The Morgan Is Back!
by Charles Fox
Reprinted From Car and Driver Magazine January 1977
About five years ago I was in Havana, staying with a friend, when the first ship from Chile arrived after the (ate Salvador Allende's government broke ranks and recognized the Castro regime. My friend was overjoyed. The breaching of the blockade had meant he was able to buy two precious cloves of Chilean garlic. He held them up. "Imagine," he said, "my first garlic in 10 years!"
I dare say many American automobilists have missed the Morgan as badly as my friend missed Chilean garlic. Another friend of mine, Leon Mandel, gastronomique peculiar, wrote in Car and Driver in late 1967 that the Morgan was "the last great coal cart, a car almost unchanged since 1910." Yet he wrote these words in a lament to the Morgan's imminent passing from the shores of America.
There was one man, however, who did more than lament. He took up the fight to resurrect this old wooden cart. In a manner to make Quixote smile, he tilted with the awesome bureaucratic windmills of the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Transportation. He worked with only tacit assistance from Peter Morgan himself and with his own meager resources. And after five years of unremitting toil, he has triumphed. Friends of the Solid Axle, the Golden Age of Motoring is back.Our hero is Bill Fink, a lean, quiet, blue-eyed Yalie who rides about San Francisco on a Norton Commando and lives high above Carol Doda's electrifying bosoms on Telegraph Hill. Fink rowed for Yale. In 1962, he went to England to compete, and while he was there, he bought a Morgan. He then went to Keble College and rowed for Oxford University. He was one of the four famous "Yanks at Oxford" who made Oxford invincible on the river. In 1968, Oxford was unbeaten, and the Morgan was barred from entry into the U.S. for failure to meet safety and emission standards.
Fink, who also had misspent a couple years at Stanford studying business, saw a comfortable bachelor's living to be made exporting used Morgans to the U.S. Soon he had a string of cars hidden in garages in London waiting for shipment. He'd buy a 4/4 in London for about $2000, convert it to left-hand drive himself, ship it to California for $150 and sell it there privately for between $3000 and $4000. There was new money in old Morgans. Fink took a pleasant flat in Chelsea and became a regular at a number of Kings Road watering places. For four good months, life passed in a series of pleasant dalliances. But then his partners in Los Angeles began cheating him, and Mick Jagger bought himself a Morgan.
Fink could do something about the situation in LA, but there was nothing he could do about Jagger. Jagger took to being seen about town in a buttercup-yellow 4/4 and was frequently photographed en route to his Old Bailey dope trial, with Marianne Faithful sitting beside him looking for all the world like Isadora Duncan. The Morgan became trendy. The price of old Morgans soared.
So Fink gathered a string of used cars and came back to San Francisco to try and recover from the financial beating he'd taken in LA. But now more trouble arose: Legitimate Morgan dealers around San Francisco got a fix on the Phantom Fink, and he was forced to apply for a used-car dealer's license, which meant posting a $10,000 bond and coming up with premises.
In this hour of need, Fink met Steve Miller - a shy, taciturn fellow who came to California with his parents from England in 1953, got an engineering degree and then went into the business of rebuilding English motor cars. This is a business at which an honest and skillful man can scarcely help but make his fortune, and indeed, Miller prospered. No man in the United States could resurrect a decaying Morgan more finely than Steve Miller.
Miller had a shop on Eddy Street in the heart of San Francisco's red-light district. Besides Morgans, it was filled with Jaguars. Fink knew the moment he walked in the door that he had found the right man. "Show me a man that loves old Jaguars, and I'll show you a man who can fix anything," Fink said. On that incontrovertible promise, Fink founded Isis Imports in Miller's shop.
They were an odd couple: Bill Fink with his blue-eyed mind forever on the stars; Steve Miller counting each cent, with faith in nothing but his own industry. Fink kept importing cars and soon added parts to his repertoire. Miller serviced and renovated what Fink procured.
Then in 1970, the Morgan Plus 8 reappeared legitimately in the U.S., using the aluminum Buick V-8 which Rover had brought up to federal emissions standards. Peter Morgan did what he could to meet DOT safety standards and obtained exemptions on the rest. But by the close of 1971, Morgan's exemptions were running out, and Rover announced it was pulling out of the American market. So there went the Morgan's engine and, once again, there went the Morgan.
Peter Morgan barely blinked. The French and Germans had developed a taste for his coat carts, so why did he need to bother with the U.S.? The leisurely Peter Morgan, sailing grandly into his middle-50s, likes to bother with very little. He is a wise man. He is happy as long as his old family factory in lovely Malvern, Worcestershire is turning out eight or nine cars a week and he can go rallying on weekends with his chums. He follows the lifestyle set by his father, H.F.S. Morgan, an engineer who first worked for the Great Western Railway. H.F.S. was torn between his love for great locomotives and automobiles, and there's no doubt that the confusion is still reflected in today's Morgan. Morgan built his first motor car in 1910. It had three wheels. At Brooklands the following year, he set a record for an hour's run; he covered almost 60 miles. H.F.S. produced the first four-wheeled Morgan in 1936. Since then the design has been altered as little as possible. Change is unwelcome at the Morgan works at Malvern. Production could probably be increased, but it would be difficult, if for no other reason than the lady who turns the wheel spindies can only work a three-day week.
Fink too is a philanderer, but he also has the fanaticism and endurance of an oarsman. When the Morgan went under for the second time, Fink began asking what it would take to legalize the car. He even sent off $26 to the U.S. Government Printing Office for a copy of the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards.
The book arrived six months later. It was as thick as a Manhattan phone directory; additional supplements were mailed to him each month. Fink stuffed the book into a desk drawer. By now he had heard from Peter Morgan that Rover would soon be returning to the U.S. market with a V-8-engined car and that Morgan would ride in on Rover's coattails. But after a while, it was obvious that that wasn't happening, so Fink got out the book again.
When he called the EPA in Washington, the man there said, "You know, if you really want to get this car into the country, use propane." So Fink and Miller acquired a Plus 8 and did the conversion. Then Fink flew to England to get the approval of Rover and Peter Morgan. Morgan was interested, but at Rover's Solihull works, the chief development engineer told Fink that propane power was "a very poor course of action. It will," he said, "do great damage to the engine and jeopardize the fine name of Rover in America."
Fink came back to San Francisco and set off in the converted car to try and blow it up. Like Lord Rootes testing the Hillman Wizard in North Africa before him, the intrepid Fink blasted his way all over the Southwest in the spring of 1973. He ran his propane Morgan down into the Mojave Desert and up into the Rockies. He put on 9000 full-throttle miles. When he and Miller tore down the engine afterwards, it wasn't even worn.
Clearly the engine problem was solved. Now for the safety standards. Fink called Robert Aubuchon, the safety standards engineer at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in Washington. Aubuchon's first words to Fink were not encouraging: "Tell me, just what use is a Morgan anyway?"
Fink prepared a detailed summary of the Morgan's illustrious history and flew to Washington. Fink found that Peter Morgan is well-known to Aubuchon and his men: They regard him as a Philistine. Peter Morgan's leisurely approach disturbs Aubuchon as sorely as his coal carts disturb a driver's kidneys.But the silver-tongued Yalie oiled the waters. An attorney for the department even told him that his Morgans didn't have to meet all the safety standards. "if you're importing the cars for resale," the attorney told him, "you are the manufacturer as far as we're concerned, and you can obtain exemptions if Morgan is reluctant to." This was magnificent news for Fink. The safety standard hurdle had suddenly evaporated. Now he had only to convince Peter Morgan to go with propane. He flew to England elated.
Peter Morgan was indeed impressed by Fink's findings for propane. He was even more impressed when Fink converted a factory prototype. Rover's reaction, however, was that it would not stand behind its warranty of the V-8 if propane was used. So that was that. Fink came back to San Francisco.
But in October that year, the yo-yo of fate played into the hands of the Yalie:
The Arabs turned off the oil. The gas crisis erupted; rationing loomed. Propane looked good, but Morgan would still not absolutely commit himself-Peter Morgan hates to commit himself.
In the spring of 1974 then, Fink began the search for a legal gasoline engine. The answer was Ford's 2.3-liter Pinto. It emitted nothing illegal, put out 88 bhp (which was comparable to the Triumph engine Morgan used) and about 20 percent more torque. But getting an engine wasn't easy, because Ford was convinced it could sell every Pinto it could build. Finally, Fink bought one in parts from his local Ford dealer.
He assembled it and shipped it to England in December of 1974, following a month later himself to help install it in a 4/4 chassis. The engine had arrived at the docks, but Fink had underestimated the British customs service. It took these doughties another month to complete their paperwork, by which time Fink had to return to California. In the meanwhile, however, he had persuaded Morgan that propane was the answer to the engine problem and that the safety standards were taken care of. On the strength of it, Morgan put a Plus 8 and a 4/4 on the water bound for San Francisco. Fink dropped into the DOT offices on his way back, and in a casual conversation with the same attorney he had spoken to before, he was told, "Of course you yourself can't obtain exemptions of safety standards, because you're not the original manufacturer."
"But you told me-" he began.
"But nothing,- the attorney said. "Your cars will have to meet every safety standard." And they sat back and smiled at him.
"What about the cars I've got already on the water?"
"You can have 90 days to make them comply," they said.
Back in San Francisco, out came the big book once more. The standards were nightmarish: door guards, bumpers, rollover standards, lights and on and on ad nauseam. It was clearly going to be prohibitively expensive, and Fink's resources had by now shrunk to a hole in his pocket.
At this moment the phone rang. It was someone speaking on behalf of Bob Kelly, a wealthy Sacramento banker and TV-station owner. "Mr. Kelly," the man said, "would like you to make his new Morgan comply with all current federal safety standards. And you should understand that cost is no object where Mr. Kelly is concerned." About $8000 and three months later they were done. Maurice Owen, Peter Morgan's jovial development engineer, was of inestimable help. He advised Fink, for instance, that his own Morgan had accidentally run backwards down the driveway of his house and crashed into the garden wall without sustaining any damage. "My car had a towing adapter kit installed," he told Fink, "so there's your answer to the five-mile-an-hour bumper for the back."
For the front he said rubber bumper inserts as used on the Austin Marina would be perfectly adequate. The most difficult challenge was fitting steel beams in the Morgan's slightly curved, wooden doors so that they would withstand the required side-impact test.
When everything was done, Fink filed papers with the DOT. He hoped that the people at the DOT would be too busy
with problems involving large manufacturers to worry about checking out what some small cheese has done to bring his private machine up to spec. And he knew a guy in LA who imported and modified over 200 used Porsche 911 s from Europe before an NHTSA inspector came around. But Fink had one immediately. The man stood on the front bumper and shook his head. "I don't think they'll let this through in Washington," he said.
Fink and Miller delivered the Morgan to Sacramento and built a second car for themselves. When it came to the front bumper, they decided on a crash test. After all, Owen had assured them. They took elaborate before photographs, spent some time calculating how to be sure the car was doing five mph and no more, and rolled it into the wall of Miller's shop.
There was a sound of breaking glass. Miller's estimate for the repair was $1000. Next they tried a design based on a VW Rabbit bumper-which worked. Fink and Miller now put into operation the smallest recall program in history. They went to Sacramento and modified Kelly's car. The papers were filed with DOT. They had done it. They just needed certification, and they could start bringing the cars in.
And then, about a week iater-it was now August of 1975-a man walked into Miller's shop. He introduced himself as Matt Lowe of the EPA's Mobile Source Enforcement squad. "I just came to tell you," he said, that we have decided not to allow the use of propane."
Importing a gasoline-powered Plus 8 would now mean having to conduct a 50,000 mile test. "it's not that difficult to do really," someone at the EPA told him. "You can rent a test track and hire a driver." By Fink's calculations it would cost $100,000. He flew back to England to collect the Pinto-engined 4/4. This was now their only hope.
It was, of course, still not finished. The delay was due to the Scottish company that manufactured the inertia-reel seatbelts. The salesman would not sell Morgan belts unless he could inspect the installation, and he didn't have time to get down from Carlysle to do the inspecting. So the car sat.
It was also the consensus at Morgan that the Pinto engine wouldn't fit into the 4/4 chassis, so Fink had to supervise the installation himself. It was Christmas before he came home with the car. There he found a note from the EPA inadvertently stuffed in a drawer. It said that "Only 0.04 percent of all vehicles sold in the U.S. come from manufacturers who produce less than 2000 units per annum." They had seen the light; the little man was getting a break. Fink would no longer have to go through the 50,000-mile test. All he had to do was fill out a 75-page form, drive the car for 4000 miles over an approved test route (stopping every half-mile) and then have the car flown back to Ann Arbor, Michigan for the EPA to test at its own laboratories. With this, he could clear a family of engines.
And on the heels of this discovery came news in the mail that private parties could certify individual vehicles. This involved a two-day, $500 test done at one of the private centers around the country. If for just one glorious moment your engine burns clean enough to pass, you may drive with it forever.
And so the Morgan is back. Fink is the sole U.S. distributor with a quota of two cars a month, a Plus 8 and a 4/4 equipped with a 160Occ Cortina engine.
To start with, both the Plus 8 and the 4/4 will be propane-powered, but by the end of this year Fink plans to have turbo-. charged the 4/4 and put it and a propane-powered Plus 8 through the 4000mile test.
Why have Fink and Miller spent eight years chasing this? Is all that useless data, all that incredible DOT/EPA jargon stuffed into Fink's cortex now useless? Were these merely the compulsive throes of two men obsessed?
"Partly that," says Fink. "Partly that," says Miller, "and partly the honesty of the car. They're good, simple things. I think anything that gets us back to basics is worth struggling for."
But no, there are other thoughts too in Fink's clear-blue mind. Fink has no written contract with Peter Morgan. Morgan writes no contracts; a gentleman's word is as good as his bond. Fink is bound into Morgan in the only way, the familial way. Now he would like to recreate the demand for Morgans in the U.S. and then go to the factory in lovely Worcestershire and turn up the wick. Breathe life into it, expand it.
Each year Fink coaches the Oxford eight from the launch. Fink was A Yank At Oxford. Now he'd like nothing more than to become The Yank At Malvern.