Driven: Morgan 3 Wheeler

Martyn Goddard

Truth being stranger than fiction, the Morgan Motor Company is officially the largest British-owned carmaker in Britain. Pretty weird stuff for a company that still fashions cars out of ash wood and hand-beaten metal and still operates out of the same set of red brick sheds its founders, an Anglican prebendary and his son, erected in 1918. Even funnier, Morgan has recently reached back into its Edwardian playbook to introduce a new model, the 3 Wheeler, inspired by one of its earliest product lines. It has negligible weather protection, weighs but a tea service or two over 1000 pounds, and is powered by a fuel-injected American motorcycle engine mated to a Mazda Miata gearbox, making it capable of a 4.5-second dash to 60 mph and a top speed of more than 115 mph. Most amusing of all, however, is that this new machine is coming to these heavily regulated shores. How could that be?

God bless the child that has three wheels. Founded in 1910, Morgan knows plenty about three-wheelers, most learned before you were born, when trikes led the company to notoriety on the track and off. Motorcycles were taxed less punitively than cars, and, in simpler times, enough people bought them to keep the plant humming. Thus, when Morgan's long-lived 4/4 model (still in production today) launched in 1936, the name of the company's new entry denoted that it not only had four cylinders but also four wheels.

Among the great truths Morgan knew well was that three-wheelers with one wheel leading two can crash and burn come cornering time, whereas Morgan's two-up-front-one-to-the-rear formula made for fine handling. A tenacious competitor with its grip and light weight, a Morgan three-wheeler finished first in the prestigious 1913 cyclecar grand prix in France. It comes as no surprise, then, that roadholding and performance are two qualities the reimagined 3 Wheeler -- Morgan's first since 1952 -- carries forward in spades.

Nevertheless, from an American enthusiast's perspective, the best aspect of three-wheel design may quite possibly be that it enables the new Morgan's exemption from federal automotive emissions and safety standards. Like its forebears, it's classified as a motorcycle, which means that Morgan's eleven U.S. dealers are taking deposits on this 30-plus-mpg, $45,000 piece of built-to-order mechanical lunacy now.

Approaching this low and improbably tiny throwback, you can't help marveling at the prewar appearance of its form, highlighted by an exposed engine located way out front, ahead of two skinny nineteen-inch wire wheels shod with Avon tires and sheathed with cycle fenders. But hidden beneath the shapely boattail's removable rear panel lies some distinctly twenty-first-century business, namely a massive car tire -- a sticky, low-profile, Vredestein Sportrac 3 mounted on a modern aluminum rim. (Two aluminum gas tanks and a small storage bin also reside under the cover.) Up front, a proprietary V-twin engine from S&S Cycle, Wisconsin-based Harley-Davidson tuner extraordinaire, spits out 120 hp, each of its two cylinders displacing a full liter.

Fed through Mazda's legendarily slick-shifting five-speed manual transmission, throbbing, warbling power is delivered to a prop shaft, disappearing into a bevel box before being picked up by a rubber belt that spins the rear wheel. And do we mean spin. Meanwhile, the noise from barely muffled side pipes journeys in one direction only -- to the center of your mind.

A fetching exercise in handcrafted spartan retro, handsomely trimmed in leather (which is available in any color and, as with the rest of the car, can be infinitely personalized for a charge), the 3 Wheeler's interior boasts an aeronautic feel, with plain-but-handsome round dials, simple controls, and not a defroster or wiper switch in sight, much less a GPS or Bluetooth setup. Lose the three-spoke steering wheel with its quick-release fitting if you need help slithering behind the wheel. Lock your three-point belt in place, press the starter button (kitschily accessed behind a bomber's safety catch), and prepare for mayhem. As the V-twin roars to life, you're reminded that while the law may be an ass, you are in something that the law itself has clearly gotten right by classifying it as a motorcycle. The Morgan rocks, its cycle fenders shake, and voices must be raised as the engine hammers the airwaves the way Harley twins do, as if they will destroy themselves and everything in their general vicinity soon enough. Legal for sale in all fifty states (but not necessarily requiring a motorcycle license to operate), your new Morgan may scare children and upset the neighbors, but you'll hear it coming -- a key safety attribute -- and its made-in-America power won't confuse local mechanics.

Get comfortable -- more of a mind-control exercise than a practical one, as there's nothing to adjust other than the sideview mirrors and your attitude -- and release the clutch while standing on the gas. Have you just released a hive of sociopathic bees? Have you been shot out of an old-fashioned cannon? Set off in a Sopwith Camel? Who knows? Wind whistles as the scenery melts, and things like pebbles, road debris, and flying insects become mortal enemies. There's only a pair of tiny windscreens for protection, so goggles, earplugs, and a soft helmet have been handed to you for a reason.

Even so equipped, noise remains one's lasting memory. We dare say it easily could be reduced by half. Bigger silencers wouldn't reduce the excitement factor; indeed, they would likely allow one to focus on the 3 Wheeler's many other good points. Among them is its beautiful shape, crafted by designer Matt Humphries, the young spark better known for the company's over-the-top Aeromax coupe, a design study he penned while at university that was so impressive it led Morgan chief Charles Morgan to hire him. The 3 Wheeler's ride is unexpectedly good, too, especially by Morgan standards. Unlike the 4/4s and Plus 8s of yore, with their sliding-pillar suspension arrangements that we suspect trace their roots back to Roman times, the new 3 Wheeler has an independent front suspension that soaks up bumps, potholes, and pavement irregularities with alacrity. The steering is nimble and, with the 3 Wheeler's almost absurdly compact dimensions, one soon feels as if he could drive around everything as if on a motorcycle. That is, a safer, more stable relation. Although the Morgan still sports wooden members in its aluminum body structure, a tubular-steel cage provides a substantial measure of protection for its occupants.

Despite some of the high-tech products the company offers -- the aluminum-chassis Aero, for instance, or the upcoming Plus 8 replacement -- some have slighted Morgan for its lack of ambition. But the company's continued health and innovation one hundred years on, and its refreshing willingness to revisit its greatest-hits file whenever the time seems ripe, rebut the argument dead in its tracks. The 3 Wheeler's first year of production -- 500 cars -- is sold out. Which is just the way Britain's largest carmaker likes it.

The Specs
ON SALE:
January 2012
PRICE: $45,000 (est.)
ENGINE: 2.0L V-2, 120 hp, 100 lb-ft (est.)
DRIVE: Rear-wheel
FUEL MILEAGE: 30-plus mpg (est., overall)

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