They may be a little quirky, but when it comes to quintessentially British sports cars, the iconic Morgan is as close to perfection as you can get, says Mike Yardley
Having first bought a Morgan in 1971, Mike Yardley extols the virtues of this quirky – and quintessentially British – sports car.
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My first ever car was a Morgan F-type three-wheeler, which I bought in 1971 from a garage in North London. As I motored home along the A1, I found myself in a race with an empty hearse. The undertakers had taken off their silk toppers and were gesticulating enthusiastically. Despite their encouragement, the Ford 10hp-engined Morgan sadly didn’t manage to overtake, but it drew level. It was my entry into the particularly British world of sports cars and the urge to make them go faster.
Once the Mog was home, to my chagrin, the rear of the car seemed to be reinforced with bits of Dexion shelving steel. Undaunted, I developed a plan to restore and improve it. This took me to Morgan main dealers FH Douglass in Ealing (a marvellously eccentric establishment) and VW Derrington at Kingston, which was then famous for engine tuning. An Aquaplane aluminium cylinder head, an improved inlet manifold and a pair of small SU carburettors improved the Mog, but not enough. I bought an Alvis 12/70 Anderson tourer, which proved gutless. After a prang with a friend (now a judge) at the wheel, it gave way for a tired second-hand four-wheeler 4/4 Morgan (four cylinders and four wheels). Even in standard form, it drove well with the relatively new Ford Crossflow engine and an overdrive. But not satisfied, and inspired by John Steed’s Bentley, I determined to customise it.
The paint was stripped off and renewed in British racing green with black wings. The engine was rebuilt by Ian Walker Racing with steel end caps, balanced and nitrided crank, and twin 40 DCOE Weber carburettors. It went rather well and sounded even better. The 4/4 was also equipped with an unusual accessory – a loudspeaker under its cowl wired into a concealed tape deck behind the dash. The final touch was to get a one-armed signwriter called Brewster to add ‘Morgana-Le-Fay’ [sic] to both sides of the bonnet. For a bet, I drove it up Cat Bells fell in Cumbria but got stuck and needed a tractor to help get it out.
‘Morgana’ gave way to an Aston DB5 Superleggera convertible bought during the oil crisis of 1973 for £1,400 (it would be worth about £1 million now – I sold mine for £1,450). It was unreliable and difficult in the wet but did provide some interesting memories, including a police stop on the Serpentine Bridge in Hyde Park that began with, “Do you realise your vehicle was airborne as you entered the park?” It also prompted arguably the best retort of my life when an American girl in Kensington noted, “Gee, isn’t this the car that James Bond has?” “No, it’s the more expensive model.”
The Aston accompanied me to the Guards Depot in 1974, but soon after gave way – after a circuit of the Golden Acre brought to a sudden halt by the unexpected arrival of a regimental band – to one of the then relatively new Range Rovers. This was much tougher, practical and easy to keep. Next came a 1933 Aston Le Mans (a marvellous thing that I wish I had kept) and, shortly after, a Morgan Plus 4 with a two-litre Triumph engine similar to one with which a team of privateers had won the two-litre class at Le Mans in 1962. This was another great drive that ticked all the boxes. At university, I supplemented my income rebuilding and ‘flipping’ several more Morgans (all Ford-engined 4/4s).
The joy of the Morgan was rediscovered comparatively recently. That brief stint with a Plus 4 in the 1980s had convinced me it was close to being the perfect British sports car. It went well and looked right, and was a lot of fun to drive. The torque of the two-litre Triumph engine suited the car. Call it a mid-life crisis if you like, but I bought one in bits from a small ad in Norway for £4,000 (which acquainted me with the pitfalls of the Notification of Vehicle Arrivals service). A partly rebuilt car, ROT 44 (the number plate should have been a warning), followed. Unexpectedly, I bought another from a lady vicar.
Mid-Covid crisis, in a moment of madness, I bought a 4/4 70th Anniversary Edition brokered by Brands Hatch Morgan. Older cars have the advantage of no road tax, no MOT and reasonable marque insurance.
THE ADVANTAGE OF OWNING MULTIPLE MORGANS
Morgans is that there’s a good chance that one may be working. Two of mine are actually on the road now and running. ROT 44 has just had the wings removed and is being repainted (a lockdown project was learning how to panel beat). The new 4/4 is having some engine development. It has the excellent Ford Duratec engine; I want to supercharge it – 200bhp should do well and be good for 0 to 60mph in less than six seconds.
Working on old Morgans is therapeutic. They are not especially expensive – all mine together might add up to a basic spec Range Rover Sport. They need constant TLC to maintain. You have to grease nipples (especially on the front suspension), frequently check tyre pressures and keep doing things up. They shake and rattle (not so much roll), but they result in a semi-permanent grin. You get used to carrying spanners and bits of wire, and breaking down becomes an adventure. Morgans promote serendipitous encounters. People like them. The urge is to say, “Nice car, mate”, not to key ‘em up. There is not much envy of Mogs. They are a quintessentially British sports car and in many ways reminiscent of a gentler, friendlier and freer past.
‘Morganeering’ has encouraged me to get my hands dirty. Mick, the local Landy mechanic, who is a self-taught genius with engines and metal fabrication, has been great to work with. Terry Foxen of GEE has been a fount of information on all things Morgan (ditto Keith Jackson at Brands Hatch). I am working on engine development again with Richard Coles of Coltech Racing and ex-Holbay. It’s hands-on and good for the soul. You can take a traditional Morgan to bits and put it back together without being too bewildered. They are old school, but they do have quirks and are all the more interesting for them.
THE TRADITIONAL MORGAN
It’s a common misunderstanding that Morgans have wooden chassis. In fact, traditional Morgans have, or had, a conventional steel ladder-frame chassis and a coach-built body tub made of ash panelled in steel or aluminium. They also boast a most unusual sliding pillar front suspension system – one of the first forms of independent front suspension and one so successful that it remained in production for more than 100 years. The latest Morgans retain the handcrafted ash body frame, but there is a new box-section chassis made of bonded aluminium and a more conventional wishbone front suspension. The purists may not approve, but the handling is much better. I’d still go for the traditional car – plenty are available second-hand, and £20,000 will buy you a reasonable one (just).
Any car needs to be checked carefully – as with guns and horses, you can make big, expensive mistakes. The chassis and body frame must be sound or you are in for trouble. Galvanised chassis are a boon (many older cars have had a chassis swap) as are easily serviced and tuned Ford engines (although a V8 Rover Plus 8 might tempt too). Cars produced in the 1970s may have the Crossflow engine, which is excellent but thirsty. Later ones may have the Ford CVH engine, not to mention a variety of Rover four-cylinder twin-cam engines. A few Morgans were made with the Fiat twin cam. My passion, however, is for the Triumph-engined Plus 4s of the 1950s and 1960s. The latest cars are all BMW powered.
A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE MORGAN MOTOR COMPANY AND ITS CARS
The Morgan Car Company was founded by Henry Frederick Stanley Morgan (1881-1959), an engineer and vicar’s son who opened a garage in Malvern in 1905. In 1909, he built a tiller-steered, single-seater runabout in the workshops of Malvern College. This evolved into a two-seater with more conventional steering. The original car had used a Peugeot engine, but V-twins became the favourite, including JAPs, Matchless and Blackburne. HFS, as he was known, competed from the start. Many records were set at Brooklands and Montlhéry in France, notably by the intrepid female motorist Gwenda Stewart. Another famous early owner was Captain Albert Ball VC, a World War I flying ace.
A four-wheeler 4/4 Morgan appeared in 1936 with a Coventry Climax engine. After World War II, Morgan offered the 4/4 with a Standard and later a Ford engine. In 1950, the high-performance Plus 4 appeared, powered by a Triumph/Standard Vanguard engine (itself evolved from the Ferguson tractor engine). This became the first 100mph Morgan, with Peter Morgan, HFS’s son, becoming active in trialling and motorsport at the time.
In around 1953, the flat Morgan radiator was replaced with a more aerodynamic cowl. The car was available as a two- and four-seater and with a heavier coupe body boasting ‘suicide doors’ and a little more comfort. A modified, aluminium-panelled, lowered Plus 4 tuned by Chris Lawrence (later called the Supersports) won the two-litre class at Le Mans in 1962. There was a fibreglass-bodied Plus 4 Plus coupe in 1963 – only 26 of which were built. In 1968, Morgan wowed the motoring world again with the Plus 8. This put a powerful Rover 3.5-litre V8 into a Plus 4 frame (at the time wider and a little longer than a 4/4) and stayed in production until 2003 (returning in 2012 with a 4.8-litre BMW engine).
Morgan reintroduced the three-wheeler in 2011, but they were discontinued in 2021. The 2000 Aero 8 became the first Morgan with a bonded aluminium chassis and the first to use a BMW engine. It broke away from the traditional shape and used wishbone front suspension rather than Morgan’s famous sliding pillars. In 2005, the V6 Roadster arrived – Ford engined with similar power to a Plus 8. In 2019, the Plus 6 was introduced with a BMW B58 three-litre turbo (as in the BMW 140, 240 and Toyota Supra). The last traditional steel-chassis car was produced in 2020.
Sales and servicing: Brands Hatch Morgan (morgan-kent.com); Spare parts, sales/servicing: Melvyn Rutter (melvyn-rutter.co.uk); Chassis and suspension parts: GEE (geeltd.co.uk); Body panelling and frame repair: Vintage Sheet Metal (morganspecialist.com); New and used cars, and parts: Morgan Motor Company (morgan-motor.com); Club: Morgan Sport Car Club (morgansportscarclub.com); Insurance: Gott & Wynne (gottandwynne.co.uk)