Tuesday July 4, 2017
In the 1980s the Morris Ital was an essential aspect of everyday life. British Telecom Vans would attend to vandalised telephone boxes and no car park would have been complete without at least one Snapdragon Yellow 1.3 HL or an Applejack Green Estate. On a Friday night, a Rattan Beige 1.7L minicab might take you home from the local trattoria and an Ital was once the star prize on Bullseye. They even appeared as police cars in the early editions of Taggart.
Around forty years ago, British Leyland was planning a facelift for the third-generation Marina and their budget was £5 million, a limited sum even at that time. Ital Design Studios were distantly involved in the process but the car that was ‘Styled in Italy; Built in Britain’ was not created by Giorgetto Giugiaro, a fact that came as a surprise to absolutely no one. The Longbridge’s design team created a fresh grille, head and tail lamps. The transmission was upgraded, the seats were more comfortable and the engine choices were the 1.3 Litre A-Plus engine unit, the 1.7-litre O-series and, from autumn 1980, a 2 Litre Automatic. As a break from the past, the Marina name was dropped on the orders of BL’s chief executive Sir Michael Edwards
The Ital was launched in July 1980 with an especially memorable advertising campaign. This was far from the only super-naff TV advert screened at that time (1980 was the era of ‘Do the Shake & Vac’) but the gulf between the dramatic voice-over plus that red Maserati Merak in one shot and the honest but mundane BL offering made it a comic masterpiece. That said, I cannot personally recall thinking that a new Morris Ital looked especially dated - its lines may have harked back to the early 1970s but then in many parts of the UK ‘the 1980s’ did not commence until 1987.
One challenge for BL dealers was that compared with its closest rival, Ford’s 1979 Mk. V update of the Cortina was better accomplished than the slightly awkward-looking Morris. The Ital’s new front did not enhance Roy Haynes’ original Marina styling and the development money could have been better spent on a new fascia, preferably one without a radio and clock angled away from the driver’s eyes. However, the Ital was inexpensive and while the entry level L was devoid of reclining front seats, grab handles, cloth upholstery and a handbrake warning lamp the top of the range models were very nicely kitted out. Autocar thought that the Morris had the potential to be ‘a reliable car representing excellent value’ and although a Honda Accord 4 door cost slightly less than an Ital 1300HLS, a corporate organisation was more likely to support BL. The very early 1980s was an era when fleet managers still tended to ‘buy British’ and the Morris Ital also offered a large boot and a very familiar mechanical layout.
On TV, Patrick Mower was advising ITV viewers to ‘Move Over to Austin Rover’ but by late 1981 the arrival of the FWD Cavalier Series II had a major impact on Morris sales. A 1982 Ital facelift introduced the SLX flagship with a ‘tasteful and inviting interior’ but this was not quite enough to compete with the Ford Sierra. The Ital saloon ceased production in February 1984, and the estate and the van six months later. It marked the end for not just medium-sized RWD cars from the BL stable but for the use of the Morris badge on a car.
If the Morris Ital did have a heyday it was in that strange period at the beginning of the decade just prior to Channel Four, The Young Ones on BBC2 and when a Betamax video recorder was regarded as downright exotic. It is bizarre to consider that the Ital’s debut took place only a few months before the introduction of the Austin Mini Metro and if the latter was the first of new generation of front-wheel drive cars, the last Morris car remains an intriguing part of British history. And the star of one of the best adverts in TV history.