A Pair of British V8 Cars

Quite by chance I was able to try two very varied British sporting cars, both powered by V8 engines, emanating from different sources. With over 80,000 miles on the E-type Jaguar’s speedometer I decided it might be a good thing if the factory had a look round it and gave it “a decoke and valve grind” so to speak, before setting off on another six months of continental touring. While this was being done Andrew Whyte, Jaguar’s enthusiastic Publicity Manager, kindly loaned me a car from the British Leyland pool, which turned out to be a Triumph Stag, with hard-top. In the course of using this car for general work I found myself due to head towards Malvern, in Worcestershire, to attend the Annual Dinner and prize-giving of the Morgan Sports Car Club. Where possible I like to “be dressed for the occasion” so I got in touch with Peter Morgan, the President of the Club and the Managing Director of the Morgan Motor Company, and suggested it might create a favourable impression if I arrived in a Morgan Plus Eight, which he thought was a splendid idea. As I had never driven the latest type of Morgan sports car I arranged to borrow one for the day, to find out about Morgan motoring, and finish up at the Abbey Hotel in Malvern for the evening function. The result was that I was able to sample two British sporting cars with V8 engines over the same terrain.

Both of these cars are of orthodox front-engined layout, both using V8 engines, but there the similarity ends. The Stag is built by Triumph on a production line and extends little towards the title of sports car, while the Morgans are hand-built one at a time, and are pure sport from front to rear. The Stag is powered by Triumph’s 3-litre V8 engine derived from the basic design of the 4-cylinder engine built for Saab, and the car is complete in every way, from heated rear window to electric side windows, all mod-cons, in the way of warning lights, illuminated instructions on what to do and what not to do, an overdrive behind its four-speed gearbox, four seats and a well-equipped luxurious finish. Consequently there is quite a bit of weight for the 3-litre V8 to propel in Stag form, whereas the Morgan is the complete opposite, having few mod-cons., little in the way of creature comforts, apart from perspex side screens, and a button-on hood, with two seats and a small luggage space. As it is powered by the Rover 3½-litre V8 engine, its performance goes without saying. As it charges up steep hills in third gear, accelerating .all the while, you are conscious that there is not much weight for the 3½-litre alloy engine to propel, and when you stand on the brakes, with discs on the front and drums on the rear, it stops very abruptly and once again you are conscious of there not being too much weight to stop.

On paper these two cars would appear to have a lot in common, but in practice they are as chalk to cheese, or as the VSCC once described two sporting cars of the 1920s, plum cake or chocolate eclair, both very pleasing to the palate, depending on what mood you happen to be in. The controls of the Triumph Stag are a nightmare to anyone like myself who is not ergonomically adjusted and has only recently discovered what the publicity boys mean by ergonomics, so that I continually had the wipers going when I meant to turn right, and squirted the washers when I meant to blow the horn; this was due to the two stalks protruding from the steering column, one to the left to operate the wipers and squirts and one to the right to operate the indicators, headlamp flasher, headlamp dip and horn. The four-speed gearbox is simple enough and the overdrive switch is on the top of the lever, and highspeed cruising in overdrive fourth gear is very restful, but invariably when I snicked into third gear on reflexes I had forgotten about the overdrive switch and overdrive third gear was not what I wanted for the conditions prevailing. A good four-speed or an even better five-speed gearbox is my real answer; I have never liked overdrives, viewing them as an admission of failure in the basic design of the car. However, driven in a relaxed and gentle manner the overdrive did help enormously on fuel consumption, but with all the Stag’s weight and the not very beefy engine, performance tails away alarmingly in overdrive fourth gear. On the Morgan Plus Eight there are no sops to ergonomics; what there is is functional, and there isn’t much of it. The Rover four-speed gearbox is just that, with reasonable ratios, but nothing to rave about, nor is the actual gearchange, but the “beef” of the Rover engine means that you can do most things in third and fourth, the engine whizzing round to 5,000 r.p.m. very happily, at which speed things happen quite quickly. Whereas the Triumph V8 does not feel particularly pleasant at over 5,000 r.p.m., the Rover needs a constant eye on the tachometer it is so rev.-happy and it would be hard to imagine two V8 engines with such dissimilar characteristics. The Triumph engine emits a woolly sort of exhaust note, never being very convincing about being on eight cylinders, while the Rover gives off a very deliberate V8 boom, encouraged by Morgan’s sporty exhaust system.

The suspension on the Stag is a strange mixture, for over undulating bumpy roads it is superb, while on billiard table surfaces it does not seem to be able to make up its mind what it ought to be doing. The independent suspension to all the four wheels is soft, with long travel, and on the sort of surface that would make a good special-stage in a rally, it is truly outstanding, with 50-60 m.p.h. and more being most impressive, but that same speed on a good main road is not outstanding, the car seething to want to get into a wobbling motion, and it gets no better, or no worse, at speeds well over 100 m.p.h. The steering is power-assisted and suffers from imparting no “feed-back” whatsoever, so that you do not really know what the front wheels are doing until they have done it. Under normal touring conditions this is no hardship, but it becomes tiresome in a side wind at speed for you are always making corrections too late, and it may be this feature which causes the suspension to impart the wobbling motion described. On poor surfaces the suspension rides the bumps so well, with the wheels following the undulations, that the steering feels all right, and equally it feels fine when pounded over special-stage surfaces, but for circuit-type surfaces and cornering it is unpleasant. In complete contrast the Morgan Plus Eight is pure vintage, with its hard independent front suspension by vertical sliders and coil springs and its rigid rear axle on semi-elliptic springs, but on normal roads it is remarkably predictable, and the steering, while being heavy, tells you all you want to know about the behaviour of the front wheels. That the Morgan has the ability to bound over bad surfaces is clearly demonstrated by the number of Morgan owners who run their cars in the Land’s End and Edinburgh trials. Leaping and bouncing over the rough stuff without falling apart is one thing, but travelling swiftly over bad surfaces without alarm and despondency is another thing altogether.

While the Stag is a nice, easy and restful car to drive, that covers the ground pretty quickly without any fuss or strain, it does not provide any particular type of fun. The Morgan, on the other hand, has got to be FUN from the word go and its performance covers up its shortcomings. It comes provided with a tonneau cover, and when this is buttoned up and the doors are shut you suddenly realise there is no way of getting in, for there are no external door handles and the tonneau fittings are concealed by the closed doors. Enquiring of a group of fanatical Morgan owners on the best way of getting into the car, I was told to undo the central zip fastener, climb over the spare wheel and clamber into the car from the centre! You have got to have a ,sense of humour to be a Morgan owner. While the Stag wafts silently along in a smooth and elegant manner, unflurried and undramatically, encouraging the owner to listen to the radio and observe the speed limits, the Morgan brings out all the sport in the owner, encouraging him to charge from corner to corner in a pretty unruly manner, powering round the swerves for the sheer joy of motoring.

The Morgan must be the last stronghold of what motoring used to be all about, while the Stag is what the Department of the Environment would like us all to accept as a Sports Car, or Executive’s Car of Slightly Sporting Demeanour, but nothing unruly or out of step with modern-day thinking. Fortunately it takes all sorts to make a world, so they need all sorts of motor cars, and in the Stag and the Plus Eight we have an interesting pair, both powered by interesting V8 engines. If you are carefree and able to enjoy yourself without inhibitions then the Plus Eight is for you; if you are responsible, with responsibilities and all that they involve, and may only be permitted to give the appearance of enjoying yourself, then your car is the Stag. I have never managed to get my priorities fully sorted out, so I enjoyed both of them, but for opposing reasons.—D.S.J.