As a Project Engineer in the South Experimental part of the Engineering Division at BL in 1973, I witnessed and experienced the emergence of ADO28, later named the Morris Marina. However, I hadn’t had any direct involvement with the project other than watching the frequent gatherings of senior BL executives around various vehicles which appeared and the comments of other engineering colleagues.
South Experimental was an unusual department within BMC and then BL Engineering in that most model or ADO projects were developed in various ‘cells’ such as A, B or C at Longbridge, a structure created by Alec Issigonnis to shield and protect security and perhaps inadvertently stifle the normal interaction which occurs between creative Automotive Engineers.
Most Longbridge engineering colleagues I knew saw the Marina project as a disappointment, partly because the Issigonis years involved much innovation and development engineering and, unfortunately, the Marina was seen as a retrograde step by comparison.
My involvement begins here…
South Experimental became involved in later development work where speed and/or facilities were needed to introduce urgent modifications or undertake emergency engineering work – tongue-in-cheek, the department was the closest to the main lift connecting the Design Office and management suites to the ground floor, so perhaps an obvious facility when haste was the order of the day.
It was well known that the Marina was a parts bin concept urgently created to meet an identified gap in the market: the power units chosen were aged A- and B-series, the gearboxes were imported from STI and the suspension systems dated back to the earliest Issigonis years of the Morris Minor.
The logic of using existing componentry if and when appropriate is clear, reducing engineering and development time and cost being an important consideration. However, there were shortcomings which became obvious from the start of the project and the design/development work had been forcibly cut short in the haste to get ADO28 to market.
Meeting Harry Webster, Doug Blain and Andrew Frankl
In August 1973, I was unexpectedly summoned to a meeting in Harry Webster’s office. I was given no indication of the purpose but made my way from South Experimental up in the lift to the main BLMC Design Office on the top floor and the executive suite at the rear and into Harry Webster’s office, which used to belong to Alec Issigonis.
I was greeted by Harry Webster and introduced to Doug Blain and Andrew Frankl from CAR magazine. The preamble went something like, ’these gentlemen have come up with an interesting concept to boost sales interest in the Marina estate car – and I like the idea.
‘I want you to show them what we can do as a special project and I’m giving them a Marina estate car so they can come up with ideas of their own, I’d like you to assist them in any way you can, I think this would be a fun project for us,’ he said.
How to add zest to the Marina Estate?
I was tasked to come up with ideas and creativity for the BLMC car, working with the Styling Team and others who would be involved at various stages of the project.
The Marina estate car was seen as an attractive and practical vehicle with the possibility and potential of being a wolf in sheep’s clothing.
South Experimental had been involved in several one-off projects in the past – I remember seeing a Rolls-Royce engined sports car covered with a dust sheet when I first joined the department in the mid 1960s. I believe it had a badge with the name Firerre and is likely to have been ADO30, Project Fireball XL5…
An exciting project
With some excitement, I discussed the challenge with colleagues in the ADO73 Marina facelift Development Department and with Harris Mann and his team in the styling studio, known to us all as the Elephant House.
My first thoughts were to break this into two distinct parts, improve the performance and make it ride and handle better and give it a makeover on the exterior and interior – above all, to be creative.
For me, addressing the performance issue was an easy choice: engineer a Rover V8 engine and transmission into the vehicle, giving it abundant power and torque and an effective six-speed transmission with the overdrive unit, all helpfully developed and readily available from MG in Abingdon.
How to make a Marina handle better?
Addressing the handling and ride was more of a challenge, but wide rim alloy wheels, and a coilover front suspension setup seemed the right direction to follow. However, the rear suspension was more of a problem, possibly requiring some very creative thinking.
We looked at other setups used within the group and possibilities for an independent rear suspension were interesting.
The ADO73 team had several developments to offer for both the front and rear suspension, but these were based on retaining the torsion bar and leaf spring configuration given it was an ADO28 upgrade project.
Making it look better
Meanwhile, Harris Mann and his team were not short of ideas and creativity. The V8 power unit and MGB manual transmission concept went down well, ideas for bodywork modifications such as wheelarches were seen as being interesting but difficult and time consuming plus the exterior shape was considered basically okay as it was.
I obtained several layout drawings of the Marina bodyshell from the Longbridge Drawing Office together with some RV8 profiles and quickly determined that, with a minimum of body modifications to accommodate the MGB transmission, this installation was not too challenging.
The dressed weight of the Rover V8 with transmission was approximately 250kg from memory whereas a MGB engine and transmission was close at 216kg, so there would be no big issues with weight distribution.
We proposed to utilise as many standard Rover V8 ancillaries as possible including radiator, oil cooler and air cleaners to minimise development work and, although it was clear the propeller shaft would need to be modified, nothing appeared to be too difficult.
Dropping the Rover V8 from the plan
While Harris and his team were considering their shopping list for both exterior and interior ideas I had a meeting with Harry Webster to review ideas and firm up the engineering specifications.
A sad reality of life in 1973 in the UK was the unrest in the Middle East and the imminent threat of an oil crisis, which became a reality when Egypt and Syria attacked Israel on 6 October 1973.
Against this background, Harry said that the wrong signal would be sent by BL if this Marina project showcased a large capacity V8 engine which was less fuel efficient even if it was just a one-off. That was clearly an unwinnable argument, but it was agreed I could have free reign to do whatever possible to increase the performance as long as it was done using the B-Series power unit.
Tuning the B-Series engine
Harry Webster believed that significant changes to the standard suspension system would be similarly construed as an admission the standard system couldn’t be upgraded in a meaningful way and so vetoed my more adventurous ideas but allowed full use of any ADO73 suspension developments and upgrades.
Harry agreed that the Rover V8-powered Marina Estate concept would be exciting and undoubtedly create much interest but said it would never be a production feasibility.
We discussed the mechanical specification of the CAR magazine estate car version which I was also going to engineer for them using many off the shelf Special Tuning components, basically creating an MGB engine specification and Harry also approved using ADO73 suspension componentry on this vehicle.
Turning our attention to the suspension, we replaced the standard front dampers with AHT 456 and 457 units, upgraded 30% on upper limits, checked, tested and supplied by Armstrong.
A front anti-roll bar from the ADO 73 program was also installed at the front together with a set of torsion bar eye bolt bushes C-AJJ-4090. At the rear, adjustable C-AHT 458 Konis replaced the standard units.
We carried out a full shake down road test prior to handing the vehicle to CAR magazine in early October 1973.
Getting down to work
We received the Marina estate car allocated to CAR magazine and immediately removed the engine prior to commencing the agreed engineering changes. The engine was completely stripped, and all components inspected, checked and cleaned.
We built up the crankshaft, bottom timing gear, crankshaft damper, flywheel, competition clutch cover assembly and special Marina centre spline and MGB clutch plate then took it to the gas turbine development facility at East works to be balanced on the turbine balancing machine.
Burrs and sharp edges on the connecting rods were removed and the pistons and rods balanced end to end. The crankshaft was refitted then the rods and pistons using new big end and mains nuts, bolts and bearings.
Jobs done, upgrades made
The oil pump was stripped and checked for clearance, the timing gear and duplex chain fitted together with a competition road/rally camshaft C-AEH 864 and a Special Tuning polished cylinder head C-AHT 100A (35cc chamber volume), using the competition head gasket, this arrangement gave a 9.8:1 compression ratio. The induction and exhaust arrangement was standard MGB.
We checked and carefully set up the twin carburetors and set up the ignition with a new distributor and better-quality contact points set. The engine was then taken to the Power Unit Development Department adjacent to South Experimental for preliminary running in and power testing.
The maximum power on the dynamometer was 111bhp at 5980rpm but we expected this to increase slightly as the power unit became more run-in – it was noticeable that the engine was very smooth-running during testing. This was completed on 13 September 1973.
The car is put back together
The engine was reinstalled into the vehicle, and we fitted an oil cooler C-AJJ-4073 and an anti-run-on valve system given that tuned B-Series engines have a tendency to run on particularly after higher speeds and the variability in fuels in 1973.
This required changing the steering column lock to one with the required additional electrical feed needed to activate the system when the key was removed, this was a standard fitment on Austin America vehicles.
An engine steady kit from Special Tuning C-AJJ-4078 was also fitted to minimize engine movement.
A detailed look at the Marauder’s engine
For the BLMC Marina estate car I decided to opt for the highest practical power and torque possible for fast road use with the B-Series by increasing the cubic capacity, boring the block to +.080in, raising the compression ratio to an unfashionable 10.6:1 using flat top pistons, a big valve polished cylinder head from Special Tuning, C-AHT-552 (39cc combustion chamber volume) and for tractability, using the road/rally C-AEH-864 camshaft.
We decided to start with new components carefully selected to ensure clear water galleries in the block in particular.
The cylinder block deck height needed to be machined to ensure the pistons were 0.025in below the top face and with the larger exhaust valves being used the cylinder block required machining eyebrow clearances to prevent valve head contact with the block.
All of this work, including boring and honing, was carried out off-site by a specialist engine machining and tuning company which was, incidentally, owned by an ex-BMC Automotive Engineering Apprentice.
An exercise in blueprinting
As described previously, we assembled a new MGB crankshaft, steel camshaft gear, bottom timing gear, crankshaft damper slightly lightened MGB flywheel, competition clutch cover assembly and standard MGB clutch plate then took it to the Gas Turbine Department for balancing.
Using all new studs, nuts and bearings the engine was reassembled with a blueprinted oil pump kindly supplied by Hobourn Eaton; the timing gears, tappet adjusting screws, rocker shaft brackets and distance pieces were all ex-Special Tuning. A standard MGB inlet manifold with twin 1.75in SU carburetors together with a standard MGB exhaust manifold was used, we matched the ports and ensured the inlet tracts were smooth but not highly polished.
Unfortunately, it proved to be too difficult to get this engine tested in power unit development – there was a problem involving both politics and our project timing, so I resolved to use an external rolling road facility at a later stage in the project if possible.
A standard MGB gearbox with overdrive was a bolt on item to complete the power unit. I obtained the necessary drawings and layouts from the Design Office and we created templates for modifying the transmission tunnel to suit the new gearbox and gear lever remote location.
This work was promptly completed with kind assistance from the adjacent Prototype Body Shop tradesmen.
The power unit was re-installed together with a modified rear gearbox mounting which was attached to the underside of the transmission tunnel.
Internal politics slows things down
It is always surprising how time consuming and difficult some seemingly minor changes and modifications take especially when different parts of a large and disparate organisation are involved. From a driver’s perspective, I decided not to use a standard MGB overdrive switch convinced there must be a better more convenient way.
I researched several options with the Standard-Triumph (STI) 2.5 gear knob with integral sliding switch standing out as the ideal option. The challenge turned out to be getting hold of one.
Within the confines of what used to be BMC/BMH, within engineering we had few difficulties in sourcing and obtaining parts bin componentry for project work and with staff commuting between Cowley, Abingdon and Longbridge delivery times were often measured in hours and minutes.
Canley to Longbridge… how long?
In this new era of BL, once we needed parts from another BL Division, such as Standard-Triumph in this case, these processes were at best fraught, bureaucratic and requiring endless paperwork across endless desks, it was extremely frustrating and inefficient.
Much ale was consumed sharing stories of how these significant barriers to efficiency had appeared and the names of various new contacts who were helpful and who would provide assistance were also shared.
Of course, at the executive levels within BL, mostly ex-Leyland personnel anyway in 1973, they could achieve prompt, and at times instant results with a mere telephone call. But my attempts using this route even through my senior manager, also ex-STI, failed.
A knob, a knob – my kingdom for a knob
I kept reminding myself I was only seeking a gear knob – preferably one with the gearlever attached – and eventually I managed to obtain one from a BL Willmot Breeden rep in return for some ‘assistance’ for his Austin Maxi… it had been a challenge and it took weeks.
I mention this because getting things done in BL was invariably difficult, challenges were ubiquitous, politics ever present and transgressions at operational levels, simply to get things done, were everyday occurrences.
Engineering and experimental in particular depends on creativity and proving concepts, anything which slows down these endeavors is unhelpful, inefficient and drains morale.
My experiences of inter-departmental inertia
My own experiences started with post-grad interest and experiences with engine technology and performance and in particular competition Minis; this brought me into difficulties with Special Tuning at Abingdon particularly when privately we won the WD & HO Wills Rallycross Championship at Lyddon Hill one year when we were competing against the BMC works team.
As a manager, I would have welcomed and indeed sought any advice and feedback especially within the company, but this was possibly a throwback to the early BMC days when suspicion, distrust and non-cooperation between Austin and Morris was at its height.
In my opinion BMC was losing its way in power unit development when I was an Engineering Apprentice in the 1960s. Early E-Series power units did nothing to convince young Engineers the future of the company was in good hands – especially the E-Series gearbox’s trials and tribulations.
As an aside, I held Charles Griffin in high esteem, he was a senior executive and an accomplished Development Engineer, who saw the problems and worked hard to smooth them out to enable progress to stagger on, fiefdoms were endemic, and the situation was never addressed during my time in the UK and at BL.
Making Triumph parts speak to MG bits
Back to the gear knob… the Triumph 2.5 gear knob pattern on the top surface showed reverse to be on the wrong side for the MGB gearbox, but we managed to get this resolved quickly.
I redesigned the gear lever using the MGB bottom end to fit the remote housing with an ADO 20 [Mini development] isolation bush and the standard STI upper shaft as it had the hole for the electrical cable to operate the overdrive switch.
This composite gearlever was jigged, welded and re-chromed – it was a win, producing a smooth isolation free and satisfying overdrive operation.
Serious calculations made
Calculations confirmed the optimum gearing for the MGB gearbox could be achieved using a Marina 10cwt van rear axle with the highest differential ratio at 3.9:1 the standard ratio being 3.636:1.
A complete ADO28 10cwt van rear axle was built for us at the BL Tractors and Transmissions Division with the axle casing modified for the rear anti-roll bar locations and we also obtained a set of Marina 10cwt van front hubs, which had 4.5in PCD stud centres.
Solid front damper-top eye bushes were fitted also torsion bar eye bolt bush set C-AJJ-4090, a 7/8in diameter front anti-roll bar and a 5/8” diameter rear anti roll bar together with a pair of special adjustable dampers supplied by Armstrong.
Prototype parts fitted
Team ADO73 department colleagues supplied new damper brackets for the rear to change the position of the special Armstrong adjustable dampers to a more vertical mode.
A modified propshaft was designed to connect the MGB gearbox output flange to the Marina rear differential flange – Hardy Spicer manufactured, balanced and supplied the appropriate length two piece shaft.
An MGB front exhaust pipe was connected to a Marina TC front silencer, (three pass with additional glass wool compared with the standard silencer) with a standard estate car rear silencer (straight through with double wrapped glass wool) together with a special tail pipe.
In order to minimise cooling fan noise Holset kindly supplied a viscous coupling fan drive with complete with a Ford fan – a special fan cover over the top of the radiator was drawn up and fitted. The radiator was standard Marina. As previously described an anti-run-on system was installed to eliminate possible damage to the engine when switched off, the Austin America fitment.
New wheels to match up to performance
Wheels were supplied by Woolferace, 4.5in PCD stud hole centres 5.5 J 13in, we tested with 185/70×13 Goodyear tyres and Dunlop supplied a set of 185/70×13 SP Sport tyres, we decided the Goodyear tyres had the edge all round.
Front brake pads were F 2445, at the rear the linings were changed to Don 242 with 5/8in diameter rear wheel cylinders and using the 10cwt van handbrake installation.
Having completed all the mechanical modifications the vehicle was run in with local motorway trips before being checked and serviced prior to testing at the MIRA test track and completion of some standard BL vehicle compliance tests for cooling, exhaust noise, handbrake efficiency, for example.
Smiths Instruments supplied a calibrated speedometer and revcounter, and it was thus equipped that we took it for performance testing.
Performance figures obtained 14 December 1973 were:
|From rest (mph)
|In gear (mph)
|10 – 30
|20 – 40
|30 – 50
|40 – 60
|50 – 70
|60 – 80
|70 – 90
Maximum speed: 113mph at 5200-5300rpm in fourth-gear overdrive
Sorting out the looks
Turning attention to the Styling Team, a shopping list was produced in the form of ideas and creativity for wider consideration and opinion to determine the final specification for the exterior and interior of the vehicle.
I have included this list in its entirety to show the level of creativity and interest shown by Harris Mann and the Styling Team, not all the ideas were included, and some other items were added later. I must point out that my involvement with this process was surprisingly minimal.
The list included several ideas and features not commonly found in volume produced cars and some new to the automobile industry such as wheelarch liners and integrated roof rack.
The interior treatment included some useful and practical features, a luxury sound system also a unique refreshment fitting in the rear and often only found in expensive high-end cars. It was disappointing to see one of the early ideas to install electric window operation didn’t make the cut.
One of the ideas from Harris Mann was to turn the standard 1.3 Marina grille upside down and integrate it into a new front lower spoiler which also housed additional spot lamps together with a USA spec safety bumper.
While this work was proceeding we stripped the interior of the vehicle to install acoustic sound deadening material to the interior of the body panels, doors and roof which had been cut out to install a tinted glass sunroof.
Concern at this stage was the increase in total vehicle weight given this material was designed to deaden panels through increased mass, it was self-adhesive and required concentration to minimize the tendency to overuse.
Colour-coded engine components
The Styling Team provided a colour scheme for the under-bonnet components which necessitated the removal of the engine for painting and decorating… it was finally re-installed in time for a review by the Styling Team in early May.
A fibreglass mold was constructed to make the front lower spoiler and a completely new interior trim set including special seats was installed including door cards.
In early May most of the styling work was nearing completion and the vehicle rewiring well advanced – from my notes we had a meeting in the interior studio on 7 May and a plan was made for a one week shakedown of the vehicle prior to the final finishing process commencing on 14 May.
Finishing it off
The finishing process was time consuming and complex requiring a fine eye for detail and attention to detail to ensure no rattles and full functionality of all the equipment. I had also planned to take the vehicle back to MIRA for final performance testing and ride and handling assessments and this was completed on 24 May.
The finished weight of the vehicle was 2646lb (1200kg) + 5 up @ 150lb (68kg) + 150lb (68kg) luggage. This resulted in a GVW of 3546lb (1612kg).
Acceleration in the gears was not significantly changed with the heavier vehicle which was a pleasant surprise, the maximum speed we achieved was an indicated 121mph…using a specially-calibrated speedometer so possibly close to a true 117-118mph.
Without more detailed analysis is was impossible to determine the effectiveness of the frontal treatment and lower spoiler – apart from a thorough service, precise ignition set up, new fuel and accurate tyre pressures nothing had been done since the original performance tests.
The MGB gearbox was delightful to use, we didn’t do anything to it other than fit a custom gearlever and STI knob, the ratios were fine and the overdrive a must have feature.
The exhaust system met the BL noise tests for static and dynamic performance and was generally unobtrusive but on the sporty side. No specific fuel consumption tests were carried out but, on long distance motorway tests and driving at legal speed limits in overdrive fourth gear predominantly, we achieved just over 32mpg based on full tank to full tank running on the fuel gauge. Driven hard, I would expect the fuel consumption to drop to the mid-20s per gallon.
Charles Griffin gave the finished vehicle his seal of approval, he enjoyed the performance and approved of all the ride and handling changes some of which he suggested – he drove the car on several occasions and provided many helpful comments and good advice.
In summary, I was satisfied we had built a competent and well performing car, the ride and handling had been carefully developed using the ride and handling course at MIRA and some impressive times there were achieved using a mix of test, development and competitive drivers.
I enjoyed driving the car, it provided a much improved driving experience when compared with a standard Marina Estate but serious road conditions could induce some axle tramp. It was an inherently understeering vehicle but the transition to oversteer was only likely to become a problem in extreme driving conditions.
For a torsion bar/cart sprung suspension set up it was arguably as good as it could be for fast road use with the compromises necessary to achieve an acceptable ride on most road surfaces. It was a comfortable and capable motorway cruiser, quiet inside with adequate power and acceleration particularly when using the smooth overdrive in third and fourth.
The overdrive definitely improved the drivability and driving experience. I believe the damping settings we finished with were quite adequate and we felt that most drivers would enjoy the transformed performance of such a humble yet practical vehicle.
Not universally liked inside
The interior was sumptuous and for me somewhat overdone, velour is not my favourite upholstery material. I am a Q-car fan at heart, but it did create a modern feel and ambience – most people who saw the vehicle thought the interior was inviting and impressive and that the fittings were useful and practical.
I thought the opening roof was most effective in lightening up the interior as well as providing some welcome ventilation. The sound system was simply superb, the vehicle was quiet and rattle free and for a highly-tuned older-generation four-cylinder overhead-valve engine it was pleasingly refined.
Most would appreciate the attention paid to simple features like luggage strips on the rear floor and the opportunities to open the rear tailgate and enjoy refreshments and a picnic alongside the Bentley Countryman set…. something that had impressed me when a small child.
Some very nice touches
Sundym glass was a welcome and restful addition, the exterior of the vehicle was impressive featuring several decal treatments and the paint treatment was very pleasing. I liked the in-built roof rack look, it enhanced the side profile and was copied within the automobile industry in due course.
A not very visible feature were the front wheel arch mouldings – they were formed in-house by the Production Engineering Team, and they reduced rain and road dirt from entering the under-bonnet area, another feature which was picked up by the automobile industry in due course.
In my experience attention to dynamic balancing of rotating assemblies together with careful fitting and assembly and focus on build quality generally ensures a smooth running engine, we also used standard engine mounting rubbers.
Given the CAR seal of approval
The Marina estate car was enthusiastically driven by several BL executives, and I don’t remember any negative feedback. Indeed, once the CAR magazine team had finished with the vehicle for photography and testing for the final project release in the September 1974 edition of the magazine, it became a very popular executive car choice at BL – so much so that I didn’t see the car again.
Harry Webster was apparently pleased with the end result, and I understand positive feedback was received from the Marketing Team in due course. I don’t know what happened to the vehicle in the end but, some years later, I was told it was thought to have been sold to someone in the South coast area of the UK.
I have all the copies of CAR magazine which covered the Marina Estate car project and strangely these contain the only photographs [poor quality] of the finished cars I have. I have a memo on file from the Styling Department referring to photographs being scheduled but I never saw any, possibly there are some to be found in the archives at the Heritage Centre at Gaydon.
On the subject of photographs, in South Experimental we used a polaroid camera for all development work, standard 35mm film cameras were considered a security risk given film development was usually done using external sources.
The photos in this article are all digital photographs of actual polaroid photographs and documents, now almost 50 years old and filed in a Marina Estate build ring binder which I brought with me to New Zealand in 1975.
Personally, I was disappointed that the clean sheet of paper approach mentioned at the beginning of the project didn’t eventuate – I understood the reasoning at the time but show cars and specials are a showcase for the automotive industry and part of me thought we should have been encouraged to create a truly outstanding one-off Marina estate car. BL had the talent, creativity, facilities and componentry to have achieved this.
The missed opportunity?
The Rover V8 power unit with the MGB overdrive gearbox would have been superb in a Marina with upgraded suspension and braking system to suit. The finished vehicle needed more lazy power and torque and not such a highly tuned older generation engine.
What was not to like about a 3946cc V8 producing 187bhp and 4750rpm and a huge 231lb ft of torque at 3200rpm? By comparison we achieved 120-130bhp at approximately 6000rpm and torque in the region of 115+lbft @ 4500-5000rpm.
The work didn’t completely go to waste, though, as the V8 Marina pick-up built for Custom Car magazine by Special Tuning in Abingdon would prove highly entertaining…