The Morris Marina is a car that people love to hate, but if you ask us, that’s a little unfair. It was a car that had big ambitions and had the management of British Leyland at the time played ball, the Marina could have been something truly spectacular. It was meant to be a flag-bearer for the then merging Leyland Motors and British Motor Holdings, the latter being the parent company of Austin and Morris. This was going to be the car that built the new company’s image, or at least it would have been had it not be subject to a plethora of cost-cutting measures and budget cuts.
The Marina was initially penned by the talented hands of Roy Haynes, the same man who had enjoyed much success and praise thanks to his design of the MkII Ford Cortina. With Roy at the helm, the future looked bright for the Marina. Initial designs showed it as being a handsome, purposeful car. But alas, that’s not the car that we were eventually presented with.
British Leyland wanted the car to take the reins from the then dated Morris Minor and with it, give families something new and exciting. However, BL wasn’t entirely confident in where to place the Marina within the market. As such, the design was reworked to straddle the size of both the Ford Escort and the Ford Cortina. This immediately gave the Marina something of an identity crisis, as nobody really knew what it was being pitched against.
Things didn’t stop there. Early plans were for a saloon and a coupe. The latter would be a sporty, elegant car that would go up against the likes of the Capri and the Firenza. Then management got involved and ruined it. To save money, they insisted that the coupe share the same front doors as the saloon. This did indeed save money on tooling, but it also left the coupe looking ‘unresolved’. The doors were too short and as such, the the lines didn’t flow well. It came across as an afterthought, and with it, buyers were keen to turn it down in favour of the Capri and the Firenza we mentioned earlier.
Then there was the chassis. The wise thing to do would have been to fit MacPhearson front suspension. But that would have cost too much, so in the end the Marina was lumbered with suspension that wasn’t to dissimilar to that of the Minor – a car designed in 1948. As such, the Marina was woeful. With the larger 1.8 engine, it was prone to horrific understeer and it was also completely void of any feel or engagement for the driver. There was the suggestion of adding an anti-roll bar, but it was discovered that this made the car understeer more. In fact, early cars were almost instantly recalled to have the front suspension reworked in a desperate bid to make them safer. The recall did the job, but only barely. The Marina was still a bit of a damp squib to drive.
In the end, the Marina ended up costing more to develop and build than the Allegro, which was, would you believe it, a more advanced car. And with that, you’d think that the Marina was destined to fail, but strangely, it wasn’t the case.
BL reworked the ageing Cowley plant in Oxford and set the Marina production running in 1971. By 1972 it had produced 100,000 Marinas. By 1973, 250,000 had been built. And here’s the thing that serves to diminish the Marina’s reputation – we were buying it. It was a huge success for British Leyland and it regularly found itself high on the list of the UK’s most bought cars. At one point it was the UK’s second most popular car, only being beaten by the Ford Cortina.
Of course, things soon went south for the Marina. Strike action, cost-cutting and general lack of care from the workforce meant that once out in the wild, the Marina was a woefully unreliable beast. It broke down lots, it was prone to overheating and it had a thirst for oil that would stagger most. Then there was the corrosion, the poor crash safety and again, that dull and distant handling. In the long run, it just couldn’t compete. It was popular with average earning households, but soon the other brands, Ford and Vauxhall etc, caught wind of what was needed and offered their cars at more appealing prices.
The Marina eventually became the Ital, but nothing revolutionary had changed. It was the same poorly-built, under-engineered car underneath and as buyers, we were wise to it. The Ital do not sell at all well despite dramatic television adverts singing about the Ital’s Italian links, hence the name.
For years the Marina was mocked. It was seen as a laughing stock and as such, a car that shouldn’t be taken seriously. As other manufacturers became more advanced, we moved away from the offerings of the ageing Morris brand, leaving any affection for the Marina with it. And that, really, is a shame. The core people behind the Marina were passionate, they were motivated and they poured their collective hearts and souls into producing a car that would wow the motoring world. Had the terrible management of British Leyland not got in the way, they may well have succeeded.
The Marina failed because it was mistreated by the very people who wanted it to be built, which is often the case with BL metal of that era. Has they loosened the reigns and the purse strings, it could have been a very different story indeed.
Now though, be it through misty-eyed reminiscence or perhaps morbid curiosity, the Marina is finding a following. It’s a car that is easy to work on, its mechanicals are still easily serviceable thanks to the gratuitous parts-bin sharing of the ‘70s, and in a sea of modern plastic, it’s now also something of charismatic-looking car.
We’ll never see a Marina go up for sale in the hundreds of thousands, but we will see the ones that remain fall into caring hands. As Brits, we love an underdog, and there is possibly none greater than the humble Morris Marina. As you can see from the stats we’ve gathered here, there are always plenty for sale, and prices have been on the climb significantly since 2008. The Marina might not have been best seller, losing out to the Cortina, but it is most definitely a cult classic today.