Driven To Write

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 Throughout the 1970’s BL wrestled with an outdated, incoherent, poorly built and often unreliable range of cars, terrible labour relations and an owner, the British Government, that was fast running out of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.