Carshow Classic: 1973 Morris Marina Coupe 1.8TC – Is This The Best We Can Do?

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The Morris Marina was the first new car from the newly merged British Leyland (BLMC) and illustrates clearly why the volume car business of the preceding BMC had failed, and why government ownership, or indeed any other type of ownership, is no panacea to an organisation’s ills when not backed up by a financial commitment comparable to industry standards.

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The Marina was the first car conceived by BLMC after the takeover of BMC in 1968. Launched in 1971, three years after the takeover, you might be tempted to infer that the BMC development cupboard was essentially empty and in thinking so, you’d be correct. BMC was broke and overstretched as an organization. Its last product gasp was the Austin Maxi, which BLMC had to facelift twice before it was considered acceptable for production.

BMC, and then BLMC, were weakest in the centre of the market, where the strongest competition came from Ford, whose Escort, Cortina and Capri were showing how it should be done. To be fair to BMC, this had been recognized, and the company had ambitions (plans is too strong a word) to rectify the situation. A key element of this ambition was to hire Ford UK’s chief product planner, Roy Haynes, to lead new product definition. BMC had realized that, for all his strengths as a conceptual engineer, Sir Alec Issigonis was no product planner.

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The obvious plan was to offer a new product in this sector of the market, to compete with the Escort and Cortina, and also the Vauxhall Viva and the Hillman Hunter. It would have to come to market quickly, as BLMC’s current offerings were the unloved Austin Maxi, the by-then too small (and criminally underdeveloped) Austin-Morris 1100/1300, the last versions of the Morris Minor/Morris Oxford, and the Farina saloon. Above these cars was the Austin-Morris 1800 (or Landcrab) and below them, the Mini. A range full of gaps and inconsistent execution, to say the least.

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BL’s response to this analysis was project ADO28, better known as the Morris Marina, aimed nominally at the Cortina Mk2, and initially conceived to match the Fiat 124–indeed, in many dimensions it matches the Cortina and Fiat closely, but that implies a huge caveat, which we’ll address shortly.

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The resulting Marina was a rear-drive saloon, with a two-door option and a sturdy, practical five-door estate. Interestingly, some directors of former BMC divisions wrote to BLMC Chairman Donald Stokes, pointing out that the Marina would be taking on the Americans (Ford and GM) and asking if that a wise move for the Corporation, especially with the rear-driver being conceptually different to established BMC practice.  Conceptually, it was very similar to the cars it was planned to compete with, but was riddled with compromises, either for schedule or cost reasons.

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The car was hampered by the available engines–the Escort went from 1.1 to 1.3 litres and the Cortina went from 1.2 to 1.6 litres. BLMC could in theory have offered the 1.1 and 1.3 litre A series from the BMC 1100/1300, Minor and Mini; and the B series, in either 1.5 or 1.6 litre sizes.  But then the idea came of offering the 1.8 litre B series, both for commonality with the Landcrab and MGB, and for a competitive advantage over the Cortina while matching the Hillman Hunter. Sounds good, but it created a wide gap for the Cortina to exploit at the Marina’s expense.

Consideration was given to using the 1.5 litre E series from the Maxi, but this was discounted for a variety of reasons, including the disappointing performance of the engine itself, and the need to engineer the engine (and the necessary five speed gearbox) for longitudinal installation. So engines were taken, unchanged, from the MG Midget and ADO16 1300; from the Landcrab 1.8; and the more powerful 1.8TC (Twin Carburettor), from the MG B. Slowly but surely, the car moved from an Escort competitor with extra performance to a Cortina competitor.

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Then there was the suspension. The Marina front suspension was a torsion bar system derived from the 1948 Minor, which had been designed by Issigonis. Where there were no common components (contrary to legend), it soon became apparent that what was suitable for that light, low powered car could not handle the larger and more powerful Marina, with its heavy B series engine. The rear axle used semi-elliptic leaf springs, just like a pre-war Morris; making the Marina the last European car to use this simple form of suspension. This was not a car that ever did corners well.

The gearbox came from the Triumph Vitesse (the larger engine version of the Triumph Herald), chosen partly because the Minor gearbox did not have synchromesh on first gear (something Issigonis considered unnecessary), but the refurbishment and extension of the Longbridge gearbox facility to manufacture the Triumph gearbox in sufficient volume cost a lot more than an adaptation of the Minor gearbox.

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BLMC had not lost all the old BMC habits–predicted sales volumes were 5500 per week at one point and the Marina actually got off to a pretty good start in the market before fading away. Standards had steadily risen, and the Vauxhall Viva HC was larger than its predecessor and sharply styled; Rootes, now fully owned by Chrysler, brought out the Hillman Avenger (or Plymouth Cricket), probably the closest in concept to the to the Marina; and Ford offered the new Mk3 Cortina.  All three had by now moved to coil rear suspensions, with the associated benefits to ride and handling.

Still, the Marina did its job and was at first Britain’s second best seller in 1973.  It got BLMC a presence in a segment where they had not been properly active for too long; this market was then one of the largest parts of the whole UK market, and where money could be expected to be made. It is only fair to record that in 1973, BLMC built over 200,000 Marinas and almost 800,000 by 1978.

The Cortina Mk 3 was not a particarly good car, but it was a very well marketed. It was larger than its Mk 2 predecessor and therefore, larger than the Marina, with the added option of a 2-litre engine. Ford seemingly better understood the aspirations of the person buying (or more likely, being given by his employer) a Cortina.  It was more stylish, more smartly trimmed, with more combinations of trim levels and engines, and was slightly better to drive. So, the car Haynes had planned to compete with the Cortina was, by the time it launched in spring 1971, spot on to compete with the previous Cortina. Did Haynes (and BLMC) not see this coming?

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Perhaps the worst aspects of the car can be attributed to the suspension.  Remarkably, both major British weekly motoring magazines, Autocar and Motor (later absorbed into Autocar and discontinued) declared the car to have inadequate handling, with truly dangerous amounts of understeer. Both magazines took their concerns direct to BLMC’s engineering director Harry Webster ahead of publication, and revisions, in the form of anti-roll bars were made very soon after. Some accounts suggest BLMC already had these modifications planned but had not completed them in time for the initial production.

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The result of this collection of available components was a car with inadequate suspension front and rear; an old engine which was by then comparatively unrefined and not that economical; had an awkward to use twenty year old gearbox; and had an interior that was cheap (and looked it: that is not British burr walnut but plastic wood). It was almost the case that, rather than being the first car of the 1970s, it was the last car of the 1950s, with a 1970s re-style.

morris marina advert

The Marina was competing with a car, the Cortina Mk3, which was equipped with everything the Marina needed, and which matched the needs of the market so much better. It was a slightly larger than the Escort, but smaller than the Cortina Mark 3, with inconsistent engine sizes. It also faced off against the 1973 Austin Allegro.  While the Marina was nominally larger and upmarket, and the cars shared the 1.3 litre engine, the contrast in technical make-up could not have been stronger. BLMC had originally intended the Marina to be the first of a range of conservatively engineered, highly-styled Morris cars to complement the technically advanced Austin range (characterized by front-drive and Hydragas suspensions).  But when the money ran out in 1974, nothing was available to flesh out the Morris range.

Like the BMC 11100/1300 before it, the Marina had an interesting international career. It was sold in the USA and Canada as the Austin Marina and assembled in South Africa and Australia, where it was fitted with the E-series engine in both 1750cc fourcylinder and 2600 cc six-cylinder forms, where the understeer must have been truly frightening.

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The featured car is a 1973 1.8TC Coupe–pretty much at the top of the Marina tree, and powered by the 1.8 litre twin-carburettor B series engine, direct from the MGB, with virtually the same exhaust note. The green saloon in the second and third pictures from the top is a 1972 1.3 deluxe, a much more basic expression of the Marina range.

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One key point to note about the Marina was that it demonstrated a habit that BMC had had and which would stay with BLMC/Austin-Rover/MG-Rover to the very end–having products that were half way between the size steps being sold by the opposition. The Marina was bigger than the Escort but smaller than the new Cortina; the Princess was bigger than the Cortina but smaller than a Granada; the 1983 Austin Maestro was bigger than the Escort and Astra but smaller than the Sierra and Cavalier, the 1996 Rover 400 was smaller than a Mondeo but larger than an Escort or Astra.

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Such situations either mean that the product is smaller than the competitor’s similarly-priced offering (hampering sales), or that larger models sold for the same money as smaller rivals (cutting into profits). The Marina fell into this trapwas the 1.8 Marina intended to compete with the 1.6 Cortina, and be a bit quicker, or with the 2 litre Cortina, but be a bit more compact?

austin marina

The Marina has to have another note added to it – if ever there was a car that was intended to make people look to another marque for their next purchase, purely through the lack of class standard achievement in basic tasks (such as ride and handling, refinement and basic ease of use and durability), it was probably the Marina. It genesis within a low budget, rushed design process showed. The 1970s were the decade of the Marina, and the decade of the growth of Japanese imports, predominantly of straight forward cars that were easy to drive, undemanding to own and Swiss-watch reliable. The Marina was none of those; but was instead the best advertisement for a Datsun Bluebird or Toyota Corona.

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There was a new interior in 1978, which angled the radio and heater controls towards the passenger for some reason, and the Marina was left to battle on right through the 1970s, but it was obvious it could not have a sustainable future as cars like the Cortina Mk4, Vauxhall Cavalier, Renault 18, Chrysler Alpine, VW Passat and the Japanese products started to emerge from the mid 1970s on.

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In 1978, the Marina got BL’s new O series engine in 1.7 litre form to replace the B series, but little else until Harris Mann, father of the Allegro, Princess and TR7, completed a neat facelift in 1980, which revised the front with some fashionable big headlamps and shaped a new rear, incorporating a higher boot-line and large wrap tail lights, though the 1978 interior was retained. BL marketed this facelifted car as the Morris Ital, named after the Italian design house, Ital Design. This one is an Ital 1700HLS–as good as it got in 1971.

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Despite many hints, rumours and suggestions (not least from BL itself) that Ital Design was responsible for the revised styling of the new car, it was somewhat less involved in the process – simply handling its production engineering. It is worth pausing to consider why BLMC asked Ital Design to handle production engineering – were BL’s engineering teams really that fully committed on the Austin Metro and Maestro, or did BL just not have enough of an engineering capability to handle what was really a modest task?

This facelift (and it was no more than a facelift) went no further than these few, albeit distinctive, cosmetic changes. Apart from the first roll-out of the new A-Plus 1.3 litre engine, which was really planned for the 1980 Austin Metro, there were no major engineering changes. This revised engine may have given the Ital 12,000-mile service intervals (unusual at the time, but a large oil filter and the likelihood of some leakage would enable that), but the facelift certainly did not lift the car’s chassis from a level of sub-mediocrity–the car’s humble origins were blatantly obvious. (Tastefully, the Financial Times described it as ‘combing the hair of the corpse‘.)

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By the time of the Ital’s launch in June 1980, there were few secrets about the existence and timing of the forthcoming Austin Maestro and Montego and the Ital was viewed as something of an embarrassment for the company; something to remain clinging to life until the new wave of cars hit the market in 1983 and 1984. The Ital was in reality no more than part of a life support system for the volume car business of BL, from 1980 to 1983. It was aimed fair and square at the fleet market, which was still conservatively cautious about front wheel drive.

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The feature car is a 1981 Ital 1300, cared for by the son of the original owner. It is a great example of the car and there’s absolutely nothing wrong about looking after your dad’s old car, but however much care is put into it now, the Ital was never a good car and shouldn’t be seen as one retrospectively; regardless of how much you want to drop a piano on Jeremy Clarkson.

Austin-Morris, amazingly, but then they had to, soldiered on with the car until 1983, when it was finally replaced, with the Allegro, Maxi and Princess by the Austin Maestro and Montego family. Unlike its predecessor, the Morris Minor, there were no memorial services for the Marina, and with it, the Morris brand. Ironically, the last of Itals were assembled at Longbridge, after Cowley was dedicated to Maestro and Montego production in 1983, so the last Morris was produced by “the Austin.”

Morris Ital

Carlos Ghosn, now head of Renault-Nissan, has been quoted as saying “There is no issue in the motor industry that cannot be resolved by investment in product.”  The Marina proves that, and sadly it was a lesson not learned or understood by most of by BLMC/Rover’s subsequent owners, including the UK Government, and excluding BMW. And that is why, although the motor industry in Britain is strong and growing, it is the motor industry in Britain and not the British motor industry.

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Related reading:

Curbside Classic: 1965 MG1100 (ADO16) – BMC’s Greatest Hit

Carshow Classic: 1975 Austin Allegro – Another Great Unfulfilled Hope From BLMC

Turkey Day Classic: 1968-1972 Austin America – Yankee Doodle Disaster

Curbside Capsule: 1977 Austin Maxi – Big On The Inside But Not The Outside