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
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…
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.