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April 1972

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The Morgan Syndrome



Long ago I gave up trying to explain just why the hell I hang on to my Morgan +4 Drophead. As in the case of all eccentricities, owning a Morgan cannot be rationalized by conventional means of applied logic. Our lives are full of the secret knowledge that there's a hell of a lot more that cannot be explained than the few trivialities of existence that can. The classical concept of a kid, any kid, lying flat on his back gazing up at the unplumbed heavens, peering at the countless galaxies, asking the eternal question "What's it all .about?" says it all. Unfortunately, or maybe inevitably, as we' grow older we cease to ask that question, knowing damn well it will never be answered. For that reason and others beyond the scope of this lecture, I no longer attempt to rationalize owning a Morgan. Oh, I have my credentials. Push a fanatic to the wall and he'll whip out his letters of endorsement, a well-thumbed book of dogma, an icon, in a feeble attempt to prove that he is on the right track. Mystics sit cross-legged peering at the searing sun until they are blinded forever! Old ladies with blue hair quote Redbook; downy-faced youths squirt chemicals into their veins, all in a scrabbling futile attempt to get at it. If you think I'm a late convert to the inexplicable world of the Morgan owner, I'll lay my credentials on you. During one brief catastrophic period in my life I was a Morgan dealer! If there's anything harder to explain than Morgan ownership it is Morgan dealership. Face it, if you dig a thing you dig it and there is no explaining the Why. There certainly are undeniable truths about the venerable English marque which has clung to the outskirts of the automobile world with masochistic tenacity for decades. Let others follow the trends, Peter Morgan (and presently his son) persisted in building these uncomfortable, drafty, body-punishing Spartan machines. Curiously, in its anachronistic way the Morgan is one of the few cars built anywhere that could make it with today's seed-eating, earth-digging youth. The Morgan, is composed largely of wood. Mull that over for a moment or two. Wood; real rotting, termite prone, flammable wood. Morgan owners are the only car cuckoos in the world who exchange tips on how to combat termites, aphids and Dapple Oak Fungus. The seats of my Drophead + 4 consist of stitched leather pads which are not filled with foam rubber, springs or plastic sponging but inflatable natural rubber bladders that you blow up with your mouth, just like inflating any damn balloon. These repose on little wooden removable platforms, and that's all there is. The fenders, bonnet, miniscule doors are made of what appears to be armour-plate of the sort that was so valuable to Monty at El Alamein. The control panel is hewn of solid walnut. I repeat, solid walnut; not veneer, not plywood, not Formica. Since a Morgan has a turning ratio that approaches 1 : 1 , the steering wheel resembles that on a 1923 Mack truck, a huge black perfect circle dissected by four very solid nickel-plated spokes. In turn the whole thing bolts up to the steering column with a large nickel nut, and that in turn moves the front wheels which are held free of the chassis by Morgan's unique "sliding pillar" suspension. All of which gives its driver the sense of being connected directly with every pot-hole in the road. Going over a set of railroad tracks in a Morgan has to be one of the more violent experiences available to modern man short of total war. Since the Morgan was designed for Englishmen, the tortures built into it are acceptable as mere manifestations of the English national character. After all, they are the race that bred Richard The Lion Hearted who, would have. made a great Morgan owner. Like Mount Everest a Morgan is simply there. Value judgments are unnecessary. And also like Mount Everest, conquering a Morgan is not everyone's dish of tea. In fact, damn few. And those who do are constantly tortured by a love/hate relationship that never stops. One instant, as you drive through a difficult S-bend, your Morgan hanging in low and tough, you feel there can be no greater ecstasy in driving. The next instant, after inadvertently driving over a pebble in the road, you have received a near-fatal shot in the kidneys and are wrestling to regain control as you curse the day you ever heard of the goddamn Morgan. Yet any man who has ever owned one and sold it, vaguely regrets the day he let it go. Why? No one knows. There are other facets to the Morgan that are part of its curious charm. If you can call it charm. No two Morgans are alike. I have seen hundreds, and each is distinct and separate from the next in a thousand countless ways. When you have acquired a Morgan it is truly your Morgan. In that respect they're like horses. There may be superficial similarities but deep. down inside each has its own individual soul. There are unpleasant Morgans; there are docile, friendly, and reliable Morgans. There are rakish Morgans. I have yet to meet a dull Morgan. I have owned several, but the one I currently harbor and feed suits me, personally, better than any I have known. Built in 1963, it is one of the comparatively rare Drophead models. Powered by a TR4 engine, equipped with disc brakes, it is a curiously satisfying machine. Fast, noisy, with spectacularly clean lines, it seems to be a permanent part of my life. There are other odd side effects to Morgan ownership. For example, I rarely leave the car parked anywhere but what there isn't a note stuck under the minute windshield wipers when I get back. They usually read: How much do you want for it? I'll pay anything! Signed: Distraught. And occasionally the notes get more exotic. For example, one read: My god, you're the first Morgan nut I've run into in this state. It is crawling with Corvette creeps. Am restoring a '53 Roadster which I trucked in from a junkyard in San Diego. Call me. I have to talk to a friend. It is a rare day when there isn't a small crowd of admirers and scoffers hanging around my Morgan wherever it is parked. But these are only superficial benefits to being saddled with one of the beasts. For example, there is the constant need to explain to the unwashed what it is and why you own it. Every Morgan owner develops a set story which he automatically parrots every time he's asked by the inevitable slackjawed dildock: "Guh . . . what is it, one a'them old -MG's? Guh ... can't afford a new car, huh? Har de har har. Guh . . " My own story, after hundreds of different variations, is now designed to infuriate and further compound the mystery. ME: No, I don't know exactly what it is. CLOD: What do you mean you don't know what it is. Says 'Morgan' on the radiator. ME: True. But I never saw another one. So I figure some guy named Morgan musta made it in his basement and put his name on it. Either that or it's a fake name. It might be some kind of Model A. CLOD: No kidding? I'll be damned. Can't be no Model A. It's too low. Still all Morgan owners motor through the world alone; romantic, faintly damned riders who drive to a different tappet knock. Like Lawrence of Arabia they go their violent way dreaming incomprehensible dreams that have no place in today's world. Interestingly enough, most Morgan owners have found that even among owners of so-called sports cars - the Sprites, the TR6s, the 914s-they are completely persona non grata. It is a rare Porsche owner who will even glance at a passing Morgan. Does he feel inferior? Is he afraid of exposure? Does the unknown strike terror into his heart? The other day something happened to me in my Morgan that brought this whole thing home. I was invited to appear on a Miami television show called PM MIAMI to talk about my book, Wanda Hickey's Night of Golden Memories, and Other Disasters. I wheeled up to their studio on Biscayne Boulevard in the Morgan. The girl who does the show, Sally Jessy, took one look at the car and cried, "Oh, what a cute car. Isn't it cute! What a cute car! Wouldn't it be darling if we had the car on the show!" I figured what the hell, that's Showbiz. First they were going to talk about Wanda and now the goddamn car has upstaged me again. Oh well. . . . At the time I did not have the slightest suspicion that disaster was rapidly approaching, fangs dripping, talons clutching. They told me to drive around the back of the station so we could get the car into the studio. I wheeled up to the huge metal electric doors, which silently slid upward. Every TV station has a loading dock where sets, props, heavy equipment and so forth are brought into the building. The concrete floor of the studio was about five feet above the level of the driveway. They had placed two narrow metal tracks that rested on the driveway and l led up to the floor level. They were adjustable in width but just lay like two narrow iron planks that looked a little shaky to me, but I figured What the hell, they must know what they're doing. A cool, bearded director stood at the top of the ramp, giving me what appeared to be authoritative hand signals. I inched upwards. The car tilted at such an angle that I couldn't see the tracks. "A little to the left. Easy now. Little to the right." I inched up the groaning metal ramp. All drivers have a secret fear of falling off a grease rack. I am not immune to this fear. "Okay, you're doing fine." He motioned me forward. "Y'got it made." My front wheels had just reached the main floor. The car was tilted almost 45 degrees. I felt a sudden tremor, and KARASH! The left ramp gave way and the bottom dropped out of my world, the ceiling spun and the Morgan hung suspended, its tough frame clinging to the top ledge, its right front wheel spinning in space, and me expecting the car to flip over on top of my head any second. A crowd of directors and cameramen stood around the scene of disaster, their mouths hanging open, eyeballs popping. I crawled gingerly-upward through the opened right-hand door to the concrete platform. There hung my Morgan. For a second I figured, forget it, she's bought it, but I had underestimated the tough bastard once again. One of the cameramen yelled "Quick, let's grab the back and lift her up." We crowded to the rear and seven or eight of us just lifted up the rear wheels and coasted the car safely to the concrete level to which it had been clinging so tenaciously. That night, in full color, the Morgan was the sensation of Miami television. The next day I took it in to Alpine Motors, Fort Lauderdale, for a complete checkup. Not a damn thing out of place, not even a scratch . I can't think of another car in the world that could have pulled it off. Unless it would be another Morgan.


Copyright: 1972 Car and Driver