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Wood still good for classic British Morgans

DURING last week's all-British Whistler to Vancouver run, I had occasion to have a good look at a pristine, low-slung, long-nosed two-seater roadster in a very pretty shade of blue: a Morgan.

DURING last week's all-British Whistler to Vancouver run, I had occasion to have a good look at a pristine, low-slung, long-nosed two-seater roadster in a very pretty shade of blue: a Morgan.

Now, even if you're not a car enthusiast you probably already know that there's something a bit weird about Morgans - they're made of wood. If you haven't come across this little factoid yet, then yes, it's true.

While your daily driver probably has a skeleton composed of steel or aluminium alloyed with steel or, if you happen to be driving a 1970s VW Bus, steel alloyed with rust, a Morgan is traditionally backboned by ash. Thus, rather than some robot spot-welding the whole thing together, you have English craftsmen hand-sanding and carefully assembling, perhaps as their forefathers once built the mighty oaken vessels of the British Navy.

Presumably there's less flogging and cannibalism in the Morgan factory, but as I've never been there, your guess is as good as mine.

Anyway, this method of building a car is bloody archaic and totally out of date. Or, to put it another way, completely excellent. It might not seem sensible to continue making vehicles in a distinctly old-world style, but Morgans are all a bit special, and to change them overmuch would be like trying to set Edward Elgar's music to dubstep. If you don't know what "dubstep" is, you are a lucky, lucky, lucky, lucky person.

Henry Frederick Stanley Morgan founded the company in 1909, sort of. H.F.S., as he was known (unless his mother was yelling at him to clean up his room) came up with his own design of a three-wheeled, single-seater machine. It probably terrified the hell out of the local horses.

Flinging his motorcycle-engined contraption about the lush Western Midlands countryside, H.F.S. soon attracted a great deal of attention. Convinced he could actually start selling the things, he exhibited both single-seat and two-seater versions in 1911, and then subsequently founded a private company with money from his dad.

I know what you're thinking - bored English Lord sets up company as a lark in an effort to spend some of the bothersome money that's starting to overflow the closets. Not at all: Morgan has staunchly middleclass roots with H.F.S.'s father a local clergyman.

The appeal of the early three-wheelers was not just in their somewhat-sporty design, but as a tax-dodge. Small three-wheelers like the Morgan were dubbed cyclecars, and paid only the same taxes as motorcycles (i.e. not much). There were a number of these companies around from 1910-1920, but the introduction of cheap, "proper" cars like the Austin 7 and Citroën 2CV pretty much knocked them out.

In 1913, a Morgan took first place at the Cyclecar Grand Prix in Amiens France, and while you might set the starting date of the company's centenary in 1906, when H.F.S. opened his garage, or 1909, when he built his first prototype, or even 1912, when the private company was founded, I'd like to set it here, when Morgans started winning.

This first machine paved the way for what all modern Morgans would be - proper British sportscars with a dab of idiosyncrasy but a surprising amount of zip. You can spot them a mile away (and hear them five miles away) with their air-cooled V-twin engines hanging out the front, skinny motorcycle tires providing only the suggestion of grip and their driver doubtless feeling a bit like Biggles dicing with the Red Baron.

The mid-1930s saw the arrival of Morgan's first "proper" car which had a four-cylinder engine and four wheels and was named, in a fit of obviousness, the Morgan 4-4. Later would come the Morgan Plus 4 which was - you guessed it - slightly better, and then the Morgan 4/4 which was slightly better again, and possibly named by someone who simply had difficulty drawing a horizontal line.

The recipe remained the same, from the '30s right through to the late-'60s: ash-frame, larger and larger four-cylinder engines, long bonnet, two seats and an open cockpit. Yes, the bulging light-pods did become integrated into the front mudguards, and yes, the grille did begin to slope backwards in a concession to aerodynamics, but the ancestral roots were clearly visible.

Morgans continued to win races too. As they were so light, with fibreglass bodies now mounted to that ash frame, 100 h.p. Triumph-sourced engines were good enough to take Plus 4s to production-class victory again and again. A factory-prepped special won its class at the 1962 24 Hours of Le Mans, covering 3,600 km at an average speed of 155 kilometres per hour; the drivers then drove the car directly home on public roads, no bother.

With modern manufacturers building smaller four-bangers in the late-'60s and early-'70s, Morgans turned to the venerable and compact Rover V-8 engine. As anyone will tell you, this eight-cylinder is actually a Buick design, a small-displacement, lightweight engine that produces anywhere from 145 h.p. and up, depending on compression and tuning and whether or not the damned thing can be persuaded to run.

The Morgan +8, as it was known, paved the way for more modern Mog-gies of the current Millennium in that it was really quite fast, especially by the standards of the day. Cars with power hovering around the 200 h.p. range are so light they can run dead even with a Ferrari Testarossa up to 100 km/h. Good show, old bean.

And then, the modern Morgans, the Aero and the Aero Supersport, with their bulbous, kindacrosseyed faces like a 1930s sketch of what the future might hold. These no longer have frames of ash, but beneath the aluminium skin, there's still wood-framed bodywork. And they're ridiculously fast, with BMW-sourced V-8 power.

Morgans are still built in their traditional birthplace of Malvern, located in the Midlands county of Worcestershire which is pronounced: incorrectly. Here among the winding roads you can still see wire-wheeled 4/4s and Plus 4s on their shake-down runs - perhaps you'll even be lucky enough to catch a glimpse of the deliciously anachronistic Plus 8 with its 1950s bodywork and street-racer style alloy wheels.

But Morgan will still sell you another car, a three-wheeler they dub simply "3 Wheeler." It's a blast from the past, a V-twin-powered machine that's like parking a Sopwith Camel in the driveway.

The Porsche 911 is slowly becoming a grand tourer. The BMW M-cars are hugely fast, but at a great remove from the road. Pick a manufacturer and you'll find the cars they make to be faster, more efficient, better-handling, and perhaps a bit less interesting.

But Morgan? They're still in the business of building proper Morgans. And thank goodness for that.

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