COLUMNS: Morgan Roadster

By - June 23, 2010
You may think that the Porsche 911 (now in its forty-sixth year) is long-lived. If you're into automotive esoterica, you'll know of India's Hindustan Ambassador, resplendent with the clumsy curves established in 1956 by Austin-Morris. But the Ambassador is a mere gawky adolescent compared with the doyen of currently available cars, the Morgan roadster, which came to market seventy-five years ago.
1007 01+morgan Roadster+front View
After building tens of thousands of three-wheeled vehicles, founder H. F. S. Morgan succumbed to the newfangled idea of making four-wheeled cars. For the quarter-century-old Morgan Motor Company, it was as radical an innovation as Oldsmobile's Toronado, Toyota's Prius, or Chevrolet's Volt.
Changes since then? Sure, but you'd be surprised at how few. Morgans had an independent front suspension a hundred years ago, so that hasn't changed, nor have the Z-section chassis rails. Bodies were and are still made of carefully shaped wood frames sheathed with metal (steel then, aluminum now). Proportions have changed some, and Morgan now uses spray guns, not brushes, to paint the cars, but there has really been only one styling change of note.
Prince of Darkness Joseph Lucas's company stopped making bullet headlamps sometime in the 1950s, so Morgan was obliged to restyle the front end. Fairing the headlamps into the fender valances meant the traditional flat radiator no longer worked, so simple vertical bars curved farther forward became the new face, unchanged to this day. Morgan fenders were always rather flat across the top, because they were cheaper to build than the rounded, ribbed "wings" of MGs.
Morgans are wonderfully rudimentary, despite the company making use of modern technologies such as super-forming aluminum. When I rented one a few years ago, I noticed that the hood louvers were all the same length but their ends didn't line up. That's traditional British handwork, not particularly careful or accurate but highly characterful. I hope that Morgan never invests in a die to punch perfectly even louvers in one strike.
Morgan really is a family business, with only the third leader in a century now in place. Each generation of Morgans has made one radical change. H. F. S. gave us this car in the 1930s, his son Peter made a graceless fiberglass coupe in the 1960s, and grandson Charles the cross-eyed Aero 8 in the 2000s (which is the only new Morgan for sale today in the States). Morgan lovers, of which I am one, forgive those aberrations en retained and improved steadily. For instance, today's Morgans have catalysts and side-impact beams - requirements of the modern age.
My wife has wanted a Morgan since she first saw one several decades back. If I'd been given a chit that let me take away any car at the Geneva show this year, she'd have her Morgan roadster today instead of having to wait until Christmas. Despite its age, there was no car there that was more desirable.
1 This simple but elegant grille hasn't changed since the 1950s, and it was retro even then.
1007 02+morgan Roadster+front Three Quarters View
2 Putting the headlamps into Morgan-built nacelles forced changes to the nose that made the ensemble more harmonious.
3 This cowl actually resembles what was current on 1935 racing cars, so it was not at all anachronistic or inappropriate on a sports car.
4 The thick belting leather strap is de rigueur, at once a period piece and a totally functional accessory. And it looks great on this car.
5 The flattened fender tops were easy to make by hand long ago and give a distinctive character to classic Morgans - as they did for the Jaguar SS 100 and the Riley Imp of the '30s.
6 The cut-down doors let you swing your elbows freely as you wrestle with the heavy but accurate steering. Perfectly traditional, perfectly functional. Except in the rain.
7 External hinges are practical, light, and strong, but they dictate the door shape, which must have a nearly vertical leading edge. Older versions had rear-hinged doors.
8 The radio antenna aligns with the aft edge of the hood and the angle of the windshield. But who listens to the radio in a Morgan?
9 Skirts below the fender highlight line add a touch of modernity, keep mud off the body sides, and allow a nice horizontal baseline.
10 The side marker lamps are as small as legally possible on the rather bare new Sport model, available with two Ford powerplants: a 1.6-liter four-cylinder and a 3.0-liter V-6.

11 Black wire wheels are a feature of the Sport models, as is the lack of bumpers. If black wheels work for Lamborghini . . .

12 The optional bumpers actually finish the front end nicely, as did underpan fairings on some racing Morgans. But the nice thing about these cars is that you can have whatever you want. Just order it and wait many months (it used to be years) until your car is done.

13 The spare tire lies on the plane of the rear body. In flat-radiator models, there were two spares, carried upright, which looked good but are hardly necessary with modern tires. Even one spare may be more than what's needed, but it looks right.
14 How very British: two identical Lucas lamps with different colored lenses provide legal lighting at minimal cost.
15 Lack of an air bag highlights the vehicle's lengthy life span.
16 Controls "fall readily to hand," as generations of British road tests had it. And indeed they do in the classic Morgan roadster.
17 Ample use of leather for the cockpit surround, dash top, and even on the instrument panel itself is luxurious. It's also practical for a car that requires a half hour of fumbling to erect the top, after which the rain-spotted leather can easily be wiped dry.
1007 01+morgan Roadster+front View

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