Unashamedly created as Cowley’s Cortina, we tell the Morris Marina development story – how this car was intended to lead Morris – and, more importantly, British Leyland – into a new decade of lucrative Ford bashing …
However, it missed the bus in terms of size and engine range and, because there was no budget to replace it, the Marina remained in production for far too long…
The new convention from British Leyland
Immediately after the BMC/Leyland Motors merger in January 1968, it became apparent to the BL Board that once the Maxi and Mini Clubman were launched, there were no further BMC-conceived cars of significance in the pipeline.
Apart from the Issigonis 9X programme, nothing else seemed to be in development. Even before the Maxi was due to hit the roads in 1969, management knew it would not cut the mustard. The newly-formed British Leyland Motor Corporation (BLMC) decided to plug a yawning chasm in its Austin-Morris range in order to counter dwindling production volumes.
The answer was obvious: the BMC 1100/1300 may have been Britain’s best-selling car, a darling of private motorists, but fleet buyers avoided it in large numbers, favouring the simplicity, perceived reliability and wide range of the Ford Cortina. BLMC needed a Cortina alternative or, at the very least, an Escort – and it needed one fast.
Leyland execs hunt for a new Cortina
An anonymous BLMC executive told The Times newspaper: ‘If only BMC had had a straight motor car coming along that would have given us an entree to fleet sales on the one hand and the ability to make a decent profit margin per unit on the other, we could have given the American-owned firms a real run for their money.’
It was all about priorities. Continued strong sales of the 1100/1300 allowed management to park the matter of its immediate replacement, figuring that getting a ‘Cortina beater’ onto the market was far more important. The Marketing Department, led by Filmer Paradise agreed the plan wholeheartedly, and quickly, the BLMC Board rubber stamped the project.
Harry Webster was charged with the task of rejuvenating the Austin-Morris range and was given overall control of the programme, named ADO28. His initial plan was for a comprehensive re-body of the Morris Minor, because the new car needed to be tough and reliable – if BLMC couldn’t build a dependable car based on the Minor platform, what hope did it have?
New body, old components!
Harry Webster decided to use Morris Minor components clothed in a new body. Carefully developed, it was thought this package should have been easily developed into an effective Ford Escort rival.
There would need to be a 10-inch stretch of wheelbase, but with an anticipated engine range of 1100cc, 1300cc and 1500cc, a company car-friendly package could take shape. Webster felt confident enough at this early stage to approach the BL Board with the notion that ADO28 could be priced a £20 premium over the Escort.
Simple design shaped in very little time
In April 1968, Webster told BL’s product planners the Fiat 124 was the package to aim for with ADO28. Paradise looked into the demands of the fleet market and came up with an all-embracing specification – one which promised to tax Webster’s team.
With a nice and simple package already defined, it was comparatively easy to come up with a wide range of body styles, engine sizes and trim options. Putting even more pressure on Harry Webster, Donald Stokes already had it set in his own mind the ADO28 should be launched at the 1970 Earls Court Motor Show. This tight deadline led Webster to take many short cuts during ADO28’s development.
By May 1968, ADO28 was firming up, and the product planners backed up Webster’s original concept to face up to stiff competition in the 1100cc-1500cc rear-wheel-drive class. Unlike the technically-advanced ADO16, marketing decided compactness was not a key selling point in this market and, just like Ford, BLMC followed the philosophy of more metal for the money in creating the ADO28.
AD028: Marketing simplicity
If at this stage, marketing of the ADO28 appeared a straightforward affair, engineering was even more so. That is not to say that Harry Webster did not have his work cut out with the new car. The ADO28 project was compromised by its tight production deadline, and that meant it would rely almost entirely on the BL parts-bin.
That may have been an appealing economy and the development programme was certainly accelerated as a result, but Webster’s team still had to resolve many problems associated with using the Morris Minor as a starting point for a new car:
The Morris Minor gearbox had no provision for a synchromesh on first gear, so after careful costing comparisons between redesigning the existing ‘box and the use of the Triumph 1300 unit, it was decided to go for the Triumph solution. This caused problems because production volumes at Longbridge needed to be raised, which meant re-development at the gearbox works.
- Similar difficulties were encountered with other components due to the age of the donor car.
- As Morris Minor sales dwindled over time, the production facilities at Cowley had been used for other purposes and could not be re-commissioned.
- Brakes and front suspension were employed on the ADO28 after being modified, but the lever-arm damper arrangement inherited from the Minor was not an ideal solution and proved expensive to build.
Styling a smart new look
In July 1968, Webster asked chief stylist, Roy Haynes to look at the ADO28’s packaging and styling, and take stock of the design. He noted the target dimensions of the ADO28 should be slightly larger than its competitors (‘metal for money’), and that styling would play an important part of its overall desirability in relation to rivals.
Whereas the ADO17 and Maxi were designed to accommodate huge interiors, the ADO28 would tread a different path: it should be highly styled car. It should not be not too different from its current rivals, and fit in with trends. Because the ADO28 was being conceived as a stop-gap conceived to remain in production until 1976-1977, considerations of ‘future-proofing’ were of secondary importance.
As Haynes later stated: ‘Any attempt to create an image radically different from the competition will destroy the opportunities which can be created to effect an immediate transfer of loyalty from the competitive brands.’
Making the two-door a style leader
Haynes also felt that the two-door model should be a style leader aimed at the under 35s and that, rather than the usual practice of offering identical profiles for both two and four-door saloon versions, BL should offer something subtly different.
So Haynes cooked up the plan that the two-door version should be a sporting package with a coupe-style body. He also ensured the interior should move way from the traditional ambience of other BLMC products and move towards something more exciting. Haynes rapidly worked on two versions of the ADO28 and, within weeks, had completed his first models available in coupe and saloon versions.
The Haynes models were presented to the British Leyland Executive Policy Committee on 5 August 1968 alongside competition from the Italian design houses Pininfarina and Michelotti. Haynes’ dual proposals were given the nod by the BL big-wigs, subject to modifications. This was is an exceptional compliment to Haynes considering the strength of the opposition.
By now, factions within Austin-Morris were making it known they were unhappy with the precedence ADO28 was taking over the ADO16 replacement (on which work had recently started). One senior Pressed Steel Director wrote to Stokes voicing his concerns about how ADO28 would put BLMC on a collision course with the Americans.
The problem with that, he stated, was they did not have the resources to battle Ford and Vauxhall and there was no viable starting point from which to do so. He added building this rear-wheel-drive car would send out the wrong signals to customers and the implication was BLMC was abandoning front-wheel drive.
Stokes overruled these dissenters – his argument was simple: the Mini and 1100 were still selling strongly but the middle ground was where BLMC was really struggling at the hands of the multi-nationals. If BLMC was to survive as a large scale producer, then it would need to produce something with which to fight Ford and Vauxhall head-on. Producing something different (i.e. clever) had done BMC no good – one only had to look at the sales performance of the BMC 1800/2200 to see that.
Upgrading Cowley for the new car
As a Morris-badged car, it was logical to produce the AD028 at the Morris Works in Cowley. The problem was that the factory was in a poor state – it needed gutting. The Minor production line would never be able to cope with ADO28 planned volumes, so Cowley would receive a massive £40m investment programme.
Once the re-fit was completed, car bodies were assembled at Pressed Steel Fisher’s (PSF) Cowley body plant. This was linked to the car plant by a covered half-mile bridge, thereby saving the company the considerable cost of shipping them in from Swindon.
With ADO28 coming into focus, the marketing of the car was becoming more clearly defined and so a launch strategy was devised. Late in 1968, the plan was for the high image fastback version to be launched at the 1970 Motor Show, with the saloon following six months later. The entry price for the base model was projected to be £575.
Class contenders: growing up fast
The trouble with this plan was market research was now showing the greatest projected growth in the market was in the 1200cc-to-2.0-litre class – some way beyond the ADO28. Not only this but, at the same time, BLMC became aware the Cortina Mk3 would also launch in 1970. More disastrously still, the new Ford was going to be altogether larger than the Mk2 Cortina – and this had been one of the ADO28’s benchmarks!
Despite these worries, the BLMC Board was happy to continue with the ADO28. The Board had, in any case, been moving away from pitching the car against the Escort and that meant ADO28 would need more engines to compete. The obvious answer was to upwardly extend because, as George Turnbull, Austin-Morris Managing Director, said, ‘We thought we’d have a distinct marketing advantage if we could out-perform them’.
Harry Webster therefore ensured that the engine bay was enlarged to fit a wider range of engines. Gradually, in becoming a Cortina-rival, the ADO28 was getting more expensive and moving away from Webster’s original brief of a Ford Escort-rivalling 1100-1500cc saloon.
A matter of cost
By September 1968, John Barber was also raising concerns about the ADO28’s costings. From the beginning of the project, costs had not been properly laid down or controlled and no-one in the Product Planning Department actually knew whether the ADO28 would make a profit if it were sold at the planned price of £575.
Donald Stokes‘ response to this was that the overriding priority was to get the ADO28 into production readiness and the cost implications of it could be sorted out later. By the end of the year, Longbridge financiers were now reporting that rising costs in the development programme had eaten into the ADO28 profit potential.
In response to this, George Turnbull took the stance that a full recovery of overheads plus a corporate profit of £25 would be acceptable and that ADO28 would need to be modified in order to meet these goals. The target retail price for the basic two-door model must not be pushed above £580 in order to achieve these profit targets – Turnbull was very aware that the fleet market was an extremely price-sensitive area of the market.
By February 1969, the projections that were now coming out of Longbridge were that the ADO28 would return a negligible profit and so Turnbull insisted that more costs be taken out of the car, in preference to raising the price.
In fact, it was worse than that: the expectation was now that even at a starting price of £580, a loss would be made on every car sold. Product planners looked at this scenario and decided that the best plan of action was to raise the starting price of the ADO28 to £620 and make a modest profit on each car.
Cold comfort could be drawn from the fact that the Cortina Mark III would come in at the same price point, but that did not take into account the fact that the new Ford would no doubt be impeccably costed for the company and no doubt larger and more appealing to the customer.
The alarm bells ring for Turnbull
It is fair to say that these cost implications alarmed Turnbull so much that, when he met with production engineers, the lowering of costs was now the number one priority – so much so that, in order to lower the production cost of the car, they identified the two-piece propshaft was an unnecessary extravagance and so, it had to go.
Cost reduction programmes were now in place and every aspect of the ADO28 was under the microscope. Also in February 1969, Roy Haynes resigned from BLMC, and Harris Mann became the company’s senior stylist.
Speaking 1975, Harris Mann said of the ADO28’s design: ‘We created it as a nice easy step into the market place – nothing that would offend, something simple and honest, something that would sell straight away. I think it was successful in doing what it was planned for.’
Marketing the ADO28
At this point in the development programme, the proposed engine range was the 1300cc A-Series, and the upcoming E-Series engine in 1500cc and 1750GT forms. Marketing considerations were still high on the list and, at this point, much higher than the engineering of the car, which was coming along in a very straightforward way, even if the cost of the car was an issue.
Harry Webster’s initial ideas on naming the ADO28 was to give it a model number, (such as Morris 200, for instance) but most people in the company favoured a name instead. John Barber wanted Morris Monaco, the studio men wanted Morris Machete and other suggestions for ADO28 included the Morris Mamba, Maori, Matelo and Musketeer.
The final shortlist of Major, Mirage, Mistral and Marina emerged and Morris Marina was chosen as the car’s moniker even though it was what the Morris version of the ADO16 was called in Denmark.
Co-ordinating towards launch
At the end of 1969, the decision was made for all models to be launched simultaneously and to offer the car in 1300, 1800 and 1800GT forms, but with a wider range of trim options. Slimming-down the range of engines offered would cut production costs and also allow for a wider range of trim options, thereby offering a BLMC alternative to every model in the Cortina range.
The marketing men saw that the Marina would fit in with the rest of the BLMC range very nicely; filling the gap between the ADO16 (and its replacement) and the upcoming Princess, which was in the planning stages at the time. As envisaged at the beginning of the accelerated development programme, the Morris Marina would provide BLMC a perfect competitor in the fleet market and, if you were an optimist in the company at the time, the feeling was that the Marina offered nearly everything the Cortina did, but in a more compact package.
Product planners saw that re-emergence of BLMC as a major player in the industry relied on the success of the Morris Marina and the company planned their future forecasts on the fact that they believed that it would take a nine per cent share of the UK market. The company certainly underestimated the stranglehold that Ford had on the British fleet market, but what was more laughable was that planners seriously believed that the Morris Marina would go on to take 11 per cent of the market by 1973-74 – at a time when the ADO67 Allegro would be on-stream too!
Testing to launch
The result of the accelerated development programme was that, by the spring of 1970, pre-production prototypes were running on the roads and, by the end of the year, Marinas were rolling off the production line at Cowley. ADO28 was a rushed project but, as Andy (RAM) Smith, an engineer who worked on the project, recalls – there were some fun times: ‘The first three Marina simulators were constructed by welding an elongated Morris Minor floorpan onto the underside of a Vauxhall Viva MkII bodyshell, and installing an A-Series engine and gearbox from a Spridget.
‘By the time I got there, these three simulators were probably past their useful development life, but used mainly as transport cars. One of them, known as ‘The Green Viva’ was fitted with good Cooper S motor, and we young men used to have great fun burning off the standard Vauxhall offering. It was a great car, and seemed to handle well, with not a lot of body roll. In fact, I think it rated among the more satisfying RWD cars in which I was fortunate enough to take a hand over subsequent years.’
Costs and profitability had successfully been kept down by the rationalization of the engine range and by more successful planning in the development programme. In the end, the profit figure of the Marina was £30-£40 higher than the ADO16 at the time of its launch and the planned production volumes were still being put at a rate of 5500 per week. The total cost of developing the Morris Marina was put at £21 million and, even though the car underwent a troubled gestation, starting out as an Escort rival but turning into a Cortina rival, the company was very confident of the Marina’s chances of success when it was launched at Cannes in April 1971.
Unveiled in Cannes
When the Morris Marina was shown to the press, it was almost immediately obvious that this was a simple car and one that could be described as a parts-bin special. There was not a great deal for the press to get excited about, but it was a new car, and the first product launched by BLMC.
The range of engines was unremarkable – the A-Series version was lifted straight from the 1275cc version of the MG Midget with only minor alterations to the sump and manifold. The 1798cc B-Series version installed in the Marina was similarly adapted from the MGB.
The suspension was equally unremarkable but, unlike the ADO17 and the Maxi which had been mildly criticised by the press, the styling was judged as a success. The wide range of trim permutations and three choices of power units (1.3-, 1.8-litre single carb, and twin-carb) allowed the range to cover the market well.
At the launch: Morris targets C-segment sales
The actual public launch day of the new Morris Marina was 27 April 1971 and sales chief Filmer Paradise was quoted as saying: ‘As a group we are uniquely placed to cover every conceivable customer requirement in the dominant C-class sector of the market. The ingenious way in which today’s car has been designed to complement rather than compete with the best-selling 1100/1300 range will allow the two sales networks to work far better as a team.’
In a pep talk to Austin-Morris dealers he was also recorded as warning them: ‘ in the coming 12 months there willl be absolutely no place in the Austin-Morris division or in your own organization for apologists. This car will move on plan to the head of the United Kingdom sales league.’
‘The ingenious way in which today’s car has been designed to complement rather than compete with the best selling 1100/1300 range.’ – Filmer Paradise
David Benson of the Daily Express interviewed George Turnbull, the Managing Director of British Leyland’s Austin-Morris division, who told him: ‘We haven’t abandoned the Issigonis front-wheel-drive concept, but for the new car we gave simplicity, ease of maintenance and value for money, the top priority. The engines are the well proven and reliable A- and B-Series BMC products, the gearbox and rear axle are developments of the tough Triumph Vitesse units and the front suspension is the simple but effective torsion bar layout used so successfully on the Morris Minor and Morris 1000.
‘We think the family man looking for value for money with simple servicing will buy the Marina as will the big fleet owners. I am aiming for 10 per cent of the total market and I think I am going to get it.’
Not going for the premium vote
Interestingly, the two-door Marina was never marketed as a premium-priced car by the company – the youthful buyers angle quietly being dropped by the company. In all fairness to BLMC, it could have sold the car as a sporting coupe model and made some extra money on the car for all the market cared.
But maybe the fact that the fastback version shared its front doors with the four-door version belied its cut-price roots and discouraged BLMC from adopting such a strategy. The driving experience offered by the Marina was as unremarkable as the specification implied – one could pretty much write a road test report of the car without having sat behind the wheel at all.
Initial road test reports were fairly kind to the car, mindful of the car’s technical shortcomings and it is fair to say that the 1800TC version possessed a certain potential, offering similar performance than the MGB and a slightly higher top speed of 100mph.
On the road – all was not good
However, because of the Marina’s rushed development programme, the early pre-production 1.8 models were handed over to the press with a serious design flaw, which meant that the car suffered from almost terminal understeer. Jeff Daniels, writing in his book, BL: The Truth About The Cars, recorded that he and Doug Nye had shared a car which landed them on the opposite side of the road following any sharp curves taken at speed.
Disturbed by this fact, Daniels, the then Technical Editor at Autocar, compared notes with his opposite number at Motor magazine and found that his colleague had also suffered the same problems when driving the 1800 version. Daniels and Charles Bulmer, the Editor of Motor magazine, travelled up to Longbridge to see Harry Webster in order to lay the facts on the table: the Marina suffered from a dangerous amount of understeer and, unless the car was modified, they would have to publish what would effectively be a warning in their upcoming road tests.
Initially, Webster maintained the problem was not so bad but, having been brow-beaten by Daniels and Bulmer, then stated that he had already prepared modified versions of the Marina with front anti-roll bars which, due to time constraints, he could not install on the press cars shown in Cannes.
Early suspension fixes
Webster promised that, although time was short, no production 1800s would be sold in unmodified form (the 1300 versions were lighter at the front-end, so the problem was nowhere as bad). Armed with this knowledge, Autocar and Motor both published their Marina road tests, which spoke in terms of normal levels of understeer.
But this episode did demonstrate just how much pressure Webster was working under in order to get the Marina into production on time and in budget. However, according to Andy Smith, the truth was rather different.
He said: ‘The addition of a front anti-roll bar would have increased the tendency to understeer. The item that was engineered in a heck of a hurry, in order to bring some degree of sense to the handling, was a revised lower trunnion on the front suspension at the link between lower arm and swivel. This was designed by Dick Hodges at ‘Design Analysis’ ably assisted by my fellow graduate, Andy Weston.’
So what were the modifications, and why?
The purpose of the modification was twofold:
- To introduce a little negative camber to the front wheels at the normal unladen condition.
- To lower the position of the lower arm, so as to develop more negative camber as the roadwheel traveled into bump, as it does in cornering conditions.
As Andy summed up: ‘It was successful in its quest, and I think they worked quite well at the time.’
At launch, BLMC was well aware of the car’s shortcomings but, as the Marina was only designed as a stop-gap, this was not too much of a problem – sales were acceptable and the Marina was winning new customers for the company. The problem, of course, was that, while the Marina may have been winning new sales, ADO16 buyers were deserting in droves.
The two-prong Allegro-Marina attack on the small-medium market conceived by Donald Stokes may have seemed like a good idea at the time but customers were not inclined to buy them and the reason for that was quite obvious: the Marina may have had fleet-appeal (though not enough to win many sales from Ford), but certainly did not have masses of private buyer appeal.
Morris Marina development story: Strong sales at the start
At launch, the Cowley works was producing 1000 Marinas a week from one production line, and Austin-Morris planned to phase in a second line by the end of 1971, with a weekly production target of 5000 cars per week. One of the conditions of Cowley building the Marina was the acceptance by the workforce of the abolition of piecework and its replacement by measured day work.
British Leyland management believed that piecework was a major cause of industrial disputes and its abolition would produce greater harmony in its plants. Cowley had a dreadful record for disputes, From January to October 1970, there were 347 disputes including some very lengthy stoppages. Measured day work was finally accepted by the workforce on 18 January 1971 after George Turnbull threatened to take away ADO28 from the plant, and BLMC looked forward to uninterrupted Marina production.
‘No one will look at the Marina and turn a somersault in sheer excitement but, as a value for money package, it is exactly what we in the trade have been asking Lord Stokes to provide. If we cannot sell this we might as well pack it all in.’ – a Morris dealer
In The Times of 29 April 1971, Filmer Paradise further outlined his hopes for the new car. ‘So that the men who drive fleet cars will tell the men who buy fleet cars that they want the new Morris. My attitude was linked to the philosophy that this car should be seen as a clear value for money package. We were aiming to take sales from the Cortina, Escort, Avenger and, to some extent, the Viva. In fact, we reckoned that half our sales would be what I call ‘conquests.’
Justifying the Marina’s simple package
When questioned as to why BLMC had shunned front-wheel drive for the new car, he commented, ‘But it was our job to give the fleet operators what they wanted, not tell them what they wanted… We looked at what we were good at and known for, strong, quality and reliable engineering, and tried to match it with something we were not so well known for, good looks. We feel we have combined both these qualities in the Marina.’
By 5 May 1971, BLMC management was boasting that it had sold 20,000 Marinas in a week. But the good news was not to last as Cowley’s reputation as perhaps the most militant plant in the British Leyland empire re-asserted itself, even with the demise of piecework. On 12 May 1971, 80 maintenance fitters went on strike, halting Marina production.
They returned to work after five days, only to walk out again after two hours. Although the dispute was resolved, by 4 June 1971, Marina production was again at a standstill after another 147 maintenance men also walked out. Two weeks later, The Times was reporting that orders for the Marina amounted to 60,000, but only 12,000 to14,000 cars had actually been produced at the strike-ridden Cowley plant.
Waiting lists and delays
On 25 June 1971 The Times reported: ‘British Leyland has told its 1800 Morris distributors and dealers to ease the sales pressure on the new Marina during the next six weeks while it reduces the backlog of orders to more manageable proportions.
‘The company fears that customers faced with delivery quotations of four or five months will go elsewhere for their new car. Mr Filmer Paradise, Sales Director of the group’s Austin-Morris division, said last night: “We are not pushing for additional Marina business at this time.” He said the present production was about 2000 a week, and should be increased to 3000 before August.’
In the spring of 1972, a pay claim by workers in the neighbouring body plant resulted in a go-slow and an overtime ban, then a sit-in and then a two-week strike which cost BLMC about £10m in lost production. By now weekly Marina production had been raised to 4000 per week. An estate version of the Marina was announced in October 1972.
Climbing to number two in the charts
During 1973, the Marina managed to become Britain’s second best-selling car after the Ford Cortina. Despite this, the disputes at Cowley continued to disrupt Marina production over issues involving work study engineers, drivers, plant attendants, paint sprayers, a hoist, tyre-fitters and outside disputes at major suppliers such as Rubery Owen and Adwest also stopped car output.
January to March 1974 saw the imposition of the three-day week, but at least BLMC had the consolation that its rivals in the fleet car market were also afflicted.
During 1974, disruption at Cowley seemed to move up a gear as speculation in the press mounted as to the true state of British Leyland’s finances. By July 1974, Marina production was now reported as 4250 per week – still short of the planned 5000 – but respectable enough.
British Leyland: Heading to crisis, programmes cancelled
As BLMC plunged deeper and deeper into crisis in 1974, work was started on the planned ADO77 Marina replacement. Because sales of the Morris Marina had never lived up to the heady expectations of it made during its development, the decision was made that the new car should follow the Cortina upmarket into the 2.0-litre class.
Once BLMC ran out of money and the Government bailed it out, the Morris Marina was put under close scrutiny by management. Allegro and Marina most definitely were not earning their keep and were not making nearly enough money to fund the development of the ADO77 – and anyway, not only did the new car sit uncomfortably close in terms of size to the soon-to-appear 18-22 Series, or Princess as it would later become known, but practically mirrored the work that was going on over in Solihull on the Triumph SD2 Dolomite replacement.
Needless to say, the ADO77 was dropped, which meant that the Marina was now on its own, for better or for worse. As it was, sales of the Marina continued to hold up well during the 1970s, generally holding third or fourth in the UK sales charts, but it did not disguise the fact that marketing-led development was no substitute for genuine product development and, as time went on, the Marina’s shortcomings were becoming increasingly evident.
Limited development follows Government bailout
As far as the development story of the Marina went, there was little more to tell: nothing much happened until 1975, when the lightly-revised Series 2 version appeared, sporting a different range of trim designations and a revised dashboard. This was known as the ADO73, and had intended to be larger facelift than it ended up being – but the Marina’s styling was the least of its problems.
Motor magazine’s 1978 road test of the 1.8 HL concluded with this summary: ‘Overall a disappointing car whose impressive performance is completely overshadowed by excessive noise levels. The top-of-the-range Marina… does not live up to Leyland’s “Executive express” tag. Dated suspension gives crude handling characteristics and mediocre roadholding. Moderately comfortable, but driving position poor. A dated car that is way behind its competitors.’
The Marina’s rivals were becoming increasingly sophisticated and, now that the ADO77 was no more, the original car had nothing in its portfolio with which to fight the likes of the Cortina MkIV and the new Opel-engineered Vauxhall Cavalier.
Development on the Marina was in the pipeline, but it was very much on a shoestring. In time for the 1978 NEC Motor Show, Austin-Morris announced the long-awaited O-Series engine and the first recipient for this OHC power unit was to be the Princess followed by the Morris Marina.
The O-Series engine was initially conceived as an OHC version of the venerable B-Series engine, but soon developed into an entirely new engine, sharing no parts with its long-lived predecessor. The oddly sized 1698cc engine eventually appeared on the market as an engine that was desperately in need of further development, seriously lacking refinement.
That is not to say that it was not an improvement over the original, it was certainly more economical and produced enough power. Some cosmetic improvements were also incorporated into the design, with new bumpers and a black plastic chin-spoiler, but the effect did not disguise the fact that the Marina was now aging badly.
Not loved by the road testers
As What Car? magazine reported after its road test of the 1.7HL version in 1979 for its 1980 Car of the Year issue, ‘…the car showed evidence that some thought had gone into changes, but frankly not enough.
‘The new O-Series OHC engine that now powers the bigger cars is a good deal better than its predecessor, but alongside other OHC units, is harsh, noisy and generally unrefined, though high gearing means motorway cruising is relatively peaceful. But the biggest complaint against the new car is the retention of its semi-elliptic rear suspension giving the car a terrible ride.’
The O-Series engine was not the last development of the by-then terminally aged Marina: the new decade heralded the arrival of a new name and face: Ital.
The Marina was designed to take the Cortina head on and, to do so, it needed to possess a similar set of qualities. The Cortina possessed a conventional mechanical layout, so the Marina was given one. The Cortina had conventionally handsome styling, so the Marina did as well. In every department the Cortina shone, the Marina was designed to as well.
In the end, the Marina arrived on the marketplace just two and a half years after the project was started, and proves that there were many determined people within the company at the time. The fact that it competed at all was a miracle in itself but, in the end, the Marina didn’t just compete, it sold pretty well.
Total production in the decade was 1,135,343. UK sales were 703,686 and so around 431,657 were exported, some 38 per cent. It certainly sold better than the outgoing Farina saloons, of which 794,613 were built between 1958 and 1971. However, the Marina never came close to its sales expectations, competing in an overcrowded market against the American-owned giants, which could feed UK demand from their continental factories, their strike-bound British plants becoming increasingly superfluous and marginalised.
Compared with the class of ’71, it was no dynamic leader, but it was also not terribly bad either. There were early life collywobbles regarding handling, but these were soon put right… In reality, the Marina’s only crime was that it lived too long, and wasn’t replaced in 1976/77 by the ADO77 or Triumph SD2.
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.