatively thirsty, but back then it didn’t matter too much to those of us who were working and living at home, and petrol was effectively cheaper.
    The equivalent Vauxhalls were getting old and due for replacement, but were solid and comfortable.
    Morris needed something with a ‘wow’ factor or something to appeal to older drivers – ‘a touch of class’.
    Either that or a repmobile for the fleet managers, big enough for samples, fast/powerful enough to get round some large sales areas, comfortable enough to cover those high mileages and cheap enough to discard after two or three years depending, and reliable.
    It didn’t happen, the Japanese were getting their act together, Europe were also invading and traditional British was on it’s way out.

  3. Morris had to die really. The public weren’t stupid. The Marina and Ital destroyed what little credibility the Morris name had, and BL needed to get rid of anything that reminded the punters of the strike ridden joke that they had become. The Montego & Maestro came about 3-5 years too late to make an impact, but if they had pulled their fingers out, both of these could have worn the Morris badge. Even the Metro could have been a Morris to be honest

  4. Morris had to die really. The public weren’t stupid. The Marina and Ital destroyed what little credibility the Morris name had, and BL needed to get rid of anything that reminded the punters of the strike ridden joke that they had become. The Montego & Maestro came about 3-5 years too late to make an impact, but if they had pulled their fingers out, both of these could have worn the Morris badge. Even the Metro could have been a Morris to be honest

  5. It is a shame, after Rover I have always felt the strongest connection to Morris.

    I think Dacia despite not even selling 1 car yet is near outselling Renault, it’s been a while since I saw a new one.

  6. At least the Morris name is being rehabilitated by SAIC with their branding of Morris Garages underpinning the new MG ( better than the Zmodern Gentleman brand that the clowns at Nanjing came up with). So maybe it is a possibility, Morris could be the budget brand, with Roewe and MG as the luxury and sporting brands.

    I would rather a Morris over a Hyundai anyday.

  7. I never understood why the brands were not merged together after the Ryder report. An Austin-Morris brand with a smaller range (Mini, Marina, Princess) would have cut costs at a time when it needed it. By dropping the lame duck of an Allegro and the Maxi, and invested in proper facelifts and the introduction of the M cars properly, it may have lasted a lot longer

  8. The Ital should have never been launched really. If the money spent polishing the turd that was the Marina had been spent on the Montego & Maestro, they could have probably brought the launch forward about a year-18 months.

    And the 2.0 was only available as an automatic? couldn’t the gearboxes handle a 2.0 engine?

  9. @8, daveh,

    I think they should have facelifted the 1100 instead of developing the Allegro, spent a little more money (practically pennies really) on getting the Marina to handle properly, and developed the Aquila and the Pininfarina to replace the Maxi and the 1800 respectively (would have been cheaper than developing the Princess, since both the Maxi and the 1800 were fully developed). Also developed the promising Issigonis 9x thus replacing the Mini.

    Oh, and banging Triumph’s engineering and management’s heads together to get them to accept the Rover V8 for the Stag.

    But hey? Hindsight is a wonderful thing.

    Even if they had just got the Marina’s suspension to work better it would have been a more profitable car, and made the Ital (should they have felt the need to go on to produce
    it) less of a laughing stock. Particularly if that car or its Marina predessessor have proved to be a good rally car.

  10. @ Chris – I think your right about pre Ryder. The 1100 or the 9X could have been the basis of a range of small cars, and the 1800 receiving th same facelift as the Australian Kimberly would have given BL a range of cars to fight the opposition. Shame we ain’t got a time machine….

  11. @10 the harris mann design of the allegro was perfect,it was the production engineers and bean counters that gave us the allegro we know today.

  12. @Mike Humble 7

    I never realised that they did a two litre Ital! My God, that must have been a frightening thing to drive…

  13. @16

    So the two litre was an auto! I can just imagine it changing down mid-bend, yep a scary experience in one of those no doubt.

    The Marina/Ital was a horrible thing. At least the (equally horrid) Allegro was trying to be modern.

  14. The whole Austin/Morris thing should have been sorted out at the start of BMC but wasn’t for various reasons all documented through this site. I think that lingering rivalry (even if just in perception) was extremely damaging to BMC/BL over the years.
    So often BL got it right but too late. Marina was right but the rivals were launching a whole new generation. A failure often repeated.
    As for the Ital – a mistake in marketing. We know why it was done but it just shouldn’t have been.
    Kind of off-Morris-topic. The Allegro wasn’t nearly as bad as the pr has painted it (my brother had three including an automatic). Allegro 3 was a very good package, unfortunately that was the car that was required when the Allegro was first launched.

  15. When I think back, that Marina Estate was a good load carrier and well loved by those who needed the space. A feat repeated with the brilliant Montego Estate. Sometimes BL got it absolutely right.

  16. To me, the Ital was a sign that things were finally happening. The first sign of a product led recovery. Despite its obvious and quite major shortcomings the Ital did have some appeal, purpose.

    Looking at the photo above… The vinyl roof! How times have changed!

  17. Although the Marina & Ital were lacklustre cars to say the least, it seems that we are more affectionate of them now, thirty years on. The Ital didn’t set the world on fire in its looks but the rear photo view (yellow one) with those large tail lights doesn’t look too bad – or does it?

    Tis a shame that Morris is no longer with us except in memory (or Morris Garages/Middle East?)

  18. But in the time it took BL to go from Marina to facelift Marina to the pig-in-a-poke-bonnet that was the Ital, Ford had gone from Cortina III to IV to Sierra while upping the ante every time and Vauxhall had gone from the also-ran Victor to Cavalier 1 and the then almost revolutionary Cavalier 2.
    Same applies to Allegro and its contemporaries, also Maxi.

  19. In the post WWII period, Morris were the innovators, whereas Ausin produced utterly conventional rather stodgy cars where any cleverness was confined to cost cutting.

    Yet, by the start of the Leyland era the identities had been manipulated to reflect the opposite, with the Ford-fighter Marina being sold as a Morris, and the FWD Maxi and Allegro being exclusive to Austin.

    I’ve never understood why. It’s not even down to production locations, as the Maxi was made at Cowley all its days.

  20. Austin-Morris should definitely have merged. And why was Morris abandoned as the commercial vehicles brand? Presumably Freight-Rover went down better at focus groups (in the days when the Rover brand meant something).

    As an aside have any of the Morris 310 Metro vans survived, and if so does anyone have any pictures?

  21. Ital from the side could look almost Alfetta-like, but the front was frumpy.

    The vinyl roof on the saloon and not the estate was a change from some models that used a vinyl roof only on the estate to hide the weld seams from the saloon conversion.

    The name could be resurrected by SAIC.
    It could be used to sell low priced Roewes (please, not that name!)
    It ties in with MG
    It has some heritage
    A generation has passed and people looking to buy reasonably priced family cars are likely to remember Morris as their grandparent’s Minors and not as a dodgy fleet Ital.

  22. Having driven a Marina2 estate, with the 1275 engine, the car should have died then. This car was V reg’d, and Ford were onto the MK5 Cortina which was light years ahead compared to the Marina, and was actually capable of forward motion, and had a radio the driver could actually change the station on. Morris was old fashioned even in the 1970s.

  23. Having owned a Morris Ital and enjoyed every minute of it (this was only a few years ago and I was a small child when they were out originally) but I agree that Morris was dead on it’t feet. It’s problems stretched further than the antiquated Marina/Ital – the Morris Minor was in production from 1948 to the early 1970’s which must have created the impression that Morris was always a dated brand. Today, Morris is mostly remembered only for the Minor and as cute and quaint as they are, they are most definitely ancient looking machines – much, much more so than the original Mini. In this respect, it’s hard to see how Morris could ever be revived?

  24. In all the criticisms of BMC, BL, BLMH, and their myriad management faults, has anybody calculated the damage that Robinson managed to inflict on the various iterations of the company?
    Has anybody,or Robinson, or the unions, calculated the benefit they gained from the mayhem created?
    Like the thousands of staff that were laid off when the various companies crashed?

  25. In terms of merging the brands, the W-plate runout model Maxi I had about 2 years ago came with all its original parperwork, which gave the manufacturer as ‘Austin-Morris’ – the DVLA has a cagegory for this, in fact actually two – one with and one without the hyphen!

  26. The styling of the Marina/Ital was its one saving grace, ok it wasn’t exciting, but it wasn’t ugly or weird either (Allegro, Maxi, Montego etc)

    It was always an odd strategy having advanced Austin cars and conventional Morris cars, unless you could have full ranges for both brands (like Peugeot Citroen to an extent).

    The launch of the wedge showed how this hadn’t been thought through, the wedge was clearly an advanced ‘Austin’ car yet there was also a Morris badged version, until they all became the Leyland Princess which is another story!

  27. The “Austin Rover” Group was also another brand failure when you consider that Austin lasted for only three more years (well, the badge, although not the cars).

    The last Triumph was also 1984 when the Acclaim ended. So presumably we’ll have a similar thread on that.

  28. In the post war years and those early years of BMC, the Nuffield side of the business certainly produced a range of more advanced and charismatic cars, nearly all had rack and pinion steering. Models included the advanced Minor, the Riley RM with rack and pinion steering and OHC engines, the MG Magnette ZA/B and MG sports cars. if was as if Len Lord still held a grudge against Nuffield as successive Nuffield designs were replaced with in some cases inferior Austin based models.I would have felt very hard done by if I had traded in an MG magnette ZB for a Farina Magnette or for that matter an Oxford III for an Oxford V. MG in the early 50’s were starved of investment whilst Lord focussed on the Austin Healey. BMC put the pissy A30 engine in the minor.
    Moving to 1969 poor old Morris is left with the quaint ye olde english Minor and the Oxford and 16/60. Then in 1971, the crappy Marina is launched and then the final slide down to the Ital. Now the question is was the decline of Nuffield a conspiracy started by Len Lord following the row with William Morris back in the 1930’s? “I’ll take Cowley down brick by brick” was Lord’s quote.

  29. Hello Everyone,

    I am currently conducting a research on the decline of the British Motor Manufacturing Industry and its impact on the British Work Force between 1970 and 1990.

    So far I have read several books on the topic but it would be of great help, if I could hear from/interview people who actually witnessed the goings on or are familiar with the industry during that period.

    It will be most helpful if you can spare the time to kindly answer a brief questionnaire on the topic and/or forward it to as many people (who may be aware of the topic) as possible.

    Please find below, the link to the electronic/online survey for the research.

    The Topic: The impact of the Decline of the British Motor Manufacturing Industry on Labour Employment Market between 1970 an 1990.

    The Link: http://www.stellarsurvey.com/s.aspx?u=2A76C7E5-9C51-43C8-9FC9-2A2387F251D6&

    Please if anyone has information that may be of use to this research, please kindly reply to this post. Thanks.

  30. It’s easy to forget in the midst of time that Morris was BL’s best selling marque during the 1970’s and that more Morris badged versions of the original Mini Cooper were sold than Austin during the BMC years. Morris had very loyal owners and always had a reputation for solid build and reliability even during the Marina years. BL just had no idea about brand loyalty and what each marque stood for. When they announced in 1982 that the Morris marque would be discontinued on passenger vehicles they actually said the public associated the Morris brand with commercial vehicles rather than passenger cars! It was as if the Morris Minor etc had never existed. BL also used another ridiculous cock and bull story to justify the ending of the Triumnph marque.

  31. Er, no. That would have been the Fiat Uno, followed by the 205 and in third place, whatever generation of the Golf that VW were building at the time…

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