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Three's company: Morgan three-wheelers

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Is Morgan's modern take on its classic three-wheeler, last built over 50 years ago, an act of folly or a stroke of pure genius?

‘My grandpa was a brilliant bloke,’ asserts Charles Morgan. ‘He really knew what he was doing with the three-wheeler and the concept is still valid today.’

It would be easy to scoff at this statement, call it sentimental nonsense to suggest that a car conceived a century ago could be relevant today. And yet, and yet…

When Morgan unveiled its new 3 Wheeler at Geneva early this year, the crowd really did go mad. Here was a car with character and charm, speed and excitement. And it promised fun, that so-often missing ingredient in the world of modern machinery. We loved its cheeky styling, the over-the-top graphics options, the fighter plane ambience, and so did plenty of others, with 500 deposits put down on the £30,000 (£25,000 plus taxes) price tag in just three months. And now we’ve finally driven it, alongside Charles Morgan’s own 1931 three-wheeler.

When deputy editor Mark Dixon and I arrive at Morgan’s historic Malvern Link base, there’s a small group just starting off on a factory tour. There are young families, retired couples, 30-something professionals: a happy, friendly bunch who gather round the 3 Wheeler in admiration and emit a collective gasp of appreciation when designer Matthew Humphries leaps in and guns it exuberantly through the car park. Here we really do have a Morgan that seems to bridge every generation gap.

Ironically, what looks to be Morgan’s biggest seller for years came about through American company Liberty Motors’ Ace Cycle Car, an unashamed copy of the original Morgan three-wheeler.

Morgan operations director Steve Morris and finance director Tim Whitworth in particular latched onto the appeal of the Ace and flew to the States to try it for themselves. They were impressed enough to take the idea of producing a Morgan version to the company board; Morgan ended up buying out Liberty founder (and talented engineer) Pete Larsen.

‘I was a bit dubious about the concept of a three-wheeler at first,’ admits Charles. ‘What swung me was driving the Liberty Ace; that sold me the whole project. A three-wheeler really does work if it’s engineered correctly and it provides a genuinely unusual driving experience, which is rare these days.’

Don’t assume that the Morgan 3 Wheeler is simply a rebadged version of the Liberty Ace, though. The Morgan team liked the concept but, as Charles puts it, ‘It needed a restyle, it needed to be more British, more café racer.’ This is where Morgan’s chief designer Matthew Humphries comes in.

‘Starting with the Liberty Ace reduced development time,’ explains Matthew. ‘From that base [development engineer] Mark Reeves and the team in the engineering department did a lot of work. 

‘Meanwhile Jon [Wells, senior designer] and I remodelled the whole body and assisted in reworking the chassis at the same time,’ says Matthew. ‘It was always the idea to give the 3 Wheeler a functional feel, with exposed fittings and tusk-like exhausts. We wanted it to have that great cool vintage feeling.’

The Liberty Ace uses a Harley V-twin up front, rather than the classic JAP or Matchless of the best of the original Morgan three-wheelers, and a Honda Goldwing shaft-drive unit.

But the new Morgan 3 Wheeler uses an overhead-valve ‘X-Wedge’ V-twin from American company S&S
Cycle Inc; their engines are known to be extremely high quality, often used to replace Harley engines, and they’re arguably more familiar with working to specialist briefs.

In fact, the S&S engineers spent a month at the Morgan factory developing a unique specification for the 3 Wheeler, as well as special engine cases; the resultant engine is a whacking 1982cc capacity.

Yes, that’s a litre per cylinder. And don’t you just want to know what a 2.0-litre V-twin sounds (and feels) like? I imagine the car hopping from wheel to wheel when the engine’s idling.

So in I jump. It’s easy enough to get into: feet in, a quick slide down into the seat and ready to go. The steering wheel is removable but there’s little need to make use of that feature. There’s a key and immobiliser on the steering column, but the starter button is – famously now – under a neat little safety catch as used on the Eurofighter’s bombhatch release. What a great touch!

The starter whirrs and the engine fires, sounding like a cross between a Harley and a large, angry lawnmower. Up front the engine is shaking from side to side on its four rubber mounts, and the mudguards over those spindly wheels are dancing to their own little tune but, in the cockpit, there’s much less of the vibro-massage than you might expect. Flick the accelerator (which is part of a lovely little alloy pedal box set-up) and the shakes smooth out, accompanied by an ever more ferocious growl.

The weather’s looking unsettled, so we head for the lovely Malvern Hills without Charles and his 1931 three-wheeler, amid promises that he’ll join us when the clouds clear. Fingers crossed; we need man and machine. Meantime, let’s have some fun… clutch down, first gear, a tickling of accelerator and off we go, ber-doom, ber-doom, ber-doom from the engine and we pull gently away, making the most of all that torque. Then a little more gas and up through the gears, getting more adventurous as the soundtrack turns from devil’s lawnmower to classic Moto Guzzi to WW1 fighter plane. I’m liking this!

Thirty miles an hour and already it’s properly hilarious. The locals of Malvern must be well used to seeing Morgans driving past but everyone turns and grins at the happy fool in the pale green 3 Wheeler. And then we’re out of town and there’s an open road and the promise of twisty bits up ahead, and the sun is edging out from behind those dark clouds and we’re off!

Bwhoarrrrr go the exhausts, whoosh-whoosh-whoosh goes the scenery as we whizz by, and I’m now feeling every inch the vintage racer. Into the first sharp corner and I wonder just how we’re going to fare with those narrow front tyres and the single, fatter rear (a 16in wheel with 205/55 tyre). Onto the brakes – the pedal feels a little soft after the perfect precision of the clutch, gearshift and Quaife rack-and-pinion steering, but the stopping power is impressive – and gently into what turns out to be a shockingly bumpy corner.

The 3 Wheeler stays on course, the front wheels jiggling up and down and to and fro without being thrown off line, and the rear just seems to follow. There’s no sensation of tipping over, no loss of grip, just a sensation of man and small machine in rather lovely harmony. And so it would be rude not to push harder out of that corner, and go faster into the next one, and so on until, yes, the rear does start to drift a little but in a strangely non-threatening way that’s corrected as naturally as any loss of grip can be corrected by the grinning fool who’s thinking he’s a racer but isn’t really.

It’s exciting this, an assault on the senses that just makes for a feeling of being truly alive. At 60mph the wind is whistling round you, the wheels are hammering up and down, the engine is roaring, the exhaust blaring and you just want more, more, more!

There’s fun to be had in the snick-snick of the five-speed Mazda MX-5 gearbox, transmission shock damped out by the Harley cush drive and the super-strong fibre-reinforced drive belt – and of course there’s no differential to sap power and confuse the balance. No sliding-pillar front suspension either – shock! – that Morgan staple sacrificed for inclined coil-over-shock units, two at the front, one controlling the tubular wishbone at the rear. The ride is jiggly at times, inevitable given the short wheelbase, but more comfortable than expected and never, ever bone-shaking.

Time to turn back and rejoin the others. Turning round exposes a weakness, a surprisingly wide turning circle that makes the 3 Wheeler just a touch less wieldy than you might expect it to be. But then back down the road and, good news, Charles is on his way in his three-wheeler.

It’s a 1931 Super Sports Aero, arguably the most desirable of all the three-wheelers. Morgan boasted of its prowess in no uncertain terms in its sales brochure when the model was introduced in 1928.

‘We can honestly claim that it is not only the fastest three-wheeler in the world but that its performance is better than that of any car costing three times the price,’ it trumpets. ‘...here is a car destined to break all previous records for automobiles of its class – a very demon on wheels.’

A demon, eh? Well, Charles bought his demon just after his student days and has used it regularly ever since, even racing it at the Nürburgring years ago (though it broke down and Charles ended up walking back to the paddock clad only in his fireproof underwear, having forgotten to pack his race overalls).

No such worries today. Charles arrives fully clad, and his Aero is in great form, smaller and more delicately proportioned than the new car. Umm, yes, much smaller inside too, as is made very obvious when climbing in and out. The large diameter of the (non-removable) steering wheel doesn’t help either. Ouch. And you would have to be on very good terms with your passenger in Charles’ three-wheeler. It takes commitment to drive it, but when you master it there’s so much satisfaction to be had; it’s a real jewel.

Unlike the new 3 Wheeler, the original Super Sports Aeros did, remarkably, come with weather protection. Back in the day, three-wheelers were more likely to have been used as regular transport rather than as a toy, but contemporary pictures show what’s possibly the most ungainly hood in the history of convertibles.

The rest of the detailing is exquisite, though; probably nothing remarkable at the time, there’s now a real appeal to the tiny rear lights, the neat louvres and that brass radiator shell, which really is there for decoration, because the JAP V-twin is air-cooled.

There’s a satisfying synergy between this engine and that of the new model. JAP V-twins were made by the JA Prestwich Manufacturing Company, founded by John Alfred Prestwich in 1894 at the tender age of 20. He operated out of his father’s greenhouse initially, but soon set up a small factory in north London, and his engines became the proprietary engine of choice to the early 20th-century motorcycle industry. Even the very first of the Morgan three-wheelers were fitted with sidevalve JAP V-twins. 

S&S Cycle Inc similarly started as a low budget one-man band in the basement of amateur motorcycle tuner George Smith Sr’s home across the Atlantic in Blue Island, Illinois, in 1958 (by which time JAP production had been taken over by Villiers Ltd). Now S&S makes performance tuning parts and engines to fit Harley and Victory motorcycles, as well as specialist applications such as custom bikes and, of course, the Morgan.

The engine in Charles’ three-wheeler is a KTOR, JAP’s first foray (alongside the JTOR) into a production overhead-valve unit following years of sidevalves. The angle between the two cylinders is 50º and the exposed valve mechanism is operated via pushrods by two gear-driven camshafts in the crankcase, with a rotary sleeve valve employed to regulate crankcase breathing. Fuelling is via two open-trumpet AMAC carburettors, with exhaust gases expelled via virtually unsilenced pipes either side of the bodywork.

It’s a basic but effective set-up; and it’s all that was needed at the time. In 2011, vehicle design is more complicated, but the advantage of the new 3 Wheeler to Morgan is that it’s classed as a trike, and therefore subject to fewer type approval regulations.

The S&S engine is supplied already ‘emissions compliant’. It’s a 56º overhead-valve V-twin (the wider angle tends to reduce vibration), with no fewer than three belt-driven camshafts to ensure the straightest possible pushrod angles. A single-bore throttle body is controlled by an engine management module for maximum efficiency, so an emissions-friendly 115bhp and 140lb ft of torque results. Nice!

Similarly, the reworked chassis is supplied by Liberty Ace, and much of the aluminium bodywork is produced at Premier Sheet Metal in Coventry, so that build time in the factory is much reduced compared with the labour-intensive four-wheelers (of which around 800 or 900 will be made this year).

And that’s rather lucky because, with 500 firm orders already, the 3 Wheeler has far outstripped expectation. Production volumes of around 100 a year had been planned but ‘…we’re going to have to up that’ understates Matthew Humphries, ‘and that’s before we get to the States.’

The world is going to go 3 Wheeler mad and rightly so. To great hilarity, rapper Dizzee Rascal tried one at Goodwood, breaking all the rules to drive it round the Festival site, chased by irate marshals. Clothing phenomenon Superdry has developed its own limited edition and celebrities such as Jay Leno have already put their deposits down.

We expected to like the 3 Wheeler. The surprise was that we loved it. Really loved it. Oh, and it wasn’t just being exposed to the elements that made it seem so fast. The little devil hits 125mph and achieves 0-60mph in just 4.5sec, with 35mpg economy. We think ‘grandpa’ HFS Morgan would have approved.


SPECIFICATIONS

1931 MORGAN SUPER SPORTS AERO
Engine 981cc JAP KTOR 50° V-twin, OHV, twin AMAC carburettors
Power 30bhp @ 4000rpm  torque n/a 
Transmission Morgan two-speed manual, no reverse, chain drive to single rear wheel 
Steering reduction box
Suspension Front: Morgan sliding pillar, hydraulic dampers. Rear: swinging arm, leaf springs, friction damper 
Brakes Drums  
Weight 350kg 
Performance Top speed 80mph. 0-60mph n/a

2011 MORGAN 3 WHEELER
Engine 1982cc S&S X-Wedge 56° V-twin, OHV, single throttle body fuel injection 
Power 115bhp @ 3000rpm  torque 140lb ft @ 3000rpm  
Transmission
Mazda MX-5 five-speed manual, belt drive to single rear wheel  
Steering Quaife rack and pinion
Suspension Front: twin wishbones, coil-over-dampers. Rear: wishbone, coil-over-damper 
Brakes Discs  Weight 495kg 
Performance Top speed 125mph. 0-60mph 4.5sec

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