History/driving impressions originally published in AutoWeek March 28, 1988, republished by the author
The banjo-strung Blumel’s Brooklands steering wheel is close, good for huddling for warmth, but it still leaves my elbow in the chill autumn morning air and my upright posture would be more appropriate in a front row church pew than at the controls of an automobile.
But I am, and looking down the long louvered hood, the leather strap across to its curve vibrating, the top snapping overhead in the wind. The flat windshield is but about a foot high and the world is viewed as if from a turret, sighting down the barrel as it swings to and fro over friend and foe of the empire.
This is a 1956 Morgan Plus-4, the arch-classical British sports car, obsolete when born but still more than competitive with its peers on the racetrack or road. The Morgan story is that of H.F.S. Morgan and the three-wheeler he built in the workshops of Malvern College in 1909. With its motorcycle engine hung out front and little in the way of weight to pull around, it was a vehicle of decidedly sporting character and of such popularity that he soon found himself building them for sale. Every Morgan since has been to at least no small degree sporting.
First were the famous three-wheeled Morgan’s: The first cycle car race at Brooklands was won by a Morgan Runabout in 1912, and soon Morgan was knocking on the door of 60 miles in one hour, a heady feet for even four-wheel automobiles at the time. Morgan prevailed with the three-wheel idea, even to building four-cylinder Ford-engined models with back seats for the performance-minded family man. But times change, and in 1936 Morgan brought forth the 4/4 – for four cylinders and four wheels – while at the same time offering three-wheelers.
The war came and the war went and Morgan found itself building cars again. The three-wheelers were to last until 1952, but the 4/4 went even sooner, replaced by a car that looked much the same but carried a number of improvements, including “one shot” suspension lubrication, larger tires and a larger cockpit. The biggest change, however, was the engine. The Ford was gone (later to return), replaced by a larger (2088 cc), more powerful (68 hp at 4300 rpm) Standard Vanguard unit with overhead valves. Thus was begot the Plus-4.
It was a winner out of the box. Faster than the 4/4, it was also faster than the competition and became a regular victor at sports cars events. It sold well and, in contrast to before the war, especially so in the US. Through the ‘50s the Plus-4 continue to change: headlights were cowled into the fenders (‘53), the flat radiator was replaced by a curved grille (‘54). Most significant was the introduction of the TR2 engine. At 1991 cc, the Triumph engine made 90 hp, enough to put the Morgan, wind-grabbing aerodynamics and all, into a still-select 100 mph-club.
The styling was enough that even The Autocar, a British publication, called it old-fashioned, but also found that the lightweight of the Morgan allowed the “extraordinary performance.” The standing quarter mile took 18.5 seconds, 0-60 only 13.3 seconds. Remember, this is 1954. In 1955 Road & Track got 18.3 in the quarter and 10.8 for 0-60, while calling it “strongly reminiscent of the old MG TC – but with lots of muscle.”
The allusion to the TC was largely a result of Morgan’s “firm” ride, and that’s how the magazine puts it, with quotes around. The stiff ride has become legendary, so much so that I was ready for the worst when John Wright of Temple Hills, Md., offered his 1956 Plus-4 (of which he recently completed restoration) for evaluation. Wright’s Morgan, by the way, is one of the last built to carry twin spares, the Malvern factory’s concession to British trials enthusiasts and the pair of knobby tired rims they needed for off-road sports. John left the front bumper off, favoring a competition look.
Anyway, I was prepared to go crashing across pebbles and mouse hairs as if in a crazed go-cart that grew up and got fenders. I found it no worse than my GLH Turbo. It’s not bad over a smooth road and all one has to slow for is what one should slow for anyway. Take that for what it’s worth. The cars are likewise similar in quickness and precision of their steering, though would that the Morgan had a little of the Omni’s power steering (but without the loss of feel). The other link in the Morgan’s suspension is the seat: The cushion is an inflatable bladder that must have been inspired by, um, a certain surgery. Incidentally, the only seat adjustment is how much care you put in.
The gearbox is the notorious Moss. It’s a four-speed with synchro on the top three and its, well, not the speediest of gears-swappers. The synchronizers only ask a little patience on your part. The box is not connected directly to the bellhousing, but sits slightly back with the gear lever going directly into the transmission itself. Slow it might be, but, my, you feel the march of time through that shifter.
There wasn’t room under that nifty louvered bonnet for air cleaners for the pair of SU carbs so they run naked and hiss in concert with the rort from the exhaust. The stock muffler’s a glass-pack type in an enlarged section of pipe. The only room for luggage is the small area behind the seats. The directional signals are non-self-canceling. The brown on white instruments are nifty, but the speedo, over in front of the passenger, is hard to read. The fenders will eventually crack where they mount to a bracket. The wood framework that supports the sheet-metal will eventually rot.
There are so many disadvantages to the Morgan that the temptation is to retreat to modernity. But as a comedian I heard on the radio that morning said, “So what you want to do, live in a mall?” The Morgan is the antithesis of mall-ism, and before the morning was out we were scheming how to do One Lap in a Morgan. What bothers me was that I was starting to take it seriously…
But, hey, who wants to live in a mall?
A cultural artifact: “One Lap” is a reference to One Lap of America, an event that began in 1984 and featured time trials in locations around the country and to which competitors drove from site to site without the benefit of support vehicles, carrying everything they would need along the way. It was—and continues to be—a feat of endurance as much as driving skill. Doing it in a Morgan would make as much sense as, to borrow a phrase, going out in the midday sun. With Englishmen.