Veteran to Classic

Morgan memories

Some time ago the proud owner of the Morgan Plus-4, KAB 303, reintroduced me to it, reminding me that I had run it as editorial transport in the early 1950s. KAB 303 has more recently changed hands again and its present owner has asked what I remember about it. Too many memories crowd back to put in a letter, so I thought I would write about it here on a sort of “now it can be told” basis. I have been asked to do a classic piece anyway — and I suppose Morgans are now classics — so here you have it. . .

Before this Plus-4 I had a 4/4, PPB 184. New cars were difficult to get after the war but the Morgan Motor Company could supply one with no delays. It seemed appropriate to have a sports car when working for MOTOR SPORT. So, armed with new Bluemels number plates — which in my excitement I left on the train to Malvern — and a cheque for £556, I arrived at the Morgan factory. I was staying at a local hotel overnight, ready to report the RAC Championship Trial the next day. It was freezing, so I asked if there was anti-freeze in the radiator of my brand new motor car, to be told no, and they didn’t have any! I just caught the Morgan agents down the road before they shut and at the kerbside the radiator was flushed out and refilled. Before driving from the works gates I had noticed that the mileometer read almost zero. “How nice,” I remarked to the gateman, “that they zero the trip after road-testing is over.” “No sir,” he said, “it’s you who are doing the testing. It’s never been on the road; that 0.2 miles is the distance from the sheds to the gate . . .’

At first the 4/4 seemed a good idea. The push-rod Standard Ten engine in the 14 1/2 cwt Moggy gave a cruising speed of 50 to 60 mph, with a maximum of about 70 mph, and it averaged 34 1/2 mpg of petrol, which in 1950 cost 3/7 1/2d a gallon (34p), but it pinked on the 7 to 1 c r. I accepted draining the sump every 4000 miles and greasing the i f s sliders every 500 miles. The brakes were adjusted at 2000-mile intervals. So for 6200 miles I motored happily, with only minor maladies. Then, calamity! The constant-mesh third gear shed some teeth. Archers of Aldershot hadn’t a spare gearbox and implied I wouldn’t find one. Rumour, which must be quite wrong, suggested that Peter Morgan had been at the Moss works planning future Morgan transmissions, when he saw a pile of gearboxes in a corner. They had been suspected of having a machining error. But in those post-war years supplies were difficult to obtain and, so the story goes, he bought them, as a reserve of spares. It seems one of these gearboxes had gone into PPB 184 and I was stranded. The solution was for some more money to be offered and the stricken 4/4 to be towed to Malvern Link and exchanged for a new Plus-4, KAB 303.

I had no objection to that, for the Standard Vanguard 2088 cc engine would produce more poke, even if it was a universal power-unit, with tractor associations. So it proved. Not only was the Plus-4 an improvement on the 4/4 — 65/70 mph cruising, 80 in the 4.1 to 1 top gear, the Moss box now beyond reproach (the 3 1/2-litre jaguar also used one), but it had a more spacious body, bigger tyres, better brakes. Lucas double-dip headlamps, and twin spot-lamps — the latter stolen while I was at Silverstone. In third gear (5.4 to 1) 60 mph was possible and a contemporary timed a road test Plus-4 at 86.7 mph in top. We still had Pool petrol in 1951, which I laced with Redex or Carburol. I got an average of 24 1/2 mpg with the middle setting of the Solex carburettor but Jow Lowrey achieved 38.6 from one of these Morgans on a economy rally. The 6.7 to 1 c r caused very little pinking. Oil-thirst was about 1200 mpg of Castrol XL. No longer did one need to grease the i f s; every 500 miles, if you remembered, you pressed a foot-button and engine oil was fed to it, and onto the front tyres! (Oil pressure momentarily dropped from 50/75 lb/sq in to 25, as you attended to this chore).

The vintage aspect of the Morgan, which in my view makes it far more acceptable than modern imitations of vintage cars, and this holds good in 1993, was evident in the unfaired headlamps of the 1950 model, the retention of a separate gearbox, an 11-gallon slab-tank, the steering’s 1 3/4-turns lock-to-lock, and a fold-flat windscreen. So we motored happily about in the Plus-4, sometimes with our youngest daughter in her carry-cot on the back seat — which seems to have ensured that by her teens she was, and remains, a fast and fearless driver who, if I may boast a little, included also, for a time, delayed-drop parachuting among her hobbies. People used to say to me “Of course, you presumably drive very slowly when you have the baby on board?” Frankly, I didn’t, because I try to drive safely at my normal speeds. It was fun, but we had troubles, with the car I mean.

At 1350 miles the clutch wouldn’t free and I had to go down to Malvern to have the engine removed for a stronger lever to be fitted, which took six hours. At 1750 miles the o/s steering damper broke, followed 250 miles later by the n/s one. The steering had little castor-action and to absorb wheel shimmy the pivots were encircled by bronze bushes. If a damper broke and you hit a pothole fierce wheel wobble was apt to set in, which could not be cured even by bracing the steering wheel with one’s thighs. I lived with this until, driving along the Embankment from the office to Hampshire one evening, I saw the drain that would promote this shimmy, as one damper had broken, but could not stop, as I was in heavy traffic. I also noted five motorcycle cops outside Scotland Yard. As my front wheels began their antics these policemen simultaneously kick-started their machines and made a formation loop-turn to my side of the road, pulling me over. You sit low in a Morgan, and the leading cop glared down at me; he asked If I had made the thing myself, which was not calculated to please me! They let me go, warning me to get the steering repaired at the nearest garage.

Needless to say, I continued home. Morgan’s solution was to issue a simple mod. The bronze dampering was connected to the side members by flat strips of steel and the shimmy intruded when the up and down flexing with suspension movements cracked these and they broke. To cure this had meant dismantling the entire i f s. Now the factory came up with a section of strip steel which could be unbolted between bush and chassis if it broke, and a new piece inserted! Before I was issued with this wonderful mod, Archers had replaced the faulty original steel strips and a broken n/s rebound spring — at a cost of £2 and 1 1/2 car-less days. On the whole, and for other reasons, the steering was not the Plus-4’s best feature . . . The Irish rally driver C S Porter had this damper problem three times, before he replaced the strip steel with Balata flat belting.

Other troubles arose. The radiator, wracked by that shimmy, sprang a leak. The new n/s steering damper broke again, at 7970 miles, but the other one would just about control the wheel wobble if its bolts were kept tight and you avoided the worst of the pot-holes. Alpine Rally driver Dave Price experienced this infuriating trouble until a French garage cut him new strips of sawsteel. Steering kick-back was induced by the Morgan’s weak scuttle and horrific freeplay developed at the wheel-rim, five inches after a year’s driving — no MoTs then, however. . . And the drop-arm almost detached itself from the steering box. After 15,645 miles both the tyres then used as spares were bald, the other four not too badly worn.

I had noticed that 10.5 miles showed on the odometer when the car was new, so that was presumably the extent of a newly introduced road test! I was told to decarbonise the engine after 5000 miles, which although a duffer with tools, I did myself. But at 9800 miles the head gasket blew. Oh, and the too-flexible rubber engine-mounts would slide the flexible exhaust piping adrift at awkward moments. One good aspect though was the reliability of the Champion L10 plugs. A few other items gave trouble but on the whole I enjoyed dashing about on MOTOR SPORT business in the Morgan, which was then the least expensive sportscar on the British market, until the MG TD undercut its £535 by less than a fiver. The urge was acceptable from this two-litre 16 1/2 cwt car, but some experts thought it should have had a higher top gear. I never got more than an 80 mph speedometer reading out of mine.

The next disaster was my fault. I was driving in the early morning to the 1951 London MC’s Gloucester Trial in wintery conditions when I saw some girls waiting for a bus and thought they might like to see a demonstration of how drivers like Ascari and Fangio took corners. By now the Plus-4 was on rather bald tyres and as I accelerated hard it spun, was almost corrected, then slid across the road on black ice into a parked lorry. Not content, it then slid round the side of the truck on the rebound and attacked it again, immobilising its brake gear. My gloved left hand had flattened the Ruby A7-like ignition-key but I managed to switch off, spat out a broken tooth, and got out. The village bobby arrived and was commendably sympathetic — even to turning a blind eye when I presented him with an unsigned driving licence. The lorry driver, too, bore no malice. “Ice formed there, it was known then to be a dangerous corner.” The policeman even accompanied me to the village bus stop, the Morgan being a write-off, in case I fainted before the Gloucester bus arrived! A train eventually got me to Reading, where I felt a bit exhausted, having not eaten all day. Told that the last bus for Fleet had gone, I just managed to scramble aboard a service bus, taking drivers and conductors there, and they very decently let me ride with them. A long walk, and I was home.

There is a sequel. We offered the insurance rebuild to Morgan, who said “yes please”. Many weeks later I was told the Plus-4 was ready. Train to Malvern, to find them putting the engine back in. When the car was finally ready I was sorry to see that the smooth tyres had not been changed and even that bent ignition-key had been hammered flat and used again — is pennypinching the term? However, my Morgan was back. I continued to use it until changing it for a black VW Beetle in 1954. Having to hire a Morris 8 when, 11,200 miles after the rebuild that followed my prang, the shaft between Vanguard engine and Moss gearbox sheared, was just too much and the Morgan had to go.

Looking back, I remember my Morgans with quite a degree of nostalgia. Had the Plus-4 not “folded up” readily when it hit that lorry head-on I might have suffered more than just a cracked fountain pen that was in my breast pocket and three weeks with a bruised chest, although the many clothes I was wearing for that winter drive probably also absorbed the impact. And after KAB 303 had been passed on I used to visit Peter Morgan at each London Show to congratulate him on refusing to “modernise” his splendidly individual sports cars. New engines, more power and a few desirable refinements along the years, but always, as it has to this day, the original concept stood firm. (I recall being slightly sorry to see faired-in headlamps, perhaps necessitated because Lucas was not keen on continuing to make “vintage” lamps, but adjustable seats were another matter — both my Moggys had fixed slab-seats, the cushion supported by a slender wood crossbar and while the driving position was excellent for me, I wondered how six-foot customers fared; the floorboards were unpainted planks, and on the 4/4 you had to unscrew those in the boot to expose the battery…)

It was also fun to look over the little factory at Malvern Link, more or less unchanged from the three-wheeler days and find Peter Morgan in his modest office, making cars for enthusiasts as his father had done before him and enjoying driving his Ferrari when he was not driving his Morgans, and his nice country house — a far cry from those tycoons who battled to run vast corporations such as British Leyland, amid all the hassle, anxiety, and ulcer-production of that very different lifestyle.

Recently I was able to enjoy two laps of the Silverstone Club circuit in KAB 303 with David Harrison who had entered it for the MOTOR SPORT Concours d’Elegance at the HSCC Race Meeting there on September 25. In sparkling condition, the car is not quite as I remembered it, because a previous owner had endowed it with a Triumph TR competition engine, a new twill hood and stoneguards over the headlamps. But how nice to know that this once-ill-fated Morgan has survived and is still appreciated.