Blog : Morris Marina – BLMC’s Q Ship

Many people think of the Morris Marina as a perfectly named car, as it flopped about on the road like a small boat on big waves. It has to be said that several competitors of the day weren’t much better. But the Marina could be modified to devastating effect.

My best friend at the time, Andy, owned two Marinas – a 1.3 then a 1.8. The 1.8 had been used for towing a caravan, and wore out an engine, a gearbox, a differential and the front suspension trunnions all too quickly. By the time we had replaced all those and a rusty fuel tank, we had a mechanically reconditioned car, with a hot engine. Andy had neatly adapted the 1.3 radiator grille to flush-fit two spotlights. He fitted this grille to the 1.8; so quite by accident, it looked like a 1.3. Quite by accident, I stress.

Now let us assess the handling as standard. The front lever arm shock absorbers were slow to notice that a corner had arrived, so the car lurched about a couple of times before actually going round the corner. Solution: a telescopic front shock conversion. This led to normal behaviour. The rear leaf springs were so soft and loosely located that even a 1.3 would do big power oversteer on wet roundabouts. (The South Wales Police used to use an Ital as a skidpan car at their Bridgend headquarters, commenting cheerfully that, unlike other cars, treadless slick tyres were not necessary to allow major skids) Nick Fell, formerly a top manager at Rover Group and then LDV, once mimicked a Marina driver: “Driver to back axle, what is your current location?”

The Marina 1.8 would oversteer spectacularly and suddenly on dry roundabouts. Solution: towing assisters – supplementary springs, bolted between the chassis legs and the leaf springs – they look like solid rubber balls. These stiffened the springs nicely, leading to later, and less lurid skids.

The unfortunate tendency of Triumph Dolomite Sprints to disintegrate prematurely led to a ready supply of leather wrapped steering wheels and alloy wheels with low profile tyres, which would both bolt straight onto any Marina.

Equipped with the suspension and steering wheel described above, but not the alloys, Andy and I were approaching a small Worcestershire town some 20 years ago, when we were spied by a local lad in his Escort GT. Aha, he cried, a Marina 1.3, easy meat! But actually, it was a modified 1.8, and he couldn’t catch us. Very entertaining for Andy as the driver, less so for me as the passenger, as the seat rocked to and fro on its mountings on every bump and corner.

So if you see an ancient Marina being driven sedately, beware! It could be a closet GTi – especially if it is the Ital estate seen by a former colleague, uprated with a 200bhp T16 engine!

Incidentally, Andy’s 1.8 eventually succumbed to rust. One morning, I asked him what was sticking out from under the rubber mat in the passenger footwell. ‘I don’t know,’ he said, ‘have a look.’ I found a six-inch long mushroom growing across the rust-hole-dampened carpet – then another one growing in the opposite direction. They don’t make cars like they used to – fortunately…

Morris Marina development story

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26 Comments

  1. That is an interesting approach to my least favourite car . Back in the day I had a new Tr7 and an old 1.3 Marina coupe as a second car – I always had to re-adapt my style at the first bend I encountered switching from TR to Marina .
    However I”ve always had a soft spot for the old rally cars – a red coupe with special tuning white stripes and big cibies etc , Then again anything from ST in red with big white stripes looked good – even the Allegro .
    Does anyone remember the project Marina in Cars and Cars Conversions Magazine ( or CCC or Kiddies Car Comic as it we lovingly called it )?
    They customised and tuned a 1.8 estate. I could have been tempted – a fast family car that sounded like an MGB. It even had Miura style louvres on the rear window !
    In many ways that was the forerunner of the MGZT estate .

  2. It’s not so much a Q Ship as the living embodiment of the old Russian proverb..

    #and-then-it-got-worse

    See Drachinifel on YouTube – the Russian 2nd Pacific Squadron.

    (no Speckled Hognose snakes were harmed in this article, we’re not entirely sure about the chameleons).

    How complicated was the front shock conversion because from the pictures I’ve seen the lever arm ones were fitted in an odd place. Was the strut mount bolted into where the lever arm ones fitted?

    If the 1.8 car uses the B series then there’s a bolt on (ish) supercharger for it.

    • The lever arm from the original shock was used as an upper arm, and there was a square steel plate with four bolts sticking out of it – that’s all I remember! You were supposed to remove the valve body from the lever arm shock, but Andy didn’t bother – it wasn’t doing anything much….

  3. If the Marina was so bad, how come it was Britain’s second best selling car in 1973, and was always in the sales top ten, even when it had become old fashioned. This was a simple, honest car that did the job and was, as the article pointed out, very easy to work on and improve. I also remember Kays catalogue in the late seventies selling suspension modifications for Marinas called Marina Improvers.

    • In world terms that’s not too impressive, BMW were selling the 3 series at the same rate & Datsun sold about twice as many Sunnys in 4 years than the Marina did in it’s entire production run.

    • People knock the Marina, but in 1.3 form it was a lot better to drive than the underpowered 1.3 Cortina, which was a complete chore in long journeys and had a big thirst. 87 mph and 34 mpg were quite acceptable in the early seventies for a 1.3. Also the Marina didn’t have a habit of refusing to start in cold weather like the Cortina.

  4. I’ve never driven a 1.3 Marina but did drive a MKIV Cortina 1.3 hire car once. It was noticibly slower than the 1.6 Cortina estates I was used to. I think the door on that Marina TC coupe is closed… probably a poor fit… many cars in the 60s and 70s were like that.

    • Ford did have this habit from the mid sixties to the mid eighties of fitting small engines to their larger cars. I think these were intended as entry models for company car buyers, or in the case of the Capri, someone with a 1.3 model could at least say they had a Capri, even if the performance was awful.

      • It was common to have smaller engines in cars made where taxes were high on larger cars.

        Even Opel fitted a 1.2 litre engine to the Ascona & Manta.

  5. The Marina ‘knocking’ just won’t die – more to do with people ‘living the image’ of knocking a BL car than the car being bad. Having been around to drive all this stuff when it was new – Cortinas’, Avengers, Escorts, Maxis and Marinas etc. – I agree with Glenn – it was no worse or better than some others. Of all of them, the Viva and Victor were more competent road huggers – and the Viva was more fun, than most. To this day I would rather be given a 1.7 Marina than a Hillman Avenger or an underpowered Cortina – if I had a ‘press-on’ journey to do.

    • Like all manufacturers, we used to get in other peoples cars and pull them apart. Products like Marina were never the worst when compared to rivals……the quality of Vauxhalls was shocking, Fords were nothing special at all, build quality on Volkswagons wasn’t great (common to find that seat rails were only held in by single screws!), Fiats were okay (particulary powertrains), Peugots of the time weren’t bad.

      All of the BL volume cars were around the middle in build quality. The worst cars in the group were invariably those built at Solihull and Browns Lane. Both were truely awful.

  6. TV trivia time. It is not widely known that if you set fire to a 1.3 Marina saloon, it mysteriously turns into a Ford Zephyr Mark 2 in mid-bonfire. This was demonstrated on Z Cars.
    With regard to certain comments above, I am not actually hostile to Marinas; but remember them with some fondness. However, it is undoubtedly true that they were quite softly sprung, and very easy to skid. They were also easy to modify into wolves in sheep’s clothing, which is where the real fun was.

    • ‘@ Ken, maybe it was cheaper to blow up an old Ford Zephyr in the seventies, television companies often did this when a car was about to blow up, they used a much older car. Yet while no one could ever say the Marina was a fantastic, groundbreaking car and built like a Mercedes S class, it did the job and was no worse than many of its rivals. It’s a shame, though, that the Ital modifications couldn’t have been done a few years earlier, as the A plus engine turned the 1.3 model into a decent car and the styling became far more modern.

      • I remember Eldarado used a TR-7 as a stand in for a newer more expensive car when it needed to be blown up.

        I aggress that the Marina should been turned into the Ital earlier, but BL’s coffers were usually too low for even a facelift like it.

        • Spot on Richard. We had not a bean left for product design and development after the SD1 disaster. Programs were cancelled and mothballed everywhere. The only things we could afford were cars like Allegro Equipe and then Ital. Any real money that became available went to Metro, it had to succed.

        • It was Marcus Tandy’s Lotus that became an old, exploding TR7, about the only thing I remember about this ill fated soap opera.
          I suppose with British Leyland, the cost of the SD1 and falling sales and production lost to industrial action was hitting the company hard. Everything was being devoted to the Metro, which was seen as a successor to the Mini and a rival to the Ford Fiesta, and other cars had make do and mend improvements, although even something like the O series and A plus engines transformed the Princess and the Marina/Ital.

  7. Ive a lot of nostalgia for Marinas and Itals, pretty much my earliest motoring memories were in either my Dads or my Nan’s Marinas/ Ital.
    Id love to have one now as a classic.

  8. Just browsing the limited number of Marinas for sale currently there seem to be an amazing number of coupes available compared to the surely more common saloons or estates.

  9. Recently I bought a 1978 Austin Morris brochure which features the recently facelifted Marina.

    The coupe was only available as a 1.3 by that time, so I guess BL had given up on trying to compete with the Capri, or were they embarrassed that the 1.8TC could outrun the black bumper MGB?

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