Video: we broke a Morris Marina (without dropping a piano on it)

Drift club: how we broke a Morris Marina (without dropping a piano on it)

Video: we broke a Morris Marina (without dropping a piano on it)

I’ve just broken a man’s Morris Marina. There are owners’ clubs stickers in the window. It’s a rare beast and his pride and joy. And it’s just relieved itself of oil all over the floor while I was doing doughnuts in it.

Fortunately, Patxi Beasley is a pretty chilled guy. A young lad who works for a Land Rover specialist, I ask him how on earth he came to own a Morris Marina.

“I wanted a car from this era,” he told me. “And it needed to be rear-wheel drive.”

Of course, back when the Marina was launched in 1971, most of its competitors were rear-wheel drive. But the Marina seemed a bit of a backward step for British Leyland. The firm had been pumping out the Issigonis-designed Mini for more than a decade, the front-drive Austin Maxi had been introduced two years earlier, and the ‘innovative’ Allegro was on its way.

But rear-wheel drive is what the market wanted, so it’s what the market got. The Marina was a moderate success for BL – regularly appearing in the top three cars on sale in the UK, despite receiving a bit of a pasting from the automotive press for its understeer-prone handling.

Today, the Morris Marina hasn’t got a brilliant reputation. Jeremy Clarkson described it as “one of the worst cars ever made” and, after offending the owners’ club by setting one on fire, the ex-Top Gear host would regularly drop a piano on one as part of an ongoing gag.

Video: we broke a Morris Marina (without dropping a piano on it)

The advantage of buying a Morris Marina today over the likes over a first- or second-generation Ford Escort is its price. No one wants them.

“I picked it up off eBay for £720. It had been in a garage for years.”

So why is Beasley so relaxed about me breaking his pride and joy? Well, because it’s not exactly original.

“It’s got a 2.0-litre Ford Zetec engine in it out of a Mondeo at the moment. It hasn’t been right for a while. We’ve got a pile of engines, so I’ll just do a swap.”

The Marina’s infamous rear leaf springs (partly the cause for the ‘bad handling’ claims by motoring journalists at the time) have been replaced by coilovers. And the differential has been welded. The result? A Marina that’ll go sideways quicker than you can say ‘live rear axle’.

Video: watch us learn to drift

We’re at Rockingham taking part in a drift day with Falken Tyres. Unfortunately, it’s not all about driving British Leyland’s finest sideways, there are some grown-up cars to drive too…

Video: we broke a Morris Marina (without dropping a piano on it)

Nissan 200SX

Such as this. A Nissan 200SX S14 used as a training car by Learn2Drift, ‘Betty’ has a 260hp turbocharged engine (the firm also has a 130hp naturally-aspirated model on fleet to break you in gently).

It’s clear why the 200SX is so popular in the drifting scene. Capable of holding extreme angles and taking serious abuse (despite 250,000 miles on the clock), it must be one of the most accessible ways into drifting.

Video: we broke a Morris Marina (without dropping a piano on it)

But it’s not just for beginners. James Deane is Falken Motorsport’s drift driver, and holds a number of championship titles under his belt – including 2015, 2014 and 2011 Drift Allstars European Champion and 2015, 2013 and 2012 Irish Drift Champion.

His car is a frankly mental Nissan S14 powered by a twin-turbocharged six-cylinder Toyota Supra engine, producing 750hp. With more lock than a high-security prison, Dean’s S14 makes holding near-90-degree drifts look like child’s play.

Video: we broke a Morris Marina (without dropping a piano on it)

Trucking mega

So back to the obscure stuff – and a 1,250hp Volvo RG13 racing truck driven by 10x British Truck Racing Champion Stuart Oliver.

Make no mistake, this is very different to a standard truck used for pounding our motorways lugging heavy loads. The inside feels more akin to a (very large) race car, with bucket seats and harnesses holding you in place.

Shod with Falken RI-128 tyres (no less than 315mm wide), the Volvo is surprisingly easy to get sideways – or, at least, Oliver makes it look that way. It’s a weird thing, looking out of the side window of a truck as it squeals around cones, but also really good fun. We’d recommend it.


Triumph TR7

40 years of the Triumph TR7: the story of Britain’s forgotten sports car

Triumph TR7Forty years ago, Triumph broke with tradition and launched its wedge-shaped TR7 sports cars. The advert claimed it was ‘The shape of things to come’, and from some angles it even looked like it.

Nose on from above, for example, when you’d see a sleek, steeply-raked bonnet and pop-up (sometimes) headlights. Or from the side, provided you could only see the front half of the car, its gently flared wings, dipping bonnet-line and neatly integrated black impact bumper – a novelty in the mid ‘70s – promising, well, the shape of things to come.

So, what about the rear half? That was the shocking bit. There was so much to take in, too, from the abruptly cut roof and its sharply plunging, flat-paned rear window to the clumsily protuberant rear bumper, plus a curious crease line that arced from behind the front wheels to the tip of the rear wing.

Triumph TR7

Legend has it that designer Giorgetto Giugiaro, then entering the zenith of his career, said ‘My God! They’ve done the same to the other side as well’ when he first saw the TR7 at a motor show.

Today, you can buy a TR7 from around £2,000 – a fraction of the cost of its more traditional predecessors. Perhaps its time as a prized classic will come, but life has never been easy for the TR7…

Journos: startled and confused

Triumph TR7

The TR7 wasn’t only criticised for its startling style. UK motoring journos asked why it wasn’t mid-engined like the Fiat X1/9, Porsche 914, Lancia Monte Carlo Spider and any number of supercars, especially when British Leyland was known to have been working on a mid-engined MG sports car.

Instead, this new TR was merely a front-engined, rear-wheel-drive machine, and more than that, its rear axle was of the cheapskate live variety rather than independent.

But most controversial of all was the fact that this sports car’s roof was steel and firmly welded shut. Weren’t sports cars supposed to be about feeling the summer breeze and seeing the sky above your head?

This, the lack of a six cylinder motor and the TR7’s wedgy contrast to the masculine, brick-like TRs that had gone before added up to a package that was even more controversial than the equally wedged Leyland 18-22 Series (soon to become the Princess) revealed at much the same time – and the Allegro that had lurched onto our roads two years earlier.

Bullet tipped

Triumph TR7
However, quite a bit of thought had gone into the Bullet project, as the TR7 was codenamed. Two top British Leyland engineers had travelled to the United States – by far the biggest market for Triumph and MG sports cars – to sound out a range of experts on how the Triumph TR6 should be replaced.

Almost all of them said that mechanical simplicity was essential – they didn’t want the independent rear suspension of the TR6, they wanted a simple four cylinder engine and they certainly didn’t want an exotic and difficult-to-repair mid-engined layout.

So Bullet got all of these things, and a fixed roof, because it looked like the US government was going to legislate convertibles out of existence for safety reasons.

And while it had that live axle, it was well-located with four links. This and long suspension travel provided the car with ride and handling far more sophisticated than any previous TR had managed.

Triumph TR7

But Bullet wasn’t necessarily going to be an adventurous wedge-shaped car at this point, British Leyland’s management and boss Sir Donald Stokes had yet to decide on design proposals coming from Triumph and from the Austin Morris design department.

Austin Morris was involved because BL also had the problem of replacing the MGB, although the sports car and its GT coupe stablemate were still setting sales records in the US.

But with BL as cash-poor as a gambling addict, there were thoughts of badging Bullet either as an MG, a Triumph, or with minor modifications (that would probably be badges, then) both.

A new TR was the priority though, and Triumph put forward a model based on earlier work by Italian designer Giovanni Michelotti, who had produced several very successful models for the company, the Herald, Spitfire, GT6 and TR4 among them.

TR7: a clean-sheet design

Triumph TR7

Austin Morris design boss Harris Mann, on the other hand, had the ideal clean sheet of paper and set about creating a more dramatic sports car with American tastes in mind. The decidedly rakish angle of his car’s windscreen was designed to allow the driver to see America’s overhanging traffic lights, for example.

The result was as arresting as a giraffe in a shopping mall, his startling slice of wedge worthy of a blister-packed Hot Wheels toy.

And it was Mann’s design that won the styling model face-off, with only a handful of management attendees voting for the more old-fashioned Triumph proposal. But Triumph’s engineering team did at least get the job of developing the car, and providing the so-called ‘slant four’ engine that enabled Mann’s steeply-sloped bonnet to emerge in production.

Triumph TR7

What didn’t make it were Mann’s hidden door handles and his neat flip-up headlamp covers, the engineering department forcing a shape that was distressingly close to a pair of toilet lids. At least they were body colour, until the paint began to peel off their top surfaces.

Not that this was the most serious of the early TR7’s deficiencies. “Unfortunately the (styling) buck was the only TR7 where the panels fitted and the wheels filled the wheel arches,” reckoned one of BL’s senior US managers. And he was not wrong.

The Speke factor

Triumph TR7

The TR7 was to be produced at BL’s Speke plant in Liverpool, a factory notorious for an unruly, strike-prone workforce that had transferred to the assembly line many of the skills they’d learned from the docks they were recruited from. Among these were gold-standard pilfering, and a lack of cooperation as shocking as the TR7’s style.

There were workers who wanted to work, but their efforts were undermined by the political militants, whose rebelliousness was fired by the presence of the Workers Revolutionary Party and the International Socialists, few of whom actually worked at the plant.

All of which meant that the TR7 was shoddily built and often not built at all, so frequent were the strikes. Not all the faults were introduced by its assemblers, however. Inaccurate body tooling ensured that the doors were too big for their apertures, for instance.

Rain often prompted one or both of the car’s headlights to go on strike, like their assemblers, and on some cars an emergency stop would have the screen popping out, its advanced, heat-bonded seal failing to stick.

Successful launch against the odds

Triumph TR7

Despite all this, dogged work by BL’s US team (who cobbled together a barely acceptable bunch of press demonstrators by cannibalising some cars) meant the TR7’s 1975 American launch was a success.

Poor brakes and a vibratory engine were criticised, and many found the styling less than beautiful, but they welcomed a car that looked refreshingly radical and loved the comfort of its exceptionally well-designed interior.

It was quite keenly priced, it rode and handled well, delivered adequate performance and was far more civilised than any British sports car that had come before. And Americans were already migrating to coupes from convertibles, encouraged by the earlier arrival of the highly desirable Datsun 240Z.

Europe did not see the TR7 until 1976, the priority being the US. And just two years later the car’s career looked like it might be all over, thanks to a five-week strike that began on the day BL’s new South African boss Michael Edwardes arrived, tasked with sorting government-owned British Leyland out.

Some early sorting saw the shutting of the section of Speke factory that made the TR7.

But, despite the fact that the car itself had made no money – and that even Prime Minister Jim Callaghan, to whom Edwardes was ultimately answerable, reckoned it should be killed off – the car was transferred to Triumph’s Coventry plant.

The TR7 survives

Triumph TR7

Over 200 improvements were made in the process, most of them aimed at fixing poor quality – although the doors still didn’t quite fit – and the TR7 briefly entered a more stable period.

Highlights were the arrival of a convertible, which rid it of the turret-top roof that many hated, and for the US, the impressive V8-powered TR8. Convertible-killing legislation never came to the US, and the drop-top TR7 turned out to be a pretty agreeable machine.

More upheaval was to come – literally – with the closure of Triumph’s Canley plant, which saw TR7 production moved once again, this time to Rover’s Solihull factory. With the move came another mild quality upgrade, and plans to introduce the TR8 in Europe.

Unfortunately, by now the TR7’s sales trajectory was much the same as the sinking crease lines on its flanks, and it would not be long before its viability was called into question.

That saw the European TR8 programme cancelled, and by 1981 the plug was pulled on the whole project in spite several attempts, one of them a risible MG rebranding, to save the car.

The TR7 dies (and so does Triumph)

Born 40 years ago, the last TR7 was built on October 5th 1981, ending the long and (mostly) successful career of TR sports cars and in truth of Triumph too. The Acclaim saloon launched at much the same moment was little more than a rebadged Honda.

With a tumultuous history like that, and styling that still startles for many of the wrong reasons, it’s easy to view the TR7 as a total failure.

In profit terms it almost certainly was, but the 7 turned out to be the most produced of all the TRs, scoring 112,368 sales during its six turbulent years.

Triumph TR7 Project Lynx

Had it been better made that number could easily have been higher, enabling the fulfilment of a development programme that also included the Lynx 2+2 coupe (pictured above) and a 16-valve model besides.

But like so many British Leyland stories, this is another one peppered with wistful what-ifs.


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The Gran Turismo series in GT cars


There’s one game that every petrolhead will want this Christmas: Gran Turismo 6. We’ve been pouring over the launch material and are convinced it’s a must-have.

But if you’re new to the Gran Turismo scene and are wondering what all the hype’s about, fear not: here, MR has a brief 15-year history of the genre-defining video game series.

And to help keep it real, we’ve also chosen a GT car that links to the version in question – and ranked each for GT kudos.

Sorry, GT5…

Gran Turismo (1998)


The first Gran Turismo game was released in the UK in 1998, after five years’ hard work by games designer and racing driver Kazunori Yamauchi and his team.

It was a hit – with 140 cars (from the Honda NSX to the TVR Cerbera) and 11 race tracks. It went on to sell over 10 million copies and triggered the Gran Turismo series which still sells millions of copies today.

GT car: Porsche 911 GT1

Why we picked it: Porsche kicked off its 911 GT models with, logically enough, the GT1. First seen in 1996, it was an unusual twist on motorsport regulations. Unlike most entrants to the FIA GT1 category that created race cars from road-going models, Porsche created a race car, and sold a road-going version of it: the GT1 Straßenversion (street version).

It was replaced in the same year that the first Gran Turismo game came out, with the GT1-98. Despite being slower than rivals from Toyota and Mercedes, the GT1 came first and second place in 1998’s Le Mans 24-hour race.

GT kudos: 4/5

Gran Turismo 2 (1999)


Launched over here in 2000, Gran Turismo 2 featured nearly 650 cars and 27 different circuits. The cars weren’t all the latest racers, they included a variety of classics like the original Fiat 500, and even everyday cars like the Ford Focus.

GT car: Porsche 911 GT2

Why we picked it: It’s bonkers: known as the widowmaker, the GT2 – like the Turbo, uses a twin-turbocharged engine, but combines it with RWD, extra power and less weight. It’s not really a GT car though – with various bits of interior trim removed you wouldn’t want to drive one across Europe, unless you’re a masochist. It’d be fast, though.

GT kudos: 3/5

Gran Turismo 3 (2001)


GT3: A-Spec was the first game of the series to be released on Sony’s new Playstation 2. With more powerful hardware than GT2, but fewer cars and tracks, it went on to become the biggest selling game of the series – with around 15 million copies sold.

GT car: Porsche 911 GT3

Why we picked it: Named after the GT3 European Championship it was destined to compete in, the latest 911 GT3 uses a naturally aspirated 3.8-litre flat six engine that develops 475hp. It’ll reach 62mph in 3.5 seconds – that’s almost as quick as the Ferrari 458, which costs nearly £80,000 more.

With its clutchless gearchange and electric power steering (not to mention four wheel steer), it one of the best 911s ever to drive, period.

GT kudos: 5/5

Gran Turismo 4 (2005)


Making up for the disappointing car shortage of GT3, GT4 featured over 700 cars from 80 manufacturers and more than 50 circuits.

It’s one of only two Playstation 2 titles available with 1080i high definition output – meaning the graphics were phenomenally better than previous titles. When GT4 was introduced, it really could lay claim to being the best driving simulator.

GT car: Aston Martin Vantage GT4

Why we picked it: An updated version of the V8 Vantage N24 race car, the GT4 arrived in 2008 with a new 4.7-litre engine. Like the Porsches featured, the Aston GT4 was named after FIA endurance races.

And, like the Porsches, it’s based on a standard road car but with reduced weight – it’s 300kg lighter, in fact. Not ideal for a long road trip, but ideal for races like the Nurburgring 24 hours.

GT kudos: 4/5

Gran Turismo 5 (2010)


When the Playstation 3 was launched in 2007, a much more serious driving simulator soon followed in the guise of GT5. Not only did it feature over 1,000 cars and 70 tracks, it got a lot more realistic with day/night transitions, mechanical and cosmetic damage and dynamic weather. It even featured a 3D course maker. It took five years to produce – at a cost of more than $80 million.

GT car: BMW 5 Series Gran Turismo

Why we picked it: It’s hideous, isn’t it? As cool as Gran Turismo 5 is, the 5 Gran Turismo is awful. It’s got the wheelbase of the 7 Series and the driving position of an SUV, but it’s marketed as a kind of 5 Series crossover thing.

The best place to admire the 5-Series GT? From afar, ideally – but if not, inside is OK. You can’t see it then.

GT kudos: 1/5

Gran Turismo 6 (2013)


Due to be released worldwide this Friday, GT6 is better than ever – with 1200 cars and 71 layouts of 33 tracks – including Goodwood’s hill climb and the lunar rover. Awesome!

We can’t wait to have a go with the GPS course maker – record data of a real lap using your phone, and GT6 will use it to generate a track in the game. Using it to set times along your favourite B-road in the game and trying to beat them in real could be, er, inadvisable.

GT car: Toyota GT86

Why we picked it: The Toyota GT86 is about as Gran Turismo as cars can get – Japanese, RWD, cheap and easy to extract more power from. It first appeared in Gran Turismo in GT5, and will be returning in GT6.

We love it in real life too – its chassis is exploitable and the eco-tyres encourage sideways antics. It’s the perfect car for the Gran Turismo generation. It could just do with a little bit more power as standard…

GT kudos: 4/5