Friday June 22, 2018
The Morris Marina never set out to be one of the more controversial cars from the British Leyland (BL) empire – indeed its specification and appearance both went out of their way to be as straightforward as possible. When the Austin A60 Cambridge “Farina” was replaced by the Maxi in 1969, it was only a matter of time before the announcement of the successor to its Morris Oxford Series VI twin. And so, in April 1971 BL presented a family car that had ‘Beauty with Brains Behind It’
In the early 1970s the company’s short-lived policy was now to reserve the Austin badge for FWD cars and the Morris identity for “traditional” RWD models. The Marina replaced both the Oxford and the Minor and boasted rather attractive low-key styling. Unusually, there was no two-door saloon (unlike the Ford Cortina Mk. III) but a fastback coupe, although anyone specifying the 1.3 De Luxe had fairly low-expectations of performance. The flagship was the ‘hot and highly tuned’ 1.8 TC – “Twin Carburettor” – although when Car tested an opposite Capri 1600XL they concluded that sporting transport ‘was only a subsidiary role for the Marina. Its main purpose is to be a straightforward conventional saloon that is cheap to make, cheap to buy and cheap to service’.
That was the formula to gladden the heart of many a fleet manager and if the Marina was never quite as popular as its Dagenham rival, at least it looked slightly more up to the minute than the Hillman Hunter. An estate was added to the range in 1972 and by the following year the Marina was the second best-selling car in the UK by 1973. Furthermore, BL envisaged the Morris as a stop-gap model, one that would compete with both domestic competitors in the business sector and with rivals from Japan for the attention of private motorists. Keith Adams, in his fascinating and indispensable blog aronline.co.uk, quotes a dealer as stating:
“No one will look at the Marina and turn a somersault in sheer excitement but, as a value for money package, it is exactly what we in the trade have been asking Lord Stokes to provide. If we cannot sell this, we might as well pack it all in.”
Sadly, the Marina’s intended replacement was cancelled due to the various financial and industrial crises in British Leyland at that time. Instead, the range was facelifted in 1975 as the Series 2, the flagships now resplendent with a vinyl roof, front auxiliary lamps and new identities. The four-door HL was ‘a modern and more sensible way to enjoy the very best in motoring!’ while BL made the somewhat rash promise that when you were behind the wheel of ‘the exciting new Marina two-door GT’ you would find that ‘motoring has become fun again!’ Lower down the price scale was the Special with a fascia decorated with ‘simulated wood inserts’ and featuring ‘an electric clock’ and the Super which provided ‘comfortable, yet frugal motoring’ with its seats trimmed in the finest of ‘knit-back expanded vinyl’. As for the entry level De Luxe, who could resist the extravagance of ‘a large padded rear parcel shelf’?
Meanwhile, BL’s dealers were faced with the challenge of selling a car that now looked decidedly out of date in comparison with a new generation of rivals, including the Vauxhall Cavalier. The Series 3 of 1978 had the option of 1.7 litre OHC power and a What Car test of 1979 summarised its virtues and vices. The HL saloon was ‘a much better car than its looks and antecedents would suggest’, with a larger boot and better seats than the Ford Cortina 1.6 GL. Yet the Morris suffered from a ‘crude ride and a harsh engine’ and the rep-mobile from Dagenham was now in Mk. IV guise while the ultra-fashionable front spoiler only served to highlight the Marina’s ageing appearance.
The Marina was replaced by the Ital in June 1980, and 38 years later, it is still remembered – and now treated with more respect than a decade ago. It is a fascinating legacy of the 1970s, and thousands of us can remember a time when the delivery vans could be found on every high street, when the passenger had to tune the optional MW/LW radio as it was angled from the driver’s eyes. And when brilliant advertisements such as this could be seen during the commercial break in the middle of Crossroads.