If you’ve dropped in on this site via the homepage, it won’t have escaped your notice that there are rather a lot of Morris Marina stories peppering the place. Well, that’s because just about 50 years ago – 27 April 1971 – it was launched as the bright new hope for the British Leyland Motor Corporation.
Half a century really is several lifetimes in automotive terms. To put it into perspective, the Volkswagen Golf would come along three years later, and is still alive and kicking and in its eighth generation. Well done, Wolfsburg. Just why we aren’t celebrating the ninth generation Morris Marina right now – the popular mid-sized car from a thriving British Leyland in 2021 is something of a tragedy, and an indication of how its maker squandered a great opportunity at the beginning of the 1970s, and blew it all to smithereens within half a decade.
However, we’ve been there before countless times and, as we know, the history of British Leyland is far more complex than a series of bungled product launches and a workforce crippled by militancy from their union representatives. At this juncture, it’s probably best to concentrate on the Morris Marina and its lasting legacy from the comfort of half a century’s worth of hindsight.
Until a few years ago, it was popular to spout out the usual nonsense that the Morris Marina was a terrible car. Magazine and web-based listicles would place it (and the Allegro) in the same tired old worst car lists, citing how rubbish/ugly/unreliable it was without ever really putting it into any sort of context. It’s good to see that times have moved on from that view, not least because in the last 50 years, there have been far more unworthy cars go on sale.
We all know the story of its creation (and if you don’t I recommend taking half an hour to digest the Development Story on this site) – the newly-formed British Leyland decided it needed a simple, rear-wheel-drive car with which to compete with Ford for fleet sales. It raided the parts bin to create the ADO28 programme from Triumph, MG and Morris Minor componentry, and clothed it in a body penned by the man who styled the Ford Cortina Mk2, Roy Haynes.
The Marina was developed in double-quick time, and a lavish PR and marketing campaign described it as ‘Beauty with brains behind it’. It wasn’t built on the cheap – and it came alongside a massive expansion of the Cowley factory – and the reason it used so many carry-over parts was in order to speed up development. It’s fashionable to describe the Marina as ugly, but in the context of the opposition it was up against when the project was conceived – the Fiat 124, Ford Cortina Mk2, Renault 12 and Vauxhall Viva HB among others – did it really look that bad? Of course not…
But although its development programme was far from cheap at an all-in £45m, the accountants ensured that the Marina was as cost constrained as humanly possible. British Leyland wanted to ensure that it could match Ford’s efficiencies and make decent money on each example sold, perhaps obsessing a little too much on the way that BMC’s Mini and 1100/1300 were supposed to have lost money on every car sold (a myth perpetrated by Ford and never really proven).
This cost-cutting did hobble the Marina’s chances early on, and resulted in decisions like the Coupe sharing the saloon’s front doors, the 1.8-litre models being introduced without anti-roll bars, and the generally low-quality of trim materials, fit and finish and, most importantly, rust-prevention. But again – in the context of the opposition was this so far off the pace? No, but it was underdeveloped and lacked material quality of engineering – even compared with the Ford Cortina.
By the time Marina production was hotting up after a largely positive launch, the reality of a market that was moving away from it soon became apparent. The Ford Cortina grew up in Mk3 form and the opposition was soon to follow. The Marina, with its 1.8-litre range-topping models was beginning to look second-best compared with the Ford Cortina 2000GXL. Not that Ford was having a good time of it, of course. The Mk3 was struggling with NVH (noise, vibration, harshness) issues, and its reputation was dented as a consequence.
The Marina nevertheless sold as well as could be expected, and actually made a handsome profit, even if it missed the lofty early targets which had been set for it. In 1973, when the Austin Allegro arrived on the market, British Leyland’s strategy of making Morris the fleet car provider and Austin the technology provider was coming to the fore – but, although these two models would overlap for a while, the plan was for the Marina to be replaced by the larger and more sophisticated ADO77 in 1977.
However, following the disastrous effects of the Energy Crisis-imposed crash in car sales and a severe loss of production due to industrial action, British Leyland needed bailing out by the Government in 1974 The result was that the spending taps for developing new models was quickly turned off, leaving the ADO77 programme cancelled with no replacement in sight. The Austin Allegro and Morris Marina would end up being fundamentally unchanged until 1979/1980, and remained in production in revised form until 1982-1984.
So, as the European economies recovered and car demand increased once again, BL could only offer an outdated car based on outdated technology. Overseas especially, there was little demand for the Marina anyway, as it was a vehicle so clearly designed to sell to UK fleet managers – so exports were disappointing from the get-go and disappeared to nought as the years progressed.
Once the Marina and Ital were off-sale, they became a typical Bangernomics motor, disregarded by keen drivers, and tarred with the same anti-enthusiast brush as the Austin Allegro. Moreover, despite selling 1,135,343 copies, numbers thinned out rapidly as a consequence of buyer apathy, poor quality and corrosion. Where most cost-conscious buyers of the 1980s and ’90s wanted used Ford Escorts and Cortinas, they’d walk straight past a Marina… and the dye was cast. It was therefore considered a terrible car, and one associated with the downfall of British manufacturing as a whole in the 1970s.
Of course the tide is turning now. Rarity and the rise of the classic car movement has seen to that. But the Marina’s legacy is a lasting one, as it represents a squandered opportunity by British Leyland Motor Corporation, which was obsessed by beating Ford in the UK, rather than trying to snag the real prize of creating a car that would appeal to Brits as well as Europeans.
Despite being the wrong car that lived far too long, the Marina’s legacy really shouldn’t be one of failure. No, let it be a lesson for the future – instead of obsessing about your opposition and building clone products designed to do little more than match them, create something special by doing what you do best. Imagine, if you will, what might have happened if, instead of rushing a Cortina clone onto the market, BLMC had taken the time to build something with much more international appeal.
BMC had done it before with the 1100/1300, and BLMC could have done it again without the influence of Ford steering the company from behind…