The cars : Morris Marina Diesel (in four flavours)

The Portuguese could buy a Morris Marina through the 1970s and well into the ’80s, not least because the Morris Ital retained the Marina name in Portugal.

However, it helped if you liked diesel engines. Chris Cowin pieces together some of the history.


Morris Marina/Ital: The oil burners

Morris Marina Diesel
Early (petrol engined) Marinas in Portugal

Long before the Morris Marina, Portugal was a country where British cars sold well, helped by long-standing trade ties and Portugal’s membership of the EFTA trading bloc, though restrictions still applied to imports of finished cars. BMC could claim around 15% of the market in the early 1960s, a position they hoped to consolidate when a new assembly plant opened in the port of Setubal, south of Lisbon, in 1963.

This belonged not to BMC directly but to Industria de Montagem de Automoveis Lda (IMA), a company jointly owned by Almeida Lda (the long-standing Morris/Nuffield distributor) and Goncalves Lda (the Austin distributor). Soon Minis, 1100s, J4 vans and Farina Oxford/Cambridge saloons were being assembled from CKD (Completely Knocked Down) kits in Setubal.

Dawn of the B-Series diesel

In Britain, BMC announced a dieselised version of the well-proven 1489cc B-Series engine in 1961, initially for export only. Developing 40bhp at 4000rpm, it was claimed to consume 35% less fuel than the petrol equivalent, though it was heavier. In 1962 this became an option for home market Morris Oxford VI and Austin Cambridge saloons, and was soon a favourite of taxi drivers, though rather slow and harsh for private buyers. Some estates were also built as diesels.

This engine remained listed (rather furtively) as an option for the Morris Oxford VI saloon until it was dropped from British price lists in 1971, to make way for the Morris Marina. The same engine could be specified for the J4 and 250JU vans well into the 1970s, though not (direct from the factory) for the A60 ‘half-ton’ commercials which used the 1622cc petrol B Series.

The B-Series diesel engine was available for Oxford VI and A60 Cambridge in the UK and overseas

In Portugal, this engine powered many of the Oxford and Cambridge saloons which left Setubal, and helped them win customers among the taxi drivers of Lisbon and Porto. But they may have felt abandoned when the Morris Marina was introduced by the newly-formed British Leyland Portugal in 1972, for the six-car Marina range as announced was a lot more aspirational than the old Oxford, being marketed on style and topped by the twin-carb 1.8TC models.

Initial models were imported complete from Britain, and there certainly was not a diesel. There never would be in UK showrooms where the 1.5-litre diesel engine was now judged too rough and noisy for passenger car use.

‘Now the …Marina. Everything you could ever want in a car’ Marinas for Portugal 1972

British Leyland had a much improved 1.8-litre version under development and, as early as 1969, Technical Director Harry Webster called a car so powered ‘the best diesel-engined car I have ever driven.’ However, amid the turmoil of the time, a 1.8-litre diesel car was never launched, despite trials that included a diesel Princess evaluation fleet and installation in Marinas. The diesel market for cars was still in its infancy, in the UK at least, so this would not have been a high priority.

Susan Holbeche, who worked at Longbridge in the 1970s remembers how the project was put into the freezer after unfavourable comparisons with a Ford Granada diesel. A 1.8 B-Series diesel was an option in the new Sherpa van from 1974, developing 56bhp, which though no road-burner, would have been welcomed by drivers of the two preceding 1.5-litre diesel panel vans.

A new climate 

The Seventies would prove a difficult decade for British Leyland Portugal (which was a locally-owned concern) and for the country generally. For a start, Japanese cars made huge inroads into the market, when they were still a novelty in most of Europe. Toyota started assembling cars in 1971 (one of their first European plants) and Japanese cars had captured 25% of sales by 1973. However, more significantly, the country endured great upheaval associated with collapse of its colonial empire in Africa.

Portugal’s right-wing regime chose to ignore the ‘winds of change’ sweeping through the African continent and became engaged in bitter conflicts in today’s Angola and Mozambique. The country was being bled dry by these costly wars, provoking the ‘carnation revolution’ of April 1974 which ushered in a more left-wing Government in Lisbon. Independence was swiftly granted to Angola and Mozambique, with several hundred thousand Portuguese settlers forced to hurriedly return to an impoverished motherland.

The market for new cars was depressed, and would remain so for several years, with ‘utility models’ coming to the fore. Carlos Ghia, boss of British Leyland Portugal, flew to British Leyland’s London HQ after the revolution saying ‘now is the time to support us,’ predicting the new Government would favour companies that produced locally and restrict Japanese cars (which they did) creating opportunities. But with the Corporation itself struggling (unsuccessfully) to avoid collapse and state rescue, the needs of Portugal are unlikely to have got much attention.

Marina diesel makes an entry

A diesel version of the Series 1 Morris Marina was advertised in Portugal. Do any survive?

Perhaps someone in London was listening, or perhaps it was planned all along. In any event, 1975 saw British Leyland Portugal advertising a diesel Marina, powered by the 1.5-litre B-Series, which would have been a strong competitor in the taxi market which, though times were tough, was still buying cars. Interestingly, the Series I Marina diesel as illustrated was graced with the ‘plank’ front grille in body colour normally reserved for the 1.8-litre models.

‘More savings with every kilometre’ promised the advertising, adding ‘all the qualities of the existing car, but with a change of engine which brings advantages.’ Advantages for the wallet perhaps… Various sources claim no diesel Marinas were built before 1977 (two years after Series I was superseded by Series II in the UK), but Series I Marina diesels answering this description have been photographed, so this was not a ‘mythical’ model.

No other British Leyland product was employing this engine at that time, although the 1.8-litre version was going into the Sherpa. However, amid the confusion that was British Leyland in the 1970s, Marinas with the 1.5-litre diesel B-Series engine began to be manufactured for Portugal – some were assembled at Setubal from CKD kits, although it’s unclear when precisely this started.

It may not have been until 1979, in which case the Marina diesels listed here, with the exception of the final ‘Ital shape’ model, would have been UK built. Not only had the market contracted, but Portugal’s structure of customs duties changed, making CKD assembly less attractive than in the past. But certainly CKD kits of the Marina diesel were being exported to other markets around the world in the 1970s (see below).

The first facelift 

The ‘Series I’ Morris Marina diesel would have been a short-lived model in Portugal, for in 1976 the revised Marina II models were launched. Most Marinas sold were now 1.3-litre petrol saloons or 1.5-litre diesels. A major distinguishing characteristic of the Series II cars was the curvy dashboard, which of course appeared on the diesel saloon. The greater weight of the diesel engine required modifications to the Marina’s suspension.

In Portugal vehicle taxation was closely related to engine displacement, which may be another reason the 1.8-litre B-Series engine never replaced the 1.5-litre version in diesel Marinas in Portugal (a big market for them) or elsewhere. As José Carlos Magalhaes has pointed out, the Marina was well suited to the taxi market as its compact dimensions were ideal for the narrow streets of Lisbon’s older districts.

Morris Marina II 1.5 Diesel – Portugal 1976

Take three

Leyland updated the Marina no less than three times as they struggled to retain customers in a competitive UK market in the face of more modern rivals from Ford and Vauxhall. Portugal followed suit, with a Series III Morris Marina Diesel dutifully appearing in 1978, with bigger bumpers and chin spoiler among other Series III changes. The rather spartan appearance of the car pictured below (outside Lisbon’s Observatory) reflects how it was targeted more at the taxi rank than the country club. By now the sole model available was the 1.5-litre diesel saloon.

A principal product of the IMA factory in Setubal in this period was the Mini, with many being the estate version with one-piece lift-up tailgate that had been developed locally. This ‘IMA Mini’ qualified for lower taxation as a ‘hybrid’ vehicle yet offered seating for four (or five). With diesel Marinas and Minis forming the bulk of sales, British Leyland Portugal was surviving by focusing on affordable models. Some other cars from the Leyland range were imported, like the Triumph Dolomite, but a quota system limited the number that could be brought in.

Morris Marina 1.5-litre Diesel Series III 1978. This car retains front quarterlights (vent-panes) which were lacking on equivalent UK cars

Commercials 

Like their A60 (or ‘half-ton’) predecessors, the regular Marina van and pick-up were not offered with a diesel engine on the home market, although some special order vehicles were built.  Instead they relied on the A-Series petrol engine in 1275cc or 1098cc (van only) form. But in Portugal the 1.5-litre diesel became the only unit found under the hood of these vehicles, something which would have made stocking of parts and servicing easier to handle at dealers. The Sherpa was also marketed in diesel form.

Morris Marina 1.5 Diesel van and pick-up. Portugal c.1980

A diesel for the world

Portugal was not the only country where diesel Marinas could be found. They were popular on Malta, where Marinas were also assembled from CKD kits by Car Assembly Limited and where the diesel engine helped Marina grab a good slice of the taxi market. Morris Marina 1.5-litre diesels were also staples of the taxi fleets in both Singapore and Malaysia, again being locally assembled (by Wearne Group subsidiary, AMI).

In Finland, a conversion kit was officially marketed through Leyland dealers which combined the 1.5-litre diesel with uprated suspension, transmission and battery. The B-Series diesel was appreciated by Finns (well some of them) performing better in harsh winter conditions than rival units from companies like Citroën.

There have been sightings of Marina diesels elsewhere, but they never played a role in Australia or South Africa, where Marinas were manufactured in volume, and certainly didn’t appear in North America. Though some conversions of vans and pick-ups exist, it seems they were never officially offered within the EEC (including the UK) hinting at possible regulatory issues.

A diesel Marina for the 1980s

In June 1980, British Leyland in Britain replaced the Morris Marina with the Morris Ital, a car that Austin-Morris boss Harold Musgrove insisted was much more than just a facelift. Initial thoughts had been to call it ‘Morris Marina Ital’ (along the lines of the old Standard Vanguard Vignale) but in the end ‘Morris Ital’ was adopted. The 1.3 and 1.7-litre petrol engines were carried over from Marina (and there were some 2.0-litre cars) but, as before, there was no diesel version on the home market.

However, no such break with the past was required in Portugal where ‘Morris Marina’ was retained for the reskinned versions of the 1.5-litre diesel saloon when kits began to be assembled in Setubal in 1980, with new sheet metal and other Ital-inspired changes. These cars definitely were Portuguese assembled. Performance was just as leisurely as preceding versions of the diesel Marina with a top speed of 112 km/h (70 mph).

The cars pictured in the brochure images below look rather smart, with chrome trim similar to UK market HL cars, but surviving Marina diesels of this era spotted in Portugal are typically more stripped. A Marina badge appears at the rear in the same typeface used for the Ital badge on British cars.

Morris Marina 1.5 Diesel 1981 – Portugal. ‘More savings with every Kilometre’

As the Eighties progressed, Portugal was developing fast, the economy opening up in anticipation of EEC entry which occurred in 1986. For British Leyland (or ‘BL’ as they now were) this was a country which could no longer be treated as a backwater. Cars previously unavailable were launched such as the Rover SD1 and, in 1984, British Leyland Portugal (in which BL only had a 20% shareholding) was replaced by the new Austin Rover Portugal which was 95% owned by BL. The Goncalves family, who had run British Leyland Portugal since its formation in 1972, retained 5%.

Cars like Metro and Triumph Acclaim, imported complete from the UK, replaced the locally assembled models of the past in showrooms. Mini assembly had ended by 1981, but the Morris Marina diesel continued at least until the IMA plant commenced building the Mini Moke in 1983, production equipment having been transferred from Australia.

Austin Rover went from strength to strength in Portugal in the eighties, which though a small market (78,000 cars in 1983) was growing fast. Exports of Mini Mokes entitled the company to a larger import quota until the system was eventually dismantled, though Moke production shifted from Setubal (which closed down) to a new plant at Vendas Novas in 1985.

The problems of strike disruption and poor quality that gave Leyland a bad name elsewhere in Europe in the ’70s largely passed Portugal by, which may have helped the ’80s success. Metro and the Honda-derived cars like Rover 200 did well and, by 1987, the company could claim 10% market share, better than Austin Rover managed almost anywhere else outside Britain.

But the rough old Morris Marina diesel belonged to another era.

Morris Marina Diesel – Portugal 1980. ‘Now more than ever the choice for drivers who do a lot of kilometres’

Many thanks to José Carlos Magalhaes, Gentil Gomes Da Costa, Fernando Soares, Jan Thoenes and Susan Holbeche for contributing to the content of this article. As ever, comments and additional information are very welcome – that’s especially so in this case, as a great deal of Portuguese history seems ‘lost in the mists of time’…

Chris Cowin

16 Comments

  1. I worked for the Post Office as a mechanic from the late seventies until the late eighties we had BMC 1.5 & 1.8 Diesels fitted to J4 and Sherpa vans cracking motors much better than Perkins 4/108

  2. Hi,
    I was a process engineer at KD operations. I built a prototype of the Ital Diesel in our workshop in Cowley and wrote the process assembly manual. I visited Portugal in November 1979 to sort out the changes and start production.

      • Indeed – your recollections would be very valuable. In particular: When you were helping start production of the Ital diesel (badged Marina) in Portugal in 1979/80 were they “starting from scratch” or had they previously been assembling the old Marina? Nobody seems to remember !

  3. Fascinating. Amazing to think of all those taxi drivers around the world using 1.5 Marina diesels!

  4. I was in the Algarve in 1984, there were a lot of Metros, Acclaims and Minis around and the new Maestro seemed to be selling well too. I don’t recall seeing any Marinas though.

  5. The ‘B’ series Diesel found it’s way into a lot of marine applications as well. It’s often seen in older narrowboats and cruisers and has a good reputation for longevity.

  6. Perhaps if the engine had more power, a diesel Ital could have made a good taxi over here. Sales of diesel cars were slowly increasing after the 1979 energy crisis, the B series diesel was reliable and basing the diesel on the L model would have kept prices down. Also as an estate it could have made sense for people like builders and farmers.

  7. There was a plan to launch diesel cars in the UK powered by the more powerful 1.8 litre version of the B Series diesel. That was used in the Sherpa van – but although a lot of development work was clearly done on improving refinement so they could launch it in a car – they never did.

  8. Seems a pity the B-Series was never enlarged to 1998cc and converted to a 62 hp 2-litre diesel earlier on for possible use in the Marina / Ital (and other cars) prior to the late-80s to early-90s O-Series derived Perkins Prima.

    Such an engine had it appeared in the late-60s to early-70s would have been more viable for use in the Marina / Ital, ADO17, Princess / Ambassador and Sherpa / Freight Rover. An early turbodiesel version of a 2-litre B-Series as was tested on experimental 1.8 B-Series turbodiesels would have even been potentially useful on the Rover SD1 and other models.

    Given the company’s ties with VM Motori at the time, would something like the 82-95 hp 2-litre VM Motori HR 488 OHV turbodiesel used in various Alfa Romeos and the FSO Polenez from the late-70s onwards have likely done well in the Marina / Ital?

    • Thanks for that. There are (or were) some Marina diesels in the UK, both cars and pick-ups. But as that forum confirms, they appear to have been special orders (e.g. for the RAF) or conversions (often using the Sherpa 1.8 diesel) or “evaluation cars”. As far as I am aware a diesel Marina (or Ital) never appears in the official UK price lists or the sales brochures which normal customers received, either as a model or as an option. Not a car, and not a van or pick-up. But the world of BL has many secrets to reveal : ) So if I am incorrect on that, please point me to which year where they were listed as part of the product range.

  9. 70mph top speed is very slow, Pug 204/304D were at least 10mph faster from their 1,4 or 1,5L. The 1,8L would have added a bit of much needed bhp and torque… Imagine when loaded, it must have been dire!!!

    • I suppose for a taxi in Portugal, or indeed London, 70 mph would have been acceptable. Also the low fuel consumption and unbreakable nature of old style diesels would have appealed in a poor country like Portugal. Over here, though, to sell to family car buyers and taxi firms that did longer distance work, another 10 mph would have been essential.

      • And with the Marina’s dubious road manners when compared to the 204/304, probably not a bad thing that it was slower!

  10. Using the 82 hp 1.8 B-Series petrol on both the Princess and Marina as a rough guide (via comparisons on automobile-catalog), it would seem a Marina powered by the same 50 hp 1.8 B-Series diesel in the Princess would run from 0-60 in about 17 seconds with a top speed of 85 mph.

    A bit more challenging to find out how both the Princess and Marina would have likely performed with the 2.0 Perkins Prima / Rover MDi diesel, though perhaps the specifications of the Sherpa / Freight Rover that used both the 1.8 B-Series petrol and 1.8 B-Series diesel along with the 2.0 Perkins Prima diesel would be provide a possible answer?

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