Not As Awful As We Like To Believe Part 4: Morris Marina
Updated: Feb 1, 2021
Morris Marina. Few automotive word pairings evoke such strong reactions as the alliterative association of a once-proud car maker and a venue for boat-based frolicking. Few people, whatever their interest in cars, will hear those two words and fail to react.
In this spluttering occasional series we aim to rehabilitate the cars that we love to hate. If the reaction to the previous articles is anything to go by - we've considered the TR7, Allegro and Skoda Estelle so far - then stopping the vast container ship of hate towards these cars is going to be a tough job. Turning it around even harder.
But we persevere. This time out we're looking at motoring's poster child of hate, the Morris Marina. A car that, we shall see, was designed to be extremely ordinary yet has become very special in one unfortunate respect: the level to which the world simply hates it.
But First, Some History
In the early 1970s Ford was running rings around British Leyland. A radical rethink of its model range had resulted in the Cortina blasting up the sales charts. Ford's masterstroke was to clothe humdrum, simple mechanicals in stylish metalwork and then create a hierarchy of trim levels to appeal to as many buyers as possible.
BL's approach was almost the opposite. Its mainstream models like the 1100 were advanced, relatively complicated cars. The closest the firm got to a simple Ford-style approach was the Morris Minor, a car that could trace its design back to the dawn of time.
The firm realised it had a problem. Its solution was to create distinct Austin and Morris ranges - the former aimed at private, cosmopolitan buyers across Britain and Europe, the latter conventional fleet buyers who wanted simple and reliable cars. To deliver the Morris plan BL poached a swathe of Ford executives and set to work creating a Ford beater. The first fruits of this strategy would be new car that was simple and robust underneath, just like the Cortina, but stylish on top (also like the Cortina). There would be lots of different body styles and trim variations to attract the burgeoning fleet market.
All of this made a lot of sense. BL had lots of factories to keep busy and its existing model range of 1100s and 1800s were old and too complicated and anachronistic to compete with mainstream Fords.
The resulting Marina seemed to get quite a lot of things right. It looked quite good - a lot like a Cortina in fact - and there were saloon, coupe and estate versions. Just like the Cortina. There were humdrum models and sporty models too.
The Marina was developed extremely quickly and launched in 1971. The shape was penned by ex-Ford man Roy Hayes, who designed the Mk2 Cortina. Development time was cut by using quite a lot of time-served engineering borrowed from the Morris Minor; there were also compromises that saw the car get taller to accommodate antiquated engines and ancillaries. It remained in production for 10 years during which 807,000 were sold in Britain. Over its 20 year production run Ford sold 2.8 million Cortinas. Today only a few hundred Marinas remain on British roads, which apparently makes it the most scrapped car in our motoring history.
The Marina was made over in 1981 to create the Ital, which eked out a further 4 years production from the creaky old design. Sales were surprisingly healthy, perhaps fuelled by BL's false suggestion that the car had been redesigned in Italy (it wasn't.).
How The Marina Got Its Reputation
It's tempting to dismiss the Marina's reputation as coming from a long tradition of being down on BL products. But in 1971, when the car was launched, none of that negativity was in place. Instead Britain's car buyers were well disposed to the firm - they bought lots of 1100s, they liked the Mini and the recently launched Jaguar XJ6 was knocking it out of the park.
Instead it's the Marina that kicked off the rot. And that's because in many ways it really was not very good. In deliberately designing a car that was simple and sturdy underneath and only a bit exciting on top, BL had gone a bit too far down the dowdy route. Where the Cortina Mk3 retained some of the glitz and glamour of America, the Marina just looked, well, a bit ordinary.
Then there was that simple engineering. Quite a lot of the Marina's front suspension was based on the set up from the Minor, which - as we've established - could trace its lineage back to Moses returning from his trip up the mountain. While the light Moggy Minor handled quite well, for an ancient car, the similar set up in the heavier Marina meant the first cars really didn't handle very well at all. Rigorous development should have ironed out this flaw, but the Marina was rushed to market. It wasn't rigorously developed. This problem was immediately obvious to the world's journalists who attended the car's launch, alarmed themselves silly and promptly branded it unsafe. BL quickly rectified the issue but the reputation stuck.
Employing lots of Ford people and then slavishly following Henry's market strategy also turned out to be a big mistake. Losing its team forced Ford to rethink and the new Mk3 Cortina of 1970 was bigger and glitzier than the car it replaced. The move upmarket enabled Ford to launch the Escort, which was similar in size to the old Cortina. This simple change completely wrong-footed BL - it meant that the new Marina was a similar size to the Escort, rather than the Cortina, yet priced against the bigger car.
BL also fumbled the Marina's details. The firm's vision to ape Ford might have been right but it had much shallower pockets. So while the Cortina offered engines from 1.3 to 3 litres; at its launch there were only 1.3 and 1.8 versions of the Marina. The latter - which used the MGB engine - was meant to be the car's 'performance' version, yet mustered barely 100 bhp. There was meant to be a proper coupe version of the Marina, to take on the Capri: instead the world got the Marina Coupe, which was nothing more than a 2 door version of the standard car.
Inside the Marina the sense of a rushed design continued. Here was a car specifically designed to appeal to Britain's burgeoning army of salesmen, ploughing their wares up and down the country's brand new motorways; yet the radio controls were deliberately angled away from the driver, apparently for safety reasons.
All of these problems could, of course, have been fixed. And some were (although most weren't). The real nail in the Marina's coffin was its catastrophic unreliability. Creating a simple car using tried and tested mechanicals was meant to make it perfect for high mileage fleet motoring. But woeful production quality and endless strikes put paid to that. It's worth remembering that the Marina's rivals also suffered quality problems at the time - Ford and Rootes had bad reputations at the time. But in the minds of buyers a good Cortina was a good car, whereas a Marina was always a bad car.
Flaws in the Marina's design and problems with production only opened the door ever-wider to BL's competitors. Entry to the Common Market plus relaxed rules on Japanese imports further hobbled the car. Now it was up against worldwide competition. And that just shone a shinier light on its problems.
Should We Reconsider?
For the first time in this series, I find myself conflicted. The Allegro, TR7 and Estelle were fundamentally decent cars kyboshed by the poor reputation of their manufacturers or woeful production techniques. The Marina, on the other hand, can with some justification be described as a bad car.
The problem lies in its very ordinariness. Unlike the Allegro it was designed to be normal. Functional. Simple. Everyday. It was meant to take on Ford and the Japanese, producers of high volume motoring white goods. So there are few hooks on which to hang its redemption.
It was also, as we've seen, quite bad in quite a lot of ways.
However, I like an underdog. And I think, on balance, that we should all give the Marina more of a chance. It was ordinary. It was dull and it wasn't as good as the cars it was meant to outclass. But it wasn't quite as cynical as the Cortina, which was a very simple, workaday car that hid its ordinariness beneath svelte metalwork. While the Ford ushered in an era of trim-based one-up-man ship that saw suburban man judge his fellow man on the size of his RoStyles, the Marina was just the Marina, a car for the everyman. It was a workhorse, a family wagon, a cheap, spacious no-nonsense set of wheels for Mondeo man's dad.
Once BL had ironed out the wayward handling and, towards the end of the 70s, mastered the art of car building - or at least, the art of not not making cars - the Marina wasn't all that bad. Its makeover as the Ital, and the healthy sales that car enjoyed, suggests that fundamentally it wasn't terrible.
The Marina was the Betamax to the Cortina's VHS, the also ran that became a laughing stock. It wasn't a great car or even, perhaps, a very good one. But it wasn't a terrible car. It outsold the Cortina at least some of the time, you could get Marina vans - something the Cortina didn't have - and nearly 1 million found homes. I think it's time we celebrated BL's attempt to rapidly design and develop a car that proved more successful and more popular than its reputation leads us to believe.
Graham Eason, Great Driving Days. 01527 893733