The cars : Austin Marina

The car known in the UK as the Morris Marina was sold as the Austin Marina in a number of overseas markets, including the US, Canada and – for a short time – South Africa.

Here’s some of  what we know about the Austin Marina, thanks to the continuing investigations of celebrated BL historian, Chris Cowin.


Austin Marina in Canada

Austin Marina Canada 02

The Morris Marina was marketed in North America as the Austin Marina, commencing in 1972 (spring Canada/autumn USA). Initially, it looked similar to the European-spec model, but with the arrival of heavier, impact-absorbing bumpers in 1974, the North American models adopted an altogether more clumsy look. The model was withdrawn from the US market after 1975, so Canada became the only country on the other side of the Atlantic to receive the Marina.

Why was it called Austin and not Morris? In the USA, Morris had faded away in the 1960s and Austin was better known. In Canada historically Austin had been even better known and, while the Mini remained available (as an Austin), the Marina continued to play a role in the 1970s as a ‘bread and butter’ car for dealerships and British Leyland. This helped balance the seasonality of sports car sales which formed the bulk of the business. One gets the impression most sales were of the rather better trimmed sedan.

Only Canada received the Austin Marina Coupé with such a basic price leader specification, as in the USA during 1972-75 the Coupé was marketed and badged as the GT, although still single carburettor and mechanically identical to the 1.8 Sedan. In 1972, Canadians were initially offered not two but three Marina models (1.8 Deluxe Coupé, 1.8 GT Coupé, 1.8 Super Deluxe Sedan) but during the Mk II phase of 1975-78, the offer had been reduced to a 1.8 Coupé and 1.8 Sedan.

1973 Austin Marinas. Modifications for the Canadian climate included "an extra heavy-duty battery and alternator, a pre-engaged starter and a ballasted ignition system".
Canadian-market 1973 Austin Marinas. Modifications for the Canadian climate included ‘an extra heavy-duty battery and alternator, a pre-engaged starter and a ballasted ignition system.’

Upgrading to Marina MkII specification

When Canada received the Austin Marina MkII, it incorporated changes seen on the Marina 2 in the UK. Aside from the Nader-spec bumpers, it also received the ‘curvy’ dashboard that divided opinions so much. This version was introduced in late 1975. Unlike the original (1972-75) North American Austin Marina (below), the Austin Marina MkII (top, and orange Coupé below) was only available in Canada, and is easily identified by uprated interior and ‘Austin’ badge inset into the grille. As seen here, Canadians during 1975-78 were offered a quite basic Coupé (below) which would have been a price leader for the model, and the better-trimmed Sedan model.

They were both mechanically identical, powered by the 1.8-litre B-Series engine and (as had always been the case in Canada) fitted with cold climate equipment. The vinyl roof pictured on some cars was not fitted to all. In the model’s brochure, luxuries denied buyers of the Coupé model included the full wheelcovers of the sedan and also its AM/FM radio. Automatic transmission was an option on both models.

Sales of the Marina in Canada were modest, at less than 4000 annually in the MkII period, so not many of the Austin Marina MkII cars would have been built. Some probably remained in the UK, and were sold to employees of British Leyland due to one problem or another. Certainly, it was not unknown in the 1970s and ’80s to spot North American specification Marinas near Cowley and elsewhere in the UK. Marina estate models were never marketed in North America, nor were the commercial van and pick-up versions.

The Austin Marina was withdrawn from Canada in 1978 partly because the 1.8-litre B-Series engine was replaced in production by the 1.7-litre O-Series unit and that had not been ‘Federalised’ (1300 models were never offered in North America). All Marinas for North America were manufactured in full at Cowley.

Austin Marina Coupe
Canadian Austin Marina MkII Coupé

Austin Marina in the USA

1973 Austin Marinas.
1973 Austin Marinas
1974 Austin Marinas.
1974 Austin Marinas
1974 Austin Marina coupe
1974 Austin Marina GT Coupe

Austin Marina in South Africa

Chris Cowin

20 Comments

  1. A Marina 2600 in South Africa… now there’s a thing! Never knew that. Thanks for another great archive nostalgia feature & photos – that’s what makes this site so interesting.

    • After the Australian plnt shut in 1974 the tooling for the Marina red six developed in Australian was sent to South Africa. All Australian Marinas used the E engine to meet emission requirements

  2. Marina 1750? With the Maxi engine? Why on earth did BL faff around with so many different engines if they all fitted each car? Too many models in the same sectors, and too many duff decisions. If only I’d have been there…!

    • The reason was that they had tough smog controls in Australia which the E had been conceived by Issigonis to meet and the E was in production for the Ado 16 and Kimberly in Australia.

      • That’s correct, the reason it was used in the Marina here was that the E Series was already in production in Australia at the Zetland plant and we had high local content requirements at the time [these have now been reduced to zero along with our car industry]. The E series was produced in 1485cc 4 cyl for the Morris 1500/Nomad and 2227cc 6 cyl for the Austin Tasman/Kimberley. The 1748cc version was introduced in the Marina alongside the1485cc version. The 2622cc 6 cyl was developed locally for the Leyland P76 and later shoehorned into the Marina [from memory only a 3 spd rather than a 4spd manual could be accommodated].

        The plant had previously produced the B Series in 1622cc 4 cyl and 2433cc 6 cyl [called the “Blue Streak”] versions. Once the tooling was modified to produce the E Series it could not produce the B Series. I have an idea, though am by no means certain of the point, that the 1798cc version of the latter was never manufactured here anyway – possibly due to the 5 bearing layout of the later 1.8 B Series vs the 3 or 4 bearings of the 1.6/ 2.4?

        When Leyland Australia closed the Zetland plant in 1974 the E Series tooling was transferred to South Africa and the engines used the Marina, Rover SD1 2600 and Series 3 Land Rover.

        This was a better outcome than for the tooling that produced the magnificent 4.4 litre version of the Rover V8, which was sold for scrap. Still trying to figure that one out…

        • Yeah, that’s correct. The B Series engine in the Australian manufactured Austin 1800 was imported from the UK (unlike the 1622cc version used previously in various Australian models). Leyland Australia kept on building the 4.4 V8 after the demise of the P76, for installation in the Terrier truck – which might explain why, when they were done with that, the tooling was scrapped …

  3. I can recall Paul Newman driving an Austin Marina in the 1974 thriller The Drowning Pool, which was a pleasant surprise at the time as I thought the Marina’s main market outside of Britain was Australia. Good product placement for British Leyland, even if the car flopped in America otherwise.

    • Doubly strange since Newman had a working relationship with Nissan/Datsun, racing their cars in SCCA semipro contests and appearing in Japanese home-market ads. You’d think he’d have wangled his character into a Datsun 710 .

  4. Within weeks of having arrived in British Columbia after living in Spain during most of my childhood, I visited with my parents the local British Leyland dealer. It was located a mere three blocks up the road from where we were living. It had a new navy blue Marina that had just arrived, as the display model. I still remember reading the brochure that said it had “a peppy MGB engine”. However, there were three new TR-6s in the showroom and a Spitfire. As a thirteen year-old in 1972, I was extremely smitten with the TR-6s and wished I were a few years older, and with the means to buy one! Whilst my deep infatuation with the E Type Jaguar had never diminished since I had been a seven year-old, for a brief while that afternoon I had TR-6s on the brain, especially the BRG one with the black interior and the optional wire wheels! As for the Marinas–at least in British Columbia–they didn’t seem to sell all that well, as one never saw many on the road. At the time inexpensive Datsuns that were quite reliable, were starting to become fairly ubiquitous on Canadian roads. I eventually came across a local newspaper review of the Marina, about a year or two after having first seen it in the dealership, and it wasn’t all that positive, to put it mildly. To read it one would have thought it was a clown’s car, where as soon as you started driving, the steering wheel would come off in your hands…The Marina is but one of several cars that didn’t do very well internationally, hence the sad, gradual demise of the once great British (note I don’t say “UK”) car industry.

  5. Datsun made a nice group of small cars that hit the US market in the early 1970s which BL cars couldn’t hold a candle to. Quiet and smooth with great fuel economy and ability to get up to highway speed quickly with very good handling. They were quick off the line also from a traffic light or stop sign. On the low end the Datsun 1200 was very affordable but right up next was the Datsun 510 with a larger engine and more HP. The Datsun 240 Z sports car was a more expensive car but it and similar cars from other car makers put the MGB far behind it. Simple and efficient with dependable electrical systems. Datsun sold well. A BL dealer took on Datsun and when I asked him why he said because he didn’t want anymore headaches. He went to England and saw the entire assembly line shut down because one bloke didn’t get his tea break. The Datsun dealer continued to service BL cars but Datsun became his bread and butter. I would like to know how many Marinas were sold in the US. They certainly didn’t make an impact here. I saw more Austin Americas in the 4 years they were sold here. Marinas I could count as they were few and far between.

    • Around 23,000 Austin Marinas were sold in the USA over three model years (1973/74/75). That’s according to Hemmings and sounds right. Canadian volume over six model years (plus some) would have lifted that figure substantially.
      They had to try really – all the major European companies were still attempting to “make it in the States” with small sedans, with varying degrees of success. If the Japanese hadn’t revolutionized the market, Marina might have done better, up against Vega & Pinto.
      It got hit by the Nixon administration imposing an “import surcharge” on car imports intended to limit Japanese imports, which being non-discriminatory also hit imports from Europe like Marina and the ill-fated (and similar) Plymouth Cricket (Avenger). And in 1975 Marina was the subject of an “anti-dumping” case in which the US government accused British Leyland of selling cars below cost. British Leyland won that, but gave up in the USA after 1975 with this kind of car, preferring to concentrate on the sports and speciality cars.

      • The Beetle was probably the most successful European car to be imported into America until the ban in 1972, but Volkswagen did score a major success when they started importing the Golf( Rabbit over there) as this was a quality product and vastly more modern than the Beetle. The Rabbit was such a success that an assembly plant was opened in America in 1978 and the engine was used on the American Horizon, as the Simca units were too crude.
        Other European manufacturers had limited success with their subcompacts. Fiat tried to crack the American market, but poor rustproofing and few dealers outside the major cities, killed them off, Renault managed to form an alliance with AMC to build the 9 in America with limited success, and others either gave up or never tried. While the Europeans would be more successful with imports of their premium brands in the eighties, the subcompact market was mostly left to the Japanese and Volkswagen, and American cars like the Plymouth Horizon.

        • So much so the Americans are now leaving the car market to concentrate on SUVs, leaving the market to the Japs! Irony

        • You mention Fiat, Glenn. In Europe Fiats have traditionally been a more or less “alright” brand. However, in America they have had a poor reputation, over their rapidity to rust on salty East Coast roads and a poor dealer network that you mention, but unlike in Europe, Fiats in America have always been considered a joke mechanically. One of the top automotive American jokes, apart from the one about the British drinking warm beer because they have Lucas fridges, is what FIAT stands for: “Fix It Again, Tony”!

          • I’ve also heard joke about Fiats being imported to the USA started rusting due to being exposed to salt air while being shipped from Italy.

            Also the seemed to suffer mechanical failures due to American road conditions.

  6. Datsun could have capitalised on the withdrawal of the Beetle due to emissions controls and safety reasons. Datsuns offered a far more modern driving experience and plenty of equipment at low prices and , of course the 1974 energy crisis saw sales rise. The Marina could have benefited from the energy crisis as well, but negative reviews by American car magazines and a lack of dealers outside the major cities saw sales die off.

    • Beetle sedans were available through the 1977 model year, and the convertible up to ’79 (Karmann ran the line right up to December 31 for US-spec cars – first registration is meaningless for US-market regulations, it’s build date that counts).

      By that time the Marina was long gone and Datsun coming out of their mid-’70s styling dark age but already surpassed by Toyota with Honda coming up hot – through the ’80s after the Nissan rebrand they were a distant third, with Honda being the #1 Japanese brand in car sales while Toyota outsold them overall since they had pickup trucks which Honda didn’t.

  7. Ah….don’t start me …the Datsuns of that period specifically the legendary 1600! Sweet OHC 1600 4cylinder well balanced handling and Independent Rear Suspension with semi trailing arms. Effectively a 3 series at Marina prices, reliable, tuneable, chuckable. I owned two in Australia.

  8. I used to watch in 1970s the American TV series Lou Grant about a newspaper editor, starting Ed Asner he drove an Austin Marina, the only time I ever saw one on the TV.

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