Bill Fink is a Yalie who fell in love
with Morgan sports cars more than 35 years ago and is still
carrying the torch.
He's the only West Coast importer of
a 90-year-old marque that epitomizes the sad decline of the
United Kingdom's motor industry, for Morgan is the last British
car manufacturer still in British hands.
Like owners of
the XK series of classic Jaguars, Morgan aficionados have a
passionate -- some would say fanatical -- love for their low-slung
toys, the looks of which have hardly changed in 60 years.
``Morgans are unique,'' said Fink, while taking a spin down
the Embarcadero. ``As mass-produced cars get more and more alike,
Morgans stand out. What pulled me in originally was the design.
Then I started understanding how the cars are built, what a
real personality they have.''
Fink, 57, may be the only
auto dealer in California with degrees from Yale, Oxford and
the Stanford business school.
But unlike so many of his
classmates, this upper-middle-class maverick never wanted to
be a broker, banker or corporate executive.
``The problem with corporations is you lose control of your life,'' he
said. Fink, a long-haired jock who rowed for Yale at the Henley
regatta in England, bought his first Morgan in 1962 for 2,000
pounds (then $5,600) when he was a graduate student at Oxford.
He got started in business converting Morgans to left-hand drive
and selling them in the United States for a tidy profit. That
led to a parts dealership, then a chance to become the West
Setting up shop at a scenic location, at the tip of Pier 33 on San
Francisco's northern waterfront, he named his firm Isis Imports,
after the River Isis, which runs through Oxford.
``I thought I might spend a couple of years importing Morgans, I'd
make $100,000, then do something else with my life,'' he says, then
laughs. ``But I never made $100,000, and so here I am.''
The Morgan company produces only about 500 cars a year, all
virtually handmade. The first ones were made in 1909, when founder
Harry Morgan, a railway engineer-turned-garage owner, produced a three-
wheel ``trike'' in the Worcestershire village of Malvern Link.
In fact, the company is run by Charles Morgan, a grandson of the
In deference to American safety regulations, Morgans come equipped
with air bags and a tail light mounted atop the spare tire. But the
frame is still fashioned of wood, as it was when the first four-
wheel Morgans came off the assembly line in 1936, and the cars still
have detachable side curtains rather than roll-up windows.
Bob Zinkhon, a public relations professional, has owned a white
``drophead,'' or convertible, that has been his pride and joy since
he bought it new in 1964.
``Morgans have a special mystique,'' Zinkhon said. ``In my
opinion, it's the last classy car still being made. It's got style
and grace. You have a great sense of getting there, but if you have a
bad back, stay out.''
That's because Morgans are notorious for their stiff suspension.
``The oldest joke is when you ride over a dime, you can tell
whether it was heads or tails,'' Zinkhon said.
Another true believer is San Francisco architect Steve Roake, who
bought his first Morgan in 1961 and now owns two -- one for city
driving, another for buzzing around Healdsburg, where he has a
Roake has taken part in long-
distance Morgan rallies -- one to Washington, D.C., another to Banff,
in western Canada. And this year, he said, 30 Morgan owners, some of
them from Europe, will motor from New Orleans to Nova Scotia.
Roake is a big-time car collector who also owns a 1925
Pierce-Arrow, a 1929 Franklin, a 1931 Studebaker, a 1937 Lincoln and
a 1953 Kaiser. But Morgan is the marque he's been hooked on for more
than 40 years.
``They look terrific and are wonderful to drive, really fun,'' he
said with a sigh.
During the 1970s and early 1980s, Fink's main business was
converting Morgan engines to propane fuel to comply with California's
strict smog emission requirements.
Since 1992, however, Morgan engines have also used regular
gasoline. The current model, known as a Plus-8, is powered by a Rover
V-8, the same engine in a Range Rover. Base price is $61,000, but
with taxes and extras, such as alloy wheels, the tab comes to about
Built from aluminum and stainless steel on an ash wood frame, the
car is light -- only 2,400 pounds -- but powerful, with a top speed
of 130 mph.
Fink only expects to sell about two dozen Morgans this year, and
there's a four- to five-month wait. But that's nothing compared with
the United Kingdom, where the waiting list is five to seven years,
because only a fraction are still made with right-hand drive. The
rest are exported.
Fink and his wife, Judy, live on a small farm in Bodega in west
Marin, which means a commute of 120 miles a day, usually in their
``second car,'' an old Cadillac he inherited.
Judy Fink was a Morgan owner even before she hooked up with Bill
more than 20 years ago.
``I had a rare 1964 four-seater,'' she said. ``And I'm very sorry
I sold it, but my kids needed braces.''
And the Morgan's mystique?
``They're the last handmade car you can buy for under $1
million,'' she said. ``A Morgan is beautiful, and there's not that
many beautiful cars made anymore.''
Fink also restores old Morgans, with customers as far away as
Florida. One of his favorites is a mustard-
yellow 1969 model once owned by Mick Jagger that the rock star, up
for a late-'60s marijuana possession bust, drove to the Old Bailey
with then-girlfriend Marianne Faithfull by his side. The car's price:
Fink has driven the new Aero 8, a 21st century Morgan under
development at Malvern Link. The car will have a BMW engine that
develops 100 more horsepower than the current Rover engine.
``Charles Morgan wants better performance, a car that can compete
at Le Mans,'' Fink said, referring to the French car race. ``The Aero
8 will have a top speed of about 168 mph, and it should be available
to American buyers in late 2001 at a price of $80,000.''
Such is Fink's fascination with Morgan's history and technology
that he has made ``at least'' 100 visits to the factory near the
border of Wales.
``They see me coming and say, `Here's that crazy Yank again.
What's he want now?' ''