Road Test: The 3½-litre Morgan Plus-8

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125 m.p.h. A standing start ¼-mile in 15 sec.

A True but Primitive Sports Car

Sports cars come and sports cars go but the Morgan has outlived most of them. Just when it seems to have out-dated itself from even the American fanatical and British enthusiast sales-charts, something happens to give the Morgan four-wheeler, basically unchanged down the years, a new lease of life, sustaining the interest of prospective purchasers.

The original Morgan four-wheeler was an attractive little car, but it lacked the flair and sporting appearance of the similar-size M.G.s, which in those days had wire wheels and a trials reputation, against which the Morgan 4/4, had to compete. Pressed-steel wheels and a chassis rather self-consciously aware that is was closely related to a long generation of three-wheelers. But it had independent front suspension and a gear lever most commendably located, due to the employment of a separate gearbox. The 4/4 ran through a succession of engines and then came exciting news that a Morgan Plus-4, with centre engine, was on the assembly-shop floor at Malvern.

The Plus-4 chassis was a somewhat inflated version of that used for the 4/4, strengthened only where the ingenious Mr. Peter Morgan thought this absolutely essential. It had the appearance and performance of a good vintage or p.v.t. sporting car, and when, later, it was powered with warmed-up 2.2-litre Triumph TR4A engines instead of a single-carburetter Standard Vanguard engine, it really motored most effectively, and was impressive on the Club circuits. That, however, was quite a long time ago and the Plus-4 clearly needed a new lease of life. This has been most effectively accomplished by installing under a somewhat lengthened bonnet (still heavily louvred) a perfectly normal Rover V8 engine, of Buick persuasion, as used by the Rover Company in their 3500 and 3½-litre cars. The potential of these light-alloy General Motors-Oldsmobile and Buick power units was emphasised by racing development, from mild souping for stock-car work to virtual rebuilding for installation in the Formula One Repco Brabhams, so it can be said to have links with racing if not to be actually race developed. It gives 161 (net) b.h.p. at a crankshaft speed of 5,200 r.p.m. This is on a cr. of 10½ to 1, so that 101-octane petrol is preferable but not essential if only Premium is available. The engine is absolutely standard, as used in the Rover 3500, even to very ordinary exhaust manifolds, and there should be plenty of development to come.

Using this splendid Rover V8 engine so ably adapted to Solihull specification by Peter Wilks has lifted the performance of this Morgan sports two-seater from effective to highly impressive. That is to say, this primitive, certainly old-fashioned, car will now reach a top speed of 125 m.p.h., will devour a s.s. ¼-mile in 15.0 sec. or less, and will out-accelerate a Jaguar E-type up to the legal limit of public-road speed its this go-slow country. It continues to accelerate excitingly beyond 70 m.p.h. (on private roads, of course!). For having got to that pace in well under 9 sec., it requires only another ten seconds to be motoring at 100 m.p.h. This, with a bog-standard 89 x 71 mm. (3,530 c.c.) Rover engine. It is fascinating to think how the Morgan Plus-8 will go when fuel-injection or other performance-enhancers are tried—and I expect one or other of the Peters will experiment with them.

Right away, therefore, it seems obvious that if sheer performance, in terms especially of acceleration and a reasonable top speed, appeals—straight-line go, if you like—the Morgan Plus-8 is a formidable motorcar, because it offers this in terms which only very few cars, costing more, can equal. Take for instance 0 to 100 m.p.h. in 19 to 20 sec., for a price, including pt., of £1,487. Those interested in Marque Sports Car Racing should be interested. . . .

Returning to the differences between the Triumph-powered Plus-4 and the new Plus-8, they are quite few in number. For instance, the separate gearbox is retained, coupled to the engine flywheel by a short shaft within a large-diameter tube, and it is the same Moss gearbox used on the Morgan Plus-4 and earlier Jaguars, this apparently being sufficiently rugged to transmit the 226 lb./ft. maximum torque of the Rover engine. The real separate chassis is also retained, although it has been somewhat strengthened. The old wood plank floor—I was intrigued that it was not so much as creosoted—has given place to a welded-steel floor. The coil-spring and pillar which is basically nearly 60 years old, remains, and still necessitates a bronze damper-ring and lubrication bled off the engine supply, for the pillars also form the king-pins of the steering layout. Similarly, at the back the suspension is by ½-elliptic leaf springs, although these are now mounted at a different angle, which has killed tramp, and the movement has been increased, to 4½ in. The steering column now incorporates two universal joints to clear the wide vee engine, is collapsible, and the box is a Cam Gears’ cam-and-peg unit.

The wheelbase has been increased by 2 in., the bonnet is longer, and the body 2 in. wider to accommodate wider wheel rims. The wheels have been changed to imposing Robinson five-stud cast-alloy ones, the same make as those on the Gilbern Genie featured last month, having 5½ in. rims, shod with imposing looking 185 x 15VR Dunlop SP Sport radial-ply Aquajet-tread tyres. A further concession to the increased and spectacular performance is the use of 16P Girling brake callipers instead of 14P, although the disc/drum sizes are unchanged. There is now a 13½-gallon fuel tank and instrumentation and details have been changed. For instance, for years there was no adjustment, either of cushion or squab, for the bench front seat of the Plus-4. The Plus-8 has sliding Restall bucket seats upholstered in Ambla leather-cloth—a revolutionary mod, for the Malvern marque!

The Rover V8 engine installation has necessitated a Woods-Jeffreys thermostatically-controlled electric fan, and the Salisbury back axle has a limited-slip differential and a ratio of 3.58 to 1. The 90º engine goes snugly under the traditional Morgan bonnet with just a slight flattening of the-air-cleaner for the two HS6 SU carburetters. Naturally, the clutch (a 9.5 in.-dia. Borg & Beck), flywheel and starter are special to the Plus-8—it seems that Rover may use these components if and when they bring out a manual-gearbox version of their 3500.

Because the engine is not supplied to the Morgan Motor Company—actually they go to Solihull and collect 15 a month—without exhaust anti-pollution equipment the Plus-8 is not yet an export proposition to America, although it has press-button switches for safety, to comply with that aspect of the U.S.A. safety requirements which are costing such a lot of money to incorporate, and which are restrictive to small-output concerns.

The Morgan has frequently been called a vintage car. It is true it has many vintage-style characteristics, and that its specification includes a real chassis frame, hard springing, and a carefully-hand-made body of steel panelling over a wooden framework, which is hand painted. On the other hand, the Morgan is something quite different from those modern versions of classic cars, such as that terrible Giulia-engined open 1750 Alfa Romeo, pseudo front-drive Cord, mock Mercedes-Benz and Bugatti and the like, of which I refuse to take any notice whatsoever. Either you want a vintage car, or you don’t; to crave the part-attractions of vintagery providing they come with a load of Mod. Cons, makes a mockery of vintage motoring, and I was glad to see the aforesaid imitation 1750 Alfa Romeo referred to in a weekly contemporary very recently as “degenerate”. I would use stronger terms!

The Morgan, however, cannot be classed with these fearful mock-vintage confections, because it is a replica of nothing, has had an unbroken history of production and development, and has been modernised from time to time. The radiator is now cowled in, the headlamps are faired rather grotesquely, into valanced front wings, the screen won’t fold flat, and although the spare wheel is still mounted exposed on the tall—tempting to the wheel and tyre thieves, who are apparently on the increase—it has replaced the twin upright mounted spares which were a proud feature of the Morgan Plus-4 I used to drive as Editorial transport.

So, while we mourn the passing of sports cars such as the H.R.G., Singer Le Mans, Frazer Nash and Rapier, the Morgan survives. How does the Plus-8 behave on the road? Morgan owners need read no further, perhaps—because it behaves just like a Morgan, which is admittedly in a primitive but, in some ways, a fascinatingly unique fashion! Rather delightfully, the only major extra available is a luggage grid!

Driving the Morgan Plus-8

Apart from its very satisfying measurable performance, 100 m.p.h. possible on quite short straights, so quickly and unobtrusively that only radar would notice it, as emphasised by the previously-quoted figures, the truly striking aspect of the Morgan Plus-8’s running is the enormous torque delivered by the engine. Maximum torque is delivered at 3,000 r.p.m. and reaches 210 lb./ft. at 2.700 r.p.m., but the car pulls very smoothly away from a mere 1,000 r.p.m. in top gear, and before 2000 r.p.m. is reached things are very definitely starting to happen! This makes the Morgan as docile and one-gear as any big American sedan! Yet, using the gears, the acceleration is sizzling. The engine runs safely to 5,000 r.p.m. and can be pushed for short periods towards 6,000 r.p.m. Without taking the needle quite to the end of the tachometer scale, this means, apart from bullet-like take-off, maxima in the gears of 40, 70 and just over 100 m.p.h. Running at 30 m.p.h. in towns the Morgan’s engine idles over at under 1.400 r.p.m. in top gear. It is possible to accelerate away without making use of the harsh and notchy gear change, and at 70 m.p.h. the engine will be turning over at less than 3,200 r.p.m. Even so, a higher axle ratio could be used with advantage, although as it is, cruising at 100 m.p.h. on the Continent, the Rover V8 is running within 400 r.p.m. of the beginning of the red-sector on the tachometer.

The gear change is by a splendid little central lever just forward of the facia. It is all too easy to brutally over-ride the synchromesh, which doesn’t exist on bottom gear anyway, but enthusiastic drivers are unlikely to complain unduly! Reverse is selected by lifting the rigid little lever beyond the first-gear location. The clutch is very heavy, but not unduly fierce. The gear lever protrudes directly from the Moss gearbox, out of the transmission tunnel. Ahead of it, rather far forward on the left of the tunnel, though an average-height driver sitting close to the steering wheel had no complaints, is the handbrake—and full marks, for it is the good old true fly-off type. It failed to hold the car only on the steepest gradients.

The Morgan Plus-8 is steered by a 14½ in.-dia. wheel mounted very close to the facia, so that one tends to adopt a cranked-arms driving stance. It is an Astrali wheel with three drilled spokes and a thick rim covered with a laced-up leather glove. The steering is heavy for parking, the huge tyres dragging, dead in feel, a bit jerky in action, and not a lot lighter for sudden changes of direction, although in sober town driving it feels light. There is only very mild castor return, and kick-back is less evident than “fight” over bad surfaces, accentuated by scuttle shake. This is not particularly nice steering, but, at 2.4 turns, lock-to-lock, it is quick and accurate. The big tyres have resulted in a restricted turning circle. The steering pivots require lubrication every day, or every 200 miles—a matter of conscience—which is achieved by prodding a high-set floor button, like a dip-switch. This is hard to press but seems to momentarily drop engine oil pressure by no more than about 10 lb./sq. in. when the lubricant is hot. But it is a crude, messy arrangement and one hopes the strip-steel connections between bronze damper ring and the frame last longer than they used to do, especially as the well-valanced front wings now hide them completely, making inspection impossible and replacement unthinkable.

The ride? Those concerned with modern suspension systems would no doubt cry from anguish or mirth, if driven fast over rough roads in the Plus-8. On really bad going the car seems to have no springs. On less bad roads it just jumps about and rattles. On main roads it floats along nicely. Trying hard on Welsh mountain passes the Morgan felt less safe than the Gilbern and I would think that a competition driver would lose time when the back-end bounced upwards and sideways and by the front-end suddenly going softish. On the other hand, I regard the Morgan as supremely good fun, and very safe, to drive round a race circuit and certainly in ordinary fast road motoring the Dunlop SP Sports refused to breakaway or to protest. The Morgan rides and corners—like a Morgan. Which infers hard springing, negative roll, some understeer. The limited-slip differential and those excellent Dunlops permit lots of throttle to be used out of corners, even on wet roads. Yet although rear-end breakaway is not normal, a dab of throttle helps to balance the cornering by combating the understeer. Over the Aberywesyn-Tregaron mountain road the sheer power of the Plus-8 makes this difficult terrain seem tame, except that the very long bonnet (approximately 6 ft. 10 in. from driver’s eyes to the front of the bonnet, which itself is 4 ft. 2 in. long) masks the road on up gradients; there is the sensation, also associated with long-snouted pre-war cars, of sitting well back and having to steer the bonnet round bends.

The screen now has triple wiper blades but it no longer folds fiat. Visibility is good, in as much as the n/s side lamp and part of the o/s headlamp cowl and vintage-type wing can be seen from the rather low driving seat by the average driver. Naturally, with its hood up things are less pleasant—but who wants to motor in a closed Plus-8, anyway? Especially as the hood’s “lift-the-dot” fasteners required very strong fingers, or assistance from a coin or even a screwdriver, to budge them.

The brakes, which have a Girling vacuum servo, are powerful and seem free from fade. Oil pressure is normally approximately 50 lb./sq. in.

Coming to details, the new seats are very good—comfortable and offering good support. The squabs do not fold, which makes loading and unloading luggage into the carpeted well behind them difficult, hood up—but who wants the hood up, on a Plus-8? If it is put up, perhaps as a sop to some woman, snags arise. Apart from decreased visibility, which the area of transparency doesn’t quite solve, although I have no serious complaints, but I have met hoods with better windows, the doors tended to jamb shut. As they have no external handles, and the side screens and hood cannot be ripped off, the occupants are trapped in the car. Although the doors can be locked, the sliding panels in the Perspex sidescreens have no grips externally, so how does one gain easy re-access, if they are locked? This could be serious in a racing accident, for an unconscious driver would be trapped in the car, with the hood up—and the Plus-8 is said to be faster closed than open, so might well be raced with hood erect. But who wants . . . etc.? Long legs can hurt knees on the back edge of the scuttle when entering the Morgan.

There is an open cubby hole on the n/s of the facia. The instruments, by Smiths, consist of a 140 m.p.h. speedometer, with trip-with-tenths and total mileage recorders, a matching multi-purpose dial (ammeter, fuel gauge, oil gauge and thermometer) and a smaller-dial tachometer before the driver. This means that the speedometer, as it sweeps towards 100 m.p.h., beg pardon, 70 m.p.h., is not easily read by the driver. The speedometer carries the name “Morgan”. The dials are fairly casually calibrated. The ammeter shows 50-50+, the fuel gauge, which has a steady needle, E, ½, F, the oil-gauge 0, 50, 100 and the thermometer H, N, C. Between the two main dials are the press-button switches, which are not illuminated by the instrument lighting and are “fumbly” by day and by night. They are also insensitive for operating two-speed services, such as the wipers, heater-fan, and the lamps. They are nasty, American-inspired substitutes for flick-switches, in fact. On the Plus-8 they are in two rows, with those warning lights not located elsewhere, between them. The top tow, l. to r., serve washers (inoperative on the test car), wipers, the Lucas sealed-beam fog and spotlamps, and heater fan. The lower row, l. to r., serve lamps, a hazard warning and parking lamps. The last-named cuts the ignition, to prevent driving off only half-lit. There is a handbrake-on warning light. A r.h.-stalk control, “borrowed” from a Ford Cortina, works turn-indicators, dips the headlamps, and sounds a subdued horn; it is very close to the facia in the full-beam position. The Lucas sealed-beam headlamps give excellent illumination, on full and dipped beam, better in narrow lanes than on main roads, however. Tucked up under the facia, for the driver’s right hand, is a manual mixture enrichener and a right-angle socket for an ignition-key which can also lock the steering column.

The light doors have useful rigid pockets and quite a lot of luggage can be accommodated behind the seats, in an upholstered well.

Reverting to the Plus-8 on the road, the engine gives a subdued vee-eight exhaust beat (although I was disappointed to find only a single tail-pipe) and is otherwise practically inaudible, although the lower gears howl. The heater wafts plenty of really warm air about, so that hood-down driving is no hardship. The Morgan looks low-hung but didn’t bottom over rock-strewn surfaces. The centre-hinged bonnet opened easily on the o/s, but one of the two press-down catches on the n/s panel was very stiff. The present output of this intriguing Plus-S8 is two a week, but the intention is to increase this to abort five a week by 1969.

The fuel tank has twin quick-action fillers and holds 13½ gallons, giving a range of at least 250 miles in ordinary conditions. Indeed, on mostly main road driving, I recorded 23.6 m.p.g. The intention had been to-do a further check, motoring fast over a familiar Welch mountain road, but in this I was hampered, and had to abandon the idea, because ponies were being taken over it to the November pony sales at Tregaron. Driven hard, consumption would no doubt fall to around 20 m.p.g. The only fault which developed during a three-day test, apart from the difficulty at times of opening the doors (chassis flexion?) was failure of the o/s sidelamp, which responded to the time-honoured thumping on the first occasion but not thereafter. Driving this truly exhilarating car with the hood down, in distinctly cold and wet November weather, to gain the enjoyment and benefit of fresh air, I was disappointed to notice a trace of exhaust fumes in the cockpit. These are probably sucked forward by the aerodynamics of the tail, and no doubt, assuming this was not a fault, of this particular car, a longer or different exhaust tail pipe will be experimented with to cure this annoying shortcoming. With the rigid sidescreens erect draughts are successfully excluded and open-air driving is otherwise a joy.

The Morgan Plus-8 is a true sports car, and a very quick one at that. It weighs around 21 cwt, laden, with sonic 160 b.h.p. to propel it. As I drove it, sighting along the louvred bonnet, air playing around my head, the smell of hot mud coming from the exhaust and that vee-eight wane from behind, nostalgia for the days of pre-war trials, of exploring good country in exciting cars, and memories of V8 and V12 Allards came crowding back. For that alone, I was grateful to this all-yellow Morgan. Regarded purely as a 1968 automobile, the Morgan may be something of a joke. But as a fun and fresh-air car perhaps the only thing comparable (even preferable) to a Plus-8 would be a 30/98. And a brand-new Morgan costs only £1,487, including p.t. and seat belts.—W. B.

 

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