Unsung Heroes : Morris Ital 1980-1984

Morris Ital

I know what you’re thinking. He’s lost his mind, surely. The Editor of AROnline has decided to go native, and start believing the PR stories that came out of Longbridge way back when. Or maybe, as we approach the 40th birthday of this controversial family saloon, we’ve finally decided that perhaps it’s finally time to cut the Morris Ital some slack. Well, it’s a little of both really.

The thing is, the Morris Marina and Ital have always been something of an easy target for car critics. There have been countless books and magazine articles which have come to the conclusion that this car is one of the worst that’s ever been made – in the history of all time. Heck, back in 2004, when the world was a gentler, nice place, in a poll of around 2000 readers, even AROnline users voted the Marina (and therefore, by association, the Ital) as the worst BL car of them all. Don’t believe me? Click this link

In reality, nothing’s changed really. The Marina lived too long, and the Ital – a gentle facelift of that car – was caught behind the times when it was launched in June 1980. Fair and square. But hold your horses for a moment: this is covering old ground, isn’t it? Especially when our man Mike Humble actually said that the Marina and Ital were a case of ‘not their finest hour‘ for BL.

So, why is the Ital a hero?

It’s all about context, isn’t it. The Marina was a rush job when it was launched in 1971. Conceived in 1968, styled by Roy Haynes’ team in the PSF Studios in Cowley, and making ample use of the BLMC part bin, this Morris/Triumph mash-up ended up selling better throughout the 1970s than the much-hyped Austin Allegro, generating great profits for its maker along the way. All things being equal, it should have been replaced by the Marina 2 or ADO77 in 1976-1977 after a short and undistinguished career.

However, BL ran out of money in 1974 and, thanks to dwindling sales across the range, the huge cost of the Rover SD1 project, and the growing pains of a company with overlapping models, the ADO77 was cancelled in 1975 and the Marina was left to soldier on for far too long. The facelifted Marina with O-Series power (ADO73) appeared that same year, and ended up being facelifted in 1978-1979 under the codename ADO73 F/L. It was styled by Harris Mann’s team in Longbridge with a simple brief – to modernise the Marina with minimal engineering changes, and on a shoestring.

Because BL’s Design and Engineering Department was stretched with the development of the Austin Metro, BL management outsourced the production engineering of the ADO73 F/L to Ital Design in Italy. The famous carrozzeria produced detailed engineering drawings of the new car and shipped them back to PSF so that these changes could be productionised. As it happened, PSF was required to re-do the entire job, thanks to some Italian inaccuracies, but it wasn’t enough of an issue to put back the introduction of the Ital. Too far. The most impressive aspect of this car’s design and engineering transformation was that it came in on budget – a handsome £5-10 million. Compare that with the £275m it cost to get the Metro into production.

Morris Ital development story

The changes were subtle, but bold enough to successfully modernise the old Marina. Maybe the new name set false expectations, but at least it set tongues wagging. A new front end with a black grille, big, rectangular headlamps and modern-looking bumpers. A chunkier rear end and larger rear tail lights were also part of the package. As Steve Cropley said at the time, ‘the changes give the car a new, more modern identity for relatively little alteration. The front requires no panel changes at all. It is a lot like an Avenger or a Solara or half a dozen other family saloons you can mention. Considering the lack of funds available and the less-than-perfect Marina raw material, the restyle is quite successful.’

Head on, if you squinted a little, you could have been looking at an Audi 80 or Peugeot 305.

Other changes were limited to improving refinement. So it received the quieter A-Plus engine and a load of soundproofing in order to quieten down the body boom. A rear strut brace also stiffened things up a little, with a 14% improvement in torsional rigidity for the body. In reality, there were only marginal dynamic improvements. Steve Cropley again: ‘on the road, the chief benefit of the £10m spent is the reduction of noise. Road noise is well muffled up to 50-60mph. There is little audible but a faraway hum from the engine and a subdued exhaust note. The 1300 engine is smoother than we remember that of a 1300 Marina – and perhaps a shade quieter – but the relationship is still obvious.

‘The handling is pure Marina, safe enough at first but crude. The ride does seem better at first, though, because bump-thump is reduced. As in most of its other facets, it is now average instead of just plain bad.’

Hardly heroic, is it?

No, but it’s not the terror that so many commentators like to make out, either. And that in itself is something of an achievement. Considering it was effectively a nine-year-old design with a planned life of six years at most, that was not to be sneered at. Between 1980-1984, it sold 175,276 examples, knocking out more than 50,000 copies in its first two years. That made it a bigger player in the UK market than much-vaunted rivals, such as the Renault 18, Talbot Solara or Peugeot 305, and it was still a decent force on the fleet market. Okay, the Ford Cortina was out of reach, but then it was for everyone.

And I have a sneaking admiration for this family saloon. Be under no illusion, BL effectively had no money, time or resources with which to design and build a new car – and yet, it managed to get a fresh nameplate onto the market in these darkest of years. And in doing so, it kept Cowley ticking over until its replacement arrived on the scene in the shape of the (two generations newer) Austin Montego in 1984. Could BL have kept going the Marina Series 2 going under the same circumstances into the era of the Ford Sierra and Vauxhall Cavalier Mk2?

That makes it a bit of an unsung hero for me…

Forget the tagline, ‘designed in Italy, built in Britain’, it should be, ‘it is now average instead of just plain bad’

Keith Adams

Editor and creator AROnline at AROnline
Created www.austin-rover.co.uk in 2001 and built it up to become the world's foremost reference source for all things BMC, Leyland and Rover Group, before renaming it AROnline in 2007.

Is the Editor of the Parkers website and price guide, formerly editor of Classic Car Weekly, and launch editor/creator of Modern Classics magazine. Has contributed to various motoring titles including Octane, Practical Classics, Evo, Honest John, CAR magazine, Autocar, Pistonheads, Diesel Car, Practical Performance Car, Performance French Car, Car Mechanics, Jaguar World Monthly, MG Enthusiast, Modern MINI, Practical Classics, Fifth Gear Website, Radio 4, and the the Motoring Independent...

Likes 'conditionally challenged' motors and taking them on unfeasible adventures all across Europe.
Keith Adams

35 Comments

  1. Arguably more successful than the Ambassador facelift of the Princess, on which the frontend restyle was based, and with which it shared a number of components such as the instruments.

  2. Had BL just spent a bit more time (and money) on the development front, they might have had a more palatable offer in the Ital. They had 5 speed gearboxes available in other models that would have made it less of a screamer at motorway speed. They had dual carbs available on practically everything. that would have given it a bit more pep. They had telesopic shock absorbers and anti-roll bars that would have made it ride and handle a bit better. Had these items been put into the Ital, it wouldn’t have seemed quite as far behind the competition then. It really seems like all BL did was spend a few dollars changing a bit of sheetmetal – which if backed up by said mechanical improvements would have made a more compelling offer in it’s day.

      • Yes, i believe it was because of the fleet van market demanding something more reliable than lever arm dampers (they lasted about 20k miles), on P.O and British gas vans. I fitted mt Ital with the Koni conversion, that made a massive difference!

        • The telescopic dampers made a big difference to the handling and were part of the last set of improvements to the Ital in 1982, which saw two trim levels introduced, with the basic L model being phased out. Actually an Ital 1,3 SL at £ 3995 was priced right for the time and undercut its rivals by £ 500.

  3. If only they’d had the hindsight to give the Marina a decent chassis in 1971 – Triumph front struts and a well located coil spring rear axle. The Marina could have sold more to private buyers and been the basis of more Triumph, MG and smaller Rovers models in the seventies. It’s 25-30 years since I’ve driven a 1.3 Ital and I don’t recall it as being terrible.

  4. “Tough as old boots – and about as sophisticated!” was the summary of one review I remember reading. Ital was my first car. Bought deliberately as, being cheap and with me as a newly-qualified driver, it didn’t matter if my inexperience led me to wrap it around the proverbial lamppost. Indeed it thrust me through a hedge and, a few weeks later, it lost its front end when my mother spun it through a dry stone wall. It’s easy to forget just how poor 1940s (sic) braking, handling and suspension designs were when trying to keep up with 1990s traffic.

    Build quality and design were, of course, terrible. I remember spending about two hours replacing a collapsed glovebox, trying to piece together all sorts of linkages, clips, catches, nuts and bolts. Like so many BL cars, there was little thought put into making cars easy to assemble.

    But it was a reliable old clunker. Indeed in that respect it was far better than the series of Sierras and a chronically bothersome Saab 9000 that replaced it. (I would often boast that my Saab was an “off-roader”… because it spent so much of its time in the garage being fixed!)

    The 1300 A+ engine was surprisngly good when it came to performance. It would top out at around 90mph (at least, that’s what the speedo suggested) and I recall being chased for ten miles up the M6 by a Granada Mark 1 that just couldn’t get past me!

    So in a straight line, “Blue Thunder” (a combination of its colour and a holed exhaust) wasn’t a bad car – you just had to plan trips that didn’t involve sharp turns and/or stop-start traffic!

  5. I always though the Ital facelift was rather effective, but then I quite like the Marina’s styling. Not exciting, but pleasant in a conventional way which can’t be said of the Maxi,Allegro and TR7

  6. Yes it looked better than the Marina but that wasn’t really saying much, was it?! Both are, IMHO, truly appalling vehicular abominations and the best thing that can be done with them is to follow the Top Gear example and drop grand pianos on them.

  7. Used to drive my brothers Marina Van regularly, being the 1300 version, it was a flier, as were the later Ital 1300 Van’s I hired.
    As for saloons, my in laws had a couple of 1.3 saloons, quite acceptable modes of transport for the time, although I didnt like the swept dash design of the mk2. Borrowed a 1.8 saloon for a few months, not that much quicker, but the heavier engine made iffy handling even worse.

  8. I never really liked the front view of the ITAL, though the revised boot and rear lights were more appealing. It really was up against stiff competition in the shape of Cortina’s & Cav MK2. Perhaps budget prices and the chance of cut price deals were the main draw for buyers back then? Still a shame the Morris brand as such is not with us now… nor Austin, Riley, Wolseley etc

  9. Not a good car, but not a bad car, and the Ital did have a following among people who wanted cheap, honest transport. Compared with the rival 1.3 Cortina, the Ital was like a supercar and could keep up with 1.6 litre Cortinas and Cavaliers quite easily. While the Ital wasn’t a very thrilling drive due to its old fashioned suspension and build quality was never the best, the A and O series engines were generally reliable and easy to service. Also the estate became popular due to its huge interior space and low running costs.
    Yet for all the Ital was very old fashioned by 1984, it remained popular as a cheap used car for the rest of the decade and reasonable rust proofing meant many lasted well into the nineties.

  10. Part of the Marina’s problem is the Topgear effect, is became fashionable to bash it. As Hubnuts says, that was simply the equivalent of them picking on the uncool kid in the class. The Marina was never a brilliant car but it was never meant to be a brilliant car. It was a cheap car to get from A to B, that was meant to be cheap to run and easy to fix. It did that OK.

    The real problem was the Allegro, that was the car that was suppose showcase BL’s technical knowhow and sell in Europe. Once it failed to do that, the company didn’t have the cash to replace the Marina and it had to plod on. Becoming more and more outclassed with each passing year.

  11. Commercially the Marina was far and away BL’s best car. They set out to build a conventionally engineered, simple car to appeal to UK fleet buyers and that’s exactly what they got. In 1971 it was competitive with anything Ford, Chrysler or Vauxhall were offering. Only problem is BL knew this type of car had a limited shelf life – look at how many marks and facelifts the Cortina got through – and that by the mid 70s they would need to replace it. If Marina revenue and profits could have been ring fenced for that it would have probably happened, but unfortunately it all vanished into an Allegro/Princess/SD1 black hole and the Ital – a minor tweak of that 71 car had to stay on to battle the Sierra and Cavalier.

    • Yet the Ital was selling at a rate of 50,000 a year in the early eighties, making it Britain’s third most popular family car, so can’t have been such a hateful, useless car as Jeremy Clarkson portrayed it as. I will admit the Marina was becoming outclassed by the late seventies and ripe for replacement, but as BL didn’t have the money, a light reskin, better engines and a new name kept their Cortina rival alive.
      Could never get why the radio was positioned towards the passenger, though. It probably made sense if you only listened to the same station, but if you fancied a change, it would have been awkward to change while driving.

      • The problem is car reviewers don’t review cars in real world conditions. They take them for a quick thrash down their favourite B roads or drive it flat out round a track. Great way to review a race or sports car; hopeless for a bog standard car.

        What allot of the market wanted was a car that was cheap to buy, run and easy to fix. The Marina/Ital fulfilled that brief just fine.

  12. I guess by the Ital was released the problems of the Marina had been ironed out.

    Someone in the town I grew up in had a late one with a tow bar well into the 1990s.

  13. Great article but no mention of the 2.0 engine which wasn’t available in the Marina. Was that version a success, or did it only serve to emphasise the car’s handling limitations?

  14. First we should challenge the financial success of the Marina / Ital, whilst they no doubt turned a profit on the sale of the vehicle, I will question if it ever delivered profit to cover its investment, given that it was more than four times the original budgeted figure to bring the Marina to production and twice the figure spent on the Allegro.

    Not because they spent money on the product, it was just a lash up of parts it was supposed to be, but the problem being that the intention to use what they had in the parts bin, failed to yield much in savings, because they did not appreciate that so much of the BMC tooling was at the end of life and that Triumph did not have the capacity to build the needed Gearboxes when they signed it off. This resulted in millions being needed to be spent on new tooling etc for components that belonged in the 1950s.

    So I suspect the Marina like the other Leyland cars, never succeeded in covering its capital cost.

    The other issue I have with the Marina / Ital was that they did not actually need it. Because a large part of its sales success was because it replaced the Ado16 in Nuffield Dealerships, at a time when they could more than sell every Ado16 that was sent to them. They could have thus achieved many if not all of those sales by producing more Ado16 instead. Focusing resources on increasing Ado16 production ie Cowley Mini line going to Ado16 instead of the Maxi, with the Maxi and 1800 being built on the same line.

    Noting that not only was scarce capital expended bringing it to production but scarce engineering resources that would better have been spent on the Ado16 replacement, all for a car that was not actually needed.

    Also I believe that had they had the Ado16 topped and tailed (ie Apache but i envisage Pinnifarina coming back with a baby 504 ) and the 1500 E series to fill the gap between the Ado16 and Ado17, they could have contained the Ado16 slippage in its price point (as the Cortina moved upwards), by creating a premium model to sit above it in the market for minimal investment.

    • Largely agree on questioning the necessity of the Marina / Ital compared to ADO16/ADO22/Apache, to be honest the former was a car BMC should have already had something similar in production from the early-60s as a low-cost stop-gap conventional alternative to its FWD trio to replace the A40 Farina, Minor and Farina B models prior to being superseded by a new generation FWD model from the early-70s.

      Am surprised about the Marina costing twice as much as the Allegro, aside from the latter’s own issues it makes one wonder whether the money spent on the Marina could have been better utilized on further developing the Allegro and other derivatives including a hatchback and Apache-like three-box saloon (plus any upscaled/downscaled variants given it would later be used as a starting point for the Maestro/Montego along with Princess/SD1-sized proposals), never-mind plowing the money into developing ADO16 into ADO22.

      • The Landcrab was supposed to replaced the Farinas but ended up too big & heavy to do this.

        Even the Minor & Farina reskinned in the mid 1960s with contemporary bodywork & front discs would have been acceptable stopgap models.

        As mentioned elsewhere there seemed to be a lack of communication between departments about the state of the Minor tooling before the Marina design was signed off. If it was known that the tooling was worn out it would have been worthwhile to make it a totally fresh design.

        • Upon realizing the Landcrab drifted from its original brief as a Farina replacement BMC could have done a better job of pitching the car in the 2-litre segment, especially since a 2-litre B-Series was built as early as 1964 in both OHV and OHC before being revisited in the early/mid-70s by which time the tooling was completely worn out.

          Largely agree with the idea of a Minor reskin (featuring any useful parts from the Austin A40 Farina, Riley 1.5 and Morris Major, etc), BMC IMHO made a mistake of basing the Farina B around the Austin Cambridge A55 instead of the Oxford III (with parts from the MG Magnette ZB and Wolseley 15/50, etc). BMC also needed a new 850-1600cc engine by the early/mid-60s based on A-Series principles (and gradually replacing the A-Series), drawing additional inspiration from the Nissan A OHV (later Nissan E OHC) and Renault C-Type.

          Had they known about the state of the Minor tooling beforehand, perhaps it would have made Triumph’s Bobcat project to replace the 1300/1500 viable enough to also underpin Escort/Cortina-sized Morris models as a precursor to the later SD2-derived TM1 project.

    • If the Marina/Ital failed to make a profit, then I hate to imagine how much the 1800, Maxi and Princess lost as they all flopped and were heavily outsold by the Marina. The reality is that TWICE BMC tried to replace the Farinas, and both times failed as the 1800 and Maxi weren’t what people wanted, which was a conventional saloon

      Yes there massive errors in the assumptions made when developing the Marina, but that doesn’t mean the idea was wrong. A simple conventional stop gap to target fleet markets, then bring in a better RWD replacement in the mid seventies INSTEAD of the Princess

      • I did wonder if the Maxi saloon should have seen production as it at least was the right body style & engine size for the fleet market, even if some customers would have been put off by the OHC engine & FWD.

        If it replaced the Farina & possibly the 1800 too it would have rationalised the range, & Cowley would have been able to keep the ADO16 line open. Also the E series factory wouldn’t have oversupply problems that led to the Allegro “camelised” for them to fit.

  15. Not much has been said about the Cortina, which was using some engines that dated back to 1970 and when the Mark 2 Cavalier appeared, was suddenly shown up as a dinosaur in a modern body with ride, economy and performance way behind the curve. At least a 1.3 Ital could thrash a 1.3 Cortina on a motorway and return 40 mpg, while the Cortina would struggle to get 35 mpg even when driven gently on a long journey.

  16. I remember dad having a denim blue 1.7 Ital for a couple of years and taking four of us around the Lake District on holiday with no problems. It’s a very long time ago now though.

    • The 1.7 was probably the one to go for if you needed more power on longer journeys, although the 1.3 was powerful for its size. Both engines were blessed with decent economy and refinement and were mostly trouble free.

  17. Perhaps we could all have done a lot better with the Marina and Ital – if we had had some money – which BL didn’t’. The statistics say it sold very well and (although figures are controversial) did make money. The fleet buyers didn’t like FWD – it surely made sense (at the time and not with the benefit of hindsight) to produce the best they could afford to develop to cover this market sector? No, of course it wasn’t the greatest car on earth, but neither was a Solara or a Cortina! My 1.7 Marina went like the clappers and I loved it to bits – just as much affection for it than my 1.6 Cortina. Both were significantly more fun than my boring Renault Fuego!

    • The Solara was fwd and based on a five year old design,so was quite contemporary, but Peugeot Talbot went for a saloon to win buyers from the Cortina. Not a bad car as it handled well, had a comfortable ride and was good value for money, but the Solara still relied on the ageing and unrefined Simca engines found in the Alpine, although the 1.5 was bored out to 1.6 to compete with the Cortina. Yet in Series 2 form sort of came good, as a modern Peugeot five speed transmission was far better to use than the old Simca four speed and cut engines noise, and build quality and rust protection were tightened up.

  18. I thought the Solara was a good adaptation of the Alpine, for those not wanting a hatchback. My neighbour had a Y reg one in a light lemon colour with chunky comfortable looking seats. The only downside was those rattly engines!

    I remember run out models of the Solara were called Minx & Rapier(?)… using up old Rootes group names

  19. We had Solaras as well as Princesses, a Cortina, Cavalier and VW Santana.

    The Princess and Santana were both a cut above the other three in terms of size, comfort, refinement, quality and thirst. The Ford, Vauxhall and Talbot were rust buckets. I don’t know what the Marina was like to drive but I suspect it was in the same “throwaway” fleet three.

    I’d definitely place the BL car over the VW – they were far more resistant to rust, handled better (especially the ex-police car with lower, stiffer suspension and front ARB), rode better (though the Santana was very good). The Austin 2200 was smoother than the Audi 2.1 (the original 1.9 put a rod through the block) but both were superb, characterful engines.

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