Austin Marina GT
Reviewed by Unique Cars and Parts
Our Rating: 1
We know it as the Morris Marina
in Australia, but in the USA it was sold as the Austin Marina. At the cars release the Chairman of British Leyland
was Sir Donald Stokes, who was quoted as saying that his company was not in business to make cars but to make money. They got one part of the formula right – they sure didn’t make cars. Of course they didn’t make too much money either – thanks to the likes of the Marina.
According to British Leyland’s project numbering scheme, the Marina was internally known as the AD028 – and was the first completely new model to originate after BL was formed by the merger of BMC and Leyland – and it articulated the goal of Sir Donald's perfectly. Bog standard, conventional, unexciting. And expected to sell in great quantities. The Marina was intended to be a profit maker, not a technical tour de force or an advanced design.
British Leyland had a chance of staying in the black, and cars such as the Allegro
may have been able to save it. But BL
knew they needed to move more product. When the new management team of BL
went to work studying the product line-up, it found that the front-drive Austin and Morris 1100s and 1300s were selling well enough to private buyers - but not to fleet buyers, who wanted a straightforward, easy-to-fix car rather than design sophistication.
Thus management moved quickly to fill this gap. A new unit body structure was designed to accept as many as possible of BL's existing mechanical units for a new model to compete with Cortina’s
in the British market for economical sedans. The car was called Morris Marina
and went from concept to production in a little over 2 years.
Fleet buyers weren't the only market BL
had in mind, of course, so it was planned that the Marina
would be offered in a large variety of trim and engine versions. For the domestic UK home market there were three engines: a 1275cc unit from the front-drive sedans, modified for the longitudinal position in the Marina; the 1798cc engine from the bigger Austin 1800
fwd. similarly modified; and the twin-carburettor engine from the MGB
. Several levels of trim and two body types, 4-door sedan and 2-door fastback.
The middle of the road model was exported to the U.S., the single-carburettor 1798cc engine being related to the MGB's in basic reciprocating parts. The two body types were offered, each with its particular type of trim. The 4-door came in the "super" version with carpeting and a fold-down rear armrest, and the 2-door came as a "GT," with the same basic interior but a tachometer added to the instruments and fake wood on the dash. When the Austin Marina was released, the Morris Minor
had finally finished production.
But that didn’t stop the engineers using the antique front suspension
(with the lower lateral arms twisting torsion bars
) design for their all new fleet car. The rear suspension was shared with the Triumph Toledo, and that's where the Marina's manual gearbox came from too. Brakes were standard Girling units, used on other BL cars; the 1.8-litre models had discs at the front. In the U.S. market the Marina needed to be good enough to challenge the Japanese, who had entrenched themselves with bargain-priced, simple, reliable family sedans. Both Ford and Chevrolet were competing in this segment too. We can look back now and think how foolish of the BL exec’s – but at the time it did make at least some sense. Japanese prices had been increasing as the Yen went from strength to strength, while British prices stayed nearly due to a weakening pound sterling. If it was any good, the Marina had a real shot at competing directly with the Japanese and the Pintos and Vegas.
On the Road
On the road the B engine sound was pleasant enough, although not very quiet, with the pushrod overhead valves
making more noise than most overhead-cam valve gear. It was mechanically smooth throughout its speed range for a 4-cylinder engine. It had good low-speed torque, even with the retarded ignition timing used for emission control, though response at light throttle wasn't great. The single carburettor put a limit on breathing the MGB did not suffer, so power fell off sharply above 5000 rpm. Highway cruising was predictably busy, but at least there weren’t any vibration periods that seemed to plague some of the Japanese sedans from the era.
The clutch was not happy when asked to get the car moving from rest uphill, but otherwise the transmission was pleasant to use. The gearshift, true to BL tradition, was stiff in action; although it would loosen up over time. Popping the clutch for an acceleration run or accelerating hard on a rough street would induce severe axle tramp, just as you'd expect with the rear suspension design. The Borg-Warner 35 automatic
transmission was an option on the Marina, but it soaked up enough power to leave the Marina seriously deficient in highway performance.
The Austin Marina GT carried 57% of its weight on the front wheels, so heavy understeer was par for the course. It could have been a lot worse, however, as owners in Australia were to find out with the 6 cylinder version. The rack-and-pinion steering itself was a half decent unit - precise and not too heavy - and for everyday, normal driving the Marina's handling was ok. But, if you tried to drive the Marina like a sports car, you would quickly learn that its understeer prevailed - no matter what. Judged on any criteria, it didn’t handle well.
For a car of its size, weight and mechanical simplicity the Marina rode well enough. Its front springing was soft and if a big passenger load wasn't distributed evenly the front sagged noticeably on the heavy side, inducing some strange ride motions. Small bumps would crash harshly through the body structure, though ride motion over larger-scale but less sharp undulations was gentle. Driving on any sort of rough roads was a sure fire way to find which parts of the car had not been bolted on properly – and there were many. Owners would soon get used to the idea of listening to rattles, squeaks and drummings in the Marina's body; supposedly its structure was very rigid, but things weren't well screwed to it.
Behind the Wheel
In the Marina the driver sat high and had a large amount of glass through which to look out. There were actually vent wings in the front doors, which cut vision a bit but were welcome functional items, and in the fastback the vision to the rear was good with no serious blind spots created by the rear roof supports. So the Marina was a car you could manoeuvre safely in heavy traffic. But seeing the controls wasn't so easy. The instruments were readable enough and the standard MG steering-column stalks for indicators, high-low beams, headlight flasher and wiper-washer were logical and easy to find. But try to find the heater-ventilation controls, which were obscured by the wide steering wheel crossbar.
The seats were comfortable, though the front belts fitted to the U.S. version were all too typical for 1973
with a detachable shoulder strap that was free to rotate around the lap buckle. This arrangement required far too much care and attention to cinch up; most drivers, unfortunately, were prone to simply not use it. Even on the fastback the rear seat was quite roomy, and here there were only lap belts (as required by U.S. law) that fed neatly out of the upholstery but could disappear into their little slots. There was a generous 10.8 cu ft of luggage space without nooks and crannies in the trunk, too, so the Marina was certainly a practical family car.
But what of the GT?? Well it was in name only. There was nothing GT about the Marina. On the plus side, it was reasonably practical. But there was no sports car handling
– and the quality was dismal. Many U.S. drivers probably thought it couldn’t get worse. But then we Australians knew it could. Big Red
. The Aussie Marina
that set a new standard in being downright dangerous. The Marina was available in the United States from 1973
, and in Canada from 1973