The Ital ran from 1980 to 1984 in saloon, estate and light commercial form. This is a
Longbridge built SLX model.
If there was ever a car in the Austin Morris line-up that epitomised everything that was crumbling around them, perhaps the Marina and Ital fits admirably. The Ital whined onto the scene way back in 1980 and somewhat added confusion to the recovery-led programme spearheaded with the mighty Mini Metro born in the same year. On one hand the company had a bang up to date ultra-efficient supermini part-assembled in Europe’s most modern plant – Longbridge’s West Works, while on the other you had a luke-warm re-style of the Marina offering as much visual sophistication as a fat lip.
Owing to the delay in the Maestro and Montego coming on stream, the Ital was a quick fix to freshen up the badly-ageing Marina. To be fair, the Ital looked acceptable for 1980 with its modern plastic bumpers and large front and rear lamp clusters. Engines included the updated A-Plus in 1275cc form, which benefitted from a healthy sprinkle of revisions to aid economy and power in the form of a new SU HiF carburettor, thermo-viscous cooling fan and an exhaust that helped the car breath better thanks to a new twin-downpipe manifold.
Other power options were carried over from the Marina, again in revised form with the 1700cc O-Series and a newly offered 2.0-litre model – though the latter was automatic only, as the manual gearbox was not deemed manly enough for the power and torque. Production tolerance tweaks to the manual gearbox were added to refine the famously obstructive gearchange quality and reduce second gear whine and an automatic gearbox continued to be optional on the 1.3 and 1.7 models. Extra sound insulation was fitted which made the Ital a much more relaxing car to cruise in, especially the 1300.
The A plus was developed mainly for the new Metro as seen here. The Ital also used
this power unit in 1275cc form which offered superb 40+mpg motoring and
Nothing more than some gentle revisions took place on the inside of the car. It remained utterly practical and almost simplistic to own and operate and, despite all of the competition like the Cavalier and Cortina being notably larger, the Ital offered a reasonable amount of space for occupants and luggage. It sold reasonably thanks to its low purchase and servicing costs, nothing under the bonnet was difficult to mend, replace or tinker with. In fact, one friend and former Ital owner told me that you could almost strip down and rebuild an Ital using not much more than a butter knife and a screwdriver.
“…I sold three to a friend of mine who operated a minicab operation at a knock down price. Each one ripped through a pair of gearboxes in two years.”
Derek J Ketteringham – former Neasden BL dealer
Former BL dealer Derek Ketteringham was not a fan of the Ital. We have spoken many times at length over the years and one of the memorable quotes from this unassuming but often outspoken motor trader involved the dear old Ital. He told us: ‘at one point my showroom line up was a right Royal mess consisting of a Metro, an Acclaim, a Rover 3500 and a bloody Morris Ital. I sold three to a friend of mine who operated a minicab operation at a knockdown price. Each one ripped through a pair of gearboxes in two years’. But as a family hack the Ital tended to be pretty dependable and the 1.3 was exceptionally frugal on the juice.
However, rivals were sprinting ahead in terms of aspiration and engineering prowess. The new Cavalier of 1981 now offered front wheel drive and the Sierra came along the following year. So far as technology and style mattered, the Ital was in danger of becoming akin to something like a British Lada. Production moved from Cowley to Longbridge as Austin Rover got plans underway to refit the Oxford plant for Maestro production. Birmingham-built Itals were recognised by a slimming down of the range to just two models – SL and SLX along with the deletion of the poor-selling 2.0 automatic.
These later Itals also gained telescopic front dampers and some geometry tweaks to the suspension but their handling remained, at very best, tolerable. In what was a period of some very confusing models in the Austin Rover range, the Ital wobbled on to 1984 when it was replaced by the very modern Montego saloon. It also holds the title of being the last passenger vehicle to bear the Morris badge.