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Morgan 4/4

Morgan 4/4

By Jack Nerad

Morgan 4/4 If the definition of a classic is something that has stood the test of time, then the Morgan 4/4 is the epitome of the term. In continuous production since 1936, except for those dark years of World War II when Britain didn't produce any civilian cars at all, the 4/4 has gone from contemporary to venerable to outdated to rejuvenated to out-moded to timeless over the course of its seven decades. Now that a new millennium has dawned, with the British auto industry teetering on the brink of implosion and/or suicide, it seems truly a miracle that the Morgan make has survived. Yet, survive, it has, and prospered.

When one considers the history of Morgan, one doesn't just marvel that it is around today. One has to marvel that it got off the ground at all. You see, Henry Frederick Stanley Morgan, the founder of the feast, wasn't very keen on building cars in the first place. Born the son of a minister in 1881, Morgan studied at the Crystal Palace engineering college, a school not noted for its football team, and, at the same time, he took a job as a draftsman with the Great Western Railroad. His first close encounter with that then-rare species, the automobile, came right after the turn of the century, and it was not a happy one. The Benz auto that he borrowed took off with him down a steep grade and crashed, setting him back some 28 pounds in repair costs.

Despite that harrowing beginning, though, the auto bug had bit, and in 1906 Morgan walked away from his job working on the railroad and went into business as a garage owner and bus line operator. His fleet of buses consisted of one 10-horsepower Wolseley that seated 15 passengers, but the business was successful, and soon he became the local sales agent, i.e. "dealer," for both Wolseley and Darraq.

Reaching some level of affluence, he purchased his first car, an Eagle Tandem three-wheeler with an eight-horsepower engine built by De Dion. In the tradition of Henry Royce and James Packard, the engineer in Morgan told him he could do better. So, with the help of a professor named Stephenson Peach, Morgan drew up a simple but well-thought-out design that was a significant improvement on the Eagle. Like the Eagle, it was a three-wheeler, a design that had significant advantages in light weight and ease of manufacture. Instead of a rear end, half shafts and a differential, the power from the engine could be supplied very easily to the single rear wheel via a chain. In effect, cars like the Eagle and Morgan's were half-car, half-motorcycle and are generically termed "cyclecars."

Morgan's design advanced the science of the cyclecar in three areas. First, it used a very stiff tube frame chassis that was also lightweight. Second, its independent front suspension was so good that it has continued through the Morgan line with just slight variations for nearly 90 years. And, third, it was fitted with a robust seven-horsepower Peugeot engine that gave it one of the best power-to-weight ratios of its era. Consequently, in terms of acceleration, it was one of the quickest cars of the time.

Even with a high quality machine on his hands, Morgan was reluctant to take it any farther, but so many friends, acquaintances and strangers asked to buy copies of the first three-wheeler that he realized he had a potential business success on his hands. So Morgan borrowed some cash from his father the rector and expanded the operation of Malvern Garage to build a series of cyclecars. Luckily he didn't affix the initials of his business to their radiator caps or he would have pre-empted the name of another legendary British sports car, the Triumph, no, no, sorry, the MG.

A brace of Morgan three-wheelers made their first public appearance at the Olympia Motor Show of 1910. Reflecting their motorcycle heritage, both were single-seat models. (In fact, Morgan's first attempt at a motorized vehicle was a two-wheel motorcycle, but his seven-horsepower Peugeot engine proved very unwieldy in that configuration, so he fashioned the now-classic sliding-axle front suspension to keep from tipping over.) One of the show vehicles was fitted with a two-cylinder eight-horsepower J.A.P. engine while the other had a single-cylinder four-horsepower J.A.P. engine, but neither set the show on fire, and Morgan determined that he had better start building more practical two-seaters.

The two-seat versions of the eight-horsepower car debuted the following year, but in the meantime one of the single-seaters had won a gold medal in the London-Exeter-London Reliability Trial, which was terrific publicity for the fledgling enterprise. When the two-seaters hit the market, Morgan was so deluged with orders that he sought out a possible arrangement with a larger manufacturer, but such a deal was not forthcoming, and he again expanded his Malvern Garage facilities to build more vehicles.

It wasn't until a year later in 1912 that Morgan Motor Company was officially formed with H.F.S. Morgan's reverend father as chairman of the board, but by then, on the strength of a superior product, the company was well on its way. That same year, with H.F.S. at the wheel, a Morgan broke the 1100 cubic centimeter class record at Brooklands, by covering just short of 60 miles in one hour's time. The company quickly added other trials and hill climb honors to its trophy case, and in one fuel economy test a Morgan turned in a remarkable 69.4 miles-per-gallon performance. The company's reputation was enhanced still further in 1913 when it went racing in earnest, building a longer, lower chassis and fitting it with an overhead-valve J.A.P. engine. One such machine won the French Cyclecar Grand Prix that year with journalist-racer W.G. McInnies at the controls, another public relations triumph. But, unfortunately, the days of the three-wheeler were numbered. Over in America the cyclecar phenomenon had never grown to the extent it had in Britain and on the Continent. Wealthy U.S. playboys demanded more substantial sports models like the Stutz and the Mercer, while those seeking cheap transport opted for the Ford Model T. Even in Europe the trend was to light cars and four-wheel cyclecars instead of the three-wheeled contraptions, but though Morgan did design a prototype four-wheel vehicle in 1915, it never reached the production stage. Instead, after World War I ended in late 1918, Morgan Motor Company expanded its market by offering four-passenger three wheelers.

Still Morgan was more of a cottage industry than an industrial giant with a production rate of some 50 cars per week in 1920.

The company enjoyed continued success through the 1920s, mining the idiosyncratic niche of the British and European three-wheeler market. Not surprisingly with two of its three wheels up front, Morgan was a pioneer in the installation of front-wheel brakes during the decade. It also continued to enjoy success on the racetrack, and there were times, according to Morgan lore, that the swift three-wheelers were required to start a lap behind their four-wheeled classmates to even their advantage. The marque developed such a reputation that copies were soon being produced under license in France.

The onset of the Great Depression put a crimp in Morgan's progress, but as maker of inexpensive transportation it was able to move forward with a substantially revamped model in 1931. Not only did the vehicle still have three wheels, it also had three forward speeds, reverse and single-chain drive. By 1933 the firm introduced another new model, the "F" Super Two-seater complete with a 10 horsepower Ford engine. But by the mid-Thirties Morgan was on the verge of a revolution. In the Paris and London motor shows of 1936, as Hitler was beginning his land-grabs in the Rhineland and Czechoslovakia, Morgan exhibited a four-wheel vehicle.

The new model was called the Morgan Four Four, a redundant effort to differentiate it from the three wheelers. The first "four" signified four cylinders, while the second designated four wheels. In its design the 4/4, used the experience the Morgan works had gained in its quarter century of light car manufacture. The steel chassis, built of Z-section stock, offered boxed cross members for exemplary stiffness. Atop this sound structure was a featherlight aluminum body hand-hammered over an ash (baseball bat wood) frame accentuated by the now-famous "droop-snoot" grille. As always, Morgan was more than content to use engines built by others, in this case a rather unremarkable but reasonably reliable four cylinder of 1.1-liters. As with the three wheelers, the secret of the 4/4's success was not sheer horsepower, but a wily combination of power to weight achieved largely through the use of the aluminum-on-wood body structure.

The 4/4 roadster was an immediate hit, and it was followed in 1938 by the Morgan 4/4 Drophead Coupe, something we Americans would call a convertible. Soon thereafter World War II intervened in the Morgan story, and production didn't resume until 1945. This time around the 4/4 was powered by a 1267 cubic centimeter Special Standard engine, a deal made possible by Standard chief Sir John Black, who as a young man had drawn up Morgan's original patent papers.

After the war the three wheelers didn't last long - the last of them were built in 1950 - but the 4/4 proved evergreen, sliding through the Fifties with a few revisions and an occasional shift in the engine supplier. In 1951 the 4/4 was joined by the Plus Four, which was essentially a 4/4 with a more powerful engine. It retained the Thirties-look fenders, grille and headlight arrangement, aluminum-on-ash construction and sliding-pillar front suspension. The big change was the installation of a more powerful 2088 cubic centimeter Standard Vanguard four-cylinder engine.

As a bigger-engined version of the 4/4, the Plus Four morphed into the Plus Eight in July of 1968 when the revised model was shown with a Rover V-8 engine that was based on an early Sixties Buick design. Shown at the Earl's Court Motor Show that year, the Plus Eight is still with us.

Remarkably, now, more than three decades later, the two closely related vehicles, the 4/4 and the Plus Eight, are the mainstays of the Morgan lineup. The 4/4 has seen a variety of powerplants over the years, but these days it is still as true to the vision of H.F.S. Morgan as it was in 1936, a light and sturdy car that is fun to drive. That is the legacy of the son of a rector who didn't even want to build cars in the first place yet ended up building the model that has been in production longer than any other.
Autoswalk.com has partnered with Studio One Networks to provide you with the history of the world's greatest cars. All of the pictures and information are copyright of Studio One Networks and Autoswalk.com, and are brought to you by Jack Nerad for Driving Today.
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