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Top Mog: The improbable triumph of the Morgan 3 Wheeler

1934 Morgan Super Sport

1934 Morgan Super Sport. (David M Jones)

What explains the resurgence of a car as quirky as the Morgan 3 Wheeler?

Out of production for decades, it returned wholly remade in 2011 and became the fastest-selling model in the Morgan Motor Company’s 105-year history. 

For 2014, the 3 Wheeler is known to stand 39.3 inches tall and stretch 126 inches in length, yet the specification sheet divulges no detail about a boomerang. And available technical drawings cleverly disguise where and how this essential component of recoil would be located inside the chassis.

Nevertheless, the most important thing to a small but discerning clique of driving enthusiasts is that this exemplar of British eccentricity is readily available from the European Union to Australia.

“Thank God there’s still Morgan building zany products like this,” Dennis Glavis says. As managing director of Morgan West, a small store in Santa Monica, California, Glavis operates one of 13 dealerships in the United States. He describes the driving experience, saying, “You feel like you’re a kid again, like riding your first bicycle. You’re on top of the world.”

The 3 Wheeler’s resurgence may be more readily attributed to the original concept’s fundamental merit. Developed as a prototype in 1909 by Harry Morgan, the Runabout, as it was known, enduringly – and endearingly – established the “cyclecar” category in the automotive realm.

Even in those dawning days of motoring, the Runabout had its predecessors. Leading the way, the 1885 Benz Patent Motorwagen, regarded as the first automobile, had one wheel in front and two in the rear. But the Runabout followed a two-plus-one layout and easily outperformed other eventual tri-car challengers such as the Scott Sociable, a curiosity that had a four-point layout but lacked the left-front wheel. (At the time, Britain’s road fund license did not apply to three-wheelers.)

Harry Morgan and wife Ruth. (Morgan Motor)

With simplicity and low cost as its hallmarks, the Runabout and its successors were produced by Morgan until 1953. In the next few years, various vehicles of the Reliant Motor Company, including the notoriously tippy Robin, as well as German microcars such as the BMW Isetta and Messerschmitt KR200, pushed the concept ahead. Motorised rickshaws in Asia and various one-plus-two Cushman utility vehicles in the US have continued in service.

But the “Mogs” were always the performance thoroughbreds among cyclecars. British pilot Albert Ball called his Runabout “the nearest thing to flying without leaving the ground.” After Morgan’s centennial in 2009, the car slinging a powerful motorcycle engine over its sternum and carrying a chip on its shoulder began to make sense again. Indeed, it still held many hillclimb and endurance records.

Returning in this decade of hipsters and hypercars, it took inspiration from the Liberty Ace, an independent interpretation of the 3 Wheeler created by Pete Larsen, whose Liberty Motors dealership is in Seattle, Washington. “It’s been a remarkable experience for me,” Larsen says, explaining how a review of the Ace in London’s Daily Telegraph brought his project to Morgan’s attention. “It was a once-in-a-lifetime chance to sell Morgan a three-wheeler,” he recalls. “The money meant little to me. The opportunity meant everything.”

Mark Ledington, Morgan’s marketing director, calls the Ace “a sort of benchmark vehicle”. As the company pursued its investigations, it perceived that a market in fact existed. The result, Ledington says, is “absolutely a 21st Century version of an old cyclecar. We completely reinvented it.”

The modern Morgan 3 Wheeler. (Morgan Motor)

The powertrain matches a mighty yet efficient V-twin motorcycle engine, produced on S&S Cycle’s six-person assembly line in Viola, Wisconsin, with a five-speed manual transmission supplied by Mazda. The driving force from 82 horsepower and 103 pound-feet of torque is relayed by a quietly operating belt, and the fat, sticky rear tire puts it down on the road. The 3 Wheeler scoots from zero to 62mph in a manufacturer-estimated six seconds. Disc brakes quickly bring things to a halt.

Larsen had used a Harley-Davidson engine for his Ace, but Morgan chose the S&S X Wedge 2-litre twin, which had been developed for the custom motorcycle market just before the 2008 financial crisis. “Here’s this wonderful engine, all dressed up for a party and nowhere to go,” Larsen says. “By the time Morgan knocked on the door, they got the goods.” 

Even though the car’s open cockpit offers no protection in nasty climes, more than 1,100 units have been produced so far at the Pickersleigh Road factory in Malvern, England.

Jason Hill, designer of the lamentably stillborn Aptera Typ-1, the new millennium's sleekest three-wheeler, credits the Maker Movement among the factors at play in the Morgan’s comeback. The  movement combines technological processes with a do-it-yourself, or DIY, ethic. “There’s an appreciation for things that are handmade,” says Hill, who presides over his own studio, Eleven, in Long Beach, California, and teaches at Art Center College of Design, in nearby Pasadena. “There’s a swing to the analogue side.”

As Glavis contends, Morgan is the last company of its kind, owned by the family for 105 years. “People appreciate that,” he says, “the craftsmanship, the individuality a vehicle like this provides. It’s not just another rubber-stamp car, another red Ferrari, another silver Porsche. After years, it becomes identified with the owner. Your history passes along with the car.”

1935 Morgan Super Sport. (Carnundrum / Alamy)

And this time around, the US market has proven significant in the 3 Wheeler’s success. Never sold there as a new vehicle before 2011, the crablike conveyance, which registers with state vehicle departments as a motorcycle, appeals to some people who once rode motorcycles until unenthusiastic spouses or bad hips unsaddled them, according to Glavis.  

Call the 3 Wheeler the arthropod car for orthopedic drivers.

And the tri-car idea is catching on more broadly, both as a low-price transportation alternative and a sporty choice. US-based Elio Motors claims more than 20,000 reservations for its hardtop, with production starting next year. And riding another vehicle with the two-plus-one layout, the Can-Am Spyder – which resembles a snowmobile with wheels and has been sold since 2007 –  produces a byproduct well-known to drivers of Morgan 3 Wheelers: attention.

“I get waves and thumbs-up and ‘Cool car!’ from elementary-age kids to people my age and older,” says Jim Nichol, 67, who lives in Hyde Park, New York. He owned a 1928 Morgan for about 15 years until selling it in 2013 and buying a new 3 Wheeler for “around $50,000”. He has exceeded 70mph in it, but even though top speed is listed at 115mph, he says, “I don’t foresee going any faster.”

Having driven Morgans for 40 years, Nichol is accustomed to onlookers balking at the vehicle’s lack of amenities. He has cultivated a ready rejoinder: “Some of us are a little bit warped and don’t mind driving anachronisms.”

The modern Morgan Three Wheeler. (Goddard Automotive / Alamy)

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