Essay : Morris Marina door handles – the design story

We often blithely talk about design classics without actually pondering about their effect on society…

Well, the Marina door handles are most certainly a classic in our times and, as Robert Leitch explains, one that the industry couldn’t get enough of…


Life and times of the Marina door handles

Morris Marina door handle

Innovative, distinctive, much-imitated, a minor design classic: None of these are words even the most ardent ADO28 aficionado could credibly apply to the Morris Marina, yet they could all describe one relatively minor component, the car’s vertically-hinged door handles. Flush-fitting they may have been, but they stood out visually from the otherwise curiously familiar coachwork like escapees from the carrozzeria aisles of an international motor show.

In the manner of the true design classic, they were to take a life of their own far beyond their original application, appearing on a startlingly wide spectrum of vehicle types for nearly three decades after the Marina’s launch in April 1971. Towards the end of the 1960s, legislation and fashion were reshaping door-handles. Statutory pedestrian protection and anti-burst requirements would bring an end to the streamlined blade-like push-button creations of the 1950s and early 1960s, often discreetly integrated into chrome strips and swage lines, and would usher in instead a variety of near-flush flap handles.

Fiat’s finely detailed chromed handles on the 124, 125, 127 and 128 were trend-setters, bringing a touch of the exotic to day-to-day cars. In Britain, the Ford Cortina Mk3 and Hillman Avenger followed the Italian example, probably driven more by US Federal legislation than the emulation of Latin flair. The door handle, our first point of tactile contact with any car, had become a design statement in itself, rather than an apologetically concealed necessity.

Morris Marina Prototype
The ADO28 project took time for its door handle design to be established…

The Marina’s handles appear to have arrived well into the project’s evolution – as well as showing significant Vauxhall Viva influence, this 1969 prototype is fitted with rather Volkswagen-ish door furniture. In its less eclectic production form, ex-Ford Designer Roy Haynes’ saloon and coupe transparently displayed the influence of Ford’s Escort Mk1 and Cortina Mk2 – the door handles were one of the few elements utterly alien to the Dagenham visual vocabulary.

Inspiration comes from Italy

Alfa Romeo Montreal prototype
Prototype Alfa Montreal did without the Marina style items of the production version…
Lamborghini Uracco
Lamborghini’s delectable Urraco enjoyed a familiar door handle/driver interface

A search of the European and Japanese production cars and design concepts of the period immediately preceding the Marina’s launch, reveals few precedents for these distinctive door handles. Two from the pen of Marcello Gandini at Bertone may have been inspirations, but they appeared only around a year before the Marina went on sale. The handle on the production version of the Alfa Romeo Montreal (above) is similar in principle if not in proportion. Appearing at the Geneva Motor Show of Spring 1970, this particular feature differs totally from the near-invisible fitment on the prototype shown at the Canadian Expo in 1967.

The Lamborghini Urraco (above) exhibited at the Turin Motor Show in the same year has a similar handle. The baby Lamborghini was to be a huge influence on all mid-engined supercars which followed, but the case for it inspiring the designers at Longbridge is not proven.

Both the Alfa and Lamborghini handles are a little too sculptural and playful in their proportions. The Italians were unable to resist entirely the temptations of the sinuous and the sensuous – the Marina handle differs in evincing an expressive but functional Bauhaus rigour – oversized and near-symmetrical with a textured alloy faceplate contrasted against the matt black finger recess in an industrial designer’s chiaroscuro.

Marco Zanuso and Richard Sapper's 1964 T502 Cubo radio
Marco Zanuso and Richard Sapper’s 1964 T502 Cubo radio

The blocky but pure geometry and use of texture suggest a designer familiar with thinking beyond the narrow mid-Atlantic scope of much British automotive design at the time. Dieter Rams’ work for Braun in the 1960s shows a similar use of pure orthogonal shapes and softened corners, and even closer in thought to the Marina handle is an iconic Italo-German collaboration, Marco Zanuso and Richard Sapper’s 1964 T502 Cubo radio (above) for Italian manufacturer Brionvega.

However, it’s a fair assumption to make that with Harris Mann and to a lesser extent, Roy Haynes, both influenced by the US car industry, the design for the Marina’s handles actually came from Stateside. As part of the feedback process for the first release of this piece, we had several suggestions that the major inspiration for the doorhandle design came from American Motors. Looking at the AMC range from 1968 – starting with the AMX, it’s clear that the Americans were indeed the first to adopt the design.

The 1968 AMC AMX - the true inspiration for the Marina's door handles...
The 1968 AMC AMX – the true inspiration for the Marina’s door handles…

Part of the corporate furniture

It was no surprise that the Marina’s handles would also feature on the 1973 Austin Allegro. When the Triumph TR7 was introduced in 1975, initially only for the lucky Americans, the same handles sat far more comfortably on its wedge-shaped flanks than any of us might have expected. If further evidence is required that the fitments were intended for a highly diverse range of Leyland applications, witness their appearance on this 1971 CV154 van prototype.

With their US Federal approval and distinctive design, the handles were soon appearing on more expensive and sporting machinery. In May 1974 Lotus introduced the striking new Elite, its first four-seater, featuring a pair of Marina door handles, undisguised in any way to conceal their lowly origin. The Eclat and Esprit followed, and Reliant adopted the handles for their 1975 Scimitar GTE SE6.

The destiny of the Marina handles as a 1970s Leyland corporate motif seemed less certain as the 1975 Princess and 1976 Rover SD1 appeared with quite different horizontally hinged flap types. In mid-1980, it really seemed that they could be outlived by the car on which they first appeared, when the Morris Ital arrived with completely new horizontally-hinged flush fitting handles among a host of visual ameliorations memorably described at the time by the Financial Times‘ James Ensor as ‘combing the hair of the corpse’.

Elsewhere in the BL body corporate, moves had been afoot which would see the ubiquitous door furniture attain something close to immortality. In 1981, an astonishing 11 years after the original three-door’s launch, an official five-door Range Rover finally went on sale, featuring the vertically-hinged Marina handles. Remarkably, the first known five-door prototype, from 1972 also used the handles. Parts rationalisation, and perhaps a little sentimental attachment, ensured that although the Range Rover application ended with the arrival of the 1995 P38A, the handles remained a fitment to the Discovery for a further three years until the Series II edition appeared.

The source of inspiration overseas?

The Designer of the Marina handle would have been flattered by the number and variety of imitations which appeared in the years which followed its first appearance. The 1978 Peugeot 305 had a shameless copy which was also used on the 1979 505. Before this, Fiat’s 1972 132 used a strikingly similar handle, as did Alfa Romeo, firstly on the 1976 Alfasud Sprint, then on the larger 1977 Nuova Giulietta and its 75 and 90 successors.

Japan’s contribution appeared on the 1982-85 Toyota Celica A60. The handle design was sufficiently close to the Marina item in size to allow its substitution on the 1985 Lotus Excel. Lotus were owned by Toyota at the time, and the front-engined Excel was a heavily-updated final iteration of the 1974 Elite, altered to utilise the parent company’s parts wherever possible.

Lotus’s rejection was but a minor rebuff in the distinguished career of a set of components which would still be in large-scale use twenty-seven years after their first appearance on an inexpensive fleet saloon, remarkable only by default for the unadventurousness of its styling and engineering.

List of production cars using the Morris Marina’s door handles

Non-production cars

Kit cars

  • Stevens Cipher
  • Dutton Legerra
  • GTM Coupe
  • UVA M6 GTR

Morris Marina 2

22 Comments

  1. When I was young, I used to draw cars and they nearly always had ‘Marina doorhandles’. Note that the Italians mounted them the other way around. To me the ‘Marina way seems more natural if you open the door.

  2. We may have mocked the Marina door handle design but now it is being increasingly viewed as an interesting design feature of the cars it adorned. Look at most door handle designs today – they are bland and anonymous when it comes to design character. Do you recall the tactile sensation when you operate them, or what it sounds like in its execution? Probably not.

    Even those found on a current Range Rover have a generic look and feel about them. In fact the only modern car that I vividly remember how its door handle operates and the sensual appeal I got from holding it is the Rover 75.

    Make no mistake, I may not be a fan of the Marina or most BL cars from the 1970s, but the use of the Marina door handle certainly did not reduce the aesthetic appeal of the 4-door Range Rover when it appeared in 1981. To the uninitiated, it is now perceived as being more of a design feature than a symptom of parts-bin sharing.

    Then again, sometimes even a distinctive door handle design can corrupt or conflict with a body design that is either very inspiring or ultimately average at best. Take the HHR Rover 400 Series for instance…

  3. “”To me the ‘Marina way seems more natural if you open the door.””

    The Italian style is so you can open the door for your ladyfriend and not stand in her way as she gets in.
    You are probably riding alone in your britcar anyway.

  4. It is very true that a car’s door handles are a vehicle’s ‘handshake’. Those fitted to the early Audi A4 were uncomfortable to operate and prone to slipping out of your hands if they were wet, causing a slight ‘stinging’ sensation in your fingertips. Early Ford Focuses had a lovely ’50s ‘fridge door’ type handle which was much more pleasant and far more positive to operate.

    I like Marina handles these days. Unfortunately, their use in other vehicles, such as the early Range Rover and Disco, implied Marina-like build quality- guilt by association. Of course, there was nothing wrong with those handles, but still, you can’t blame BL successor firms for dropping them from more recent cars.

  5. @6, Adrian,

    The engines might not have been the last word in NVH levels or sophistication, but they could be very reliable- even when abused. I can remember several Marinas that limped on forever (one on three cylinders) when the rest of the car was barely held together with gaffa tape, exhaust bandages, and daubed-on bodywork ‘repairs’.

    Of course, such bodges wouldn’t past muster these days, but back in the ’80s it was common to see vehicles driving around in astonishing states of dereliction.

  6. Great article! Shared on twitter during a Marina debate, now retweeted a few times by others. Marina door handles were the future! Who knew?!

  7. I’d almost forgotten what a Fiat 132 looked like until I saw one in this article. Shows what the old Fiat rust problem does, you forget what their cars looked like as they rusted away so quickly. Mind you, the Strada will always stick in people’s minds as it looked like a golf ball.

  8. I was very keen to use these door handles on the doors of theTelevision transmitter we designing but they proved to be too expensive

  9. I would imagine a major influence on the Marina door handle design were the Australian Design Regulations introduced at the end of the sixties which required new cars to have flush door handles for pedestrian safety reasons. Leyland Australia fitted a form of flush door handle to the Morris 1500 (a version of “ADO16”) in 1969 and they subsequently appeared on Australian built Minis, and the Austin 1800-derived X6 Tasman/Kimberley and then the Leyland P76. They were designing Marina in that period and planning to build it in Australia (which they did from 1972) so it would have made sense to use the design required in Australia globally. Some “pre-existing” designs seem to have got away without flush door handles in Australia (like the Triumph 2500 which was locally assembled and Dolomite that was imported) but the Marina was a new design, manufactured in Australia – so it had to have them.

    • The Dolomite was also built in Victoria, Australia alongside the 2500, with production ending in Port Melbourne a bit later after Canley – also in 1980 (according to production papers), and appearing with Toyota paint codes towards the end of its life.

      Motoring historians always forget that the main thrust behind creating AMI (Australian Motoring Industries) and it’s collaboration with Toyota was the head brass at Standard-Triumph in Canley, a point BL management loved to spruik in internal papers during the 70’s (which might explain BL’s initial reticence to openly collaborate with Honda in the beginning of their relationship.)

  10. You missed one! HCB-Angus, Fire Engine builders of Totton nr. Southampton used the Marina door handle on the inside of the cab doors on their Iconic Crew Safety Vehicle Water Tender. Ogle Design were responsible for the cab interiors and chose this handle for its flush fitting.

  11. Sorry to be nit-picking, but neither SD2, nor Lynx, nor TM1 had Marina door handles; from pictures they seem more SD1-like.

  12. The comments on the design inspiration are interesting. I had always thought it was inspired by an internal design, both meanings of the word.

    When the landcrab was launched in 1964 it came equipped with vertically hinged flap style internal door release of a similar size. To me the Marina external handles are a natural evolution of that design theme.

    The 1800 internal door release became BMC standard fitment over the following years. My guess is the MGB which finished in 1980 was the last car to use that internal door release. But you may know better.

    I have to say I am not a fan of the Marina handle. To me it stands put to much. I prefer the horizontal hinge flap incorporated into a body line such as on the Princess. That integrates even better when body colour as on the Alfa 164.

    The feel of external door handles can leave quite an impression. Soon after the launch of the Rover 75 I was picked up at Slough railway station by a salesman from SMC. I was on my way to pick up a used 800 I had bought from them. As soon as I put my hand around the handle on the outside of the door there was a feeling of quality. It was a chrome plated solid lump of metal, cold and hard to the touch.

    I later bought an MG ZT partly influenced by that brief experience of the 75. When the ZT was later replaced with a Jaguar 2004 XJR (X350), I was very disappointed by the plastic handles.

  13. I liked the internal door handle / lock on the series 1 Marinas as well, amazing the way memories flood back, I havent been in a series 1 Marina since 1981!

  14. It’s just a shame that they were so poor quality and that the alloy oxidised so quickly. After a couple of years they were sloppy due to wear in the hinge. My father owned a 4 door Marina for several years and so I’m acquainted with them initmately.

  15. I was a HGV Technician, working on Refuse vehicles. The early Dennis elite cabs used Jaguar inner door handles combined with Ford Cargo mk1 exterior latch / handles, They were a reliable combination and stood up well to very hard use, They still use a similar copy design of both in the new Elite 6.

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