Blog : Raise a glass to… 45 years of the Morris Marina

Carole Nash Classic Insurance Specialists

Mike Humble

This week in 1971 saw the launch of the Morris Marina. Happy birthday old gal.

Ah, the dear old Morris Marina, yet another BL clunker that strikes a nostalgic chord in my heart. Yes folks, it’s birthday time again as British Leyland’s answer to the Cortina MkIII hits the ripe old age of 45 this week.

Launched on 27 April 1971, the range of two- and four-door saloons hit the marketplace – in record time from drawing board to showroom. Despite its faults (and, boy, were there plenty of them too) it rarely dipped out of the UK sales Top 10 throughout its nine-year lifecycle, after which it was replaced with the Ital. Early models suffered from truly shocking roadholding, especially 1.8-litre versions, but subsequent models were nipped, tucked and tweaked to bring the laughable roll and oversteer to a more manageable level.

Despite the parlous state of affairs within BL and the state bailout of 1975, the Marina 2 became a fairly decent machine. This was thanks to the combination of standard anti-roll bars on all but van and estate models, some nice colour schemes and a new dashboard and fascia. Showroom appeal from these revised models kept the car alive and it faired reasonably well in the fleet market. Its utterly conventional engineering made servicing and repairs laughably simple. The only major re-engineering project came in the form of a new 1700cc O-series engine to replace the Stone Age 1798cc B-Series unit.

1975 saw the revised "Marina 2" - much better attention to engineering, equipment and showroom appeal. These two are the 1.3 1.8 Specials.
The revised Marina 2 came in 1975 – much better attention to engineering, equipment
and showroom appeal. These two are the Marina Specials offered in 1.3 or 1.8 saloon forms

As we all know, the Marina had more Achilles’ Heels than the recent London marathon. These mainly revolved around the archaic front suspension, weak gearboxes and the usual 1970’s gremlin – the Sheffield tin worm. However, in well kept running order there was very little to cause them to break down – even the newer O-Series power unit had a complexity even more simple than a knife and fork. Fast forward to the present day and we get the feeling that time does indeed heal old wounds – that musical whine from second gear tickles my nostalgia bone more than any other BL car of the same era.

I literally sold hundreds of Marinas from 1974 through to 1981 and, even though it’s fair to say the UK competition was little better than Morris in terms of outright quality, they, you and I weren’t paying for the cock ups of Ford, Rootes or Vauxhall via our Income Tax unlike British Leyland. In my opinion, this is why they rightly or wrongly took so much stick as a company,’  Bill Douglas (a now-retired former Sales Manager at a BL dealership)

Was the Marina as bad as the reputation it quickly gained? Well, no, not really. The competition such as the Alpine/Solara and Cortina et al suffered their own fair share of rust, strikes and strife. However, I mentioned this to a retired Volkswagen Dealer Principal I know very well. He sold BL throughout the 1970s and he quickly retorted that it was true – other brands were no better really, but the British public wasn’t paying through their taxes for Ford or Chrysler’s mistakes.

Anyway, that was all a very long time ago, so raise your glasses aloft to the birthday girl… our old friend, Marina!

Marina Timeline:

  • 1971 Production commences in the newly-refitted Cowley facility in Oxford
  • 1972 Five-door estate launched
  • 1975 Marina 2 launched with major improvements to the brakes, steering, suspension and fascia
  • 1978 Revised Marina 2 with improved quality, aggressive pricing and a new 1.7-litre OHC engine option
  • 1980 Deleted and replaced with the Marina-based Morris Ital – two-door body no longer offered

The Marina's last major revamp came in 1978. The 1.7 engine was introduced along with a revised facia that featured illuminated switchgear and controls. Build quality and refinement was greatly improved as was the driving position thanks to revised seat cushions and repositioning of the pedals.
The Marina’s last major revamp came in 1978. The 1.7-litre engine was introduced along with a
revised fascia which featured illuminated switchgear and controls. Build quality and refinement
were greatly improved as was the driving position thanks to revised seat cushions
and repositioning of the pedals

Mike Humble

Upon leaving school, Mike was destined to work on the Railway but cars were his first love. An apprenticeship in a large family Ford dealer was his first forray into the dark and seedy world of the motor trade.

Moving on to Rover and then PSV / HGV, he has circumnavigated most departments of dealerships including parts, service and latterly - the showroom. Mike has owned all sorts of rubbish from Lada to Leyland and also holds both Heavy Goods & Public Service Vehicle licences, he buys & sells buses and coaches during the week. Mike runs his own automotive web site and writes for a number of motoring or commercial vehicle themed publications

38 Comments

  1. Had many of these from starting driving in 1987. A brilliant second hand buy, cheap, very reliable and quite robust. There were still so many on the road in the late 1980 s- bit like the Ford Focus mark 1 on uk roads today. Now they are like hens teeth. The tc coupe was my favourite even though it handled like a wet fish round corners. Had a gt coupe too-gearbox was very weak on these- but fun to drive with plenty of poke.

  2. I bought one as a ‘station car’ for my Dad when he needed some wheels in a hurry, it was a 1978 1.3L series 2 in chocolate brown. It originally belonged to a friend of mine who refused to scrap it when it failed it’s MOT, instead spending £400 to get it through the MOT thinking that expenditure would make it more saleable. After being lumbered with it for another 2 months and not a sniff of interest I eventually bought it from him for £150 still with 10 months ticket and tax, my Dad ran it for a year and I sold it for £150 again after getting another MOT on it. Cheaper to run than shoe leather, it never let him down.

    They always seemed a lot more dependable than the FWD BL cars and were a lot easier to work on. Many of the 1.3s have been cannibalised by Minor owners especially the later Itals with the A+ engine.

  3. It must have been 45 years ago that I first saw a Marina- One of our neighbours was sales manager at an Austin-Morris dealership (ie not whole BL range) and he had a red coupe parked outside his door. This was very exciting when you are five years old and the last ‘all new’ car you the Cortina MK3 10% of you life ago. More good new was Corgi brought out a model Marina on the day it was launched. Full size cars however must have been harder to obtain as I don’t think I saw another Marina till the K-plates came out in August.

    With the level of scorn placed on the Marina nowadays it is hard to believe how popular it actually was. I would guess that with the exceplion of the Mini it was probably the most popular car bought by private buyers during the seventies.Certainly it was the car of choice with my friends parents that paid for their motoring out of their own pocket- usually a 1.3 4dr- whereas it was always a Cortina if the company were paying the bills.

    If you consider the low development budget and antiquated components it was based on, the Marina’s sales record throughout the seventies is nothing short of remarkable.

  4. Usual excellent write up by Mr Humble although IIRC Chrysler also received state funding to the tune of £150 million in 1976.

  5. My late Dad had an Austin Maxi which was brilliant then he followed it up with a Marina saloon which was one of the worst cars he ever owned! One of my strong childhood memories of the 1970s is of him spending every weekend trying to fix some part of the bloody thing. In particular I remember him explaining to me once what the thermostat was and why he’d put it in our oven (I wish I could remember why!)

    He sold the Marina and bought a Mazda 323 estate in about 1979 which never missed a beat. Rightly or wrongly his two brothers gave him a lot of stick at the time for buying Japanese, but they’ve both had Japanese cars for years so I guess my father was ahead of his time!

  6. Wasn’t it the Marina where somebody was doing a brake pad job, and then found a drum brake on the other side ? Or is this just a “lounge bar” tale.

    I have actually driven one, although not all that far, from Wheelock near Sandbach by the Trent and Mersey Canal, back to somewhere near Castle Bromwich, in a complex changeover of people on a canal boat holiday. This was in the mid-70s. The car was a 1.8 and it gave quite adequate performance, and was comfortable enough. I was on motorbikes at the time and didn’t really know all that much about cars then.

  7. First car: 1979 1.7L in brown (weren’t they all?).

    It was okay. Needed a new fuel tank, the boot leaked and the wipers failed in my 18 months and 14,000 miles.

    I don’t think it was a great car in any way, but I think the equivalent Cortina of that era was no better either.

    Still, it got me mobile and was pretty reliable and that’s all you ask of your first car really.

  8. It doesn’t get away from the fact that the Marina was a pretty awful car in pretty much every department, BUT grudgingly I do have to look at it rationally and say its sales DID do an awful lot to keep the lights and heating on at BL through its darkest years….and that does get glossed over way too often IMHO.

  9. Like the Allegro, I’m not sure why such scorn is directed at the Marina . It was a fairly basic design – as was the Cortina and even more so the Escort , and equally the Rootes Arrow cars – which was what a lot of people wanted who were afraid of the much higher level of technology , not all of it successful , of the fwd cars . Both the engines were good, and although brakes and suspension were unsophisticated , the cars were easy to maintain and cheap to run . It is interesting to compare BLMC and Ford in the 1960s and 1970s – each tried cars that were a little out of the ordinary in parallel with mainstream offerings e.g. 1800 , Classic, Corsair , and each bombed in the showrooms – a pity in the case of the Corsair which in its original form was quite a nice car

  10. The problem with the Marina was not the end product, it was as intended good enough (at least once they fitted the roll bars missing from the Press cars used at launch!) but as I will explain below 1: that it cost too much to put into production given its low aspirations and intended short model life and 2: that when it was delivered it was not necessary as the company could have sold all the ADO16 they could have built instead.

    1: The project should have been a simple parts bin reskin, but many of the existing components including the B series, Minor front suspension and Triumph Gearbox needed retooling either because the tooling was exhausted and or production capacity was insufficient. The end result was that you got all the expense (it cost significantly more than the Allegro to bring to market) of a clean sheet design with all the disadvantage of a reskin (I think was one of the drivers behind the car was dealers pointing at the Roots Arrow launched in 66, a cheap as chips reskin of existing modest components to build a car that could go head to head with then Ford products) in below average abilities.

    2: Whilst the Marina initial sales were good this needs to be reflected that the car launched into the “Barber Boom” where dealers could sell anything they had and anything half decent had a significant waiting list, my Grandfather waited 18 months before he got his Range Rover (and even then it was the wrong colour), my father waited months and months for his Rapier (ordered in Feb arrived July)and I have heard that Swiss customers took to picketing the Jaguar offices in Geneva due to delays in receiving their XJ.

    The Marina arrived into this booming market at Nuffield dealers replacing the Morris versions of the ADO16, which had stopped production in Cowley to release along with the Minor capacity for the Marina, even without the Barber Boom at least 50% of those Marina sales would have been accounted for by ADO16 and BMC / Leyland never had any issues selling every ADO16 they made even before the Barber Boom.

    However even if the standard ADO16 could not have utilised the extra capacity provided for the Marina, there were plenty of cheaper ways of boosting sales, such as bringing to the UK the 1500 and Nomad hatchback variants of the ADO16 they had in Australia. You can also see how the car could have been refreshed with an 1800 like makeover or as done later with Apache to keep it fresh.

    The focusing on the ADO16 instead of the Marina would have saved significant cash that would have been better spent on properly developing the Allegro to replace the ADO16 and replacing the Mini (Hydragas Innocenti Mini hatchback – 9/10ths a Metro 6 years earlier in the market) which would have enabled it to build on its success with the ADO16 and Mini in Europe by taking advantage of the UK entrance into the common market.

    The failure of the underdeveloped Allegro lead to the loss of British Leylands European Dealer network which meant they could never hope to achieve the sales volumes to compete with its American and European rivals and it was quite simply downhill from there.

  11. In retrospect, the front spoiler on the Marina 3 looks like a horrible after market affair, the sort of thing teenagers would put on their basic motor to “pimp” it up…

  12. My dad had an M reg 1.3. I remember it being awful to drive, especially compared to my Triumph 1500. In particular the wet road grip was laughable, especially on the skinng 145 section tyres. The only good thing was it stopped you doing anything silly because you knew that chucking it about would result in a close look at the scenery.

    On the positive side, the A series was reliable, it was easy to fix when it did go wrong and economical for the time. IIRC we paid £300 for it, (it had had a dodgy respray) gave it a respray from crazy paved purple to bright red and sold it 6 years later for £150.

    It can only be described as “basic transport”. A Cortina was a better drive, Alpines would turn into instant rust, but the 1725 Hunter was a much better proposition. The Vauxhall Viva / Magnum was a smaller car but also better to drive and there was not a lot of competition.

    If, like us, you were a family on a tight budget then the Marina was credible as “transport”, but not much else.

  13. Cowley much have a major rebuid at the end of the 1960s to install the Maxi & Marina production lines.

    I did wonder how BL came up with a projected figure of 300,000 Marinas per year, considering they were lucky to reach half this amount, & Cortina production only reached this amount once or twice.

  14. It wasn’t bad, it wasn’t particularly good, but the Marina has been unfairly bashed by people like Clarkson. Anyone who wanted a cheap, simple to own and fairly reliable used car in the early eighties would often buy a Marina. I know it was a boring drive, the 1.3 version was sluggish and it wasn’t the best looking car in the world, but for a car that was supposed to be so bad, how come it was never out of the top five and British Leyland sold over a million in nine years. Also the Ital version brought the car up to date and the 1.3 version could quite easily keep up with a 1.6 Cortina thanks to the engine being tweaked for performance and economy.
    Also while the Mark 3 Cortina is still basking in its role in Life On Mars, unless you bought a GXL or later 2000 E model, these were austere cars with an overabundance of plastic, 1.3 versions were even more sluggish than a 1.3 Marina and early versions suffered from quality issues. It was only when Ford moved on to the better Mark IV version that the Marina became outclassed.

  15. Was the E series considered for the Marina, the important 1.5/6 fleet market sector was wide open for Ford & other makes to exploit.

    • Richard

      The reason they did not want to use the E series was that that was going to be used in the Allegro which according to the plan was

      1: Take over from the ADO16 as their Best Seller and make them a major brand in Europe.

      2: The ADO16 market would move up from 1300, to 1500 engine size making the Allegro 1500 the biggest seller.

      But as history tells us the Allegro failed to maintain the ADO16 slaes in the UK and totally failed in Europe.

      The Oil crisis and following recession in the UK meant that the ADO16 market stayed at 1300cc.

  16. @ Richard 16378, I think this engine was supposed to be only for Austins, being used in the Maxi and top of the range Allegros and was mated to a five speed gearbox, where the Marina was only available with four speeds. The Marina was meant to be a simple car and was given the tried and trusted A and B series engines over the new E series.
    I often wonder how much better the Marina could have been with five speeds on larger engined cars. This would have made it a refined cruiser and more economical than a 1.6 Cortina.

    • The Marina was sold with E series engines in both South Africa & Australia although not with a five speed gearbox.

  17. The comment of the VW dealer is interesting. Compared to UK rivals of the time they were NOT THAT bad. At the end of the day, plenty of people bought them! Ditto the Allegro.

  18. @ Dave Dawson, they were acceptable transport for the time. Bear in mind in the early seventies, all VW had to sell was the ancient and crude Beetle and an estate car based on the Beetle that was an acquired taste.
    I’d say 40 years ago the Mark 2 Marina was a reasonable enough car, the slight changes to the styling a made it look less bland, and refinement on post 1974 models was acceptable at cruising speeds. By 1976 its main rival, the Mark 3 Cortina, was looking tired and 1300 versions just didn’t go, the heavy body making driving hard work( the lighter bodied 1.3 Marina was no ball of fire, but was 3 mph faster than the Cortina and easier on petrol).

  19. While the Marina did well (for a design that would have probably been nothing short of exceptional in the early/mid-1960s), it was certainly handicapped by featuring a large gap in the range between the 1.3 A-Series and 1.8 B-Series / 1.7 O-Series (albeit 1.7 was allegedly conceived as a 1.6) powered models except in Australia via the 1.5/1.75 E-Series engines.

    Arguably as well as an unplugged gap in the middle of the range, the Marina was also likely held back by the absence of a more powerful range-topping 106 hp 2.0 B-Series or earlier 112-115+ hp 2.0 B-OHC / O-Series engine in place of the old 1.8 B-Series.

  20. Ecomodders would kill for the wheels on the vox car, are they alloys or trims?
    That chin spoiler would have gained you a couple of mpg, but not so sure about the colour, the blue hatchback is nice.
    Why didn’t they ever put the 1300 turbo A+ in these or the Ital, would have been something entirely different since as I remember you could only get a 1.8 sports version of the Cavalier at the time, and there wasn’t really a sports Cortina, arguably the Capri, but I can’t see reps in those.

  21. @ Phil Simpson, the Mk 3 Cortina had the 2000 E as its range topper, which was a very desirable car for the time, and the Mk 4 introduced a 2.3 V6, which was a very nice car to drive and nice to ride in. The Marina could only go up to a 1.8, so this is where the car lost out, although HL versions were quite nice inside with high quality cloth seats. Also the Ital tried to counter the big engined Cortinas by introducing a 2 litre automatic version, but this barely sold as you could get a 2 litre Princess for similar money.
    My final thoughts on the car Jeremy Clarkson loves to hate and has received such a bad press. It was neither bad, nor particularly good, and was only intended as a simple to own car for families and sales reps and sales figures suggest the Marina was a better car than the bashers think.

    • A lot of these high spec Cortinas would’ve appealed to company car drivers, who could get a 2.3 litre repmobile instead of a basic Granada.

      Would the Marina have appealed to company car drivers?

      • The Marina was conventionally engineered to appeal to the fleet market & that market did indeed help Lee it in the top ten best sellers.

        Not bad going for a car that long outlived its design life.

  22. If the Marina has been given decent suspension then it would have gone down a lot better. The antique trunnion and lever arm damper setup should have been thrown out with the Morris 1000 for a MacPherson strut front end or even the wishbone setup from the Dolomite. Ditto the cart sprung rear could have been improved a lot with the addition of some better location e.g. a de Dion tube or even a Dolomite-like A frame. With decent handling the Marina would have given the Cortina a run for its’ money.
    Need I say that basing the Marina on the RWD Triumph 1500 / Dolomite chassis would have resulted in a much better car?

    • If they had to base the car on old underpinnings, maybe the Austin Cambridge would have been better as it was Mark 3 Cortina sized.

      • Worm and peg steering and leaf springs on the back – no thanks.
        The Dolomite chassis would have made more sense, especially if they used the RWD suspension on the front (the Triumph 1500 was RWD, and had short coil springs to make room for the driveshaft. This layout was inexplicably carried over to the RWD 1500TC. We had one, and its handling was peculiar. The facelifted Dolomites (1300-Sprint) all had the RWD suspension, and handled better, though according to my dad, they never stopped in a straight line!)

        • IIRC the BMC Farinas had already carried over parts from the 1954 A40, so not much newer than the Minor bits.

      • Would have thought the MG Magnette ZB would have provided more suitable underpinnings for an earlier Morris rival to the Cortina, basically a BMC car that featured rack and pinion steering as well as the potential to feature all-independent suspension via possible the independent rear suspension that was considered during the MGB’s development or a development of the all-independent suspension system used on the Morris Gutty / Austin Champ (and considered at one point for the Morris Minor).

        • I’d overlooked that when considering the A60 Cambridge.
          The fleet would have been happy with rack & pinion steering & independent suspension as would their drivers.
          Priced correctly, it would staved off imports such as the FIAT 131 & Opel Ascona.

          • The above developments could have also worked for the Marina had it remained a conventional RWD 1.1-1.6-litre 4-cylinder ADO16-sized rival to the Escort instead of growing larger to fight against the Cortina.

            Morris’s Magnette ZB-based 1.3-2.0-litre 4-cylinder Cortina / Ascona rival, meanwhile could have also formed the basis of a larger 2.0-3.0-litre 4/6-cylinder car to fight the Opel Commodore (albeit smaller and much lighter then the Austin 3-litre).

  23. The original version of the Marina was the local banger of choice in the early eighties. I suppose the Mark 3 Cortina was quite popular, but in 1.3 form these didn’t go and were thirstier than a Marina, and a 1.8 Marina, with a lighter body, was faster and no less economical than a 1.6 Cortina. We had a 1974 1.8 Super for a few months due to a problem over getting a car loan for something newer and for all the car was nothing special to drive and was tired inside with trim coming apart, went well on long journeys, never broke down and always started. Also finding the Marina had its radio removed, a visit to a scrapyard and a pound solved this problem with a two band manually tuned radio.

  24. Was looking at old car radios online and found one similar to the one in the Marina, a Motorola one with the funny shaped volume and tuning controls and a switch for MW and LW. Probably the most basic radio you could buy( the radio came from a scrapped Cortina) and rigged up to a single speaker in the Marina’s dashboard, this basic piece of kit that cost a pound from the scrapyard provided us with what we needed, music, news, sport and travel. Maybe AR should do a feature on in car entertainment from the seventies and eigthies.

  25. While you could argue that using the dolomite/Cambridge/MG floor plan might have been better, the best option was surely to sort out the MAXI. Give it decent styling, a decent gear change, a wider range of engines, and three box salon, 3 door hatch back, estate and coupe options. Would have been cheaper and should have resulted in better profits, a better car and better use of assets. It also would have avoided much of the (not entirely fair) reliability complaints that came up about the marina and allegro.

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