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…