Morris Mis-fits

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The Morris car clubs, Bullnose Club and the Register, are well-endowed with researchers and historians, but it is just possible that what follows may be new to them, or at any rate to you. In 1919 H R Ricardo (to become the great Sir Harry Ricardo, famous for the Ricardo Triumph motorcycle, his slipper-piston, the 1922 TT Vauxhall, his classic book on the IC engine, and combustion chamber formation) in a discourse in The Automobile Engineer explained how he had taken a standard 1914 Morris Cowley engine and by fitting a re-designed head with shallow combustion-chambers, slipper pistons, and a carburettor without a choke-tube had increased its power from 19 bhp to 26.8 bhp at 2400rpm, improved its petrol thirst by 35% at high speeds, say from 35 to 40mpg under road conditions, and had eliminated the engine’s previous tendency to oil-up plugs and knock under load. This was widely reported and one motoring journalist, who perhaps should have known better, suggested that this might indicate that Morris cars would, in future, have Ricardo engines, in view of the post-war problems of restricted supply from America and tariff costs of the engines Continental had previously made for Morris cars. (I once spent a schoolboy shilling on a copy of The Automobile Engineer and nearly went out of my mind trying to understand the arguments of Ricardo, Whatmough and Weslake as they battled it out over their respective theories — does anyone remember those marvellous Show Numbers of that journal, with such splendid photographs?)

William Morris, naturally, was quick to respond. Mr Ricardo, he said, had used an old-type engine for his experiments, with a 4.5 to 1 compression ratio. This had been found unsatisfactory by Morris Motors, and the next batch of engines had been ordered with a c r of 4.85 to 1. Had Ricardo used such an engine, Wm Morris observed, he would have got results which these later Continental engines closely emulated, even though they had castiron pistons. which he regarded as best for long life and freedom from trouble. But if the special cams, light pistons and the carburettor advocated by Mr Ricardo were to be adopted, the Morris car would sacrifice “a great deal of elasticity and it would cease to be the comfortable car to drive that it has been”. So spoke the Governing Director of Morris Motors Ltd, the great Lord Nuffield to be.

He also took Harry Ricardo to task for getting oiling-up of the plugs on the old engine he used for his experiments, because this had been cured by changing the position of the plugs from that used for the first experimental Morris power-units. Wm Morris also said that for a six-year-old design there could not be much wrong, since two other makers at least have taken the Morris Cowley engine for their design, almost without alteration. He concluded by stating that it was not his intention to turn out a car “only fit for racing” and that the considerably improved engine was to be made for the post-war Morris cars by Hotchkiss. He also seems to have put the journalist in question in his place, because before long this gentleman was declaring how well his old Morris had served him and how, as soon as the Armistice had been signed, and without knowing anything about it or its engine, he had written to order a new one. (Today’s motoring writers may take the hint, should they ever incur the wrath of a car manufacturer!)

The other Morris misfit, if it is fair to so describe it, concerns a remarkable experiment carried out by Felix Scriven of Bradford — who became well-known for racing successfully a special Austin Twenty and later the Scriven Special, at first with a Sage engine (“Mother Goose” — stuffed with sage) and later with a Hooker Thomas power unit — and his brother, Jack Scriven. Both had ordered new Morris Oxfords at the 1913 Olympia Show. Both should have had exactly similar engines but whereas Felix’s would rev freely, his brother’s was more flexible, a better top-gear car, although five mph slower. Moreover, the latter engine suffered from chronic preignition. which was never experienced on the other Morris, and plugs which were quite satisfactory in the other car lasted a mere 1000 miles in this second car, before the pre-ignition set in, although these single-point plugs were declared faultless when returned to the maker, and performed normally in the other engine.

In an endeavour to improve the performance of his brother’s “difficult” engine an electricallydriven supercharger was fitted. This I find rather remarkable, because this means of increasing engine power was not particularly well-known in 1914. Indeed, after the war German cars were banned here for a time, so the Mercedes supercharging system would be unfamiliar to most British motorists even after the war, and it was not until the 1923 JCC 200-Mile Race that they would have seen supercharged racing cars in action, and then the two Fiats, although successful later, were an abject failure. Yet here were the Scriven brothers using some form of blower, driven by an electric motor from the car’s battery, in their case in the hope of bringing the speed of one car up to that of the other, while retaining its better all-round performance. The latter aspect of Jack’s Morris was rendered even better but it never attained the extra five mph looked for, because it still refused to rev like Felix’s Morris. And Felix Scriven found that his engine did not hold its tune for long, nor the sweet running, to the same extent as his brother’s Morris, perhaps, he thought, because he made too free use of its overrevving tendency and gave it its head whenever an opportunity arose.

It is interesting that Felix Scriven wrote to the Roots concern in 1920/21, about a supercharger for his sports Austin Twenty “Sergeant Murphy”. However, he had his doubts as to whether there would be anything to gain at high engine speeds from this volumetrically-efficient engine and he realised that the Brooklands’ handicappers would probably have nullified any possible gain in performance when they heard of it! But surely Felix Scriven’s was the first, perhaps the only, supercharged Morris Oxford?

Mr. Scriven was also of the opinion that an electrically-driven supercharger would be impractical in the 1920s because of the heavier drain cars by then put on their batteries, so that insufficient current would be available to drive the supercharger-motor. He was also of the opinion that modern engines had so improved that his brother’s supercharged 1914 Morris Oxford would compare unfavourably with a 1924 sports Austin 7.

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