Five Classic Trials
‘Everything your insructor taught you about stop and go is now null and void’
Distinctive radiator surrounds have been the making of some car companies. Where would RollsRoyce be without its sparkling Palladian arch, topped by the Spirit of Ecstasy? Aston Martin’s peaked effort has persisted despite decades of changing fashions and shapes. Imagine a BMW steak without kidneys. Or a Daimler composition without the traditional flute section.
Morris’s Oxfords and Cowleys earned their ‘Bullnose’ nickname thanks to their rounded radiators. The style only lasted 13 years until 1926, but it’s still famous today. And after a more conventional flat radiator was adopted, who could really disagree that Morrises lost some of their individuality?
This two-seater Cowley 3/4 Coupé just sneaked out before the change, being registered in March 1926. It is a charming and neat little design, with its tall woodframed cabin topped and tailed by a bullet nose and tapering rear, appropriately finished in Oxford Blue.
Getting inside is via the passenger side door – there is no driver’s equivalent thanks to the spare wheel being stowed on the running board there. Despite the upright handbrake and gearstick sprouting from the floorboards in the centre, it’s easy enough to slide yourself along the bench seat and into place under the big steering wheel.
Starting involves reaching under the dash to flick the fuel tap for the gravity-feed system. Then turn on the electrical juice using the switch under the Lucas ammeter and push the starter button. There’s a prolonged whirr, just long enough to convince you the Morris isn’t going to fire, before the Hotchkiss-designed sidevalve catches and grumbles into life.
Deft manipulation of the steering column advance and retard controls eventually results in a smooth if rather noisy idle. It’s agricultural, but this is almost a century old technology after all.
And you need to cast aside your modern ideas of driving. The Morris makes do with a crash gearbox and transposed accelerator and brake pedals. Everything your driving instructor taught you about stop and go is now null and void. Truth be told, it’s not that tricky. Non-synchromesh gear changes, dipping the clutch between each shift, are a little laboured. But after a few teeth-grating grinds, your first screech-free slot feels like a minor triumph.
Once in top, the Cowley seems quite content to just potter around, taking advantage of its torque rather than expecting you to do the all the work. Which is just as well, as changing down is much more of a challenge, the trick being to match engine speed to revs.
Adjusting to the alternative positions of the accelerator and brake is much easier, and you’re soon bowling along without having to think about what your feet are doing.
First-gear take-off is sharp, although the attendant transmission whine encourages you to row through to more refined top as soon as possible. An ideal cruising speed is – well, it’s a brave person who takes his eyes off the road to glance at the speedometer on the left-hand side dashboard – but let’s say about 35-40mph.
At that speed, the rod-and-spring brakes do their job adequately, but engaging the anchors sooner rather than later is the best option. Steering is more unexpectedly direct and light, although the tall, skinny tyres and leaf springs mean the ride is a little hard and bouncy.
But for a 91-year-old vehicle, this Morris still gives a very credible account of itself on minor roads. While it demands concentration, it’s also entertaining, with so much more driver engagement than you get with later vehicles. You feel more connected and, if you’ve any appreciation of classic engineering, it’s impossible not to relish the experience of a Morris Cowley Bullnose.