The worst: Morris Marina/Ital

Unlike in the vote for the greatest car, the matter of who is the winner of the wooden spoon in this poll was not a clear cut issue at all.

Three cars were in the running: the Allegro, the CityRover and this, the Marina (and its facelifted sister, the Ital). It has to be said that there were many unfavourable comments made about the car, although how much of this was based on hard experience remains to be seen.

Make do and mend…

LAUNCHED in 1971, the Marina was a conservative car, with a sole reason for being: to beat the Ford Cortina. The 1100/1300 ranges had fought a raging battle for sale supremacy with the ‘Big C”, and yet it was BMC’s car that retained the upper hand for every year, but one, between 1963 and 1971. However, the Cortina was growing with each revision, reaching into a higher class as it went along, leaving behind its former adversary.

Marina was designed to take the Cortina head on, and to do so, it needed to possess a similar set of qualities. The Cortina possessed a conventional mechanical layout, so the Marina was given one. The Cortina had conventionally handsome styling, so the Marina did as well (BLMC were so keen on the Cortina look, they poached its designer Roy Haynes). In every department the Cortina shone, the Marina was designed to as well.

There was one problem though: the Marina was designed in a hurry. It needed to be. Leyland management knew the gaping Cortina sized hole in the BMC range needed plugging as a matter of urgency, and as a result, as many off-the-shelf parts as possible were used. Established engines were chosen (A- and B-Series), Minor-derived suspension was employed, and the off-the-shelf Triumph gearbox completed the picture. It was an extremely effective piece of ‘bitza” engineering, clothed in a contemporary body.

However, although BLMC rushed to get the Marina into production, it did miss a couple of important targets. The Cortina Mk III, launched around the same time, grew again to 2-litres. The Marina was sized to fight with the more compact Mk II Cortina, and as a result, its biggest engine option, the 1.8TC was never going to quite enough. Another problem was that BLMC were unable to provide a straightforward rival to the Cortina 1.6, and as it happened, this proved to be the most popular company car ‘step” on the ladder. It was a mistake that other manufacturers made, because anticipating market leader Ford’s next moves was difficult at the best of times.

In the end, the Marina arrived on the marketplace just two and a half years after the project was started, and proves that there were many determined people within the company at the time. The fact that it competed at all was a miracle in itself, but in the end, the Marina didn’t just compete, it sold pretty well. It did not rival the Cortina, and this was apparent from a very early stage in its life, but it sold well enough to make money for the company. Compared with the class of ’71, it was no dynamic leader, but it was also not terribly bad either. There were early life collywobbles regarding handling, but these were soon put right…

There are people who have fond memories of the Marina: one ex-manager I speak to a lot used to use a Marina 1.8 estate pool car, and he is quite adamant that it was about the quickest car he used at the time to punt from Longbridge to Cowley in. The handling was always considered ‘entertaining” in the 1.8-litre versions, probably a result of just having enough power to kick out that tail in anger.

The Marina was a step in the right direction in a marketing sense too. It had a logical Cortina-like progression through the model range, and offered three alternative body styles (four if you include the pick-up). The range was large and spanned a wide price range, and because the two-door saloon was given a coupe-style body, it was considered sporty enough by some to be a sensible (and faster, better handling) alternative to the MGB.

Don’t underestimate its packaging, either. Given that the design team knew a thing or two about space efficiency, it should come as no surprise to learn that the Marina was a very roomy car for its class, especially considering its 96-inch wheelbase.

Still, the company was well aware that the Marina had many shortcomings, but decided it was a good enough job to last the five-or-so years it needed to until its replacement arrived on the scene. Sadly, it was a replacement that would never be seen, and that was because the Marina was overtaken by the bankruptcy of 1974/75. So, a car that was lifed for a five-year production run suddenly became one without a planned replacement.

1975 came and went, and after the ADO77, SD2 and TM1 were canned, the Marina’s replacement looked to be the front wheel drive LC10 model. However, in a new climate of austerity, the LC10 underwent a protracted development programme, which lasted almost eight years. In the meantime, Marina was forced to soldier on. Although it continued to sell reasonably well (strikes permitting), it was falling further and further off the pace.

The O-Series engine upgrade of 1978 was not nearly enough, and neither was the 1980 facelift. The Ital has now become synonymous with all that is naff about BL during the 1970s and 80s, and yet, it need not have been. Styled at Longbridge by Harris Mann, the new car was helped into production by Ital Design (so, the Marina was an early adopted of the policy of outsourcing). As a nod to the Italians, Ray Horrocks (then in charge of Austin-Morris) decided it seemed a good idea to call the revised car, the Morris Marina Ital. Sir Michael Edwardes had other ideas, though, and overruled Horrocks, because he felt the car had been changed enough to warrant the dropping of the Marina name. And so the Ital was born.

That is probably why people deride the car in hindsight. It was given a new name and this probably led to unreasonably high expectations. Underneath, it was little more than a Marina with new lights and flash new door handles, and it was painfully obvious to anyone who saw it. In terms of the magnitude of the change from Marina to Ital, it makes the latest Rover 25 and 45 revamps look like a thorough re-engineering job. Customers were not fooled – it might have looked like an Audi 80 or Renault 18 head-on, but underneath it was still a plain Jane Marina. Dynamically, at the time of its launch, it was at least two generations adrift of the opposition. In terms of refinement, it was probably even further behind.

Not that it was all bad news: the Ital was always well equipped and cheap, and BL executives always maintained that it met sales targets, whilst making a profit. Some fleet buyers loved it for its mechanical simplicity and ruggedness, although by 1980, the number of companies buyers scared off by front wheel drive had dwindled away to almost zero.

No, the Marina was not a bad car. It was never better than average, though – even when it was new. It did look good at launch, but it remained in production far too long. Can the Marina be blamed for this? Of course not. However, car people are an unforgiving lot, and their selective amnesia seems to have honed in on the Marina’s bad points. But as it seems to have had so few positive points for the enthusiast to latch on to, it has been given the boot.

After all, the Allegro for all its faults, probably has a longer list of positives than the poor old Marina.

And that is why so many people voted for in their droves.

The Marina/Ital: gone, but probably should be forgotten.

Keith Adams


  1. The sales jargon in the stories I write states that Leyland Motors of Pearsonland needed a car to compete with the Mark III Ford Cortina and the Opel Ascona A which debuted in late 1970. Even the five speed transmissioned Austin Maxi first hit our roads during the summer of 1969, the dark brown haired tycoon and his team at their Work Time Listening and Learning session knew that it would not cut the mustard. One of the prototype BMC ADO28 cars not that dissimilar to the Roy Haynes prototype appeared in the showroom and the entire board of young men agreed on name specific cars and went for Marina. The Pearsonian Marina hit the showrooms during the spring of 1971 signalling the end of the Morris version of the ADO16 saloons and kombis.

    • The Marina was created to take on the Hillman Hunter and the Ford Cortina, two big selling and conservative designs that fleets and taxi companies liked for their simplicity and conservative engineering. If you wanted something more advanced, you bought a Maxi. However, the Marina should really have been replaced by 1976 as it began to fall way behind the competition, but there was no money left.

      • It’s interesting to compare the Marina & Hunter, especially as the Hunter should have been squeezed out of the range by the Avenger and Chrysler 180 by the mid 1970s rather than being facelifted & left into production until 1979.

        • The Hunter lived on as a budget saloon car and was kept alive by taxi firms and the Ministry of Defence. There wasn’t an equivalent in the Chrysler range until 1980 when the Solara replaced the Hunter. Also the 180/2 Litre was aimed more at the upper end of the family car market and had been a sales flop, so the Hunter was allowed to live on. It might have been outclassed by the late seventies, but the 1725 Rootes engine was a known quantity and less rattly than the Simca engines used in the Alpine.

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