Track test -- Morgan Plus 8

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A Breeding Improvement

80 years is a long time and yet the chances are that at most weekends of the year you will find at least one example flying the flag somewhere in the country. It may be hillclimbing or trials testing but the chances are that it will be doing what it is best at, and that is track racing.

It has not always been like that of course. In the early years the 3-wheeler Morgans were famous for their trials successes; even as early as 1911 HFS Morgan winning a gold medal in one of his cars on the ACU Six Days’ Trial, which was to be the first of a huge number accumulated by the marque over the next 25 years.

It was in the Twenties that the company partially diverted its attention to record-breaking with the likes of Ware, Hawkes, Fernihough, and Lones setting the pace while in 1925 Beart’s 1100cc car covered the flying start kilometre at 103.37 mph becoming in the process the first 3-wheeler to be officially timed at over 100 mph. These activities rather compensated for the fact that 3-wheelers were forbidden to take part in car races at Brooklands from 1924-1928.

Even when the first 4-wheeler was produced in 1936, it continued the company’s tradition in rallies and trials, George Goodall making the small open-car class of the RAC Rally his own with victories in 1937, 1938 and 1939. This was backed up in that last year before the outbreak of war by HFS Morgan who dominated the closed-car category in the drophead coupé introduced that year.

Track activities were of much less importance to the company despite a win first time out in the 1937 Ulster Trophy driven by R Campbell, a sucess which was backed up by McCracken’s win in the Leinster race that year and Campbell’s second place at Limerick in 1938. Examples were also raced at Le Mans that year, Miss Fawcett and White coming home in 13th place and White and Anthony 15th a year later.

Even in the Fifties, the Plus Four with the 2088cc Standard Vanguard engine, which superseded the 4/4, was used far more extensively in rallying than for anything else. Outright victory in the 1952 and 1953 London Rallies, the team award on the 1951 RAC Rally, class victories in the Lisbon and Evian-Mont Blanc that year, second place, the team award, the ladies’ prize and two class victories in the 1953 MCC Rally, overall victory in the 1954 Scottish and a class win the next year, plus third place on the 1956 RAC Rally backed up by a class win, were just some of the successes achieved by the company’s products.

It was not until the turn of that decade that Morgans began to be seen more often on the track, more due to the efforts of Morgan enthusiasts and specialists, in particular Chris Lawrence of Lawrencetune, than due to the company itself.

The results were never as impressive in international racing as they had been in rallying, but second place in its class in the 1961 Spa GP for GT cars, a class victory in the Guards Trophy at Brands Hatch, 13th place and first in class in the 1962 Le Mans event and eighth in the TT were nonetheless encouraging. It was at this time, though, that the Morgan was to find its true niche in life, and one in which it has flourished ever since — that of club racer.

There are a number of reasons for its popularity which range from general reliability, the relative ease of tweaking more power out of the engine, and simple mechanicals, to that nostalgic feeling of driving a car from the vintage era with bonnet stretching out ahead of you. It also has a reputation for handling well thanks to its flexible chassis which is stiff across the front and not much roll resistance at the rear which endows the car with a pleasant handling characteristic, especially in fast corners.

Morgans race in several championships ranging from HSCC events to the Morgan club’s own championships sponsored this year by the Morgan factory. In the former series they are up against Porsches, Lotus and Caterham 7s, Marcoses etc and fool everyone, especially newcomers, with their competitiveness. It is in their own championship, however, that the gloves come off and those at the serious end of the grid look for that “unfair” advantage. One of those is Colin Musgrove, Morgan specialist, who prepares his own car for Peter Garland to drive.

Such was the competition last year and such was the complexity of the regulations that Garland missed out on the championship by 0.07 of a point. This year, though, the rules have been simplified so that everyone knows what he has to do to win.

Musgrove’s car started life as a bog standard 4-speed Plus 8 in 1973, but was rebuilt by Colin Musgrove Racing and developed over the years for racing but at the same time, it was still road registered and legal. This year, though, has seen a major modification which has proved to be very successful.

“We’ve taken off the Weber 48 carburettors, which we were running on last year, and replaced them with Weber throttle bodies with a Micos injection system to improve torque.” The system has been mapped by John Eales of JE Motors, the company which prepared the map of the 4.4s for the works Range Rovers in the Paris-Dakar, Musgrove’s car, in fact, using Patrick Tambay’s spare Micos system. The cam has been changed from 248 to 256 which gives slightly improved power at higher revs.

“The advantages of fuel injection is that it has colossal tractability, plus the fact that all we wanted to do was make the quantum leap from being one of the best prepared carburettored engines to being the first running with fuel injection. We now have the start, but there is a lot more to come.”

It is a complicated system which requires various back-up systems to understand it, so you need an IBM compatible lap computer so you can actually check the system out. The Micos system is very good insofar as it has a jack plug into which a computer is plugged for all the basic readings that are required straightaway “so we can see immediately where there’s a mistake in any one of the sensors. Rectifying it is another matter, but at least you can pinpoint where it is.”

“The only problem we’ve had was a chance in a million when one considers that these things reached Dakar from Paris through sand and desert, but when fitted to our car, we had a broken main hall-effect sensor which is the main crankshaft speed sensor.” The hall-effect system is the one which actually measures the crankshaft to almost one second of rotational degrees, which it does by forming a square time wave. Instead of having a point going past another point which becomes less accurate the faster it goes, this system actually measures it coming, going and passing, rather like the Doppler effect with a train so that it is much more accurate.

“At Brands Hatch, at the beginning of the season, it was misfiring in practice, but in the race the thing completely went out. When we took it off the actual magnet, which is rather like a crystaline material, was completely broken and had disappeared.”

“The main advantage of the system, apart from the increased torque and tractability, is that we are now at the base of the development of this system as opposed to the limit of the development of the old system. So there’s a long way to go with it whereas there wasn’t anywhere to go with the previous system.”

Is this not an unfair advantage, especially if his is the only car with it? “No, I don’t think so. The standard car was fuel injected. The original system we were going to employ was the Weber Alpha system which is available over the counter for £1500, cheaper, almost, than carburettors and manifolds. We bought that, but unfortunately we had some problems with Weber being unable to run at high revs as the spark was breaking down and the ECU was not really compatible for running a high-revving multicylinder engine. It’s very good on a 4-cylinder engine running to 11,000 rpm but on the V8s, the spark is breaking down between 6200 and 6300 rpm. Weber suggested running two ECUs but that was a bit of a fatuous suggestion,” scoffs Musgrove. The engine can now rev to 7200 rpm, the normal rev limit, with another six thousand revs left in the spark box before there is any sign of a spark breakdown.

The advantage of using an engine management system is that the car can run on unleaded fuel and the air/fuel ratio mixture can be programmed over a huge range. On the day Musgrove’s car had been mapped to allow a 12 to 1 air/fuel ratio mixture all the way from top to bottom, from 600 to 7000 rpm.

Musgrove maintains that his customers always benefit from his racing activities. “People think it is a nice way to indulge myself in my life-time passion and even get paid for it. But that’s not the case as it means that anything we try out on the racing cars are offered on the road-going cars. Development through motor racing, especially at the level we race at, can be passed on to the customer. The brakes, for example, are uprated. There is a good argument to say that the factory spec ones are not good enough for a car of this performance, and the front discs on the Morgan are virtually the same as on an Opel Manta. They are adequate but not brilliant. Our disc brake system is a direct bolt-on replacement for the drum brakes; we think Morgan ought to be using it anyway.”

Everything about the car is functional: the dashboard, with a large red oil pressure warning light; the prominent oil temperature gauge; the rev counter, where the first 4000 revs hardly register; the defunct speedometer which has been relocated in front of the passenger’s seat; and the lack of legroom for a passenger due to the installation of the dry sump system.

Rear vision is interrupted by the roll-bar, while to the front, trumpets peep through the louvred bonnet. To keep the car as close to the deck as possible, the car has a large front skirt which is louvred so that the air can be extracted for greater downforce. In place of the spare wheel at the rear, plumbing for the 10-gallon fuel tank takes up all the available space and includes the external installation of a pump usually found inside most production petrol tanks. This is altogether a functional, but well constructed, machine.

With first gear a dog-leg away on this five-speed gearbox, it takes some getting used to the gearbox, but once mastered, the gears clunk home with a reassuring feel, giving the feeling that if there are any problems on the car, they are unlikely to involve the transmission.

This is a racing machine, so a fairly brutal use of the strong clutch, combined with 4000 rpm on the tachometer, is required to get any kind of getaway from stationary for racing purposes. Normal road driving, however, requires nothing more than a gentle 1200 rpm. It is prepared to amble down the road, obeying every speed limit, never pushing the driver to flout the law. It is, however, rather like the cat that ate the canary. It takes only a small prod of the throttle to realise that there is something very special about this car, that there is something not quite normal under the bonnet. It is an exhilarating experience opening up the throttle. The car leaps forward, the back tyres scrabbling for grip, but the BF Goodrich tyres hardly complain. Such is the power of the engine that even in a straight line you can induce wheelspin without too much trouble, which can make life very interesting when pressing on along twisty and bumpy country lanes. The Musgrove brakes, however, offer some sort of compensation in their effectiveness, although even here one has to be careful in their application lest the tail begins to slip out of line.

As is to be expected, the ride is quite hard but a great improvement on the standard model, although the dampers on Musgrove’s car can be adjusted for road or track use. The car can get caught out when steaming through a bumpy corner, some understeer snapping into sudden oversteer at the limit, but that is only likely to happen on the race track. The over-riding memory of the car, however, is that rorty, powerful V8, wailing through the gears up to the rev limiter, begging to be abused, daring you to take it nearer the limit, but one that demands respect.

After the disappointment of the opening race at Brands Hatch, the season started to improve. A second place at Donington, where they beat the lap record by some two seconds, and a win and fastest lap at Pembrey in the Morgan championship, another victory (by 57 seconds) and fastest lap in the Morgan Club’s 40th anniversary race all stand testimony to the car’s competitiveness and preparation. The greatest thrill for the team this year, however, was the poleman’s award they won in July at Donington for winning pole by the greatest margin. What put the icing on the cake for Colin Musgrove was the fact that they were presented the trophy by the Managing Director of Securicor in front of 35,000 people and had beaten the British Touring Car teams to it. They then went on to win the race by 40 seconds.

This is undoubtedly one of the fastest Morgans still suitable for the road around at the moment. The fact that it is winning races wherever it appears and the fact that all the feedback from its racing activities are finding their way onto those cars which go through Musgrove’s hands, are a couple of very good reasons why Musgrove should continue racing — and not be accused of letting others pay for his hobby! — WPK

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