Opinion : Morris Marina – What the opposition was up to…

Morris Marina and its rivals, 1975

It’s all well and good discussing the merits or otherwise of the Morris Marina but, in isolation, you’re only getting a slice of the story. In this article, we’re going to run-down the models it was up against, and what you could have bought for similar money in the two or three years after its launch.

1971: Morris Marina and rivals

Austin 1300

British Leyland International: Austin 1300GT

Lest we forget that in 1971, while Austin and Morris were bedfellows under the British Leyland Motor Corporation banner, many car buyers considered them as separate marques with different brand values. That meant that the country’s best-selling car of the 1960s was still a viable option, especially as it had been upgraded to 1275cc form and had been continuously updated along the way. So, buyers were presented with the weird notion of either buying a new Marina or an Austin-badged version of the car it had been designed to replace. And judging from the sales performance of the Austin 1100/1300 all the way to its end in 1973/74, many buyers came to the same, uncomfortable for BLMC, conclusion…

Austin Maxi

Maxis from at their launch at Estoril in 1969 - reading the contemporary newspaper reports are fascinating...

Top models in the Morris Marina range also found themselves on the same shopping lists as Austin’s recently-launched Maxi. Although, like the 1100/1300, it was a front-wheel-drive challenger and probably appealed to a different set of buyers, its continued existence throughout the 1970s clearly demonstrated the mess that British Leyland was in at the time. With heavy steering and a poor gearchange as well as unfashionable styling it lacked appeal. And for those fleet managers who were beholden to an all-British Leyland car-buying policy, why would you choose the worthy-but-dull Maxi over the later Morris Marina Estate? The subsequent sales figures showed that they didn’t.

Citroën GS

1971 car of the year, the Citroen GS

It’s probably unlikely that, in the UK, the glorious Citroën GS would have appeared on too many shopping lists alongside the Morris but, in 1971, it cost similar money to a mid-spec Marina 1300 and, as such, should be considered as a rival. Technically, it was light years ahead, with all-independent Hydropneumatic suspension, a highly-streamlined body and an air-cooled flat-four engine that could happily drive at its maximum speed all day long. Despite its avant garde nature, the Citroën sold well in the UK throughout the 1970s, and showed that buyers weren’t afraid of tech if it worked… and the GS did.

Fiat 124

Fiat 124

Although when people these days see a Fiat 124, they’re likely to exclaim ‘Lada!’, these solidly-engineered rear-wheel-drive Italian saloons were highly regarded when new. With a range of energetic Lampredi-designed engines and a well-engineered suspension set-up, these were great to drive in the true Italian style. With lots of room and a nice big boot, the 124 made a great family car – and it was one of the cars that British Leyland was aiming at when developing the ADO28 in the early days. By 1971, and the launch of the Marina, its styling was seen as quite dated, but its engineering certainly wasn’t. The 124 was replaced by the 131 Mirafiori in 1974.

Fiat 128

Fiat 128

Despite looking as conventional as the 124, the 128 was an altogether more advanced package, with front-wheel drive and a range of sporty overhead Lampredi-designed engines. It was so good, it was named the Car of The Year in 1970. A brilliant technical package that wasn’t quite as good to drive as you’d hope, and with a propensity to rust even before the first MoT was due, the 128 was a car for car journalists rather than real-world punters… in the UK at least. Long-lived and much-loved globally, though, the 128 sold more than three million copies and remained in production until 2003.

Ford Escort

Ford Escort (1968)

In 1971, the Ford Escort was well-established as its maker’s second-best-selling car behind the all-conquering Cortina – and, thanks to the latter’s growth in Mk3 guise, this was actually closer to the Marina in terms of size and scope, despite an engine range that started at 1100cc and topped out at 1600cc. In truth, the Escort was light years ahead of the Marina in terms of image thanks to its great styling, slick gearchange and that all-important successful motorsport career.

Ford Cortina

The big one, and the target that BLMC, Rootes-Chrysler and Vauxhall all missed when it grew into a much larger car in Mk3 form. The Cortina was a marketing masterstroke by Ford, perfectly judging the mood of the nation and its growing wealth – this bigger car was all that every family, every sales rep, every businessman ever needed… in the UK at least. A top seller, with models ranging from 1300cc to 2000cc, and in a highly-fashionable body that Ford had planned to keep restyled on a regular basis. The Mk3 wasn’t perfect as the quality and refinement were off the mark, but in typical Ford style, the criticisms were answered swiftly, and any potential wobbles overcome. Replaced by the boxier Mk4 in 1976, just around the time the ADO77 should have appeared had things gone well for BLMC.

Hillman Avenger

Hillman Avenger

Developed by a Rootes Group flush with Chrysler’s cash in the late-1960s, the Hillman Avenger emerged as a stylish new-from-the-ground-up challenger designed to appeal to fleet buyers in the UK. It’s no surprise that what emerged from Coventry in 1970 was very similar to how the Marina ended up looking. But it was an altogether better engineered product that outdrove the Morris by some margin. Early cars were marred by a near-total lack of rustproofing, and sales were disappointing compared with rivals from Ford, Vauxhall and British Leyland Motor Corporation – and, as a consequence, it was left to whither on the vine by parent company Chrysler, which followed Simca’s front-wheel-drive platform strategy for Europe.

Peugeot 304

Peugeot 304

Introduced in 1969, the Peugeot 304 was probably the state of the art for European three-box saloons at the turn of the 1970s. Based on the smaller front-wheel-drive 204, which had been around since 1965, the 304 looked modern, fresh and altogether more timeless than its American-inspired UK rivals. It was a high-quality car, with an overhead cam engine and all-independent suspension, reflected in its price. If you wanted a 304 with its 1.3-litre engine in 1971, you’d have to pay more than you would for an altogether quicker Marina 1800 TC.

Renault 12

Renault 12

The Renault 12 was launched in 1969 and followed the R4 and R16 into its maker’s overhaul of its rear-engined range into much more advanced front-wheel-drive models. It proved popular in the UK, mainly on back of Renault’s position as the country’s most popular importer (until Datsun wrested that title from the French company in the mid-1970s). Like the Marina, its entry-level model was a 1.3-litre car, and the ride comfort was seriously impressive even if engine refinement and steering weren’t. Out of all the cars here, it enjoyed the longest life, living on as a Renault until 1980, and then as a Dacia until 2004.

Triumph 1500

Triumph 1500

Another in-house rival for the Morris Marina, although it was at the more expensive end of the spectrum, and a far higher-quality offering. Good to drive, and nice looking, but the upright Michelotti-styled body was already beginning to look dated by the turn of the 1970s. The front-wheel-drive 1500 was a 1970 development of the 1300, which had been launched in 1965, and ended up remaining in production until 1973, when it was replaced by similar-looking rear-wheel drive 1500TC. An appealing car, rather like the Peugeot 304 in execution, that ended up being subsumed into the Dolomite range then left to fend for itself until 1980.

Vauxhall Viva HC

Vauxhall Viva HC

Although it tends to be overlooked these days, the Vauxhall Viva was probably the Marina’s closest rival in terms of size and engine range. Launched a year before the Marina, it was similarly affected by Ford’s decision to grow the Cortina into an altogether larger car – and then by its subsequent lack of development as Vauxhall’s range became increasingly German dominated throughout the 1970s. Overall, an excellent car, especially in 1800cc Magnum form, although, like the Marina, the Coupe version missed its target – the Ford Capri – by some margin.

Keith Adams

38 Comments

  1. It’s a difficult choice. A balance between build quality, price and actually having a nice car. For quality it would have to be a Japanese design but they were pretty rubbish designs weren’t they, at this time? Price – well the Fords were good value, ditto the Marina and Viva. And if you wanted a nice car, maybe the Renault, the Citroen even the Avenger. On balance I’ll probably take the Renault, but you can see why the Fords were gaining mass appeal – pretty well made and good value, and the good detail styling made them look desirable even if they were distinctly ordinary designs

    • Of the options here, I would have had the Peugeot if I had the money back then, wouldn’t touch the Renault due to it electrical issues, and the GS because of its suspension (I knew people who had major probs with these). On balance my old man and grandfather being Dagenham screwdriver holders, and both of them and my other grandfather all being Mk3 drivers, Im bias to the Cortina. And they all had different variations, a 1.6 L, a 1.6 XL and a 2.0 E, so I probably would have had the Cortina (or the Escort, my dad’s previous motor, a 1.3 XL).

      Wouldn’t touch the Viva, body fell apart in my Uncles version while the 1100 my other uncle had rusted through the fuel tank! My great aunt had a Marina and had no issue with it and loved it. Her husband had a Maxi and he loved it.

      • My father had a Renault 12. Comfy and quite stylish, but really hard to drive due to the heavy steering and clutch. My father swapped it for a Mk2 Escort, an inferior car but an easier one to drive as my mum was learning to drive at the time

        Very poor ventilation too from distant memory!

        • My primary school headmaster had a 12. On one school trip, when not all of us would fit in the Bedford CF, a couple of us ended up in the car. Very odd interior door handles are my main memory.

    • The Japanese offerings were streets ahead in mechanical integrity and dependability but ,as you say, an acquired taste style-wise. Pity they rotted away after a few rain showers though. The 12 was a decent performer in TS form. Always found the Viva a little “feminine” in appearance though the bigger engined versions with quad headlights and Ro-styles were more my thing.

      • The French manufacturers, due to their tax system, did seem to favour rather small engines. Ignoring the specialised Gordini, the top R12 the TS still only had a 64hp 1.3 engine, when the Cortina had offered a 1.5/1.6 option right throughout the 60s, the Maxi’s base unit was a 1.5 engine and the Marina offered a 1.8 option as well as the 1.3

  2. All these years down the line, The Austin 1300 (in GT guise) and Viva HC still appeal to me more than the Marina did. The Marina Coupe is better, but there again the Viva and Magnum estates looked quite sporty’ish.

    I often think the Magnum is an under rated car – not sure how its pricing compared to an equivalent Marina though

  3. Surprised the Hillman Hunter isn’t listed as it was a similar size to the Marina and a consistent seller in the seventies, and a rather nice car if you bought the GLS with the uprated 1725cc engine or the plush Humber version. Like the Marina, it had little development during the seventies and in the Chrysler era ended up as a budget saloon that was assembled in Ireland and was kept alive by MOD orders and buyers who distrusted the Alpine.

  4. Datsun 120Y must surely be on the list? From 1973-on this was the car which scared the pants off the Euro and UK opposition. Rare sight nowadays though!

    • The 120Y was a big seller worldwise, with production around 400,000 a year!

      Toyota also sold lots of Corollas & Carinas in the 1970s, which were close to the Marina sizewise.

      • Yes, other than the later Honda Accord, all the Japanese Marina rivals during the 1970s followed a similar template, of simple engineering, and not being an “enthusiast’s car” but threw in better equipment and reliability…

        • Honda switched to FWD quite early on, but apart from the Datsun Cherry and the Subarus most other Japanese cars kept to rear wheel drive until late in the 1970s.

  5. Other “conventional” European rivals were the Open Ascona A and the Simca 1301/1501, while the VW Type 3 was a more oddball choice

    • And from 1972 there was the Passat which probably showed the way forward to all of them

  6. I don’t know what they were called in the UK but in Australia the Datsun 1600 blew these away, overhead cam engines and independent rear suspension for unlimited tail out fun.

    • Sounds like the Datsun 160B. It managed to combine tail happy handling with IRS due to 165 tyres. The 180B had 185s which transformed the handling.

  7. My family had a Datsun Bluebird then four FIAT 131s. The 131s were better equipped than the Datsun, better to drive, rusted less. Reliability wise, the only time they were a let down was abroad.

  8. Interesting to note there is nothing German in the list of rivals. Today, there would be German brands in any category you chose….but nothing ‘British’.

    • VW were still stuck with the Beetle, revered today, but in the 1970s, seen as very old fashioned and a dead product

      • VW had inherited the K70 from NSU as a fill-in model until the Passat came along, but I don’t, think it was ever a big seller.

    • Indeed. In most European markets outside the UK the Opel Kadett would have been a strong contender – or the Ascona. And Ford Germany had just ditched the FWD Ford Taunus P6 in favour of Escort and Taunus TC – both RWD.
      But as the Marina was entirely aimed at the UK market, it is fair to leave these out.
      BL did indeed try to sell the Marina in other European markets, but stopped this experiment rather quickly, as the car was just too primitive for the private buyer. And most company cars were either work horses (panel vans, estate cars) or luxury cars…

      • BL did manage to export well over 400000 Marinas though, a very healthy number when compared to most other products of the 70s onwards, so somebody must have bought them!

        I couldn’t imagine the French or Germans wanting them, but poorer countries would be more interested, From an article elsewhere on here, diesel Marinas were very popular in Portugal for example

    • There is a Golf front left in the image and given the Marinas in-between sizing a 70s Passat would be a rival as well. The Cavalier is also missing for some reason – A German Opel in all but name and the car that most Marina buyers deserted to as the Marina aged. A German also wouldn’t consider the Cortina/Taunus or Escort to be anything other than German cars.

  9. Ford were the sensible choice of car maker for many owners, plenty of knowledge of the make and parts were cheap and readily available. It is of little benefit to have a high quailty engine and gearbox if there is nothing to bolt it into, (those rustbucket Datsuns and Fiats). Most DIY mechanics would rather replace a gearbox or backaxle than repair rusty bodywork.

    • ‘@cyclist, there were so many Fords around in the seventies, used prices were always low, every mechanic( including home ones) knew how to fix them, and any faults were simple to sort out. Also with the launch of the Cavalier, Vauxhall was re establishing itself in the family car market with a well made and reliable car that was cheap to own and easy to maintain.

      • @ Glenn, also the Cavalier MK1 was better looking and more comfortable than a Marina? especially in GL / GLS trim

        • The Cavalier was the best of the British badged family cars, offering decent performance, handling and refinement in two attractive bodies( the Sportshatch looked very nice) and offered everything from the poverty 1300 L to the upmarket 2000 GLS. Also for its time, the Cavalier was a reliable car and well rust proofed and I still saw late model Mark 1s into the nineties.

          • I had a Mk1 1900 Cavalier 4 door, and at various times two Opel Manta 1900 coupes (not the hatch). At the time – 1980s and early 90s – they were the best cars I’d driven, looked good, and were reliable.

          • Yes the Cavalier looked good in all bodystyles… saloon, Sportshatch and not forgetting the Coupe. Good memories of those cart loving times!

  10. The early 1970s, the era the topic refers to, triggered memories of the rise of the Japanese car to the buying public, I ‘m reminded that Nissan and Austin had linked up after WW2, that BL were downsizing their dealer network, some of those displaced taking on Datsun ( Nissan) franchises, the original tie up with Austin saw Nissan permitted to manufacture copies of the A and B series engines, those copies were improved by the Japanese, redesigned from 3 bearing to 5 bearing crankshafts, revised cylinder heads and lighter metals, those Japanese engines proved to be durable, quiet, economical and powerful, they remained in production until the 1990s in a wide range of cubic capacities.
    I wonder if Nissan or BL ever discussed the prospect of Nissan as a supplier of those improved engines for fitting into BL assembled cars?
    The customers who purchased upmarket Metros such as Vanden Plas trim probably deserved a better smoother 5 bearing engine over the A+ 3-bearing units
    Was there any prospect or mention in the records of talks of such a deal for A or B series engines from Nissan?

    • The fascination with 5 bearing cranks is interesting , because I have never found it possible to disitinguish any improvement in smoothness over 3 bearing cranks in small engines such as the A series, and there is no doubt that in smaller sizes 5 bearings do sap power . And the B series engine was 5 bearing anyway from 1965 onwards

      The first Japanese engine which to me really did excel in the NVH stakes was the 998cc 16 valve Micra engine from 1993 onwards

      • I had a 1994 16V Micra, the 1.3L version of the 998, yes it was a superb car, silent, smooth and effortless power delivery, Those engines had a expensive ECU supporting sequential fuel injection, sequential fuel injection was not found on budget cars in 1993, too costly, used on expensive high end cars , the system required a lot of computer processing power in the ECU, My neighbour had a Mercedes C class, a car which gave him a few issues, he admired my Micra for the reliability and lack of trouble, unfortunately not delivered by his Mercedes at 3 times the purchase price

        • Speaking of Japanese engines, I always found Hondas to be very smooth, powerful and economical. The 1.3 litre Honda engine I had in my Rover 213 was very quiet, even at motorway speeds, accelerated like a 1.6 and would probably cruise all day at 100 mph where this was legal, and could return 40 mpg in everyday driving, very good for a mid eighties petrol engine. Then there was the fine 2.7 Honda V6 that was found in the Rover 800 that was as quiet as a Jaguar XJ6 and could propel the car to over 130 mph.

    • Nissan like other Japanese marques that had post-war licence agreements with European marques did benefit from having modern production tooling, which gave them more freedom to further develop the European-derived designs into something much more than the likes of Austin and Rootes were able to achieve respectively with their old tooling (to the latter’s detriment).

      Have been trying to track the exact progression of Nissan’s Austin derived engines and it seems they can be divided into two families, one A40/B-Series derived and the other a more downscaled family of engines slightly larger than the BMC A-Series roughly akin to a properly developed E/R/S-Series 4-cylinder (without the Issigonis imposed limitations of the E-Series).

      The A40/B-Series derived Nissan engines began with the 1-litre Nissan C aka Stone engine since the 1.2-litre A40/B-Series was originally designed as a 1.0-1.2-litre engine (Barney Sharratt’s Post-War Baby Austins and a few others online bring up that titbit), which culminated with the 4/6-cylinder Nissan J engine via the 1.2-litre Nissan E OHV and 1.5-litre Nissan G OHV later the 1.5 Nissan H (1H) engine (with claims it evolved in the 1.6-litre R16 / H16 engine used in the Datsun Silvia CSP311).

      Such are the similarities with the B-Series that there are claims an MGB cylinder head as well as an HRG-Derrington crossflow head will fit straight on a Nissan J engine.

      There are claims the E OHV was based on improvements from the BMC A-Series, yet other accounts suggest the E OHV was actually based on improvements from the earlier A40/B-Series-derived C engine.

      The second smaller Austin derived family of Nissan engines began with the mid-60s A engine that despite sharing the same name as the BMC A-Series seems in terms of size to slot between the former and the BMC B-Series (along with being smaller than the Nissan E OHV engine), a Nissan A15 with a 5-speed manual or 3-speed auto gearbox from the 77-81 Sunny B310 seems to have been a pretty common engine/gearbox swap for the Morris Minor and MG Midget in some parts. Yet despite the Nissan A engine fitting into the Issigonis-inspired Cherry E10, have doubts it would fit into the engine bay of a Mini/Metro though it is pretty plausible to imagine it fitting into the ADO16 and Allegro.

      The 1.0-1.5-litre Nissan A engine itself would not only evolve into the 1.0-1.6-litre E OHC and later the 1.3-1.6-litre GA, but also spawn the upscaled 1.6-2.0-litre CA/CD engine as well as the downscaled 0.9-1.2-litre MA engine.

      The 0.9-1.2 MA engine that powered the Micra K10 can apparently fit into the engine bay of a Mini, however it seems the 1.0-1.4 CG and CR engines in the Micra K11 and K12 have grown to become pretty popular engine swaps in a Mini (though have no idea if both are related to the MA unit in the Micra K10). The CG and CR engines in particular seem to be what the Rover K-Series could have been without the Triumph or Issigonis influences (e.g. Sabrina Twin-Cam, Triumph Slant-Four 16v, ECV3 and 9X).

      https://www.micra.org.uk/threads/turboing-ma10-engine.18234/

      Maybe the guys at Datsun1200.com and elsewhere can help clear up the matter as to the commonalities, differences and interchangeability between the A/B-Series and Nissan’s loosely Austin-derived engines?

  11. Did the public really see the Austin 1300 and Morris Marina as rivals? The Marina was 20 inches longer, which is a massive difference really. After all while you could get a 1300 Escort and a 1300 Cortina, that didn’t make them rivals. The public would see the Cortina and Marina as a class up from the 1300 and Escort.

    And while the Mk3 Cortina was wider than the Marina, the saloon was only 2 inches longer, so hardly a major difference.

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