The poor old Allegro was motoring's premier poster child for collective BL-bashing, but the Marina came in a pretty close second. Our regular readership might recall how I earnestly tried to portray the venerable Austin Allegro in a warm, glowing light. I still feel a particular marshmallowy affection toward those little Austins of yesteryear having, once upon a time, been the proud owner of a beautiful Russet Brown (1979) Allegro 1300-SUPER.

Victim of vendetta

I always thought that the Allegro was the victim of a vendetta. The model was often slated by people who'd never actually sat behind that famous quartic steering wheel. And that's rather sad because the Allegro really wasn't all that bad. But nothing in the automotive world portrays 'ordinary' quite like a Morris Marina. This was a car that was designed from the offset to be nothing other than the epitome of ordinary. Yet the Marina became an outstanding success story in one rather unfortunate respect. It became a world beater for attracting negativity.

'BL bashing' probably found its origins growing (like a horrid wart) from Ford's outstanding marketing success. I think it's fair to say that 1970's Ford motor cars were running rings around British Leyland, particularly in the popularity stakes. The brilliant Cortina romped up the sales charts. Ford's masterstroke had been to cloak relatively simple cars beneath a range of stylish bodies.

Then, Ford invented an entire class system. A sort of boot-lid hierarchy. Ford offered a labelled range of engine and trim options designed to appeal to a broad spectrum of buyers. And it worked! Family car snobbery was born. Social standing lived or died by which badge was slapped onto our Ford's boot lid. Checking out our neighbour's rear ends became completely normal behaviour.

Weirdly, BL's approach was the absolute polar opposite. Its mainstream models, such as the Austin and Morris 1100 & 1300's were actually quite advanced, but they donned unsexy outfits. BL soon realised it had issues that needed addressing.

A Ford beater

To deliver, BL went out and poached some of Ford's top executives and set out to create a Ford beater. The first fruits would arrive in the guise of a brand-new car that was both simple and robust, just like the Cortina. It also had a stylish cloak and a whole range of different body styles and trim levels to lure vital fleet buyers. Enter - the Morris Marina!

Despite all the bad press, the Marina got a lot of things right. Firstly, it was no pug! In fact, it looked a bit like a Cortina. The model range offered saloon, coupe and estate versions. There were cooking models as well as sportier ones. Cortina likenesses should come as no surprise because the Morris Marina was designed by the Cortina designer, Roy Hayes. Launched in 1971, the Marina's development was hastened by resorting to using engineering that had served time in the Morris Minor.

Over 800,000 Marinas were sold in the UK over a ten-year production run. In comparison, 2.8 million Cortinas were sold over a twenty-year production run. However, Ford had spent time, money and effort designing and tooling up for four generations of the Cortina during its time. The Marina enjoyed a few tweaks and a bigger makeover in 1981 when it was rebranded the Ital. Sales of the Ital were surprisingly buoyant, possibly helped by the suggestion that 'ITAL' meant Italian design, which was never actually the case.

Dowdy reputation

It's rather tempting to think that the Marina's dowdy reputation came from that long tradition of BL-Bashing. However, back in 1971, none of that negativity had been thought of. British motorists had remained loyal to BMC/BL having bought plenty of 1100 & 1300s. Issigonis' masterpiece, the Mini, had been well-received and the Jaguar XJ6 (then made under the BMC umbrella) was a thing of outstanding beauty.

Arguably, the Marina was the harbinger of the BL rot. The concept looked very good on paper but, in reality, they failed to live up to expectations. BL set out to deliberately design a car that had all the simplicity and sturdiness of the Cortina but didn't quite cut it on the styling front.

BL, having poached so many of Ford's top brass also resorted to adopting their rival's marketing techniques. This turned out to be an error of judgment because BL's copycat moves forced Ford UK to rethink their own strategies. This included a radical shake-up of their model line-up. The Mk3 Cortina turned out to be a much bigger and glitzier offering than the Mk2.

The new Mk3 design moved the Cortina upmarket which made room for Ford to unveil their new Escort model. The Mk1 Escort was similar in size to the outgoing Mk2 Cortina. This monumental change completely put a spanner in the spokes at BL. The Marina was now closer in size to the Ford Escort and was priced against the now much larger Mk3 Cortina. This made the Cortina look to be better value.

Common sense approach

BL's attempt to play Ford at its own game seemed like a common-sense approach at the time. The problem for BL was the comparative depth of Ford's pockets. This allowed Ford to keep its model lineage fresh, up-to-date and desirable. Ford offered greater choice with Cortina engine options ranging from 1.3 to a 3-litre V6, whilst there were just two engines initially offered in the Marina (1.3 and 1.8). The 1.8 was lifted from the MGB and was thus hailed as the 'performance' option. Despite being a tough little engine, it barely mustered 100-bhp which gave the Marina a lacklustre image.

The biggest nail in the Marina's coffin was its unreliability. Creating a simple car using tried and tested engines and components looked good on paper but BL cars became the very epitome of woeful build quality. To be fair, BL's rivals also suffered quality problems at the time. Even Fords weren't exactly bullet-proof. Marina's dowdy design coupled with a plethora of production woes opened the floodgates to BL's competitors. UK entry into the Common Market plus more car imports from Japan further wrong-footed the Marina.

But we do love an underdog. Perhaps I shouldn't slate the Marina too much. Yes, it might have been ordinary, it may never have been a match for the cars it was meant to outshine but it was unpretentious and honest. The automotive equivalent to a bowl of dry porridge or that girl next door. The workaday Cortina, on the other hand, concealed its ordinariness beneath a layer of slap. Ford ushered in boot-badge snobbery, turning suburbia into vast judgemental sprawls where "thou shall covet your neighbour's 16-inch RoStyles."

But. A Marina was just a Marina, a car for all the people. A simple workhorse, a spacious family carriage, a cheap no-nonsense set of wheels. A typical Dad car. Once BL ironed out the handling glitches and started building decent cars at the close of the 70's, the Marina wasn't actually such a terrible option.


Douglas Hughes is a UK-based writer producing general interest articles ranging from travel pieces to classic motoring. 

Douglas Hughes