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 All things being equal, it should have been replaced by the Marina 2 or ADO77 in 1976-1977 after a short and undistinguished career.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.
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’