Too close to call?
Two doyens of the British family car market slug it out in the first of a new series of road tests…
First published in Classic Car Weekly in August 2005, KEITH ADAMS pitted the Hillman Avenger against its arch rival from Cowley, the Morris Marina. It was a close call…
FIGHT or flight – isn’t that what they say you’re supposed to do in times of crisis? In the car industry, you don’t get much chance to run away from your, fighting is the only option… During the Sixties, both The British Motor Corporation (BMC) and The Rootes Group found themselves in deep, deep trouble.
Rootes had been suffering struggling since launching Imp in 1963. Profits had rapidly turned into losses as investment in the new factory in Linwood, Scotland had mounted up. The new car was sucking money out of the group – warranty costs and poor sales saw to that. Finding itself Rootes a weakened position, the American car giant, Chrysler, decided to buy-in, wishing to expand its European presence.
With an extra infusion of cash, Rootes went all conventional. A two-pronged attack to strike at the heart of Ford’s all conquering UK operation was conceived: the Arrow range to replace the Super Minx and the smaller B-Car (Avenger) to supercede the Minx.
The Avenger was launched in February 1970, and impressed all who saw it. Effectively, it was a Rootes designed, Chrysler funded car. Very little existing Rootes hardware went into it and resultantly, Rootes-Chrysler had high hopes for its chances.
If the struggles of Rootes Group were obvious for all to see, the same couldn’t be said for BMC. Thanks to the success of the Mini and the 1100 range, it offered two of Britain’s best-selling cars – and was proving to be the darling of young car buyers looking for something fun to drive. However, these cars were never sold for a profit – and that meant BMC didn’t cash in.
Where it did matter – up in the mid-range – BMC had not been wholly successful. The Farina bodied Oxford-Cambridge was fading, and its intended replacement the 1800 range had spectacularly missed its sales targets. BMC profits plummeted, and as a result the ambitious Leyland Motor Corporation took it over in January 1968 (to form BLMC), with a little help from the government.
The new management regime quickly realised a new car was needed to fight the Escort/Cortina – and a simple car was needed. The ADO28, or Marina as it became subsequently known, took all the best bits of the BLMC parts bin (MG engines, Triumph gearboxes and some Minor running gear), and clothed it in a tidy new body. It was a rushed programme – and development took a mere three years. It wasn’t supposed to last long on the market place.
In the end, BL tried to win the hearts of Britain’s sales reps with a tried and trusted package, whereas Rootes-Chrysler thought something all new would float his boat. Targeting the same buyers, both cars ended up looking very similar, and performed their roles as Ford rivals with great aplomb.
CONSIDERING these cars were built for sales reps, they are both remarkably characterful – well, maybe not. With conventional mechanical layouts, deliberately trans-Atlantic styling and low-power engine options, you’re going to struggle to find any real talking points.
Neither well set the pulse racing with tarmac shredding performance nor possess an engine note to die for, but what the Avenger and Marina have in equal doses are tough, no-nonsense demeanors. They are simple to service and are suffused with a slightly naff style reserved for cars designed with Xerox salesmen in mind. Cortina buyers, then…
Neither is at the head of the charisma league – and if you looked through the bottom of a beer glass at them, you’d be hard pressed to tell them apart. Roy Axe designed the Avenger in Coventry and Roy Haynes styled the Marina in Oxford – and yet, one has to wonder at how they both arrived at the same conclusion: Pure, scaled down Detroit…
We’ve put the Avenger slightly ahead of the Marina for a couple of very good reasons. It was possible to buy a more luridly coloured interior for the Hillman, and most importantly, those rear lamp clusters present a smiley face to anyone following. Okay, that’s a pretty thin reason for giving the Avenger the nod over the Marina, but then, we’re talking about cars designed to drive up and down motorways – with photocopiers in the boot…
PERFORMANCE is an interesting heading for a pair of cars that would be working pretty hard to maintain the legal limit on an uphill stretch of motorway.
Take a look at the performance figures of the Marina and the Avenger, and you’d be mistaken for thinking that these cars are so slow they would find difficulty getting out of their own way. However, the bald figures do not convey that reality of the situation – both cars are perfectly lively to drive, and although stepping out of a modern saloon into either would come as a bit of a culture shock, you’re not going to feel short changed in most situations.
The Marina is actually fairly impressive for a relatively large-bodied 1.3-litre saloon. As always, the A-Series engine manages to punch above its weight, thanks to generous torque and a fairly unstressed nature. Sprinting might not be impressive, but a 0-60 time of 17.9 seconds can be counterbalanced with reasonably lively in-gear acceleration. The best way to make progress in the Marina is to get into fourth gear as soon as possible and leave it there. It’ll not be fast, but you’ll not hold up too many people, either.
The Avenger may only have a 2bhp advantage over the Marina, but it’s enough to provide the Linwood-built car with an on-road advantage. A 0-60 time of 16.5 is impressive compared with the Marina. The engine note is smoother, and that means the driver isn’t forced to keep the revs low – not that this would be a chore given the Avenger’s nicely tractable nature.
Back in the Seventies, speed was everything in the outside lane of the M1 on the way to a pressing engagement with the regional sales director – so it’s advantage Coventry.
FOR much of the Seventies, lambasting the Marina’s suspension was the fashionable thing to do. Motoring journalists relied on two stories to get them by: accounts of James’ Hunt’s public indiscretions, and the monumental understeer generated by any Marina lacking a front anti-roll bar. Some were so scathing, you’d be left under the impression that BL should have issued health warnings with every Marina sold to an unsuspecting member of the public.
Now’s let’s put that story to bed. You won’t crash a Marina at the first sign of a corner you come to, but – and here’s a shocking statement – drive it sensibly, and it’s a tidy and reasonably well-handling car. The rear suspension has primitive leaf-springs, allowing the car to hop sideways if one encounters a mid-corner bump, and a new driver may find this disconcerting. At the front, there are no such vices – there is a feeling of under-damping, which doesn’t inspire confidence, but tales of terminal understeer are well wide of the mark.
However, it pays to take care in the wet. That lively rear axle can play tricks in corners – and it is possible to be surprised by snap oversteer if you’re not careful. You have been warned.
The Avenger’s handling is much less of a talking point. In fact, after the Marina, it feels very sophisticated. Roll angles are kept more tightly in check, and where the Marina would surprise, the Avenger merely delights. It has a firm and stable feel when cornering that marks it out as a well sorted family car – and not only do its abilities transcend those of the Marina, but also most of its other rivals.
The basic excellence of the Avenger shone through when applied to the higher powered and considerably more interesting Tiger model. In 1.3-litre form, its suspension was more than capable of handling whatever the driver would throw at it. Shame about the heavy steering, though…
NEITHER car is renowned for offering particularly cosseting rides – but to think of either as uncomfortable would be to sell both of them short.
However, both are a long way from being perfect. The Avenger may have a nicely damped, firm ride, and is reasonably subdued in the suspension noise department, but you’re always aware of bumps in the road when you start to press on. Stick to nicely maintained smooth roads, and the Avenger comes across as a very civilised car indeed.
Those traits make it a very good motorway car, and one that inspires confidence on long journeys; just don’t expect too much finesse when driving through town.
The Marina may be bested by the Avenger in the ride stakes, but get yourself behind the wheel of one and don’t demand too much from it, and you’ll not be too disappointed. Despite the myths about the Marina, it’s ride is not a bad news story – driving it, you get the sense its bodyshell is solid enough not to make it creak and groan over the potholes that litter our roads today. Bump-thump absorption is also quite good, even though most of that comes from a slightly unbalanced set-up, which sees soft front suspension married to a slightly firmer set-up at the rear.
Around town, the Marina’s ride is a match for the Avenger’s, but up the ante and take it on a flowing A-road or motorway, and it starts to feel all at sea. The ride comfort goes all choppy on you, and there’s less stability that you’d expect there to be.
So, although it may have been designed to plough a furrow on the motorway, that’s exactly the environment, the Marina seems to be at its worst…
NEITHER car has anything to shout about here. It’s not that either has a poor gearchange – because they don’t. It’s just that compared with the sublime gearchange of the Ford Escort or Cortina or anything vaguely Japanese, they were lacking.
Of course, we don’t have an Escort or Cortina here – we’re in splendid isolation. And with that in mind, one can’t help but be impressed with the Avenger’s gearbox. The first impressions are of a car with perfectly judged gear ratios – one never feels as though the gearing it too high or low in general driving. Gear stick movement might be a little on the long side for our liking, but engagement is always positive, and it is complemented by a nicely firm and progressive clutch pedal.
Of course, you can’t help yourself from trying to snatch fifth gear when getting up to motorway speeds, but that was par for the course when the Avenger was vying for outside lane supremacy.
The Marina’s gearchange is also a conventional four-speeder. Taken from the Triumph Toledo, the gearbox certainly performed a capable job, but never did you find yourself changing gear for the sheer sake of it.
Change action is slightly notchier than the Avenger, but travel is shorter. Also like the Avenger, it tends to whine a bit on the overrun – but time has softened this weakness. Back in the Seventies, it might have annoyed road testers and owners, but today it simply adds amusement to an endearing car…
RATHER like the rest of this shoot-out, there is little to choose from between the two cars when it comes down to stamping on the middle pedal.
The Avenger’s brake pedal possesses a nice firm feel to it, and it is easy to graduate stopping enough to make the process a very smooth affair. In terms of the performance the 1.5-litre version offers, it is fair to say the brakes are adequate enough for the job. But it would not be wise to use the term, ‘stop on a six-pence’…
It is much the same story for the Marina. The pedal action is slightly more positive than the Avenger’s, but not really enough to make a distinction.
In both cases, the best way forward is to describe their braking is that they are more than up to the job in hand, and never a concern. Unless, of course, it’s wet and you’re going too fast – something no self-respecting middle-ranking salesman of the Seventies would ever find himself doing…
Cabin and Controls
ONE can see that both Rootes-Chrysler and BLMC made great efforts to create stylish and desirable interiors for their new family cars.
The Avenger impresses right away. Not because it is an ergonomic masterpiece or a feat of interior packaging, but because it’s extremely eye-catching. As soon as you jump in the Avenger, a rather over-styled American looking steering wheel dominates the stylish and minimalist looking dashboard. That wheel is a little on the large side, and not to everyone’s liking, but you can’t knock the Avenger for not trying its hardest.
Another lovely feature if you like that kind of thing is the strip speedometer. Glancing at this wonderful piece of design, one couldn’t help but think about the wonderful chase scene from the classic film, ‘Duel’. But then again, did the average British driver really want a prime slice of Motown for that taxing high-speed dash to the next Hemel Hempstead conference? Perhaps he did… the speedometer was always nice and easy to see from the passenger seat.
The driving environment is a little on the cramped side, though, and this situation is exacerbated by a driver’s seat lacking in rearwards travel. This pushes the driver too close to the pedal and the steering wheel.
The Avenger’s designers may have decided to save money on glass by equipping it with non-opening front quarter lights, but that didn’t stop them making the most of the situation. You’ll find ample bottle holders in both front door pockets – something that would not have been possible with single piece front glass.
After the Avenger, the Marina looks slightly ordinary. It’s not stark or even boring to look at, but there’s simply not as much design flair. Like the Avenger, the Marina’s dashboard is a slab sided piece of plastic, but instead of a strip speedo, you’re presented with two large round dials. There’s no real attempt at style here, but at the same time, it cannot be criticised for being cluttered. Compared to the Maxi and 1100, it seems like a luxury car…
Ergonomics aren’t too bad at all. All the major controls fall nicely to hand – wipers and indicators handled by two column stalks, with the light switch and choke on the dashboard panel to the right of the steering wheel. It’s a no-nonsense approach that mirrors the rest of the Marina design.
Interior room is a close run thing – although its wheelbase is two inches shorter than the Avenger’s, the Marina seems the roomier car. Driving position and visibility are also good – and unlike the Avenger, the Marina’s driver’s seat offers plenty of adjustment for the taller driver.
EVEN Stevens again. Considering the Marina and Avenger where designed by completely different companies, it’s amazing to see how close they are in so many categories.
Both boots are capacious, meanly trimmed (no panels separating the inside rear wing for either) and feature a high loading sill. In terms of absolute load space, according to manufacturer’s figures, the Avenger nips it, but to the naked eye, you’d be very hard pushed to tell the difference.
Both will happily swallow whatever the hard-working sales rep would throw at it. Besides, if huge load space is required, both offer the option of a stylish estate.
A CIGARETTE paper separates the cars again – at the fuel pumps, anyway.
The Marina is frugal, easily beating 35mpg on a gentle run. It’s a testament to the efficiency of the A-Series engine that it can power a relatively large bodied saloon like the Marina, and yet deliver acceptable performance and excellent fuel consumption.
In terms of servicing, the Marina holds a considerable advantage. We’ll cut to the chase: it has the same A-Series engine as the Mini 1275 and MG Midget. With brethren like that, there’s no way that the Avenger would ever be able to compete on terms of spares and parts availability. Put simply, there’s a huge international cottage industry which has been set-up simply to support that engine – even in Outer Mongolia you’ll be able to find a garage which can fix your Marina…
The same cannot be said for the Avenger – it doesn’t quite match the Marina at the fuel pumps, and it certainly cannot boast the spares availability. Having said that, consumables are still readily available – and although Rootes-Chrysler only used the engine in one other application (the Sunbeam hatchback), spares don’t seem to be drying up. You’ll find no difficulty in keeping your Avenger in tip-top service – just that compared with the Marina, it is going to be a slightly more expensive experience.
As for other problems in service – both cars are synonymous with lax build quality and poor rust proofing, so plan for unexpected expenditure…
IT’S decision time – and if you didn’t skip straight to the verdict, you’ll have seen there is very, very little to separate the Marina and Avenger. Both are competent cars – neither is particularly charismatic.
In terms of style, performance, dynamics, accommodation and running costs, it’s almost too close to call. And in a way, that does allow the Marina to prove itself as a rather clever little car. Mechanically, it might be completely predictable – the complete antithesis of the generation of clever BMC cars that preceded the Marina – but it does demonstrate that with considered use of its parts bin, BLMC put together a car that could fight toe-to-toe with Rootes-Chrysler’s clean-sheet high budget effort.
On the road, the Avenger just edges it, thanks to a less ‘loose’ feel on the road, and a more resolved suspension set-up. But it isn’t a convincing victory for Coventry, by any means – and sales figures showed more people were prepared to put up with the Marina’s faults than they were to embrace the brave new world of the Hillman Avenger.
Being a self-confessed BL aficionado, it would be very easy to make the Marina my default choice. That wouldn’t be fair on the Avenger, though – another car I have a great deal of time for. But the more time spent driving the two, the harder it is to come to a rational decision. But choose I must…
In objective terms, the Avenger wins.
Keys on the table, I’ll drive home in the Morris…
At a glance
|Scores out of ten|
|Cabin and controls|
|How they compare|
|Actual car tested||1975 Morris Marina 1300 De Luxe||1975 Hillman Avenger 1300 GL|
|Fuel tank||11.5 gallons||9 gallons|
|Engine||1275cc 4-cyl OHV||1295cc 4-cyl OHV|
|Power||57bhp at 5250rpm||59bhp at 5000rpm|
|Torque||69lb/ft at 3000rpm||68lb/ft at 4400rpm|
|Gearbox||4-speed manual||4-speed manual|
|Steering||Rack and pinion||Rack and pinion|
|Dimensions||13ft8in x 5ft4in||13ft6in x 5ft3in|
|Unleaded fuel?||No, needs head conversion or additive||No, needs head conversion or additive|