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Morris Marina (1971 - 1980)

Last updated 7 March 2013

 
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Model Timeline

February 1968
Newly-formed British Leyland decided to build a Cortina rival

The newly formed British Leyland Motor Corporation (BLMC) decided to plug a yawning chasm in its Austin-Morris range in order to counter dwindling production volumes. The answer was obvious: the ADO16 may have been Britain’s best selling-car, a darling of private motorists, but fleet buyers avoided it in large numbers, favouring the simplicity, perceived reliability and wide range of the Ford Cortina. BLMC needed a Cortina, or at the very least an Escort – and it needed one fast.

The Marketing department, led by Filmer Paradise agreed the plan wholeheartedly, and quickly, the BLMC Board rubber stamped the project. Harry Webster was charged with the task of rejuvenating the Austin-Morris range and was given overall control of the programme, named ADO28. His initial plan was for a comprehensive re-body of the Morris Minor, because the new car needed to be tough and reliable – if BLMC couldn’t build a dependable car based on the Minor platform, what hope did it have?

Harry Webster decided to use Morris Minor componentry clothed in a new body. Carefully developed, it was thought this package should have been easily developed into an effective Ford Escort rival. There would need to be a 10-inch stretch of wheelbase, but with an anticipated engine range of 1100cc, 1300cc and 1500cc, a company car-friendly package could take shape. Webster felt confident enough at this early stage to approach the BL board with the notion that ADO28 could be priced a £20 premium over the Escort.

April 1968
Design work began on Project ADO28

Webster told BL’s product planners the Fiat 124 was the package to aim for with ADO28. Paradise looked into the demands of the fleet market and came up with an all-embracing specification – one which promised to tax Webster’s team. Donald Stokes already had it set in his own mind the ADO28 should be launched at the 1970 Earls Court Motor show. This tight deadline led Webster to take many short cuts during ADO28′s development.

By May 1968, ADO28 was firming up, and the product planners backed up Webster’s original concept to face up to stiff competition in the 1100cc-1500cc rear-wheel-drive class. Unlike the technically-advanced ADO16, marketing decided compactness was not a key selling point in this market, and just like Ford, BLMC followed the philosophy of more metal for the money in creating the ADO28.

If at this stage, marketing of the ADO28 appeared a straightforward affair, engineering was even more so. That is not to say that Harry Webster did not have his work cut-out with the new car. The ADO28 project was compromised by its tight production deadline, and that meant it would rely almost entirely on the BL parts-bin.

July 1968
Styling work began on ADO28

Marina Coupe alternative front styling. Note the MG wheel centre caps (Picture: John Shepherd)

Marina Coupe alternative front styling. Note the MG wheel centre caps (Picture: John Shepherd)

Haynes worked on two versions of the ADO28, and within weeks, had completed his first models - available in coupe and saloon versions. The Haynes models were presented to the British Leyland executive policy committee on 5 August 1968 alongside competition from the Italian design houses Pininfarina and Michelotti. Haynes’ dual proposals were given the nod by the BL big-wigs, subject to modifications. This was is an exceptional compliment to Haynes considering the strength of the opposition.

April 1971
The Morris Marina was launched to the press

When the Morris Marina was shown to the press, it was almost immediately obvious, that this was a simple car - and one that could be described as a parts bin special. There was not a great deal for the press to get excited about, but it was a new car, and the first product launched by BLMC.

The range of engines was unremarkable; the A-Series version was lifted straight from the 1275cc version of the MG Midget with only minor alterations to the sump and manifold. The 1798cc B-Series version installed in the Marina was similarly adapted from the MGB. The suspension was equally unremarkable but, unlike the ADO17 and the Maxi which had been mildly criticised by the press, the styling was judged as a success. The wide range of trim permutations and three choices of power units (1.3-, 1.8-litre single carb, and twin-carb) allowed the range to cover the market well.

Marina's interior was conceived as a workman-like place to be - apt, considering the market it was aimed for. The 1300 Super version pictured here, was sparsely equipped, but class competitive, nonetheless.

Marina's interior was conceived as a workman-like place to be - apt, considering the market it was aimed for. The 1300 Super version pictured here, was sparsely equipped, but class competitive, nonetheless.

The driving experience offered by the Marina was as unremarkable as the specification implied; one could pretty much write a road test report of the car without having sat behind the wheel at all. Initial road test reports were fairly kind to the car, mindful of the car’s technical shortcomings ö and it is fair to say that the 1800TC version possessed a certain potential, offering similar performance than the MGB and a slightly higher top speed of 100mph.

April 1971
Marina went on sale

June 1973
The Marina Estate was launched

The practical and stylishly executed estate version followed the saloon and coupe model onto the marketplace in 1973. Alongside the Allegro and Mini Clubman, the Marina estate ensured that BLMC maintained a significant presence in this area of the market.

The practical and stylishly executed estate version followed the saloon and coupe model onto the marketplace in 1973. Alongside the Allegro and Mini Clubman, the Marina estate ensured that BLMC maintained a significant presence in this area of the market.

During 1973, the Marina managed to become Britain’s second best selling car after the Ford Cortina. Despite this, the disputes at Cowley continued to disrupt Marina production over issues involving work study engineers, drivers, plant attendants, paint sprayers, a hoist, tyre fitters and outside disputes at major suppliers such as Rubery Owen and Adwest also stopped car output. January to March 1974 saw the imposition of the three-day-week, but at least BLMC had the consolation that its rivals in the fleet car market were also afflicted.

May 1974
Work began on Marina replacement, ADO77

As BLMC plunged deeper and deeper into crisis in 1974, work was started on the planned ADO77 Marina replacement. Because sales of the Morris Marina had never lived up to the heady expectations of it made during its development, the decision was made that the new car should follow the Cortina upmarket into the 2-litre class. Once BLMC became bankrupt and Ryder took over, the car was put under close scrutiny by management.

Allegro and Marina most definitely were not earning their keep and were not making nearly enough money to fund the development of the ADO77 - and anyway, not only did the new car sit uncomfortably close in terms of size to the soon-to-appear Leyland ADO71 (18/22 Series, Leyland Princess), but practically mirrored the work that was going on over in Solihull on the SD2 Dolomite replacement.

September 1975
ADO77 scrapped

Needless to say, the ADO77 was dropped, which meant that the Marina was now on its own, for better or for worse. As it was, sales of the Marina continued to hold up well during the Seventies, generally holding third or fourth in the UK sales charts, but it did not disguise the fact that marketing-led development was no substitute for genuine product development and, as time went on, the Marina’s shortcomings were becoming increasingly evident.

May 1975
Marina Mk2 launched

The lightly-revised Series 2 version appeared, sporting a different range of trim designations and a revised dashboard. Motor magazine’s 1978 road test of the 1.8 HL concluded with this summary: ‘Overall a disappointing car whose impressive performance is completely overshadowed by excessive noise levels. The top-of-the-range Marina…..does not live up to Leyland’s ‘Executive express’ tag. Dated suspension gives crude handling characteristics and mediocre roadholding. Moderately comfortable but driving position poor. A dated car that is way behind its competitors.’

October 1978
Marina received O-Series power

Development on the Marina was in the pipeline, but it was very much on a shoestring. In time for the 1978 NEC motor show, Austin-Morris announced the long-awaited O-Series engine and the first recipient for this OHC-power unit was to be the Princess followed by the Morris Marina.

The O-Series engine was initially conceived as an OHC version of the venerable B-Series engine, but soon developed into an entirely new engine, sharing no parts with its long-lived predecessor. The oddly-sized 1698cc engine eventually appeared on the market as an engine that was desperately in need of further development, seriously lacking refinement.

That is not to say that it was not an improvement over the original, it was certainly more economical and produced enough power. Some cosmetic improvements were also incorporated into the design, with new bumpers and ablack plastic chin-spoiler, but the effect did not disguise the fact that the Marina was now ageing badly.

April 1980
Marina production ceased

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