Morgan’s blast from the past
The noble daredevil of the sky, in silk scarf and coyote ruff, adjusts his goggles, squinting with malice at the enemy below. He pushes forward the stick, the engine shakes and roars and … the light changes to green. For that moment of revelry he was an ace aviator. Now, back in reality, he’s back to just being eccentric.
This is the Morgan 3 Wheeler, a living fossil of automobility decked out like a vintage fighter plane and built by the singular Morgan Motor Company in Malvern Link, Worcestershire, Britain. As the address suggests, if Morgan were any more British it would burst into plum jam.
This is a company that still forms aluminium body panels on English wheels and still uses ash-frame carpentry and calls it technology. It remains the only car factory I’ve been in that smells of sawdust.
Through two world wars, through recession and renaissance, Morgan has adopted a lichen-like survival strategy: just cling to the rocks, never change.
Founded in 1909 by HFS Morgan, the company specialised in cycle-cars: twoseat, tube-frame zeppelins with motorcycle engines in the front, with independent front suspension and a single chain-driven rear wheel.
Actually, Morgan didn’t build its first four-wheeled car, the 4/4, until 1936.
So that wind blowing up your kilt in the 3 Wheeler comes right from Edwardian England.
Morgan sports cars were hugely popular in the postwar America — I mean, they sold literally hundreds of them. But by the 1970s the company started running into problems getting the cars certified for California emissions and federal crash standards.
Morgan’s response through years of declining sales was to have more tea.
In the early 90s, fate — or at least fate’s perverse sense of humour — stepped in. Presenter John HarveyJones, of the BBC show Troubleshooter, arrived at Malvern Link to give the company a lot of sensible advice.
He looked around at the laborious hand-fashioning of everything from bonnet louvres to bumpers, saw the hapless accountancy and witnessed the almost insolent disregard for clients’ time and patience. Morgan must modernise, standardise, mechanise, Sir John declared, or die.
Morgan, owned by the Morgan family, did exactly none of that. But that Troubleshooter episode was a massive hit and soon orders were pouring in from prospects who were charmed by the company’s balmy consistency through the decades.
In 2011, Morgan brought back the 3 Wheeler, this time as entertainment, not transportation. And as a $US50,000 man toy, the 3 Wheeler carried no great expectations of sales volumes. The list of options — the bullet-hole decals, the fighter pin-up art and tiger shark decals — clearly speaks to exuberant personalities who may or may not be sticking to their medication.
But again, pop culture took a hand. BBC’s Top Gear featured the 3 Wheeler being driven by Richard Hammond through a brutal, face-peeling rain. Well, of course, Brit customers said to themselves, “I want some of that!” Again the order book swelled.
“I saw one and I really wanted one,” says Mark Engle, owner of Motorcycles of Charlotte, in North Carolina.
“I talked to the folks at Morgan and there was a long wait. I realised the fastest way to get one was to become a dealer.”
The current 3 Wheeler is a curious industrial artefact on several counts. Aesthetically it’s closest to the Morgan Super Sports circa 1937: the rearstreaming exhaust pipes exposed with heat shields; twin-cowl Perspex wind screens; polished cowl and bullet headlamps; and a big chucka-chucka upfront. If you like machinery, this thing makes you want to take your clothes off.
The contemporary (not to say modern) 3 Wheeler is powered by a pseudo-antique — the 2.0-litre V-twin thumper supplied by the S&S Company of Viola, Wisconsin. But here is where old and new part company because the 21stcentury S&S motor, while sort of resembling a vintage pushrod V, starts cold and runs very agreeably, thanks to a big, fat engine control module somewhere and solid-state ignition.
Likewise, the 3 Wheeler’s five-speed manual transmission, from the midships of a Mazda MX-5, is quick and assured, no doubt vastly more tractable than the non-synchronised two-speed gearboxes of pre-war days. The keen-eyed nerd will also note the current trike doesn’t use the traditional sliding pillar suspension but links with inboard coil-overs. This car even has seat heaters.
From the open cockpit, with its padded waist rails, the car feels less like a plane than what remains of the plane after it has crashed through the barn. The gauges and switchgear are of aeronautic design; and the blatty, bugsin-your-teeth vibe as you look over the cowl will remind you of your days cropdusting at the kibbutz, or whatever.
In any event, right about 140km/h, when the Morgan starts gently wandering with the slightest crosswind, you’ve had all the romance you can bear.
It’s not fast because it can’t be. Most of the vehicle’s 525kg is upfront, which makes the Morgan fantastically, horribly prone to spinning the rear tyre. It just can’t put that much of its 140Nm of torque into the ground. But you can chirp the tyre like black canaries in three gears while you roar to 100km/h in six seconds. Also, you know that sound effect of a car skidding around a corner, the one from Warner Bros movies? These tyres make that noise.
Ahh! Bandit’s in my six! Tell Johnny I love him. But before I go, there was some talk of Morgan building an electric version, in the mould of the EV3 concept.
Yes, well, I’ve spoken to the factory and they assure me they will get around to it, right after tea.