Austin had once been the best selling import brand in the US for a number of years in the immediate post-war era, until it was taken down by VW in the mid fifties. Of course the Austin-Healeys kept the name alive for enthusiasts for a number of years yet, but the ill-fated Austin America probably should have been the end of the road for the brand on anything but sports cars.
The Morris Marina, rebadged as an Austin in the US, was of course a BLMC Deadly Sin. And in the US, it was the final coffin nail for the Austin brand; sales were abysmal, and it quickly developed a toxic reputation. R&T’s review pointed out a number of shortcomings, but was not as negative as might be assumed, and was even able to find some good things to say about.
The progressive BMC FWD cars championed by Issigonis (Mini, ADO16, Maxi, Landcrab) had been a mixed bag; the ADO16 was a top seller and the Mini carved out a niche, but BMC was getting creamed in the UK fleet segment. Not rental cars and such, but “company cars”, which were a very common perk in the UK due to the tax advantages. Fleet buyers rather shunned these cars, and gobbled up the much more conventional Ford Cortina, Vauxhalls and Hillmans.
Sir Donald Stokes, in his valiant efforts to make BL a viable concern, decided that the solution was to cobble up a very conventional sedan to compete with those. Since the venerable Morris Minor had only gone out of production in 1971, utilizing some of its underpinnings as well as rummaging around the combined BL parts bins for other components, the Morris Marina was duly created in short order.
Its front suspension was straight from the Minor, the rear suspension from the triumph Toledo, which also donated its gearbox, and the engines were the long-running A and B series pushrod fours. For the US only the 1798 cc B series, as also used in the popular MGB but with a single carb was offered. “Something old, something new, something borrowed” was the refrain R&T used.
Roger Carr did a thorough CC of the Marina here, with a UK-oriented POV. He titled it “Is This The Best We Can Do? His take was decidedly more generous than mine would have been, so I retitled it as a BLMC Deadly Sin.
The Marina picked a terrible time to come to the US with “something old, something borrowed” and attempt to compete with a lot of fresh new blood from Japan as well as the US, in the form of the Vega and Pinto. I can’t dig up sales numbers, but it’s easy to just say it got creamed in the US, and from day one. These were very sparse on the streets when new, even in LA.
Why? The painful truth is that except for the sports cars, British popular-priced sedans and coupes had sold poorly here since the end of the import boom in 1960. The MG 1100 /1300 was an outsider, The Triumph 2000 was exceedingly rare, the Austin America had been a total flop. Americans had moved on, except for the roadsters, and that would end soon enough too.
Even R&T wondered: “when we first heard that BL would sell the Marina here, we wondered if there would be any market for it”. There wasn’t, for the reasons stated above.
The engine emitted familiar MGB sounds, but it didn’t run like one anymore. It had fairly good low-speed torque, thanks to its long stroke, but it quickly ran out of breath. A Pinto 2000 could run circles around it.The clutch chattered. There was a “buzz” in 2nd gear. The rear axle had severe tramp on a fast take-off. And don’t even consider buying the Borg-Warner 35 automatic version…
Understeer was strong, but at least the traditional British rack and pinion steering was decent. “It doesn’t handle well in the final analysis, but it’s predictable and “safe”.
The ride is ok on smooth pavement, but deteriorated quickly, and rougher roads also brought out rattles, squeaks and drumming. The antique Minor underpinnings also required a full chassis lube every 3000 miles. Sure; American buyers were going to be happy to do that.
The rest of the review covers the interior, which was adequate, and the speculation that reliability should be “average” based on experience with the MGB. That was a bit optimistic.
The Marina and the Plymouth Cricket (Hillman Avenger) marked the final coffin nail for British sedans in the lower price class, a segment they had once dominated in the US (There’s a reason none of us have found either one curbside in the US). Even the Vega had the Marina beat in almost every objective category, and at least there was a Chevy dealer to deal with its issues. Good luck finding a sympathetic or competent Austin dealer to keep your Marina on the road.