Morris Marina - Aussie Originals

By: Joe Kenwright

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morris marina 5 morris marina 5

British Leyland's local arm was forced to make do with a re-engineered Morris Marina that was no match for the influx of Japanese cars

From Unique Cars #318, Nov/Dec 2010

Morris Marina

Aussie ingenuity was too often forced to find a way around indifference or incompetence at manufacturer head offices without notice. The result would then be left to stand as a misleading and damning indictment of those who were left with the problem – not those who caused it. And there is no better example of this than the Leyland Marina ‘Red Six’, launched here in December 1973.

It’s no secret that the Japanese saw Australia, with its pastiche of European and North American tastes, as ground zero for a global assault. Instead of exploiting the battle-hardened responses proposed by their Australian arms, British and American management too often delivered rubbishy parts-bin versions of unsuitable domestic models.

morris-marina-7.jpgHapless Marina was a desperate attempt to head off the Japanese car invasion

In this context, the Marina was no worse than the first Commodore, which sent Holden to the wall 10 years later. As early as 1968, BMC’s local team, facing an army of superior Japanese models, developed a two-tier, rear-drive model strategy for new Leyland management to replace its poorly-engineered and unprofitable front-drive British models.

A range similar to the Torana four and six was to span the Corolla and Datsun 1600 market while a large rear-drive proposal would vie for family and fleet business. Like their Holden equivalents, there was to be strategic sharing of all mechanical components.

Although the large car was approved as the Leyland P76, the more critical smaller local proposal was rejected. A chronic case of rose-coloured glasses led the Brits to decree that their Marina being rushed into production would do the job.

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morris-marina-front.jpgPondering the thought of a Marina 6 coupe, a twisty road and crossply tyres...

The irony was that the Australians had already developed a Marina-clone a decade earlier and called it the Morris Major. They knew better than anyone that it was hopelessly out of date by 1962. Yet the Marina forced onto Australians in 1972 (it was even going to wear the Major badge in the UK) was effectively the same car, replacing the Morris Minor that survived until 1971 in the UK.

Compared to the Major Elite, which reflected four years of local development of a rejected 1950s Minor replacement, the UK Marina, based on the Minor’s 1948 platform with its ancient lever-arm front shockers, was starting from scratch.

As a result, it continued with the 1300 version of the old Minor A-series, whereas the final Major Elite had been re-engineered in Australia to accept a special local 1622cc version of the Austin B-series engine. 

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Fitting a 2.6-litre in-line six into a Marina could therefore never be more successful than dropping a Holden grey motor into a Morris Minor in the 1950s. More than a few Australians tried, and even the dimmest backyarder knew the Minor firewall had to be moved back to at least dash level. After Holden engineers stretched the Vauxhall Viva’s wheelbase between the front wheels and doors to create space for a Holden six inside the wheelbase, why didn’t Leyland Australia do the same?

The big mistakes started in the UK. Because BMC could not afford to re-engineer its front-drive range to be assembled in modules like today’s models, it was too easy for a rival to offer a bigger, better-equipped and simpler rear-drive alternative at a lower price. Ford’s Cortina had already made the Mini look silly and that was before the Japanese moved in for the kill.

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The Marina’s mission was to not only match the Cortina but make a profit. If it looked similar to the Cortina Mk II, it was because its designer Roy Haynes had been lured across from Ford. He could do little more than reskin the outgoing Morris Minor when it was the only BMC rear-drive platform left. Although the Marina looked modern, it went to market with serious front suspension faults that had to be corrected with a series of Band-Aid measures. These included more negative camber than desirable at a time when splayed front wheels in Australia usually signified imminent suspension collapse.

Ford, meanwhile, had released the Escort and was about to supersize the Cortina into the Mk III/TC series, leaving the Marina in no-man’s land between the two Ford models.

morris-marina-4.jpgPuny wheelbase, skinny kerb weight and gutsy six could produce plenty of smoke

The British response was to strip more money out of the Marina, match the Escort’s 1.3-litre engine and offer a slightly bigger body for almost Escort money. A performance version shared the MGB’s ancient 1.8-litre B-series engine. Despite the Marina’s many shortfalls, its Hillman, Ford, Vauxhall and Triumph alternatives were little better, and it maintained steady UK sales until 1984. 

For Leyland’s local arm waiting for a serious Datsun 1600 alternative that could be easily upgraded into a Torana 6 rival, the Marina needed a development program even more comprehensive than the first Commodore. It didn’t get it.

By 1969, the local factory was building the new E-series overhead cam engine for the front-drive Morris 1500 before adding two cylinders for the Tasman/Kimberley 2.2-litre version of the Austin 1800.

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Because it was developed for BMC’s engine-over-gearbox front-drive layout, exhaust and inlet manifolds had to stay on the same side as there was no room for an exhaust under or around the engine. This robbed it of a cross-flow head to exploit the new overhead camshaft.

Its cast iron head and block were heavy and because the bores were siamesed to fit across an engine bay, the stroked 1750 version was the absolute limit for the four. Better than the UK Marina’s 1.3 was all that could be said for it.

As soon as the new breed of 1.8-2.0-litre Japanese rivals arrived after 1972, the power outputs of the local Marina’s E-series engines became embarrassing. Even the entry-level Chrysler (Mitsubishi) Galant 1.4’s 90bhp/67kW made the Marina 1.5’s 62bhp/46kW look silly and it cost less!


By 1974, Leyland Australia was desperate to achieve some economies of scale to shave costs from the P76. By adding two cylinders to the 1750, a 2.6-litre OHC six was created for the P76.

Because Holden and Ford pushrod sixes were even more primitive and heavy, this small Leyland six delivered 3.3-litre power figures and was much shorter and lighter.

Although stuffing it into the Marina without firewall or wheelbase alterations delivered a lead-tipped arrow, it was no worse than the first Ford Cortina and Chrysler Centura sixes.

morris-marina-engine.jpgMarina’s 2.6-litre six offered 55 percent more power that the single-carb 1750 four; Marina wasn’t a complete ugly duckling; at least the interior looked fast

The local plan was to use the Marina to establish Leyland Australia as a valid and powerful new player in the rear-drive medium class, burying the reliability and complexity issues of the British front-drive models forever. The Marina succeeded in this area at least, generating better local sales than its front drive predecessors.

After the P76 V8 cleaned up the 1973 Wheels COTY, it emerged that the Marina 6 was a short-term curtain raiser for a new P82 range. The P82 was already underway following a 1972 revival of the 1968 plans to build a smaller rear-drive range on two wheelbases that would cover everything from a Corolla to a Torana 6, as well as a sporty Celica coupe rival.

morris-marina-engine-bay.jpgAll-iron 2.6-litre six added 85kg to Marina’s front end. Its chassis couldn’t cope

This might explain why the Australian re-style of the Marina from late-1973 carried a hint of Toyota Corolla around the front. It would also explain why a six-cylinder Marina coupe replaced the 1750 version even if its sedan doors still looked too short.

All of this would be addressed during 1976 by a clean sheet P82 based on P76 parts and engineering. Included would be a new V6 derived from the all-alloy V8 ready for Australia’s new emissions laws. If Leyland’s British management bothered to look, Australians had a winning P82 starting-point for a new Marina, Triumph Dolomite and small Rover. And it was all but ready to shore up global Leyland defences against the Japanese.


Instead, the Sydney factory was closed by the end of 1974 and the P82 project binned. Then a bright light from Blighty decided that Australians would be silly enough to pay a premium for an entry level Triumph Dolomite.

This sad, short-lived little Triumph highlighted the madness gripping the UK industry before a Triumph Acclaim version of the Honda Civic replaced it. For the local BMC brass of 1968 and their 1972 Leyland successors, this must have been the most bitter of ironies.


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