Morris Marina: Are All Old Cars Classics ?

In 1995 Ford Europe introduced a new Fiesta, remembered chiefly for it’s perfectly horrid fish-faced grille. At the same time, they kept the old body-style around, perhaps for those who did not want to look as if they were trapped in an oversize guppy, in a poverty spec. special floating at the bottom of the range. They called this car the “Classic” and I remember thinking that here was a fresh definition of classic: a boring old design who’s defining virtue was extreme cheapness.

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I thought of this again just recently, when this month’s copy of Hemmings Sports and Exotic Car dropped onto my doormat, for there, right alongside the word “Exotic” sat picture of a Morris Marina*, that very synonym of seventies suburban British mediocrity. As a teenager, when shopping for my first car, with my five hundred pound budget, the more absurd my suggestions, ( how about this Alfasud ? or this Lancia Beta Volumex ? or this Jaguar XJ6 with a manual gearbox ? ) the more likely my Father was to respond “Oh no, Jonathan, how about something practical, and reliable, how about this nice Marina ? “One elderly owner from new”, that sounds much better value, it is even in that nice beige…..” I lived in horror that one day my Father’s pragmatism would find form in steel, and he would actually buy a Marina, or it’s facelifted sibling, the Ital ( by Italdesign – British tax payers money funnelled to an Italian styling house, served to give the car ungainly over-hangs and large square lights – great value for money ;-P)

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When launched, in 1971, British Leyland already had middle sized cars on sale; Triumph had the Dolomite/Toledo, and Austin/Morris the Maxi. Maxi was a novel and ambitious design; for Marina, BL had responded to Ford’s Cortina, and delivered something more conventional – indeed only the grille was interesting, and that seems to have been copied from Pontiacs of the early sixties. So bad was the handling that after initial road tests, a group of British journalists contacted BL recommending that improvements were made before the car came to market. Not only badly designed, Marinas suffered quality issues, since they were badly made by a continually striking workforce.

I am not alone in singling out the Marina. Jeremy Clarkson and Top Gear have dropped and crushed a couple for comic effect, and indeed have received complaints from Marina lovers bemoaning the wanton destruction. This mirrors a debate in the British Classic car community between banger racers and the lovers of mundane old cars: upsettingly for collectors, the banger racers specifically search out old, rear wheel drive cars, Jaguars, Rovers, Austin Cambridges, since they are better to race with given the way oversteer can be provoked by reducing outside rear tire pressure to about 15 PSI. While hardly pretending to understand the Marina Fanciers – simply, I can see nothing to love – I too hesitate to condone destroying a car more than thirty years old in the name of cheap entertainment.

With quite a big body and very little power, sorry Hemmings, but the Marina is not sporty, and it is the very opposite of exotic: but is it a classic ? Surely only if we apply the same definition as Ford’s marketeers did in the mid-nineties: old is not the same as classic. The Marina, yea, the Ital may or may not be historically significant, but historic significance does not a classic car make. The fact is that we cannot preserve each and every car. Like anoraks and fuel crisis’, Marinas are probably something we can afford to let go.

* Marinas were sold in some markets badged as Austins, not Morris’. As if anyone cared then or now.