Opinion : Marina at 50 – What did we learn?

Morris Marina 1971 advert

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.

Morris Marina cutaway

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…

Morris Marina: Beauty with brains behind it

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.

Morris Marina Coupes

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.

Morris Marina advert

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…

Morris Marina 1800 Coupe

Keith Adams

34 Comments

  1. If we look at what the Renault group is currently doing : Dacia Sandero for those who want to pay less with a nice looking car doing the job with say 10 to 15 years old components and Renault Clio for those who want best in class technology. It works ! So was the difference between a Marina and an Allegro. My understanding is that having an MGB engine on a Minor chassis was the wrong idea but with the 1275cc A series didn’t-it make the job ?

    • I believe that australia got the marina in 1750 E series, 1500 E series and 2200 2600 E6. I believe the E series transformed the marina.

      • That’s correct except that the 2200 E6 was never offered in the Marina although it did go into the Austin Kimberley/Tasmin. I think ‘transformed’ might be a little strong although the lighter weight of the E4 compared to the B would have helped with the understeer.

  2. I had one of these from new. A 1.8 Estate. Never before or since have I had such a rank car. Sticky, non breathing seats, little performance, thirsty and utterly lethal road holding (worse even than early BMW widow-makers) . Luckily it was written off in a 1/4 head on with a Jag Mk !!. The Jag had merely a crumpled wing and flat tyre. The Marina simply disintegrated around me in a shower of broken wind screen and tearing metal. Wheels torn off, outer door skins torn off, roof ‘v’ d into cab. Floor simply rolled away. I was cocooned in bent metal on sideways crushed seat with my feet actually on the road surface. Escaped through passenger door to meet unruffled Jag owner. Bit sad really for me, an ex Austin Apprentice, to never buy the marque again (except for my Cooper engine Hustler 6)

  3. It was a good car when launched, that lived too long and fell foul of BL’s woes. Unfortunately it was based on old technology that was quickly supplanted by fellow manufacturers and the opening up to the British Market to both EEC and Japanese OEMs. There was some bad decisions when the car was built, but it wasn’t what brought BL down, that was its poor management, poor design and union issues.

  4. What we learned is – Marina actually sold well and profitably in first 4 years.
    That it became a ‘dog product’ later on was because of the failure of Maxi and Allegro to sell/generate cash in the same sort of numbers and subsequent lack of funds for replacements.
    1971 was I believe the peak year for BL cars in terms of numbers built but biggest seller was Mini and arguably/allegedly that wasn’t making any money either.

    • The Maxi predated the Marina being a product of the previous managements failings and the Marina was the new managements “cure” for what had been wrong with BMC.

      Whilst the Marina generated a small profit margin on its sales in the early years, the failure to contain the cost and investment needed to bring it to production meant that it was never going to be able to recover its investment in its viable life in the market.

      As for the Allegro, well it was a product of the same management team that brought us the Marina and yes was another failure. The question is how much of the Allegro’s failure down to time, effort and investment that was consumed on the Marina.

      Certainly the political fall out over the Italians being consulted on the Marina styling and the pressure to contain development costs after the Marina’s projects ballooned probably meant “not phoning the Italians” was one of the key cost saving measure in the project.

  5. Interesting to read the adverts describing it as beautiful, and the cliches describing it as ugly. I always thought it was just plain and anonymous, even by the standards of the time. The Coupe especially, didn’t look rakish or sleek.

    • Agree. Hard to credit that it came from the same pen that styled the Mk2 Cortina. I was always slightly puzzled how three boxes with few, if any flourishes, could look so good. Clearly failed to replicate that magic with the Marina. The ad agency appears not to have appreciated that people can recognise beauty when they see it.

  6. The Marina was there to do a job, provide functional transport for sales reps and families with low running costs. In this respect it was no different to smaller engined Cortinas and Hillman Hunters, that were its main rivals in the early seventies, and the car sold in excellent numbers until 1976, when it became dated and should have been replaced. Yet the Marina ended up having a decent swan song when it became the Ital with improvements to its styling, engines and suspension and continued to sell in decent numbers until it was axed in 1984.
    Yes the Marina was dull, it wasn’t very well made and not very good to drive, but any Cortina below a GXL or E trim was the same, and plenty of cars from the early seventies could rust and fall apart quite quickly.

  7. The Marina also faced competition from Japan in the mid seventies from cars like the Datsun Violet and Toyota Carina that had similar conservative engineering and low running costs, but were much better vaiue and completely reliable. You bought a Datsun Violet for a little less than a Marina 1.3 De Luxe and you had a car with a slightly bigger 1400 cc engine, better handling and performance, and equipment like cloth seats and a push button radio that were absent on the Marina.

  8. I had a s/h 1.3 Marina Coupe. My Dad bought a new 1.8TC Jubilee. Despite the Jubilee’s MGB engine, my Coupe was actually the better car – better balanced, with a lighter front end. But it wasn’t reliable – I had to replace the 1275 cc engine with a Gold Seal one at 4 years and 30k miles. I swapped it for an Alfasud – two joyful years, until the Italians showed me what rust could do to a car.

  9. I still think a Cortina MK3 in L / XL trim was a better bet than a Marina Deluxe and better looking overall too. The Marina in coupe style was decent in the looks dept. but most families and businessmen would opt for the saloon’s practicality… or Estate?

    I had more experience driving company Cortina’s than a Marina, so perhaps I am biased! A Datsun Violet put against a Marina is more of a dark horse (better trim and standard features / bigger 63bhp engine.) Most Violets would probably be owned by private customers.

  10. How long would BL have lasted without Marina is an intriguing question. Whatever its faults it gave BL a rival to Cortina as 4dr or Estate, a rival for Capri as “Coupe” and a rival for Escort Van.It was what the fleet market wanted, that meant sales and profit which meant employment. Yes it could have been better; a hatch for coupe, Triumph front struts/telescopic dampers and the E-series (maybe as 1.6?).

    • I did wonder how many Marina sales were actually lost sales from the Morris 1100/1300 being withdrawn.

      Elsewhere we have speculated if whether the saloon Maxi should have been marketed as a Morris.

  11. Imagine. A properly developed, engineered and built front drive Cortina Mk3 size model. Passat before the Passat. But would Britain’s notoriously conservative fleet buyers have gone for it? They did embrace FWD a decade later when Vauxhall offered them the second generation Cavalier.

  12. I understand the logic and pressure from the dealers for the Marina, they had been left to fight Ford’s Cortina with mediocre Farina models and antique Minor. The only bright spot had been that the challenges in the days of getting between Longbridge to Oxford in those pre M42/40 days meant that the engineering team at Cowley had managed to stop Issigonis’s more extreme ideas ending up on the Ado16, sadly that had not been possible with the Longbridge engineered Ado17. When in 66, the embattled Roots group had unveiled the Arrow range, their must have been a lot of finger pointing at BMC/H about why they could not fashion something equally competitive from the parts bin.

    However I still believe it was the wrong thing to do, not because of the flaws in the end result, but because it distracted and took much needed resources away from the then critical job of refreshing the Ado16 and developing its replacement. Instead the Ado16 was allowed to drift downwards in its market’s relative price point and when it did arrive, its replacement the Allegro was critically underdeveloped and failed not only to build on the Ado 16 global success, but even maintain any significant presence outside the UK market.

    The result of this failure, was the sinking of BMC European sales network at a time when it needed to be expanded and so they lost a critical sales channel not only for the Mini and Allegro, but also lower volume but more profitable products as the Princess, SD1,SD2 and TR7 could have been. Quite simply British Leyland no longer had the ability to sell cars in the volume necessary to remain a major European manufacturer, had it instead had had a success as the troubled VW was to have with the Golf or a decade later the equally troubled Peugeot were to have with the 205, British Leyland may well still be with us today.

  13. Beauty is a subjective thing. One person’s opinion is bound to differ from another’s. Few would argue a Series 1 E-Type is anything other than stunning. Even fewer would argue with the thought that the Pontiac Aztec should’ve been shot at birth. All the stuff in between though is up for debate, as with the Marina. For what it’s worth, I don’t think the saloon looks too bad but the coupe really needed proper length doors. I think the advertising didn’t do it any favours by using the term “beauty” though.

  14. Anyone who thinks the Marina was an unfairly criticised car, has obviously never driven one! I remember driving a brand new one in the early 1980s and it is without doubt, the worst car I’ve ever driven bar none. The doors felt extremely flimsy, the soundproofing was none existent, the steering wheel was as thin as a bootlace which incidentally, ran right through the left hand side of the speedometer in your line of vision, the gears were like stirring porridge, vague and unprecise, when driving it constantly pulled to the right and worst of all, the colour was as awful as the car! ( a deep, brownish, baby poo, colour).
    I can honestly say, I miss the Marina like I miss toothache! A truly, awful car.

  15. The Marina was also available as a pick up truck, when this was more associated with vehicles like the Ford Transit and the growing band of Japanese imports, so was quite ahead of its game in this respect.

    • Pick-ups had been common in the BMC commercial line-up since the Export Or Die era, and the Minor & A50 had been available as pickups into the 1970s.

  16. Of course the Marina isn’t beautiful – few mid range saloons are – but it isn’t ugly either, something which the Landcrab, Maxi and Allegro are guilty of…

    Indeed it can be argued that the Marina/Ital is actually better looking than the Montego that followed it, with its odd glasshouse, scallops on the side and overlong front overhang. It certainly sold a lot better, even as late as 1981 when the design was 10 years old nearly 55000 of the geriatric Ital were made, while in 1986 production of the 2 year old Montego was a pathetic 71000.

    • @maestrowoof, the Ital was actually quite a reliable car and by the end of its life, was a cheap, sensible family car that had a decent following and looked contemporary. The Montego was a big leap forward with its fwd and new 1.6 engine, but terrible quality on early cars saw sales tumble and it never really came back.

  17. True Masestrowoff. The Marina lines were consensual, something like a Rootes Arrow + Viva + Cortina Mk2 – we know why – not that British, like a Rekord/Taunus/Mercedes W115? Definiterly a me-too.

    We had some in France, but the 3 box shape was not so appreciated after the Renault 16, SIMCA 1100 and we had the 304 and Renault 12 competitors here.

    Maxi not that ugly, well proportionned, better than Landcrab, a car the French were buying after ADO16.

    Later-on the Maestro sold in France too, a bit “me-too” but nice-looking.

    The Montego did not sell, cumbersome, a kind of revamped Peugeot 504.

  18. The standard length front doors of the coupe were actually a good thing, making getting into and out of the car much easier in tight parking spaces than with the long doors of most two door cars. Access to and from the back wasn’t too bad either.

  19. Who seriously claims the Marina was ugly? The profile of the Avenger was almost identical. The Viva HC and Cortina Mk II (naturally) were also very similar. Do any critics believe that four companies produced nearly identical cars, but only the Marina was uniquely ugly? I’m not buying it.

    There’s a couple of quotes in the development story on the subject. Roy Haynes: “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.”

    That’s why all cars look the same, and always have done. It’s easier to follow fashion, rather than set it, especially if your last car was the Austin Maxi.

    Well done, Roy. Your job was to style a stop-gap stripper for four years of production and you did it well. Using the same set of front doors on the two door doesn’t work, but it’s very nearly there, and this sort of thinking was great for amortising the tooling costs of the car. It wasn’t Haynes’s fault that it went on and on.

    Filmer Paradise: “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.”

    This is what gets me though. At board level, BL realised that the weird-looking BMC cars were putting off customers. They recognised the problem, took action and succeeded – to my mind at least. And then, having proven their point, they went back to producing a string of gawky oddballs that nobody wanted to buy.

    What went wrong with the Allegro, Filmer? That was on your watch. Why did you not stop it, or do something about the styling? Is that why you resigned a couple of months after it was released?

    It’s painful to watch BL learn a lesson, and then ignore it.

    Back to the original question. I think some critics are lazy. Since most B(L)MC cars from 1965 to 1985 had styling that was a “matter of taste”, I guess it’s easy to just lump them all together, rather than treating them individually. The Marina had many faults, but styling was not one of them.

    Oh, and my impressions of the Marina? I’ve only ever been a passenger. Noisy, flimsy, cheap. Hated it.

  20. The Marina was a conservatively engineered and designed car similar to the Hillman Hunter. It wasn’t a looker in the way the Vauxhall FD was, or some Issigonis product like the Maxi that really divided opinion, but it was an average looking car of average abilities. Someone buying a Marina was probably wary of Hydragas suspension, didn’t see the point of a fifth gear and simply wanted a saloon easy to understand and went from A to B.
    My impression as a passenger in a Marina 1.8 Super we had as a distress purchase for a few months, not bad, but not good and the suspension wasn’t in the same league as the Chrysler Alpine that preceded it, and the seats were quite hard. However, it always started, never broke down and was quite pwerful.

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