Definitely Not The Italian Job

To many observers, the Morris Ital marks the absolute nadir of the BL era. Today we celebrate the Ital’s fortieth birthday and reappraise this much maligned car.

(c) carandclassic

The story behind the Morris Ital is one of pure desperation on the part of its makers. Throughout the 1970’s BL wrestled with an outdated, incoherent, poorly built and often unreliable range of cars, terrible labour relations and an owner, the British Government, that was fast running out of patience with having to subsidise its ongoing losses.

The great, and very possibly last, hope for the company was a new range of cars in development. The first of these would be the Metro, a supermini to be launched in 1980, followed by a C-segment hatchback, the Maestro, in 1982 and a C/D segment saloon, the Montego, in 1984.

The problem was that sales of the BL cars currently occupying the latter segments, the Allegro and Marina, were already fading badly in the late 1970’s. The Allegro, launched in 1973, had been quantifiably inferior to its predecessor and had never come anywhere close to meeting sales projections. The Marina, launched in 1971, was never intended to be anything more than a stop-gap model. Its engineering was resolutely conventional and it was explicitly designed to appeal to conservative private and fleet buyers who shied away from the complexities of FWD.

1971 Morris Marina press shot. (c) favcars

The Marina was designed under Roy Haynes, the individual responsible for the Mk2 Ford Cortina, a fleet buyers’ favourite against which the Marina was pitched. The Cortina was carefully costed and its engineering was perfectly adequate, but in no way exceptional. Likewise, the Marina, although time and cost constraints forced the adoption of some ancient carry-over parts, such as the front suspension with its infamous lever-arm shock-absorbers from the 1948 Morris Minor.

The Marina went from conception to production in just eighteen months and was initially quite well received by the market. Road testers noted, however, that the larger (and heavier) engined 1.8 litre model suffered from dreadful understeer, although this was exacerbated by an incorrect suspension set-up on pre-production cars.

The Marina proved to be a popular car and, during nine years on sale, over 800,000 found buyers in the UK. By the latter part of the decade, however, the competition had moved on: Ford launched its Mk4 Cortina in 1977, still a simply engineered car, but larger, more modern looking and with a great deal more showroom appeal than the dated looking Marina. Vauxhall had launched the Cavalier Mk1 in 1975, finally giving the company a proper mid-sized competitor.

With virtually all its limited development funds being spent on the Metro, for which the budget was £275m including the refitting of Longbridge plant to build it, BL urgently needed another stop-gap car and decided on a heavy facelift of the Marina, the budget for which was only £5-10m.

The facelift would be designed in-house under Harris Mann, head of the Longbridge Drawing Office. Mann decided that it was the rear end of the Marina that was most dated looking and in need of attention. He designed a higher and flatter rear deck, with large and contemporary (if rather generic) rear light clusters to update its appearance.

Another more subtle change was that the C-pillars were pulled out so that they now flowed smoothly into the rear quarter panel, losing the horizontal crease that, on the Marina, continued the lower DLO line to the rear corner of the car. That change was effective but, unfortunately, because the Marina’s rear screen was retained, there was now a slightly awkward return between the C-pillar and the screen. Given the extent of the metalwork changes, a new and wider rear screen would have completed the job properly for little extra expenditure.

(c) curbsideclassic

Cost constraints meant that the Marina’s rear doors, with their distinctive uptick beneath the rear quarter window, had to be retained. Attempts were made to disguise this with either brightwork or black paint, to little effect in either case. At the front, Mann designed a new sloping grille with the indicators placed outboard of rectangular headlamps. This required no metalwork changes but needed rather protuberant black plastic ‘lips’ above and below the grille to fill the gaps.

One inexplicable change, was the replacement of the Marina’s ubiquitous and perfectly serviceable exterior door handles with cheap plastic horizontal items designed to fill the same rectangular holes. At the same time, the odd Marina dashboard, with its angled centre console facing the front passenger, was carried over unchanged!

Ital cabin. (c) carfromuk

The explanation for the Ital name being applied to the facelifted car is that Mann’s drawings were sent to the Italian carrozzeria for productionising, but Italdesign made a hash of it, allegedly being unable to cope with Mann’s decimalised-inch measurements. Eventually, the work was completed by third and final-year engineering apprentices at the Pressed Steel Fisher works at Cowley.

Ital was meant to be merely a suffix to the Marina name on the facelifted car, but Michael Edwardes, then Executive Chairman of BL, decided to drop the Marina name entirely and run with Ital. Quite what Giorgetto Giugiaro thought of Edwardes’ chutzpah is anyone’s guess, but the Ital is a notable absentee from Italdesign’s official back-catalogue of work.

(c) carandcalassic

The Ital was launched on 1st July 1980 in four-door saloon and five-door estate forms, the latter mating the unchanged Marina estate body to the new nose. The former coupé version of the Marina was dropped at this point. The Ital was quite well received and sold steadily for four years, notching up a credible 175,276 sales before being discontinued in 1984 with the launch of the Montego.

Surprisingly, in its last year of production, the Ital was finally given the mechanical upgrade it should have had at launch: the lever-arm front shock absorbers were replaced with telescopic units, which significantly improved the car’s handling and addressed its major dynamic deficiency.

As is so often the case with BL, there is a tantalising “what if” aspect to the story. In this case it involves a proposed earlier update to the Marina, which carried the internal project code ADO77. This was a four-door car using the profile of the two-door Marina Coupé on an extended wheelbase, which would have produced a rather pleasant six-light fastback saloon, and even offered the possibility of a five-door hatchback version. ADO77 was developed as far as a mocked-up steel bodyshell before being abandoned in 1975, mainly because of a lack of funds to develop it further:

ADO 77 mock-up. (c) AROnline

Just for fun, I have produced an image of how ADO77 might have looked if it had been brought to market in the late 1970’s with more contemporary front and rear end styling. My Photoshop image is based on the Marina coupé and retains the standard 96in (2,438mm) wheelbase. This could have been either a fastback saloon and/or five-door hatchback:

ADO77 Proposal. Image: the author.

Here is an updated estate, which has lost the Marina’s upward kink in the lower DLO line to give it a more modern look:

Modified Estate proposal. Image: the author

Would these have made a more convincing Ital (or Marina 3) than the production model? We will never know. In any event, the demise of the Ital marked the end of the Morris marque on passenger cars after 71 years. However, the Ital went on to enjoy an afterlife in China as the Huandu CAC6430.

Was the Marina/Ital as bad as often thought and does it deserve a place on those ‘Worst Cars of All Time’ lists? Absolutely not, in my view. It simply lived on for too long, and the new Ital name created expectations that the old stager simply could not fulfil.

Author: Daniel O'Callaghan

Shut-line obsessive...Hates rudeness, loves biscuits.

25 thoughts on “Definitely Not The Italian Job”

  1. Dad had a new Ital diesel for a few years. Unremarkable, but reliable as I remember. Except for a stripped differential crown near the end.

    Curiously, i was also present at the original Marina launch in Portugal with my parents. Quite a ritzy affair, held in the galleries of the Hotel Ritz in Lisboa.

    1. Good morning PJ. Those overseas junkets for the UK motoring press were quite a thing for BMC back in the 1970’s, before the realities of BMC’s parlous financial position began to hit home. The prosaic Marina must have stood is stark contrast to the lavish surroundings at launch. I can’t Imagine that there were many Itals sold in Portugal, so your dad’s must have been an unusual sight? (I’m assuming you grew up there, of course.)

  2. Good morning Daniel. Oh, the Marina of blessèd amnesia…… I’m sorry you never experienced driving the Issigonis creations; deeply flawed ergonomics aside, they set new standards in ride and roadholding which eclipse their market competitors. Which made the Marina such an incomprehensibly retrograde step. I had an early coupé hire-car for a day, soon after the launch, and it was truly horrible. Understeer to rival a perpendicular Popular (if that means anything to you!). It only sold to the poor patriotic souls who still held on to their loyalty to the old BMC, doggedly avoiding the American-owned products of Luton & Dagenham.

    It was certainly not the worst car of all time, but it was definitely not the answer to BL’s woes at the time, merely yet another nail in the coffin.

    1. Good morning JTC. Regrettably, I am old enough to remember the ‘perpendicular’ Popular 103E. It died the year after I was born, but my uncle had one when I was a small child.

      You’re certainly right about the poor old Marina but, in its defence, it was only ever intended to be a stop-gap, yet remained in production for almost a decade before being updated into the Ital. Had BL spent the money they totally wasted on the Ambassador on a more comprehensive update along the lines I suggested above, including the transformative new front suspension, it would certainly have given the Mk4 Cortina and Mk1 Cavalier a more serious challenger.

      Incidentally, as part of this BMC/BL series, we’ve got a piece coming up on the woeful Ambassador. Stay tuned!

  3. Ah – the Marina ! I quite like your 4 door Coupe illustration Daniel – this would have been relatively easy to do because the 2 door Coupe inexplicably used the short doors from the saloon !No need to move the ‘B’ pillar !
    In January ’75 my boss had been hinting at replacing my beloved Landcrab, and I started thinking about how good a Hillman Avenger might be – and then a Marina showed-up…
    I had never driven such a powerful (1300 cc !) car with only drum brakes, and the brakes were poor even at low speeds.
    That black plastic screw in the top of the S.U. carb was forever coming loose – I’d never had that problem before. Because the engine was inclined nose-up to lower the driveshaft, oil would leak back onto the clutch – I had it changed once under guarantee. That ancient front suspension had adjustable top ball-joints – I had to remove shims at 30k to compensate for wear. Before the Marina I had never heard of leaf springs breaking – would the clutch-judder have contributed ? When one of the teeth broke on the crown wheel ( it only whined on the over-run) we found that the Main Dealer could obtain a new crown wheel and pinion, but wouldn’t be smart enough to set them up.
    So my boss bought himself a new Princess and gave me his facelift Landcrab.

    1. Hi Mervyn. Your Marina experience takes me right back to the 1970’s and reminds me how relatively unreliable so many cars were back then. We often had to tinker with them to get them to start more easily or run more smoothly. That’s certainly not something I miss, the dirty fingernails and skinned knuckles!

      I had a similar company car experience to yours in 1985. I had been promoted and the new position came with a car, one of only three within the company. My Scottish boss, the CEO, was an Anglophile and traded in the Opel Senator he inherited from his predecessor for an SD1 Rover 2600. My predecessor had a Datsun Bluebird and I tried my luck at getting an Audi 80 to replace it. No such luck: I ended up with an Austin Montego! In fairness, apart from the self-destructing plastic bumpers and terrible ‘orangepeel’ black paintwork, it was fine.

  4. My Dad had a Marina in the 1970s. He said it was the worst car he ever owned. All I remember about it is it he seemed to spend every weekend having to perform some sort of maintenance on it. As a result of these experiences he went Japanese at the end of the decade, having a couple of Mazda 323s, which were faultless.

  5. Never heard of an extended wheelbase on the ADO77? Are you really sure about that? The two door Marina coupe retained the front doors of the four door sedan, it wouldn’t have been much of a bigger job to modify the coupe body to accept the rear doors as well. Extending the wheelbase in that situation seems like a bridge too far?

    1. Hi Ingvar. If you look at the black and white photo above, you can see where the extra length has been inserted between the trailing edge of the front wheel arch and the front door shut-line. Perhaps BMC were thinking of fitting a six-cylinder engine? In any event, I agree that it would have been a step to far. My mock-ups retain the standard Marina wheelbase.

  6. There are claims from those who were involvement with the company at the time that ADO77 along with a 100-inch wheelbase, was to feature more sophisticated suspension compared to the existing Marina and Ital, more akin to the earlier Hydrolastic MG EA234 prototype or at least carry over rear Hydrolastic displacers though understand ADO77 itself was to form the basis of replacements for both the MG Midget and MGB.

    Also read of talk the ADO77 engine bay was packed to use an at the time project V6 dubbed K-Series, of which currently very little is known about though chronologically was obviously unrelated to the later KV6 nor was a V6 version of the Rover V8 ever seriously considered for ADO77, due to being seen as out of date and difficult to make compliant with anticipated US emissions regulations.

    Strangely for both ADO77 and the later TM1 project, it appears both were to use the 1.3 A-Series and 1.7-2.0 O-Series engines like on the Morris Marina though it was also anticipated the Morris version of TM1 would feature a 1.8 B-Series diesel engine.

    Following Leyland Australia example in using the underutilized 1.5-1.75 E-Series engines in the Leyland Marina for either ADO77 or TM1 to plug the huge gap in the ranges between the 1.3 A-Series and 1.7 O-Series apparently never entered into the minds of management at the company, let alone using either the 1.5 E-Series or 1.5 Triumph I4 at minimum after the original plan for offering the O-Series in 1.6 and 2.0 forms was scuppered due to the reputed cost advantages of carrying over the old B-Series engine’s crankshaft as well as the 2.0 O-Series unit’s head casting on the smaller unit.

    Second the idea the Marina should have featured telescopic front dampers and parabolic rear springs plus anti-roll bars from the outset. The same goes with the Marina carrying over the Leyland Marina 1.5-1.75 E-Series with the range topping engine being a 2-litre (either a 2 B-Series, B-OHC, O-Series or even a properly developed E-Series in 4-cylinder if not less likely 6-cylinder forms).

    Curiously there appears to be one Morris Marina 3-door hatchback conversion that was built at some point.

    Marina Hatchback

    1. It is, Ayjay, mated to the lower part of a Metro tailgate. Unfortunately, the car’s MOT expired over four years ago, so I guess it succumbed to the corrosion that is evident in the photos.

  7. Hi Bob. Thanks for the interesting additional information on ADO77 and for confirming the 4″ wheelbase stretch. It seems like BMC had really ambitious plans for modernising the Marina, so the Ital was rather a letdown after that.

    That particular Marina hatchback looks to be the work of a private enthusiast, given the Metro tail lights and wonky shut-line to the left of the tailgate. Even when BMC was at its worst, one would hope that it wouldn’t have passed inspection, even on a prototype! That apart, it does give an idea as to how a five-door car based on the coupé body might have looked. I like it!

    1. Seems they did yet unfortunately the money ran out and BL were forced to continue selling the stop-gap Marina.

      There was a rather nice photoshop one some Retrorides thread a while back of a 2-door non-fastback Morris Ital Coupe with a 3-box classic Mopar Muscle Car look that has unfortunately disappeared.

  8. This advert was apparently shot at Italdesign; they presumably thought it wasn’t worth making a fuss over and upsetting a client.

    1. Bob – I think you’re talking about this – which is one of mine! Was a lot of fun to make. They really could have done some cool things if they hadn’t been lost at see with terrible management, hacked off staff, ambivalent govt etc etc

      [siteadmin – if image link doesn’t embed the picture – please fix so image displays in page!)

    2. Hi Huw. That’s actually rather nice, certainly better than the production Marina ‘coupé’. The DLO is a bit like the Manta A.

      Your picture embedded perfectly, but I’ve deleted the duplicate comment. For some reason, both ended up in the moderation queue. Perhaps you used a different e-mail address to your previous comments?

    3. Huw Gqilliam – Do recall that image, yet IIRC also the following two photos at those angle being used as a starting point for photoshoping an 2-door Ital coupe.

    4. Finally found the 2-door Morris Ital Coupe photoshop in question featuring a “Mopar Musclecar” look, together with a direct Marina Coupe-derived Ital Coupe photoshop.

  9. I don’t know much about Morris history so that was a good way to learn about this particular model. One thing that strikes me is that Morris was bad with names: I’am not feeling the Marina and Ital nameplates, they both sound horrible, especially when coupled with the brand name.

    It’s mad that the dashboard’s center console is angled towards the passenger. Years later, BMW was wise enough to ignore these fallacies and turned it towards the driver, as it should be if you’re really bent on angling your centre console in my opinion.

    1. It’s been a long time since I looked at my copy of The Leyland Papers, and it’s currently out of my hands, but I seem to recall that according to Turner, management was insistent on an alliterative name. AROnline picks up the tale: 

      “Harry Webster’s initial ideas on naming the ADO28 was to give it a model number, (such as Morris 200, for instance) but most people in the company favoured a name instead. John Barber wanted Morris Monaco, the studio men wanted Morris Machete and other suggestions for ADO28 included the Morris Mamba, Maori, Matelo and Musketeer.

      “The final shortlist of Major, Mirage, Mistral and Marina emerged and Morris Marina was chosen as the car’s moniker even though it was what the Morris version of the ADO16 was called in Denmark.”

      One can surmise that Machete, at least, was probably not a brilliant name given the concerns over safety that were starting to emerge even back then.

  10. Machete’s not a nice name for a car, but no worse than the Sunbeam Stiletto and Rapier.

    Elsewhere in AROnline, Australia was going to go its own way:

    “According to Phil West, the E-Series Marina was going to be renamed: ‘The local versions were to be called Cavalier and Cavana, the Leyland Australia paper parts catalogue actually had those names on the page headers in various sections of the catalogue as well as reference to the Marina name. As the Cavalier name was longer than Marina, the additional badge mounting hole was filled by a full stop rather than have the hole filled in at the factory when the Marina badge was fitted.’”

    ‘Cavalier’ worked fine for Vauxhall, except in France where the word was used for a popular brand of prophylactic.

    1. So that must be why Cavalier was Ascona on the continent?

    2. Good morning ckracer76. The Cavalier (and Carlton, Viceroy and Royale) names were never intended to be used outside the UK. Vauxhall was still trying to preserve the myth that its new models were not simply ‘badge-engineered’ Opels, hence the different names and front end styling for the Cavalier (Opel Ascona) and Carlton (Opel Rekord) and different names only for the Vicreroy (Opel Commodore) and Royale (Opel Senator and Monza).

      ‘Ascona’ was Opel’s name for its mid-sized car and it saw no need to change and lose the equity built up in that model name.

      This nonsense only lasted one generation in the case of the Viceroy and Royale and two in the case of the Cavalier and Carlton. The subsequent generation models shared the names Vectra, Omega and Senator. (The Viceroy/Commodore was not replaced.)

      Vauxhall used the Nova name for the first generation FWD supermini, called Corsa in Opel guise, then adopted the Opel model name for the next generation. Opel persisted with the Kadett name for two generations of its FWD C-segment model, called Astra by Vauxhall, then adopted the Astra name.

      Phew! I need a lie-down…

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