Why am I driving to the ice-coated North Shore of Long Island? It's Saturday morning, I don't have to get up, and besides, I have a slightly distended head from the night before. Why continue further along narrow roads becoming whiter and whiter under the malignant touch of freezing rain, looking in vain for a country retreat that houses two Morgan three-wheelers, an unmet English artist, and a car collector? Conceit. ("You, can write a great story on Morgans for us, Warren.") Yeah, that's part of it. But conceited as I am about my ability on the Olivetti is as nothing compared to my sloth. It has to be more than conceit. After all, a man who has been awarded the black pajama belt for artistic-and at times frightening-ability to handle early morning, late morning, and afternoon sleeping doesn't thrust himself lightly into a winter-besotted dawn.
Disgustedly, I admitted to myself that it was the same damn thing that's never failed to move me since I became a mobile being: a car. Or two cars to be exact. I had never seen a Morgan trike close up; all the logic of my so-called mature mind was stumped by this simple off-thewall fact. I was angry-thinking of my wasted youth spent genuflecting
before some greasy hunk of metal or other-hung over, and lost. A roadside phone booth clutched me to its cold glass and aluminum embrace. I searched for the wrinkled envelope that contained the magic number that would let me reach out along ice-draped wire to artist Ken Dallison's home. With any luck at all. he would already have gone, sketched the three-wheelers and returned home. I could then, with good grace, apologize for missing the show and go back to my still-warm sack. The first number gave me a second number that would get right through to the Morgan's hideout. A London voice came clinking through the tube like bright English pennies dropping on marble. "Warren, where are you? I've been here for days. . ." A picture of London docks spattered with bright points of fire floated by. "Warren, where are you?" Where the hell was I? Why was I thinking about docks, for God's sake? "I'm in a phone booth."
"What phone booth?" I knew he'd ask. Quick people are always doing things like that. Quick, wild answer! "On Old Westbury Road." "Good, that means you're right close by, now do all the things I tell you. . . ."
There was a gate house and a long winding road that led past smaller houses now sharing what must have been a huge pre-income-tax estate. A man in blue coveralls and gum boots wig-wagged me to a parking space in back of a Jaguar 3.8 sedan. He introduced himself as my host and led the way into his weekend house. Artist Dallison came bustling into the hallway with his light-blue eyes gleaming in the white light reflected from the snow outside. We drifted into a large living room on a wave of apologies for, my being late.
Ken Dallison, sitting composed on a small French sofa, was a combination of Tom Jones (suede pullover, long-skirted sports jacket) and an angry young man (beatle haircut, and dedicated to the job at hand) as he minutely questioned Mr. Morgan owner on the best possible arrangements for sketching the cars. Mr. Morgan owner was looking at Ken and me with a vaguely puzzled expression. Like who were we, and what did we really want to do to his treasures? And they were treasures, safe and dry in a series of connected cedar-shingled garages forming a wide spread "U" at the side of the house. There was a two-seater Rolls-Royce Ghost convertible, Delage, Ford 'T' station wagon, two different 1930's Mercedes Benz, a late model Bentley Continental 3-liter Blower Bentley and the two Morgan three-wheelers, one just arrived from England.
They reminded me of British bulldogs. All chest and no hind quarters. The chest was composed of a big V-twin engine of about 1.1-liter capacity. Mounted so far forward, the crankcase cover just about made it behind the 'leading edge of the two front wheels. The lean-haunched look came from slim, tapering bodywork jutting back to cover the skinny, single rear wheel. One car had a JAP engine with a twin chain-drive-one chain and sprocket for each speed-.and no reverse. 'the other was a later, more, civilized model with proper clutch, three-speed-with-reverse gearbox and everything. The engine on this car was a water-cooled Matchless with hoses veeing back to a tiny radiator mounted behind the two thrusting cylinders. Fresh off the boat, it gleamed with those wonderful shades of silver and bronze that can only come from 30 or so years of tender polishing and massage.
Both cars had independent front suspension on a system substantially unchanged since 1910. This consisted of two bronze slides working on guide pillars. The stub axles were attached to the slides, and the whole works restrained by upper and lower coil springs.
Crude, but effective. Throttle control was by a lever mounted on one of the steering wheel spokes. Up was go, down was no go-unless you had the steering locked over. Then the operation was reversed. On the other horizontal wheel-spoke was a spark lever. Silent contemplation of this system keeping in mind the 40-hp and under 800-pound weight, which is about 20 lbs. per hp as the engineer flies-brought forth certain unspoken conclusions. Being a soft American, I'm not up to driving a vintage Morgan, and those among us who are had better remember which lever is which. Not only that, they'd better remember the right way to push the correct lever or they're going on their heads. And American heads are unprotected by nature's crash helmet, the English haircut.
Mr. Morgan owner gazed fondly at the red and cream Morgan. He was a collector. This was the newest addition, always the best of the lot - the best, until the next one. It was waiting its turn to go into the small shop situated in the last building at the end of one leg of the "U". The Bentley Continental was in there at the moment having some work done on a right rear brake drum. Never will the place of so much motor car be taken by one that's so little!
We thanked our host and let him return to his quiet, snow-filled country weekend.. Following Ken towards Rothman's for a pint and a chop, I ruminated on car collectors and Morgans.
Why would a man who had all of those magnificent big cars acquire not one, but two trikes? Admittedly they had a visual appeal-all the dash and derring-do exuded by a World War I fighter plane. But, like those stuttering bumble bees, the Morgans were crude. Mr. Morgan owner had owned up to the fact that the first one was' a handful to drive. He had bought the second example apparently because he hoped it would be a little gentler, more befitting a part-time Morgan driver. Could be people were tougher in the Twenties. Hundreds of three wheelers struck gold (or silver plate, to be exact) in all sorts of motoring competitions. The Morgan must have been the bee's knees in its day. And its day was 1927, when 1700 were run up from bits of wood and tin and God knows what. It was a sports car for Labour party voters. A Cloth Cap Chap could for £ 80 or £ 90-out-accelerate diamond-mogul Woolf Barnato in his 3 -liter Bentley, providing they found themselves together on the same stretch of public road, which is a doubtful assumption in the England of the Twenties.
No doubt about it, the threewheelers had a definite appeal. An appeal that was strong enough to sell 40,000 replicas (1 don't think you could call them production cars) between 1911 and 1952. Even today there is a strong Morgan Three Wheeler Club with, naturally, a triangular club badge. It was all rather casual. H.F.S. Morgan built these funny little cars which he ran in races and hill climbs. If you wanted one like his he'd build it for you. . . or try and sell you one that had already been languidly hammered together at Malvern Link. "And please, don't be a bore with a lot of correspondence to the factory about tie rods falling off. They fall off my car, sol know all about it."
H.F.S. was not only a letter-writer without peer, he was a man with a definite style on the circuit. One day during a hill climb he managed to get a trike up on two wheels in a corner. He repealed that particular law of physics by pushing with a gauntleted hand against the asphalt, and then calmly contipued his furious assault on the gradient. Now, that's class! It's on record that he built and sold his self-propelled devices with the same sort of brio.
All ot this might explain why Morgans-both the three- and fourwheel variety-stop auto nuts in their tracks. Cars built by a man like H.F.S. seem to sing a siren song to that addicted band.
The car they buy is substantially the same as the one the factory decided to build in 1936. H.F.S. kept on with the real Morgan, possibly thinking that the four-wheeler was merely an answer to eccentrics that flower in England's damp climate. Having gone to the extra wheel he added two spares on the tail-six wheels should really silence the critics. The car had the same front suspension as the three-wheeler with semi-elliptics at the rear. The result was something that would blur your vision on any but the smoothest surfaces. It was powered by a romping, stomping, 34-horsepower Coventry-Climax of some 1122cc. There was also a 45-hp Le Mans model. This one used a smaller 1098cc Climax, and was patterned after the ones that had done well in France. Shortly before the war a switch was made to a 40-horsepower. Standard engine. This remained the 4/4 Morgan until 1950 when the Standard Vanguard was used; along with a centrally-mounted Moss gearbox driven by a short shaft from the powerplant. This became the Plus 4 model. At the same time the chassis was strengthened and lengthened by four inches. In 1953, the flat grille was replaced by a curved one, and the headlights faired into the fenders. In 1954-God, things were happening fast around Malvern - the Triumph TR-series of engines went into the Plus 4s. In '55 the 4/4 came back into the line and continues to be produced to this day. Three different English Ford four-cylinder engines have been used in the new 4/4. In 1960, ll-inch Girling discs became the standard front wheel brakes on the Plus 4 and the 4/4.
And that, by God, is the complete engineering history of the Morgan four-wheelers. I don't know of any other sports car that's been produced in such basically-similar form for so many years. What's really astounding is the fact that the same chassis and suspension setup has been able to more or less cope with power ranging from the original 34 hp to the 140 hp that Morgan maniacs are now extracting from tuned versions in England.
The stock (if you can use the word when talking about a Morgan) machine is an interesting tool all by itself. You have to approach it in the right frame of mind though. It senses rejection, and tends to sunfish and buck if ridden by the unsympathetic. Firstly, either you fit in or you don't. There is no seat adjustment as we have come to know it in this Mach-3 age. You can move the squab ahead about two inches if you happen to be under the ideal Morgan height of 5/10". This lets us guys who are substandard get our little paddy-wackers on the pedals. Those of you who are substandard in the other direction could-if desire had made you take leave of all sense-buy a four-seat Morgan tourer and drive from the rear seat.
Once in, with your seat cushion puffed up to the proper pressure (what's the matter, haven't you ever been in a car that uses pneumatic seat cushions? Check almost any of Jules Verne's books-he used-them all the time), it's quite comfortable. You sit well down in the car, and high side-rails add to this feeling of security. Post-war drivers, or at least those who never saw Hans Stuck conducting a Merc up a mountain, will consider the proximity of the steering wheel to one's chest as a completely hopeless driving position. Vintage steering lock-2.667 turns from stop to stop-and little side lights on front fenders" marking where tire and wheel start, make it all very simple. The younger set will also learn how easy it is to' see through a windshield that's close to your nose. Even in rain or snow the focal length of the Morgan glasswork is such that you' just look around drops and splatters. . . except when they sneak under' the edge and catch you right in the eye. You definitely know what's going on out there in front of that narrow, louvered hood. It's like sitting in the first row of a Cinemascope movie; And if you're awkward, you're the first-or, at the very least, the second -person to know all about it.
A lot can be going on too. When a 100-horsepower leans on 1800 pounds/ something usually gives. And in this case it gives, if the road is smooth and dry, 60 mph in 11.8 seconds. A tight grip on that four-spoked wheel makes you hunch over and get your elbows up. In top,and going as hard as the marks on your license allow, you notice little things: the side screens tend to flop open at exactly 50 per, the top of the long hood dances over ripples (and you can count them right through the wheel rim), there's more room around the pedals than you thought, and shifting by ear is no trick when your right foot is connected directly to a noisy engine.
Judging the Morgan's handling takes a little more time-and, let's face it-really more talent than we had in the car at the time. At first it seemed a little short on sticktion, but then it dawned on us. In motoring's Golden Age it was no crime to skid, it helped you around corners. So the Morgan was meant to skid. It tells you it's going to skid, and then it skids-gently-and, after an, easy correction, continues right on down the road pointing the same way as before it told you it was going to skid. As soon as you lose your 1965 notions (cars shouldn't get out of shape, everything has to look smooth) you and Morgan have come to a meeting, of the minds. You find yourself sliding it everywhere. Suddenly there's a young Jack Brabham fresh from the midget dirt tracks of Australia loose on the quiet, night-scene streets of lower Manhattan. As long as the road is smooth the Morgan is as predictable as a' bulldozer, and almost as agile. You can make it hang out at will and, with a flick of steel-like wrists, get it right back into contemporary shape. If I owned one I'd probably broadside it up to the car-wash waiting line-that's the kind of show-off I am. For those among us who never cut their eye teeth (and other parts of the anatomy) on '32 Ford coupes, the Morgan will prove to be a safer, and better-looking modern replacement. It unlocks the door to an area of motoring that's closed to anyone who drives modern, softly-suspended cars. It is, essentially, a piece of sporting equipment that rewards conscious effort and lots of practice. What it ain't is dual-purpose transportation. You just don't do the Saturday shopping chores in a Morgan. It would be like hammering tacks with a custom-made putter; the tacks would be in to stay, but your right arm might fall off.'
The Morgan in charge of the factory at present is Peter, son_ of H.F.S. He is tall, painfully English, and given' fo statements like, "My father built. a unique sports car in 1910. It is my aim to build the type of car he would be proud to offer for sale today." And Peter Morgan is a man of his word. Pop wouldn't have a quibble with either the Plus 4 or the 4/4. Or the way they're put together.' The Morgan Motor Co., Ltd. lives in seven or eight long narrow brick buildings that sort of all lean together the way mellow structures have a habit of dOing. At the head of this veteran cohimn is' a small square office building about the' size of two living-rooms in a modern apartment. The first long building shelters the stock of spare parts, and the man who sorts 6ut the leather hides. The next building echoes to the hammers and electric drills of several muscular chaps bolting together chassis consisting of Z-section side rails and a few cross members. The main connection, however, is the long-lived,
Morgan independent front suspension. The lower leg of the Z rail turns in, to serve. as a foundation for the wooden' flooring
The next building' is a little quieter because this is where serious-looking blokes, in round,. National H,ealth, Service eyeglasses, fashion 'the wooden body-frame. With a shave here, and a rasp there, and many a dip into a: giant glue pot that's always bubbling on the bench, a spectral, version of the flat Morgan stern and flowing front fenders takes shape. This furniture gets slapped with a coat of paint-any color that's left over from the body shop-to protect it from the foggy, foggy dew. It then gets levered onto a chassis that's complete with running gear, engine; etc. It then goes to the panel beaters. They hide its nakedness in sheet metal that's been more or less pre-formed to shape. With a tug here, a tug there, and a hell of a big hard - ru b ber hammer, the body work is screwed and tacked (yes, I said tacked) to the wood framing. On to the paint shop! Here two men with modern spray guns give it what-for, sand it down and give it what-for all over again. They fiddle around with it until it looks nice, then push it into the upholstery shop. Here they do appropriate things with the leather hides the guy picked. out in the first building, and then push it next door.
In the next shop-and-a-half (half is taken up 'by a blacksmith and his forge making front:-end parts needed in the chassis shop, but he has a window and likes to look out at the English countryside while flailing the hell out of a piece of iron) they make it run. It's then given over to the test-driver for a blast around the roads of Worcestershire. I can hear him talking to his wife now: "I'll just take supper here at the mantle, luv, tough day at the works."
And that's the way it has - gone for 54-odd years. Peter Morgan and his 90 helpers turn out from seven to nine of his namesakes every week. About 75 % of them are sold in the United States. The money value of a year's worth of Morgans could be around $200,000. Considering the payroll, and the fact that the machinery must have been amortized, sometime during the First WorId War, a good portion of this must be profit. I'm not against all this mind you-I think it's great. Where else can a Cloth Cap Chap of the Sixties get a beautifully-restored vintage sports car like Lord Montague drives around for under £1000? No place else but Malvern. The same holds true for us CCCs here in the States.
What must be understood is that the Morgan is the biggest automotive put-on in the post-war history of the automobile. As long as you're in on the gag, it's good fun. (I'd like one of the Vanguard-powered cars with the flat grille myself.) I don't care if old Peter chuckles all the way to the bank in his Ferrari 2+2, he and his old man have given thousands of people a lot of healthy exercise out in the fresh air. There can't be anything wrong with that. And if after a long hard ride you feel like you've been caned, that's part of the camp; all upper class Englishmen have gone to public schools where they still cane a recalcitrant pupil. Some of them get to like it-it's very English.