The Morris Ital development story was a case of Italian badge, British style. Although BL sold this car as being designed in Europe, it was styled in the UK by Harris Mann, and was little more than a light facelift of the outgoing Morris Marina.
That didn’t stop it selling reasonably well from its launch in 1980, and eking a further four years out of the a car that first appeared in 1971.
Morris Ital: unreasonable expectations
The Morris Ital, along with the Austin Ambassador and Rover SD1 Series 2, was designed on a budget, and intended to keep British Leyland’s product line fresh as it headed into the 1980s. Austin-Morris Managing Director, Ray Horrocks, knew that the Marina would need a showroom fillip in order to maintain sales impetus until the release of its replacement, the LM10 and LM11 (Maestro and Montego).
The Longbridge drawing office headed by Harris Mann rapidly completed a neat facelift, which changed the look of the frontal aspect of the car (without any front panel changes) and transformed the rear view of the car, incorporating a higher boot-line and large Euro-standard wrap around lights.
With the styling duly freshened in Birmingham, BL needed the car engineering for production – but its development capacity was fully employed in the run up to the launch of the Austin Metro. So, the job of productionising the car was handed over to Ital Design in Italy. This process wasn’t all sweetness and light, by any means.
Undoing the Italian urban myth
Long-time contributor to AROnline and former PSF engineer at Swindon, Kevan Barnhill said: ‘Ital Design was contracted to redesign and engineer the body changes for the revised Marina. The job they did was hopeless – the ADO28 and ADO73 drawings using decimal inch dimensions were completely beyond them.
‘As a consequence, the entire job was redone at Pressed Steel Fisher in Cowley, mostly by third and fourth-year apprentices – the only body engineering resource available.’
So, despite the long-held belief that Ital Design was responsible for the revised styling of the new car, it was somewhat less involved in the process, and bungled what it had been given to do. Of course, the story soon got out that the Morris Ital was actually the work of Giorgetto Giugiaro and, as former BL Public Relations Officer, Ian Elliott said: ‘why spoil the story with facts, we thought!’
Morris Ital: On to launch
Being limited to a £5 million budget, BL’s facelift went no further than these few, albeit distinctive, cosmetic changes. As well as the new nose and rear-end treatments, the Ital was treated to a new set of door handles. Interestingly, it appears to be the only BL car to use them, despite the popularity of its the Morris Marina’s door handles.
Apart from the deployment of the new A-Plus engine, which was shortly due to see service in the Austin Metro, there were no major engineering changes. The new engine may have afforded the Ital 12,000-mile service intervals, but it was certainly not enough to lift the car’s chassis from a level of sub-mediocrity – and the car’s humble origins were all-too apparent for everyone to see.
Needless to say, Ital Design did not appreciate the fact that its name was being attached to such a car, despite the fact that it allowed the original Morris Ital television advert (above) to be filmed on its premises. Subsequently, Ital Design treated the Ital as something to be quickly forgotten – a non-event.
Not a critical success
In its September 1980 road test of the Morris Ital 1.3 HL, What Car? magazine wasn’t exactly generous in its praise of the new car. ‘If BL had brought us this latest offering as a new-series Marina, then our expectations would have been not so high. But if they are going to allow themselves the prestige of a new model name, then buyers are going to expect more than just a facelift.
‘Of course, it remains to be seen whether those who matter – in this case, fleet managers – will be impressed by BL’s efforts to cut running costs. If they are, then the Marina – sorry Ital, will be given a new lease of life.’
However, in the same issue, several fleet managers were canvassed about the Marina (compared with the Cortina, Cavalier et al), and it wasn’t good news. Gillette’s Transport manager, Bernie Young’s, comments were typical, placing the Ital last in a line-up of six repmobiles. ‘We would lose half our reps if we bought this car,’ he said. ‘A rep would have to stretch right across the car to get anything from the passenger side because it slopes away from the driver.’
A final spasm of development
By the time of the car’s launch in June 1980, the existence of the LC10 was well-known throughout the industry and the Ital was viewed as necessary evil; something to remain clinging to life until the new wave of Michael Edwardes-conceived cars hit the market in 1983.
As Kevin recalled: ‘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 Rover SD1 disaster, the Ital was about all we could manage – it was simply a way of keeping some cash flow until the Triumph Acclaim came on stream.’
That wasn’t quite the end of it, though. In September 1982, the Ital range received its final model tweaks. The basic L models and the 2.0-litre version were dropped, and the HL and HLS were replaced by the SL and SLX models. Although that didn’t seem much, the Ital did receive a new front suspension set-up, which drastically improved the way it handled.
New telescopic front dampers were fitted across the range and parabolic rear springs were introduced to improve the rear end – quite a lot development considering the car was months away from being phased out.
Morris Ital development story… the end
Right from the beginning, naming the Ital had proven to be a thorny issue for the Marketing Department: the initial plan was to call it the ‘Morris Marina Ital’, that way acknowledging the major role the Italian styling house had in the car’s conception. This plan was soon scuppered by the intervention of none other than Michael Edwardes, who insisted that the ‘Marina’ moniker was dropped.
To the Marketing Department’s utter surprise, Austin-Morris got away with it – and the story that the Ital was the work of Giugiaro became legend. However, without that renaming, the Press’s expectations of the car might not have been so high but, in the event, the 1971 vintage of the Ital was impossible to disguise.
Austin-Morris were intelligent enough to realise this fact and unashamedly aimed the Morris Ital at the fleet market, citing its low running costs and simplicity of design as major selling points. The idea was that, now Ford was moving towards front-wheel drive with the new version of the Ford Escort, the Ital would offer an orthodox alternative for those fleet managers who still harboured fears that the added complexity of front-wheel drive equalled grief in the service bays.
Former BL dealer Derek Ketteringham was not a fan of the Ital. He told us: ‘at one point my showroom line up was a right royal mess consisting of a Metro, an Acclaim, a Rover 3500 and a bloody Morris Ital. I sold three to a friend of mine, who operated a minicab operation, at a knockdown price. Each one ripped through a pair of gearboxes in two years.’ This was despite the car being pitched as a reliable alternative to the Ford Cortina or Vauxhall Cavalier.
With 175,276 Itals built between 1980 and 1984, it certainly helped keen the wolf from BL’s door during some very dark times in the lead-up to being replaced by the Austin Montego. Unlike its predecessor, the Morris Minor, few people grieved the passing of the ADO28 and ADO73. if only their replacements had sold nearly as well.
Still, fans would probably love for the end of Morris passenger vehicle production to have been marked with a model other than the last Ital – still, it’s spirit would live on in China.