July 1982. It’s a long time ago now. In fact, more than a generation distant from where we are now. Back then, the talk was of recession, the Falklands War, and Bucks Fizz. And although hadn’t quite quite escaped the last vestiges of 1970s bleakness, the more visionary among us could see a bright new cellular driven future was just beyond the horizon. The modern world was tantalizingly close, the greyscale of the ZX81 was about to be overtaken by the full colour Spectrum.
BL’s management clearly felt that Morris wasn’t supposed to be part of this brave new world, and announced that it would be canning the marque – by leaving its only remaining passenger car, the Ital, to see out its years as the last of the breed (the Morris 310 Metro van would continue until 1985). It seemed a sad end for what was once the UK’s major players, especially as it was responsible for some of the UK’s brightest automotive stars – the ‘Bullnose’, the Minor, the Eight and the Mini-Minor were all important landmark cars, and continue to be loved to this day.
But Morris was an innocent victim of the ongoing retreat of British Leyland, and the latest in a long line of marques to shuffle off this mortal coil, following Austin-Healey, Riley, and Wolseley. At the time, it must have seemed like BL was cutting out Morris in order to strengthen Austin, Rover and Triumph, but clearly the company, under the control of Ray Horrocks and Harold Musgrove had a great many battles left to fight.
It was a sad end for Morris, though, given that a mere 10 years earlier, things looked so promising for BL’s Ford alternative and its Cortina-battling model, the Marina. That car has earned itself a reputation for being a little bit, er, rubbish – but back in the early 1970s, the Marina actually squared up to its rivals pretty well. Yes, the Cortina MkIII was rather larger and featured the new (to Europe) Pinto OHC power units, but it also suffered from all manner of refinement problems (NVH is a term that was popularised by the Cortina) and running problems with the Pinto. Compared with this, the Marina’s formative years went very smoothly indeed.
But where the Cortina evolved and improved, the Marina stalled and stagnated – and by the point it should have been replaced by the ADO77 project in the mid- to late-’70s, it continued on largely unaltered (the Marina 2 – ADO73 – should have been a thorough facelift, but even that was toned down to become a mere engine replacement job) until the arrival of the Ital in 1980. And even that was a light facelift. So, no, the Marina wasn’t a bad car – it just went on too long in an era of rapid change, and the world’s faltering steps into the modern age.
So when the final Ital rolled off the Longbridge (not Cowley) production line in 1984, it was a contemporary of such cars as the aerodynamic C3 generation Audi 100, Ferrari Testarossa and Peugeot 205GTI. Hard to believe. But that’s generation-bridging for you… and ultimately that’s why Morris had to die. It no longer had a place in the world of the Ferguson TX, Duran Duran and Ghostbusters.
Funny thing is that now – in an age of recession, possible war and dreadful Eurovision performances, a back-to-basics marque like Morris could fit in rather nicely. I have a suspicion that Renault’s iteration of that theme – Dacia – is going to flourish (and probably outsell its parent) in these sticky conditions. Wouldn’t it have been nice if we could offer something of the same ilk, called Morris Motors?