The cars : Morris Ital development story

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.


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

Morris Ital development story

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.

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 Kevan 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.

Conclusions

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.

Morris Ital development story

Keith Adams

46 Comments

  1. Telescopic dampers & parabolic rear springs were hardly cutting edge in 1982. If they had been introduced far earlier, such as in 1975 with the Marina 2, both the Marina & Ital would have sold better due to having a better reputation.

    • @ Phil, it was probably a way of keeping interest in the Ital until the Montego arrived in 1984. Actually the 1982 improvements to the range made the Ital quite a bargain, considering the 1.3 SL was available for £ 3995, cheaper than most of its rivals, and came equipped with a push button radio, cloth seats, lighter, tinted glass, and clock, which most family car buyers demanded by then. Also 94 mph and 40 mpg were acceptable for a 1.3 litre in 1982. However, there was still the poor driving experience and poor resale to put up with, although I never considered the Ital to be unreliable and seemed an easy car to work on.

      • It’s hard to imagine that the redesigned suspension in 1982 would have made much difference to sales though of what was a basic vehicle bought for it’s simplicity and cheapness, indeed was it even publicised?

        If the change had been introduced in 1980, then it would have made more sense. Smarter looks AND improved handling justifying the new name.

    • Absolutely – indeed all the Ital changes could have taken place and had far more impact in 1975 with Marina 2 – or in 1978 at the latest as the O series was dropped into the Marina 3.

      • I’ve also thought the Marina / Ital were lagging behind in terms of product development.

        Same with the Princess, with the confused original launch using the already dated B-Series in the series 1 (supposedly it was going to be sold in the USA but that plan was dropped), and the much needed Hatchback Ambassador only arriving in 1982.

        Also the Maxi seemed to be fairly static spec-wise for long stretches of the 1970s before the late facelift only a year or so before it was dropped.

      • The Marina could have been made more competitive if the suspension was improved, better sound deadening fitted and the sluggish 1.3 reworked a lot earlier than 1980. After 1976, with the launch of the Mark 4 Cortina, the Cavalier and the Chrysler Alpine in the space of a year, the Marina was becoming very outclassed and sales were falling. Fundamentally the car was OK, an honest and easy to own rwd saloon and estate that was aimed at sales reps and families, just it was never seriously updated and was old fashioned by the time the Ital arrived.

        • Together with the aforementioned improvements would have also included 1.5-1.75-litre (ideally even 1.5-1.8-litre) E-Series (as in Oz) and 2-litre B-Series (or preferably a 1.8-2.0-litre B-OHC), the latter later replaced by 1.6-2.0-litre O-Series (as envisaged instead of the 1.7-2.0-litre O-Series) to plug the gaps in the Marina range.

        • I agree the Marina was outclassed by the other 3 cars mentioned here. It was a decent bread & butter car for family and business use though. In pecking order I would choose a MK1 Cavalier, then Cortina MKIV, Chrysler Alpine and later perhaps a Chevette saloon?

  2. “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.”

    Yeah, because i’m sure they did a MUCH better job than Ital Design lol. They probably just didn’t want to spend too much money on a project that, for better or worse, wouldn’t last much longer.

    • Yeah does seem odd that the world renowned experts Ital Design would cock up our lovely Marina…..perhaps our engineers didn’t convey/communicate properly?

      • It might surprise you to know that PSF were also “world renowned experts”…..we engineered and tooled products for many non-BL/BMC companies….Ford, BMW, Rolls-Royce, Rootes/Chrysler, Volvo, Hyundai, White, Renault, Fiat, to name just a few.

    • Actually, we did. The drawings as returned from ITAL were hopeless. The rework required to allow tooling to be completed was extensive, pushing the project back by around a year.

      • Unfortunately people just make assumptions – with no knowledge…this is how history is re-written! Pressed steel was recognised within the industry as the experts in body engineering, press tooling design, press tooling manufacture, and body manufacture – pressings to full bodies including trim.
        It was a well managed stand alone business until it was bought by BMC.

  3. Although I never cared much for the ITAL (nor the Marina), the rear design & lights on the Ital saloon didn’t look too bad. I thought the Marina coupe wasn’t bad looking in its day (a friend had one in khaki green), but there never was an Ital coupe.

    Perhaps BL realised there wouldn’t be a market for it (or they couldn’t afford development costs?)

    • Agreed.

      Had the opportunity been available it would have been interesting to see a 3-door or 2-door Ital Coupe, equipped with a similar spec (albeit detuned) engine to the O-Series MGB or even a fuel-injected O-Series like on the later Montego / Maestro.

  4. The Ital looked quite contemporary in 1980, compared with the early seventies styling of the Marina; the redesigned rear light clusters and front end treatment made it look rather like a Mark V Cortina. Also improvements to the A series engine made it more powerful and economical, and a 2 litre automatic version, even if sales were very slow, gave the Ital a presence in this sector of the market. On the whole, not a brilliant car, the handling and driving experience were distinctly old fashioned, but a reasonable one for the money.

  5. My grandad bought a new one in 82 and he thought it was such a good car he kept it until the late 90s.It was the first car I ever drove and I have such fond memories of the ital….If only I could find one now to buy….they’ve all disappeared

  6. My German teacher swore by his X reg 1.3 HL. While he was always praising German efficiency and the quality of their products, he always bought British cars as he considered them cheaper and easier to work on than Volkswagens, and he had no trouble with his Ital. Quite a few people were swayed by the Ital’s low running costs, ease of servicing, value for money and reasonable reliability. It was a shame the Montego that replaced it, while a far more modern car and a better drive, was so unreliable and badly maded.

  7. We had the TR7, a good driving car which I have fond memories off. Would it have been better to take the LWB chassis and modify the Marina/Ital to fit? This could have hit the market around mid-78. Never liked the later dash either.

    • TR7 didn’t have a chassis. It was a unitary shell. The last car the company made that had a chassis was the Herald.

      The plan was that Marina would be a short life vehicle until ADO77 came on stream. This would be a common platform for Austin/Morris/Triumph/MG.

      • OK platform then – The TR7 was going to be the basis for the SD2/Dolomite and later the TM1. Given the TR7 arrived in 1974, it would have made a very contemporary basis for a new Marina, given the original car was cobbled together in a hurry and planned to be replaced Cortina style within 4-5 years

  8. My mother and father had a yellow Morris Ital estate car with S4 1275cc overhead valve (OHV) engine, four speed manual transmission and black hubcaps. Unfortunately it was written-off following a collision.

  9. Another reference to Spen Kings SD1 disaster – The SD1 suffered quality problems certainly, but so did every other BL product – what was so disastrous with the SD1 that all the companies ills seem to be getting blamed on it? Or is it just somebody who harbors a grudge against Spen King?

    • Having read Kev’s previous posts non the subject, it appears he has insider knowledge. BL seemingly bet the farm on SD1and it didn’t pay off.

      • That’s exactly what happened…..we were left trying to keep things like Marina knocking along with minimal budgets. It was accepted that Allegro and Maxi simply couldn’t be replaced, even though they needed to be. The XJ4 replacement fiddled along for years before it saw the light of day – XJ40.
        The lack of money effectivly meant the end of the Triumph saloon range, along with MG.

        • To be fair, if some of the OTHER 1970s models had been better, then their sales wouldn’t have slumped so quickly and BL might have been in a better financial position.

          The Allegro for example just wasn’t a good design, and while it was long in the tooth by the time it was replaced, the Golf Mk1 lasted in production for nearly as long. The Mk 2 Golf then lasted for 8 years

    • Look this is completely unscientific, but the reputation down under was that the SD1 was absolutely the worst thing BL ever did without exception. All British cars had niggles but SD1 was in a different league. It single handedly launched Volvo in Australia. Frankly they would have been better off facelifting the P6 V8

      • That was pretty much the view everywhere…..no real market for the product…..badly built…..poorly engineered…..It was so bad that in the US market, the Rover brand had to be completly withdrawn…..SD1 sold so badly over its lifetime that Solihull never needed a nightshift!

      • @ Stephen Daniel, had the SD1 been a big success and was well made, then the potential for the car to make big profits was enormous as there was a waiting list across Europe in 1976, where previous Rovers were mostly seen as too conservative and staid. Remember, motoring magazines raved about the SD1’s styling, driving abilities and the relatively low prices compared with German rivals. People could forgive British Leyland when the SD1 seemed so good, until a few months after launch, reports about poor quality, paintwork flaking and electrical faults. Then came the six cylinder cars in 1977 that had serious reliability issues.

  10. When I was a young man I treated myself to a P6 3500, a car I had longed for since my early teens. Remember Home Tune? A guy with a van load of engine monitoring gear who would rock up at your house or work place and finesse your engine’s settings. Anyway, I decided my V8 could possibly run a little sweeter and maybe even return a couple of extra mpg. I booked a visit from a local operator and settled back, anticipating his visit. This was in the days before mobile phones and the interweb, and a few hours after I made the booking the guy’s wife(for it was she who organised his diary) called back seeking assurance that my car wasn’t an SD1. He must have been home for lunch, saw my car on his schedule, and broken into a cold sweat. If my car was an SD1 he would not be keeping our appointment. I had to give an assurance that the car was a P6, not an SD1, hand on heart, honestly! She went on to say that SD1s were a nightmare to work on and her husband wouldn’t touch them, not ever!

  11. I do remember the days of Hometune too. Never used them though. I also have a Rover P6 3500 in Almond… only as a Vanguards model though!

  12. My parents had a Marina estate when I was young. Not exciting, but it got us round southern Africa adequately. I always thought that it would have been better if a bit more could have been spent and the Marina Coupe could have been relaunched as a 5 door Morris Ital.

  13. One thing the Ital was ahead of the game with was its 12 month/ 12,000 mile service interval, which is an industry standard now, but most other cars in 1980 needed to be serviced every six months. Perhaps some buyers could have been won over by this, particularly fleets who were keen to reduce costs.

  14. The external whipping car, the Ital/Marina. I think a few things get forgotten in the kicking contest.

    The first is the Marina wasn’t a particularly bad car when it was launched. Its major design flaw were those hopeless level arm dampers, it should have been fitted with telescopic dampers from day one. However in the early 70’s, RWD, push rod engine, leaf spring solid axle, were all pretty normal. The Marina was just average and if it had been scrapped in the mid 70s and replaced, I doubt it would have its current reputation.

    The second is a lot of people just want a car to get from A to B which costs them as little as possible. They don’t care about 0-60 times, at the limit handling or having all the latest gadgets. The Marina did that job pretty well, cheap to buy, cheap to run, cheap to fix. Simple bog standard motoring.

    Though I have to confess I have a soft spot for the original Marina, I am too young to have ever seen one on the roads. Older people tell me they look hideous but to my eye it actually looks different and interesting.

    • I’m old enough to remember all three series of Marina and Ital on the road & can’t recall anyone knocking certainly the Marina’s looks although personally I thought the the basic shape had dated too much for BL to facelift it into the Ital.
      The engines also weren’t a problem, being updated in line with the company’s developments of the time (O series & A+) although my Dad said they were a Morris Minor underneath & he had an above average interest in cars.
      Sadly I think that this reputation was well engrained by the time telescopic dampers were introduced so I suspect that any benefit to sales would have been minimal.

    • I’m old enough to remember the first Marina’s and at the time of launch they did look modern enough (especially compared to the Morris Minor). A lad I knew had a K reg Coupe that was in good condition and it actually looked more sporty, even though it was lower trim & engine size.

      One of our clients had 2 Marina’s as his company cars

    • The styling was never the problem with the Marina, which to most people was pleasant or at least inoffensive. The Allegro and Maxi were far more challenging…

      Indeed to me the Ital still looks pretty smart, the sloping nose works better than on the Ambassador, the rear end looks reasonably modern and the wheel trims suit the car too. Indeed, to me it’s a much better looking car than the Montego saloon, which managed to look both awkward AND dull!

  15. The Marina was quite contemporary looking when it was launched in 1971 and was the country’s third best selling car in 1972 and 1973, so must have done something right. Even the much mocked Ital managed to sell 50,000 cars a year in the early eighties and updates to the engines and suspension made it more modern.

  16. When the gearbox failed, what was the price of a replacement? As a RWD layout on the Marina/Ital , I would imagine it would be an easy job for the DIY home mechanic to take out the old and replace with a new one. A couple;e of hours of work including teabreak?

    • The O series engine made the bigger engined Marina and Ital more economical and refined, and the engine does have a reputaton for being quite reliable. Also the A plus fitted to the Ital was a revelation over the A fitted to the Marina. Perhaps had these improvements come in 1975, and the suspension improved, the Marina might not have dated as fast.
      Also one should remember the Cortina was nothing special and used technology that dated back to 1970. When faced with the Mark 2 Cavalier, the Cortina suddenly became old fashioned, with a 1.6 Cavalier easily being able to take out a 2 litre Cortina and being far more modern to drive.

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