|Stephen Scourfield Writing
The Drive of a Lifetime
It was a shape of my childhood. The long nose, the bonnet perforations chattering back like scales on a crocodile’s back, the roundness of the sports car’s headlights, the chrome and spoke wheels, and the sheer audacity of marrying a wooden frame and an aluminium body to a V8 engine.
There was the heritage of the Morgan three-wheeler and the imprinted memory of drivers and passengers in leather flying helmets — not in the past, but early in my happy childhood. There was the all-encompassing depth of British racing green, in which our small-boy dreams swam, as handmade Morgans flashed past, almost matching the colour of briars in the hedgerows of our English lanes.
There was the marque’s famous flying wings emblem and the little Union Jack on the side of the body.
Morgan sports cars, for a boy growing up in the rural English town of Great Malvern, in Worcestershire, where they were, and are, handmade, were an inspiration. They represented the best we could do. They whipped up hope in a small town.
They were cars to be waved at by me and my best friend.
Great Malvern, with its historic priory, quaint old houses and narrow, hill-climbing roads, sits on the side of the Malvern Hills — a granite spine overlooking the three counties of Worcestershire, Hereford and Gloucestershire. From high up on the Worcestershire Beacon (once lit up with the bonfires that chained the country as a warning system), you look out, to the west, to the Welsh border, marked by the Black Hill near Hay-on-Wye, made famous by Bruce Chatwin’s novel. It was a landmark from my grandmother’s cottage; the highest on the hills, its sloping gardens waterfalled by steep, handmade paths, and the place where, every summer holiday, my sister and I cantered our imaginary horses. Hers white, mine piebald.
The Malverns inspired Sir Edward Elgar to write the Enigma Variations, among other classical works. Violinist Yehudi Menuhin visited often.
It all seems to set the scene for making wonderful sports cars — a creative, rural industry.
The Morgan pub, scene of family wedding receptions, was at Link Top, but the Morgan factory itself was — and is — at the base of the hills in Malvern Link in Pickersleigh Road, where 540 cars a year are still handmade, each taking 23 days.
There, a chassis was shaped by hand from strong, durable and light seasoned ash. Throughout the production cycle, craftsmen added their own part to the finished cars.
The Morgan Plus 8 was the one we all wanted — a V8 you could fishtail up the gravel drive of the English mansion we would all, surely — all us little schoolboys with romantic dreams — one day own.
The Plus 8 was first produced in 1968 (itself a magical date to me, as Manchester United beat Benefica 4-1 in the European Cup, after drawing at full-time, thanks to George Best, Brian Kidd and Bobby Charlton).
We weren’t at all interested in the
4 + 4. It was a rather more sensible, conservative thing. Almost a family car. You could fit two small children in the back and who, in their right mind, would have children, we wondered.
There were still a few three-wheelers around, and I met a man who had one, and drove it fearlessly in a leather cap in all weathers, temperamental though it proved to be as it aged. Which, come to think of it, was much like the driver himself. He was a rather eccentric soul who, he told me years later, could never quite forgive himself for selling the three-wheeler Morgan to buy a new Citroen 2CV. What on Earth got into him?
Some thought the same of a story that came from the Morgan factory — that Peter Morgan, son of the founder and now running the place, had made a special car for one of his wife’s landmark birthdays (a car with a finish of gold and fish scales from the Orient, we heard in the playground) which was put on display at the motor show, then at Earl’s Court in London.
Later, an oil sheikh’s representative called at the factory wanting to buy an identical car. He signed a cheque and said Peter Morgan could fill out any numbers on it — but Mr Morgan refused, saying, no, it was a unique car given to his wife for her birthday. It was not for sale and there would never be another. The story — however distorted into urban myth — was, and is, an inspiration to me. Mr Morgan’s ethic was a clue to the way we should live; more specifically, to the way business can be.
The story fitted well into the family’s history. H.F.S. Morgan had founded the company in 1913 — in 1906, aged 25, he had opened a garage and motor works in Malvern Link and in 1910, Sir John Black’s drawings for the three-wheeler were patented, H.F.S.’s father, the Rev. Prebendary H.G. Morgan, funded machine tools and the car went on display at the Olympia Motor Show.
The first two-seaters, with 8hp engines, made their appearance at the 1911 Olympia show, the four-wheeler Morgan sports cars went on sale early in 1936. The cars showed racing pedigree, with Peter, racing in the early 1950s and working as development engineer.
A family business, indeed, through three generations, from H.F.S. (as he was affectionately known by his employees), son Peter and now grandson Charles Morgan. And one summed up by H.F.S. soon before he died in 1959: “Looking back through the years, seeing both the errors and the triumphs in their correct perspective, I feel I have enjoyed it all. The motor trade has been, so far as I am concerned, a most interesting business.”
I moved away when I started in another business, working as a writer, though often with an interest in motoring. I heard that my best friend from school (the boy with whom I used to listen to T-Rex and wave at Morgans) went to work at Morgan’s — a plum job in Great Malvern — and perhaps is still there.
This, of course, is all a long time ago. Despite decades which have seen me driving hundreds and hundreds of cars, I have never driven a Morgan.
I moved to WA nearly 20 years ago and my love of laneways was matched by a love of the north of the State. And it was there, at the end of the Ord Valley Muster this month, that I was invited to drive a Morgan.
It was a strange moment — one when all sorts of snatches of my life splashed together in a colourful snapshot.
I saw the racing green, the bonnet perforations, my best friend’s rugby-chipped front tooth, and gold and fish scales from the Orient, all swirling round on the canvas of the chinky-hard red rock of the East Kimberley.
The car, from the Fremantle Motor Museum, had been driven across from Broome on the Matso’s Classic Car Run. This was a Morgan Plus 8 Lightweight — a rarity with a light alloy body and the 3.5 litre Rover V8 engine that Peter Morgan chose for it. “I estimate that some 30 lightweight Plus 8s were produced,” he says.
Did I want to drive it for the day, up to Argyle Dam? Out up the Ord River valley, asked run organiser Greg Ross? And another layer is added to this story — for this is the road on which a close Kimberley friend and motorcycling mate died on his Harley-Davidson. Too fast, Byrne. Too fast.
The Morgan, my childhood, my almost inexplicable comfort in WA’s extreme north (my honeymoon destination on the same week last year) my wonderful life now and the loss of a great friend are all mingled together within the burble of the Morgan’s V8. Sliding into the car is like walking into my mother’s sitting room, sitting in an English pub with my sister, walking the hills with my brother. It is completely natural and recognisable, even in the soft spray of Kimberley morning light.
Pushing the short shift stick into first gear feels like shaking the hand of a familiar friend. It all fits. (It says something that the car was never sold with an automatic transmission.)
There is a sense of traction which is emotional, and to do with the past as much as the present, with humans remembered as much as those still with me, as with the car.
The Morgan Plus 8 kicks forward, out of the junction, heading east, and gives me a strong sense of grip on the planet. Two Aboriginal boys wave as we leave town, in a tiny moment that seems to weave a whole life