Thursday 29 April 2021

Fiat 127 vs Morris Marina (1971)

Introduced April 1971

Two cars, two different design philosophies – the Fiat 127 and Morris Marina were both introduced in April 1971. One ended up being celebrated, the other derided. But which is which?

Fiat 127

Ah yes – the Fiat 127, the cute and inexpensive Italian hatchback of the 1970s. But it wasn’t a hatchback… well, not at launch, in 1971 you had a two-door saloon that had a boot at the back. Remember than even in the 1970s, the idea of the hatchback was a radical one… even though today it is an obviously versatile way to build a small car. The little 900cc engine gave a respectable 46 horsepower for such a car weighing about 700kg. The design was innovative enough, with crumple zones and excellent road holding – helped by the car’s front-wheel drive - with decent interior space as well.

Fiat 127
Fiat 127

A year later the hatchback version arrived – this is the version that really sold well – a major facelift in 1977 gave a more modern look and better engines. A further revision in 1982 sneaked in just before the launch of the Fiat Uno in 1983, and licenced versions built overseas lasted even longer.

This radical car was designed by Pio Manzù, who was tragically killed in a car accident before the 127 came into production. Manzù was an exceptionally talented young designer of lamps, clocks and furniture before turning his hand to automotive design. Just 30 years old when he died, it is likely that Manzù would have become one of the great car designers given the chance.

The Fiat 127 was massively influential – arguable the first modern hatchback design (well, eventually) – it set a pattern for small cars that it still in use today. Despite selling in huge numbers, only about 100 are still on British roads.

Morris Marina

Where the Fiat 127 predicted the future, the Morris Marina was instead a quick fix to British Leyland’s problems in the late 1960s with competing with the Ford Cortina. Available as a traditional four-door saloon or a rather rakish coupé, the Marina used tried-and-tested components to come up with something that wasn’t all that exciting, but for a while was certainly successful.

Morris Marina
Morris Marina

A reputation for unreliability and variable build quality, the Marina fell out of favour by the late 1970s and quickly became something of a joke, but this was probably unfair. It had been designed in a hurry and with a minimal budget, and yet it did everything that an early 1970s fleet buyer would want. It was certainly competitive with the Cortina.

The Marina’s Cortina-like capabilities were perhaps no coincidence. Designer Roy Haynes who created the Marina was also largely responsible for the Mark II Cortina. Haynes went on to other things before the Marina was launched however, and again here was another designer who had a chance to be one of the all-time greats but things didn’t quite pan out.

The Marina continued on until 1980 when it was replaced by the Ital – essentially a heavy facelift of the Marina – which continued until 1984. The Ital was the end of the line for Morris though, in the end the Marina was a dead end. Fewer than 400 Marinas are still on British roads.

Well, almost – the Ital briefly emerged again as the Huandu CAC6430 in China in the late 1990s. But it was the utterly magnificent door handles that had a life of their own, turning up in all sorts of exotic designs such as Lotuses and Ginettas.

Image credits:
Robert Capper via Flickr – CC BY-NC 2.0
Qropatwa via Flickr - CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

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