The Seventies survivor
It may have become the butt of television jokes, but the Morris Marina may just have the last laugh, says BBC Radio Norfolk’s David Clayton
In the days you actually had a bank manager to go and see, my then business partner and I went to see ours for a bit of a how-are-you-getting-on type chat. He was a plump, red faced northerner – “call me Jim” – who looked at our books and having lit up another untipped Players ciggie told us, with a flourish, we should buy a car each and we could have a loan to do so. So before he changed his mind, we did. I settled on….. wait for it, a second hand (I think we prefer “pre-owned” now) purple Morris Marina.
I can’t recall whether it was the colour that attracted me but it was on a forecourt very close to where I worked and the proximity and convenience may have been the clincher. Anyway I had a proper grown up’s car thanks to “call me Jim.” Up until then I’d rattled around in a succession of vans mostly to transport disco gear around East Anglia so any proper car was going to make its mark with me.
These days the Morris Marina is a much maligned part of British car manufacturing history and thanks to Top Gear has become the butt of a long running gag. Clarkson, May and Hammond tend to drop pianos on them. I laugh like the rest of us at their jolly japes, but to be honest I’ve a tinge of affection for my old Ribena-coloured Marina. It was (compared to my vans) a smooth limousine with a nice turn of speed, for I had the 1.8 engine in mine – the same engine that was in an MGB minus a second carburettor.
I acquired my 1974 1.8 Marina Mk 2 around 1977 and I remember proudly showing it off to an acquaintance who had worked in the car trade, he took a long look at the side of the car and said, “Cop the Joseph on that!” Roughly translated my purple Marina had had a slightly hurried respray and thus a coat of many colours (or shades of purple) were evident to his trained eye. He went on to point out that it didn’t have a “Top Hat” that’s a vinyl roof to you and me, but it did have a “Trumpet and Stove.” A radio and heater in seventies car salesmen speak. I’d have liked a vinyl roof, as it happens. It added a bit of class in the seventies and you could get a Marina with a vinyl roof. Quite what the point of them was, I’m now not sure – roof insulation?
The Morris Marina was basically the replacement for the Morris Minor. As that stopped being made, the Marina appeared in early 1971 firstly in a saloon body, a stylish coupe and later a roomy estate car. The Marina was meant to be a stop gap for British Leyland until a new, more innovative model could be created. As such it was never meant to be ground breaking and it wasn’t.
The design was uninspiring and the engineering basic. Despite that in 1973 the Marina was vying for top place in the best-selling car stakes and suited the family motorist who just wanted a no nonsense car. If you think back to the seventies and into the eighties they were everywhere – common as muck as bank manager “call me Jim” might have put it. The weird thing is where are they all now? You’d expect such a common car to have survived in healthy numbers however the cynics would say they’ve all rusted away or fallen apart. There must be loads of Marina shells quietly buried under more recent rejects in many a scrap yard.
There are surreptitious Marina owners now and it just may be they’re going to have the last laugh. Ian Spooner from Dereham is one of them and he’s got four of them. Yes, four Marinas and he likes them – a lot. Technically it’s really three Marinas and an Ital which was British Leyland’s attempt to re-style and therefore relaunch the Marina in 1980. Ian was picking his Marinas up for a few hundred quid a few years back because no one wanted them. He says they’re easy to work on and he’s got a shed full of spares.
The Marina may have become the automobile equivalent of the much-maligned British Rail Sandwich because whenever people stop him to talk about the car they tend to proffer a …”You’re lucky that’s still going mate,” rather in the way a once deserved negativity has spawned a perpetual stereotype. Sandwiches on trains are rather good now and the Marina isn’t all bad if you peer back through rose tinted spectacles.
Ian has a 1971 Marina saloon in Bedouin (that’s what they called the colour) another 1972 model in Harvest Gold and a green coupe also from 1971. By the way, if we’re naming the seventies colours mine was actually in the rather exotic sounding Black Tulip and not officially purple but take my word for it – it was a blackcurrant type of purple.
His Morris Ital dates from 1981 when an ailing British Leyland just needed to keep the model going so a dubious facelift was introduced to re- invigorate the car. Ian Spooner knows the Marina and Ital inside out, so why the affection for what is often trotted out as one of the worst cars ever built? He says they’ve got a bit of character about them – there’s the attractive chrome trim – now long gone from our cars, a big boot, simple drum brakes and being a “portly chap” Ian says they’re easy to get in and out of.
Then you have to look at the cost. Ian picked up one of his Marinas from a scrapyard for £160 as a non-runner and that was when scrap value was high. He then spent a mere couple of hundred quid on the car and has a perfectly sound motor to this day. Two of his Marinas are in day to day use; the others are locked away for showing in the summer months. It just could be their perceived naffness now turns them into something desirable because they’d damned hard to find these days and their rarity might just turn them into the must-have retro classic car.
Despite Ian being a fan, he will confess to the fact the boot used to fill with rainwater and the build quality of strike-ridden British Leyland cars left a lot to be desired. But they were of their time. Generally speaking, cars from the seventies were prone to rust away. It wasn’t just Marinas my Dad’s Mark 3 Cortina suffered from crumbling bodywork too.
So next time Top Gear drop a piano on a Marina for comedy value, think on, as “call me Jim” would say. There aren’t many about now and the stigma surrounding them has reduced any affection for the model but I liked mine; Ian likes all of his and there’s a thriving enthusiasts’ club. If you fancy a classic car from more recent times the Morris Marina might just be the next big thing and as Jeremy Clarkson would say, “On that bombshell……”
Morris Marina factfile
- Built 1971 – 1980
- Engine 1.3 and 1.8
- Body 2–door coupe and 4-door saloon
- Top Speed 1.3 – 84 mph 1.8 – 95 mph
- Cost In April 1971 a brand new 1300 de-luxe coupe cost £922.71 and the 1800 saloon was £1,177.29.
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