Now widely seen as a joke car by the general public, who misunderstood the market it was aimed at, the Morris Marina sold well in comparison with its British Leyland stablemates.
How successful was it, though, and how did it match up to expectations and its main competition? Ian Nicholls reveals all.
The car that could be king
The genesis of Project ADO28, or the Morris Marina to the rest of the world, was in 1967, a year when the taking of various illegal substances was in vogue. Some cynics might think the Designers of the Marina were using them.
As this site’s British Motor Holdings story recounts, this was the year when BMH declared a £3.2m loss, car production slumped by 20.86% and the company came under close examination by the media, pundits and Government. Most significantly, the BMC 1100/1300 had been toppled from its perch as Britain’s favourite new car (temporarily, as it transpired) by the Ford Cortina Mk2, styled by Roy Haynes.
TOP 10 UK CAR SALES 1967
- Ford Cortina Mk2 – 165,300 – 14.89%
- BMC 1100/1300 – 131,382 – 11.89%
- Vauxhall Viva – 100,220 – 9.03%
- Mini – 82,436 – 7.42%
- Rootes Arrow range – 79,376 – 7.15%
- Ford Anglia – 55,735 – 5.02%
- Rootes Imp range – 40,858 – 3.68%
- Vauxhall Victor – 38,517 – 3.47%
- Ford Corsair – 35,993 – 3.24%
- Morris Minor – 34,565 – 3.11%
- Triumph Herald/Vitesse – 33,084 – 2.97%
- Triumph 1300 – 28,741 – 2.58%
- BMC 1800 – 27,056 – 2.43%
- Rover 2000 – 24,452 – 2.20%
- Ford Zephyr/Zodiac Mk4 – 23,352 – 2.10%
- Triumph 2000 – 17,042 – 1.53%
Total Market 1,110,266 cars
The state of the nation
In 1967 everything seemed to be going Ford’s way – it made 619,418 vehicles, including 465,168 cars. BMH produced 693,964 vehicles to the year ending 30 July 1967, including 556,762 BMC cars and 25,047 Jaguars.
Despite the difficult economic conditions arising from the July 1966 credit squeeze, Ford of Great Britain just managed to make a pre-tax profit of £2.6 million. BMH was losing £4.60 per vehicle, while Ford earned a profit of £4.19 each, all in a depressed market. However, the most impressive part of this was the sales performance of the Ford Cortina Mk2. In 1967 Ford GB manufactured 249,861 Cortinas, of which 165,300 were sold in Britain and this meant an impressive 33.84% went for export. The previous best year had been 1965, when Ford produced 192,383 Mk1 Cortinas – in two years Cortina production had increased by 29.87%.
In 1967, Ford produced more Cortinas than any year of manufacture of the BMC 1100/1300, and it was not until 1969 that Mini production exceeded this total. To the pundits all this was evidence that Ford had got it right and BMC were wrong. Since 1945, the UK Government, pundits and the media had urged the British motor industry to manufacture a cheap, simple car that would sell en masse to world markets.
In the series British Leyland – The Grand Illusion, I argued that the Mini and 1100/1300 were those cars – but, in 1967, it seemed that the Ford Cortina Mk2 was the car with international appeal, and one that was very profitable. The conventional engineering approach to passenger car design was also employed by Vauxhall, the British subsidiary of General Motors. In 1967, it produced 286,178 vehicles and made a pre-tax profit of £5.76m.
This was a profit of £20.14 per vehicle, suggesting that in 1967 Vauxhall was even more efficient than Ford UK – and in a reasonably strong third position. Vauxhall was already sharing development costs with its sister company Opel and, in 1967, the Viva Mk2 was more popular car in the UK than the BMC Mini.
Marina marches into war…
In October 1967 BMC poached the Cortina Mk2’s stylist, Roy Haynes, from Ford. This was a clear sign that BMC was thinking along the lines of developing its own repmobile, and soon after the official formation of British Leyland in May 1968, Roy Haynes was pushing for the development of a simple, profitable, rear-wheel-drive car to sell to fleet buyers.
He received a sympathetic hearing from BLMC Finance Director John Barber, who had been at Ford UK from 1955 to 1965. In launching the new Morris Marina in April 1971 British Leyland was simply carrying out what all the industry watchers at the time thought was a good idea.
At the Marina’s launch the Austin-Morris Managing Director, George Turnbull, said: ‘We haven’t abandoned the Issigonis front-wheel-drive concept, but for the new car we gave simplicity, ease of maintenance and value for money, the top priority.
‘The engines are the well proven and reliable A- and B-Series BMC products, the gearbox and rear axle are developments of the tough Triumph Vitesse units and the front suspension is the simple but effective torsion bar layout used so successfully on the Morris Minor and Morris 1000. We think the family man looking for value for money with simple servicing will buy the Marina as will the big fleet owners. I am aiming for 10 per cent of the total market and I think I am going to get it.’ Ten per cent of the 1971 UK car market was 128,000 sales.
The media was also told that George Turnbull was looking for a weekly production of around 5000 Marinas by the end of 1971. At the same time the Austin-Morris Sales Director, Filmer Paradise, told The Times of his hopes of selling 180,000 Marinas abroad in 1973 and about 125,000 in the UK, a combined production figure of 305,000 cars!
In the event, peak Morris Marina production was 201,724 in the 1972/73 financial year. BLMC Chairman Lord Stokes later said: ‘Before the Marina went into production I was assured that it was going to be quite reasonably costed, because we were going to be able to use a lot of the facilities available from the Morris Minor. Later on, I found that a lot of the machine tools they said they were going to use were so obsolete that we had to get new ones and we would have been better in retrospect to have designed a brand new car altogether.
‘But we were in such a hurry; we had to get something. We had nothing to sell. It was marvellous getting that Marina out on time. Although it didn’t really hit the markets, it did quite well.’ However, by the time the Marina reached the showrooms the Ford Cortina had evolved into the larger Mk3, Vauxhall had the Mk3 version of the Viva on sale and Rootes-Chrysler had the Avenger on the market. Ford had shown that a car for commercial travellers made sound business sense, and everyone copies a good idea.
TOP 10 UK CAR SALES 1970
- BLMC 1100/1300 – 132,965 – 12.35%
- Ford Cortina – 123,025 – 11.42%
- Ford Escort – 95,782 – 8.89%
- Mini – 80,740 – 7.50%
- Vauxhall Viva – 76,838 – 7.14%
- Hillman Avenger – 50,133 – 4.66%
- Rootes Arrow range – 43,111 – 4.00%
- Ford Capri – 38,340 – 3.56%
- BLMC 1800 – 29,000 – 2.69%
- Vauxhall Victor/Ventora – 27,930 – 2.59%
- Triumph 1300 21,261 1.97%
- Triumph Herald/Vitesse 18,489 1.71%
- Triumph 2000/2500 18,205 1.69%
- Ford Zephyr/Zodiac Mk 4 14,477 1.34%
- Ford Corsair 14,096 1.30%
Total Market 1,076,865 cars
By the time the Morris Marina was launched, the popularity of the Ford Cortina had declined and the BMC 1100/1300 had resumed its place at the top of the sales chart. However, British Leyland axed ADO16 production at Cowley in order to free up space for the Marina instead of producing its new Cortina-beater at an underused plant elsewhere within the corporation.
In 1971, Longbridge produced 307,669 vehicles, mainly Minis and ADO16s, which was simply not enough, as the UK car market began to expand after flat lining for a decade. So how did the Morris Marina fare against the Ford Cortina?
1971 UK SALES MARKET SHARE
- Morris Marina – 41,164 – 3.20%
- Ford Cortina – 102,941 – 8.00%
1972 UK SALES MARKET SHARE
- Morris Marina – 104,986 – 6.41%
- Ford Cortina – 187,159 – 11.42%
A case of not enough expansion
In 1972, unemployment hit one million for the first time since World War 2, prompting the Conservative Government of Edward Heath to re-inflate the economy in an effort to buy electoral support. The UK car market expanded by 27.38% in 1972, but in this boom period for sales, BLMC could only expand its car production by 3.32%.
Thus, although total BLMC car production was 916,218 – its best ever total – it had not risen in line with its rivals on the UK market. Ford GB managed to increase its total vehicle production by 37.84%, Rootes-Chrysler produced 0.68% less and Vauxhall produced, or should that be reduced, a whopping 15.5% less.
This reflected the turmoil Rootes, BLMC and Vauxhall were experiencing – and that might explain why imports increased by 21% in the same period. For decades the motor manufacturers had demanded from Government a large domestic car market in order to create a sound financial base from which they could expand into export markets. In 1972, with the exception of Ford of Great Britain, they resolutely failed to meet the challenge.
During 1972, 1,355,000 working days were lost through strike action in the British motor industry, which although lower than the 3,100,000 days lost in 1971, was still bad enough. In 1972, Britain produced around 1,921,000 cars, which is still a record. To summarise, in 1972 the UK car market expanded by 27.38%, British car production by 10.27%.
1973 UK SALES MARKET SHARE
- Morris Marina – 115,041 – 6.9%
- Ford Cortina – 181,616 – 10.92%
The ‘Barber boom’ continued with UK car sales rising a further 1.45% to 1,661,639 units, a record that stood until 1979. During this period, Morris Marina production reached its intended target of 5000 units per week, but in a dramatically expanded market. Marina sales increased by 9.57%, while Cortina declined by 2.96%.
The gap between the two repmobiles seemed to be closing. This was the best ever year for the Marina, with 201,724 being manufactured in the 1972/73 financial year ending 30 September 1973. The Marina finished the year in second place behind the Ford Cortina in the UK sales chart. This was an increase of 29.46%. The success of the Marina masked the reality that production rates of all the other Austin-Morris models were in decline, and demand for the new Austin Allegro failed to match expectations.
In 1972-73 British Leyland produced around 947,000 cars and 184,000 commercial vehicles, its best ever year. Total UK car production was 1,747,000, a decline of 9.05%. One of the criticisms of the ‘Barber boom’ was that it sucked in imports and, in 1973, a whopping 27.4% of all new cars were shipped in. On a more positive note, commercial vehicle production was up 1.9%, but so were the working days lost to strikes, to 2,082,000.
Political change sparks market fears
It was the last full year of the Heath-led Government, which since the introduction of the Industrial Relations Act 1971, had been on a collision course with the Trade Union Congress. This meeting of minds had been over the TUC’s refusal to acknowledge the new Act. The Industrial Relations Act 1971 was intended to stabilise industrial relations by forcing concentration of bargaining power and responsibility in the formal union leadership, using the courts.
The new law limited wildcat strikes and prohibited limitations on legitimate strikes. It also established the National Industrial Relations Court, which was empowered to grant injunctions as necessary to prevent injurious strikes and settle a variety of labour disputes. The Labour Party’s own divisions over ‘In Place of Strife’, conceived by Harold Wilson and Barbara Castle, had killed the bill, and cleared the air – the party joined the TUC in opposing the Industrial Relations Act 1971.
The Act was perceived as an attack on the working class and was as big an issue in dividing the country as the poll tax, and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq later were. Protest strikes and other industrial action occurred and all this drama and unrest contributed towards the British motor industry’s inability to respond to a booming market.
This was also the year that Britain joined the Common Market, opening up a window of opportunity to sell more cars into a wider European market. The Austin Allegro was billed as British Leyland’s ‘car for Europe’, but, as recorded earlier, Filmer Paradise had boasted of selling 180,000 Morris Marinas in Europe in 1973.
Unfortunately, as British Leyland’s financial year and the calendar year used by the Society of Motor Manufacturers do not match up, we cannot arrive at an exact figure, but it appears that around 86,000 Marinas did find overseas buyers in 1973 – if production of the Morris Marina had ceased at the end of 1973, our views of it now might be very different.
And then the Energy Crisis
1974 UK SALES MARKET SHARE
- Morris Marina – 81,444 – 6.41%
- Ford Cortina – 131,243 – 10.34%
The British Leyland financial year ended on 30 September 1973. In October the Yom Kippur Arab-Israeli war broke out and OPEC punished the west for its support of Israel by raising the price of oil. The West’s easy economic ride since 1945 on the back of cheap oil prices came to an end.
In Britain, industrial action by the National Union of Mineworkers resulted in the Heath Government instigating a three-day week in order to conserve electricity supplies from 1 January 1974. British industry had to work at 60% of capacity, which by British Leyland’s own admission, was not profitable. It was estimated the company was losing £3m per week.
In February, British Leyland announced that output of Morris Marinas at Cowley would be cut to a maximum of 4250 a week because of labour and parts shortages and an expected drop in the home market but, while the three-day week continued, weekly output of the model would be cut to 2500. Prime Minister Edward Heath’s snap General Election to be held on 28 February 1974 resulted in the return of Harold Wilson’s Labour Party. The new Government repealed the Industrial Relations Act 1971, which some people thought would reduce the wave of strikes occurring up and down the land.
Despite all the chaos and division in class war-ridden Britain, the UK car market was still a respectable 1,268,655 – not the catastrophe everyone thought – only 1.3% less than 1971, and much better than any year in the 1960s. The mood of the time is revealed by the fact that BLMC sold 89,686 Minis in the UK in 1974 – more than the Marina. Clearly economy cars were now in vogue as the fuel price rises bit hard.
Marina sales begin to slide
It appears that overseas buyers took around 73,000 Marinas in 1974. Respectable enough, but nowhere near the 180,000 suggested by Filmer Paradise, who left British Leyland in 1974 alongside Harry Webster.
A lot had changed since the Morris Marina had been conceived in 1968 – back then, the concept of a mechanically simple car that would sell to fleet buyers and overseas, seen in the light of the success of the Ford Cortina Mk2, made a lot of sense. However, by 1974 the climate had changed. The Marina was made at Cowley – a plant constantly in the headlines for industrial action and low productivity – and, even when the cars were properly assembled by the workforce, they used components made by equally disgruntled workers employed by British Leyland’s ancillary suppliers.
Many of the problems with post-war British cars could be traced to poor quality components from outside suppliers. In Europe those seeking a simple basic car now had a new choice – something Japanese, something well-built and reliable. The wind of change was also affecting Ford of Great Britain. In 1974, it sold 131,243 Cortinas in Britain, but only built 139,917 cars here, a difference of only 8674 for export.
With Britain’s entry into the European Economic Community, trade tariffs between member states gradually disappeared. It also enabled the American-owned giants to merge their British operations with their European compatriots, share design expertise and make the same models in other plants. The constant labour disputes and resulting effect on the quality of its goods had led to Britain be labelled the ‘sick man of Europe.’
Ford found its UK factories infected by hard left groups at a time of slipping quality. Many UK fleet buyers did not want to buy Japanese cars, because of the legacy of World War 2, but did not fancy a badly-built ‘Dagenham dustbin’ Cortina, a ‘chronic Cowley’ Marina, a ‘vile Vauxhall’ Viva or a ‘rubbish Ryton’ built Hillman Avenger.
The logical solution was to step up production in Ford’s European plants and import Escorts and Cortinas into Britain. It was a brilliant tactic, if British car workers would not do the job, then Ford would get someone else to do it instead. It also meant that Ford could continue to supply the UK market when its British plants were strikebound, thus maintaining market share – a luxury not seriously available to British Leyland.
British Leyland in crisis
1975 UK SALES MARKET SHARE
- Morris Marina – 78,632 – 6.58%
- Ford Cortina – 106,787 – 8.94%
In December 1974, British Leyland had run out of money and had asked the Labour Government of Harold Wilson to act as guarantor for a £50m loan. Trade and Industry Minister Tony Benn took the opportunity place the company under Government control by buying a majority shareholding ‘in the national interest’ – after the Ryder Report had rubber stamped his ideas for greater worker involvement.
Morris Marina production slumped further to 134,989 in 1974/75 as the Energy Crisis really hit UK car sales, which declined to 1,194,115. The Ryder Report demanded that British Leyland Limited, as it was now known, made £1.5m profit for every £1m injected by the taxpayer. However, in 1975, British Leyland lost 12% of its planned production due to industrial action and the expected profits failed to materialise.
Moreover, by December 1975, British Leyland had run out of money again and was drawing on £200m of Government funds intended for modernisation – simply to function on a day-to-day basis. The Morris Marina had only ever been intended as a rush released parts bin special, pending the more thorough development of a properly thought out replacement, known as the ADO77. British Leyland’s financial crisis prompted a rethink and, sometime in a period leading up to May 1976, the ADO77 was cancelled.
However, British Leyland had launched the 18-22/Princess in March 1975. Perhaps the resources devoted to this front-wheel-drive car should have been focused on a rear-wheel-drive Marina replacement?
The UK’s recovery is not shared by the Marina
1976 UK SALES MARKET SHARE
- Morris Marina 71,288 5.54%
- Ford Cortina 126,238 9.81%
In 1976, UK car sales increased to 1,285,583. By May 1976, the ADO77 was dead in the water, as Leyland Cars decided to replace both the Allegro and Marina with the LC10/11 family of cars. The LC10 hatchback (Maestro) would replace the Allegro and the LC11 notchback (Montego) would replace the Marina.
It all made logical sense, but there was one problem. Having gained a foothold in the fleet car market, the stopgap Marina would be left to wither on the vine until 1984, when the LC11 (later renamed LM11) was launched.
Rival Ford had not been idle, though. In January 1976 the new Ford Taunus was introduced in continental Europe. This was basically a re-styled Cortina Mk3. Ford GB was able to continue selling the Mk3 in undiminished numbers in the UK until it was ready to launch the Taunus as the Dagenham-built, badge-engineered Cortina Mk4 (above), which went on sale at the end of September 1976.
Ford’s ability to continue to supply the UK market from its continental factories enabled it to wrest UK market leadership from British Leyland in 1976. Ford could also supply European markets hitherto the province of its UK subsidiary, with European-built cars.
General Motors had not been idle either. Announced in November 1975, and initially built in Belgium, the Vauxhall Cavalier Mk1 (above) was a restyled version of the German Opel Ascona A. The Ascona/Cavalier was built on what GM called the U-car platform and the Cavalier was originally intended to have its own bodywork.
In the end to keep costs down, a different nose, designed by Wayne Cherry, was the only obvious styling feature to set the Vauxhall apart. It was not until August 1977 that the first Cavalier emerged from a British factory.
The point of no return?
1977 UK SALES MARKET SHARE
- Morris Marina – 66,083 – 4.99%
- Ford Cortina – 120,601 – 9.11%
In a car market of 1,323,524 units, imports rose to 45.4%, a big rise over 1976. This was the year when British Leyland reached the point of no return, as detailed in this sites’ British Leyland – The Grand Illusion. To make matters worse for BL, Ford strengthened its UK market leadership by launching the Ford Fiesta, which impacted on Mini sales, falling by 25%.
1978 UK SALES MARKET SHARE
- Morris Marina 82,638 5.19%
- Ford Cortina 139,204 8.74%
The British economy was booming as UK car sales were 1,591,941, but 49.3% of these were imports, many from the American-owned giants. In September BL announced the Morris Marina 2 with the new overhead cam 1.7 litre O-Series engine. Sales briefly rallied, but by and large the car remained the same. In an expanding market and without the strikes that had crippled it in 1977, British Leyland actually manufactured fewer cars in 1978 – 611,625, compared to 651,069 in 1977.
The poor performance of BL Cars at the volume end of the company fleet market was revealed in a survey published by the magazine, Company Secretary’s Review. It showed that BL came only third among manufacturers supplying cars for company representatives. Among the 858 companies covered, Ford had a 63% share of salesmen’s cars, with the Cortina the most popular model. Chrysler came second with 15%. BL took only 12%, three quarters of which were Morris Marinas. The Labour Government’s incomes policy set a limit of 5% for pay rises in 1978/79 to combat inflation, a policy that had produced results and had stabilised the economy after years of trauma. However, the Trade Unions Congress soundly rejected this and advocated a wage rise free-for-all.
Confrontation loomed. The Prime Minister, James Callaghan, surprised everybody by not calling an autumn General Election, arguing that the economy would further improve by the spring of 1979 – and the Labour Party would achieve a comfortable victory in the polls. Ford then offered their workforce the 5% pay rise permitted by the Government and was strikebound for two months from 22 September. Ford settled on 17%, and then the tanker drivers went into dispute.
This was the beginning of the game-changing ‘Winter of Discontent’, which saw Britain dramatically veer away from what seemed the inevitable path to socialism and a very different course indeed. Despite what should have been a crippling dispute, Ford was able to maintain their commanding lead in the UK market thanks to imports from the continent.
1979 UK SALES MARKET SHARE
- Morris Marina 62,410 3.63%
- Ford Cortina 193,784 11.29%
In the final year of the 1970s, new UK car sales soared to a record 1,716,275, but imports now accounted for 56.3% of the market. In September 1979 it was calculated that, at the existing rate of penetration, the foreign car manufacturers would have the whole of the UK market within eight years, 1987. During 1979 BL made 503,767 cars and lost £30m.
Back in the 1960/61 financial year, BMC had made 510,318 cars and a profit of £16.6m. This was when the Mini was only two-years old and before the Morris 1100 appeared. So many hopes had been raised in the intervening years and it had all come to nought.
So how did the Morris Marina perform?
Total production in the decade was 1,135,343. UK sales were 703,686 and so around 431,657 were exported, some 38%. It certainly sold better than the outgoing Farina saloons, of which 794,613 were built between 1958 and 1971.
However, the Marina never came close to its sales expectations, competing in an overcrowded market against the American-owned giants, which could feed UK demand from their continental factories, their strike-bound British plants becoming increasingly superfluous and marginalized.
British Leyland’s venture into the lucrative fleet market is also a story of how the Shop Stewards’ strike-happy behaviour was ultimately self-destructive. The strikes lost sales and revenue, which in return resulted in the budget for new model development being slashed, and the Marina’s replacement, the ADO77 was one of the casualties.
- History : The Austin-Morris story – Part Twelve : April to October 1974 - 27 September 2021
- History : The Austin-Morris story – Part Eleven : January to April 1974 - 23 August 2021
- History : The Austin-Morris story – Part Ten : 1973 - 19 July 2021