Morris Marina Buying Guide
Mocked and ignored by classic car enthusiasts for decades, the Morris Marina now makes for a distinct alternative classic choice. Here’s how to bag a good one
How much to pay
• Project £300-650 • Good £900-1500 • Concours £1700-1900 •
Running costs ★★★★
DIY friendly ★★★
Laugh all you like, but the humble Morris Marina is not only a bona fide classic, it’s also a solid everyday hero from the decade of flared jeans and hairy-chested open shirts. Signalling a change from the swinging-decade of free love to the overwhelming urban bleakness of side-burned strikers standing around a brazier, the lampooned Marina’s main issue remains an image akin to an automotive Hitler.
Generally regarded as the vehicle that introduced a ‘disease of sloppiness’ into British car manufacturing, public opinion on the vehicle that took the reigns from Alec Issigonis' beloved Morris Minor has suffered at the hands of Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond, James May – not to mention all those who repeat Top Gear’s opinion as their own. It may have been outdated even when launched in 1971, but as a classic in the midst of contemporary life the hilarity and fun on offer is seriously infectious.
Although those whom remember the vehicle on dealer forecourts struggle to accept the Marina’s merits, the Morris has a thriving owners’ club with a new generation of enthusiast praising the agreeably chunky lines, spacious interior and simple but robust engineering. Handling left much to be desired when new, but as a charismatic flaw it highlights why we love old vehicles in the first place.
Surviving pretty much unaltered until 1980, the Marina underpinnings lived on as the Morris Ital before production ceased in 1984. Available in saloon, estate, van, pick-up or coupé form, various trim levels offered differing specifications of interior quality. British Leyland's range of engines employed the 1.3-litre A-series, 1.7-litre O-series and 1.8-litre B-series units.
Australian examples utilised the 1.5-litre and 2.6-litre E-series engines whereas a rarely purchased 1.5-litre four-pot diesel was also available; although is now incredibly rare, as is the car itself. Found a good one? Snap it up! These vehicle are seldom seen on the open market.
Your AutoClassics Morris Marina inspection checklist
There were three engines to choose from during the Marina’s time in UK showrooms; the 1.3-litre (1275cc), 1.7-litre and 1.8-litre (1798cc). The 1275cc A-series engine was available throughout the entire production run, adopted by the succeeding Ital. You won’t find the 1.8-litre B-series unit under the bonnet of a post-1978 example, as the O-series took over from then on.
Very early van derivatives were equipped with a 1098cc A-series powerplant, before production switched to using the 1275cc unit as used by other models in the range. The chances of stumbling across one of these is incredibly rare, however, as most were scrapped or perished young.
The A-series has to work exceptionally hard in the Marina, with such extra weight to lug around, but the engine is a tough unit capable of breaching the 90,000 mile mark before it requires a rebuild.
There will always be an oil leak from somewhere, but you shouldn’t panic unless the leak is substantial. But if oil is being burned (blue exhaust smoke) then you will have a problem child on your hands; it could be worn valve guides or piston rings awaiting attention.
Engine mountings on 1.3-litre models suffer a habit of self-destructing, so inspect these thoroughly. Replacements are easy to source should they have perished.
The B-series engine is almost identical to the one fitted within the MGB, explaining why so many were broken for parts. As with the smaller A-series unit, burning oil or excessive run-off from the exhaust signals worn valves or piston rings, especially if the odometer reads more than 90,000 miles. You may find some timing chain rattle, too.
Both the A- and B-series engines can be tuned until the headlamps are ready to pop out, with respected engineering firms such as Oselli, Downton and University Motors turning their abilities onto the BL Stalwart. British Leyland themselves produced various modified Marinas through their Special Tuning department, making the tools and parts to do such a job today easy and relatively inexpensive to find.
O-series engines require more maintenance, so check to see how healthy the fluid levels are. The 1.7-litre should have had a cam belt change every 48,000 miles, otherwise internal damage can rack up the need for a new engine.
All petrol engines were designed to run on leaded fuel. Although additives can be added to prevent running issues, it is worth noting that late Metro 1.3 A+ engines can donate their unleaded heads to 1.3-litre Marinas, and even the Ital replacement model.
Gearboxes generally last around 70,000 miles before collapsing, although this life span depends on how the car has been treated and driven. Both automatic and manual gearboxes were available from the 1971 launch date, the all-synchromesh manual shared with the Triumph Spitfire 1500, Toledo and non-Sprint Dolomites.
The gearchange action of this unit when fitted to the Marina is strangely clunky when compared to the above, and linkages are prone to wear. The only solution to this is to source a healthier secondhand unit or endure a rebuild.
First gear may prove difficult to select without going via second, but these boxes offered this charm from new. Therefore don’t panic if the change is notchy. Gearboxes are interchangeable between models, but beware the different input- and lay-shafts of the 1.3-litre and 1.7/1.8-litre units.
Other common issues from the transmission include split propshaft-centre bearings and leaking differentials. You can usually tell if the diff is on the way out due to a whining noise. Check for play in the prop when stationary.
Automatics are incredibly rare. They were an unpopular option when new although have since proven dependable. Borg Warner Type 35 transmission was fitted to 1971-78 models, with post-1978 and Morris Ital models equipped with Type 65.
One of the main problem areas throughout the Marina’s production span was the clutch. Most examples serve up serious amounts of judder. Pre-September 1972 models employed the same clutch from the Triumph Herald, with a 1in bore slave cylinder that frankly couldn’t cope. The solution was to fit an 8-inch clutch (the Herald system being only 6.5 inches) from the MGB, although this is still far from smooth.
Uncontrollable amounts of judder when taking up the clutch could be caused by worn gearbox mountings, propshaft universal joints, rear shock absorbers or rear anti-roll bushes on post-1975 models. All these components are available should replacements be required. The clutch operating fork has been known to crack and break at its pivot point, making the clutch unusable; listen for excessive creaking from the clutch pedal when you push it down.
Hydraulics can provide headaches, too. The slave cylinder can expire and leak fluid down the bellhousing. It’s easiest to check for these leaks from underneath. We would advise you to get the Marina on a ramp, if possible. Replacement slave cylinders are available though the Morris Marina Owners’ Club.
Brakes and suspension
The Mk1’s torsion bar front suspension outline was carried over from the Morris Minor, although that unrelenting urban legend of interchangeable parts is untrue. However, it was this age-old technology that gave the Marina such awkward handling characteristics. Forcing the front wheels to remain upright when cornering led to catastrophic understeer. Later models offered an improved design.
Anti-roll bars were installed both front and rear to saloon and coupé models. Estate cars and vans received upgraded leaf springs and dampers. For 1983, the Ital successor gained telescopic front shock absorbers, doing away with lever arm dampers completely.
Steering should be light and direct, if this isn’t the case then you could have seized swivel pins playing up. These should be greased every 3000 miles, or every three months. Chances are, they won’t have been. New ones are easy to fit.
Rod bushes wear fast, resulting in substantial vibration through the steering. Check for uneven tyre wear as tracking can often be out, too. Rumbling from the front suspension usually indicates poorly ball joints. A further problem is leaking lever arm dampers fitted pre-1982. Quality control nabbed the problem thereafter. The rear suspension is normally trouble free, the only likely issues being broken anti-roll bar mounts and weeping dampers.
Pre-October 1975 1.3 models were fitted with drum brakes all round, which can lead to hair-raising experiences in an emergency. Later models came with disc brakes on the front, but drums remained on the rear. Conversion from drum to disc brakes at the front is common.
Certain pre-1974 1.3 models had no servo as standard, with automatic rear brake adjusters that cough up no end of irritation. Pre-February 1972 1.8-litre examples suffer the same problem. Manual rear brake adjusters were fitted from these dates onwards, although conversion is easy enough.
Bodywork and tyres
Is it made of metal? Best you check it over. Wheelarches and sills can corrode to extreme degrees, whereas windscreen surrounds bubble with rust and boot floors can provide a permanent home for the tin worm. Check for filler in the sills with a weak magnet, also checking over the headlamps, spare wheel well and wheel arches. Rotten headlamp backing panels are common on Marinas, remove the grille and inspect if you can.
There’s not much in the way of exterior trim fitted to the Marina, but any missing panels can usually be sourced through the owners’ club. Chrome wheelarch trims can be difficult to find, as can the bumper end caps on later models. Vinyl roof trim often requires TLC or renewal, whereas rear window rubbers for the coupé are no longer available. Luckily, you can craft a replacement from rubbers also used on Ford Escort Mk IIIs.
GT, HL and later TC trim levels were fitted with tinted glass, of which replacements can also be found through the owners’ club.
All Marinas were initially fitted with 4.5J wheels, increased to 5Jx13 from 1973 for the TC unit. Healthy tyres are essential for road handling, more so on a Marina than most classic cars. Either 145 or 155 section tyres should be fitted, with 165/70 being the widest that will safely sit on 4.5J wheels. Enthusiasts note that it is worth maintaining them with a 2psi differential between front and rear, the front being higher.
Interior and electrics
Replacement interior trim isn't available new. However, most of it can be sourced on the secondhand market. Again, the owners’ club will help you here. Vinyl seats in the Mk1 tend to crack and rear seat tops fade from exposure to the sun. The same can be said for dashboard tops. Carpets don’t wear well whereas water can collect in the footwell from leaking windscreen rubbers.
The wiring loom is basic and simple, the most common problem coming from a bad earth connection from the rear lights. Fuel tank sender units are known to fail, but replacements are readily available. Alternators replaced dynamos in August 1971 for the 1.8-litre engine, with the 1.3-litre following a year later.
- 1971: Introduced to the public, taking over from the Morris Minor
- 1975: Vast improvements to running gear and suspension made across the range
- 1980: Marina badging removed and front end restyled to become the Morris Ital
- 1984: Ital production stops
Once the unloved and abused mule from an ever-increasingly shunned British Leyland stable, the Marina has finally come into its own. Respected and enjoyed by the owners’ club and something of an infamous curiosity to classic car enthusiasts, the irony remains that during a period of increased popularity there aren’t enough to go around.
Run into the ground and scrapped by those who owned them back in the day, numbers of road-going vehicles are seriously low. Forget comments made by contemporary journalists as they purely jump on the bandwagon.
Sure, these cars aren’t fast and, in reality, handle like a rigid bouncy castle; but don’t let that put you off. They are tough machines, sturdy enough to become a best seller in Canada during the 1970s as a winter hack and capable of feats normally associated with far larger, far newer machines.
Buy a good one and you’ve got hilarity and infamy in your garage. Go for a project and you’ll have ample support and parts supply to make restoration something to occupy your weekends without paying hand over fist. Van and pick-up variants make for the most obscure yet practical of classics, if you can find one…
Picture courtesy of MagicCarPics
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