- Historic Sites
Confessions of a Sports Car Bolshevik
What it was like to be young and in the front lines when Europe mounted an assault on Detroit with small, snarling, irresistible machines that changed the way we drove and thought
November 1996 | Volume 47, Issue 7
SIX MONTHS INTO THE GIDDY EXPERIENCE of car ownership, we finally worked up our nerve to drive all the way from Windsor to Toronto, 240 miles across table-flat country
A young man’s first car is a sweaty emotional and financial investment, a fragile basket of eggs on four wheels. No little old lady could have driven that Anglia more gingerly than I did. Keep the revs down. Coast along in top gear. Avoid hard, sudden stops. Close, don’t slam, the doors. The more miles it rolled up, the nearer loomed wear-out and the scrapyard, so its outings were carefully planned and rationed. Six months into the giddy experience of car ownership, Hugh and I finally worked up our nerve to drive the Anglia all the way from Windsor to Toronto, 240 miles across table-flat southern Ontario. It was high adventure nonetheless. “What’s that funny noise?” “I’d swear it’s losing power!” “That temperature gauge needle—it’s moving up!” Surely the engine would burst from its exertions. Something had to go wrong. Miraculously nothing did. We rolled to a stop in Toronto six hours later as flushed with triumph as Lindbergh landing at Le Bourget.
Faithful and willing the little Anglia was. But a genteel year behind its wheel was enough. Hormones and the lure of the sports car ever more insistently churned, and driving this car was like dating a nun. Back to the used-car bazaar in search of something more robust.
Slim pickings. There couldn’t have been more than a hundred sports cars at the time in all of Essex County, Ontario. Only a few had found their way onto used-car lots, and fewer still were as yet old or debilitated enough for Hugh’s and my combined buying power to afford. Mercifully for the purposes of choosing from among the ratty available examples, a romantic haze dulled our critical faculties. We must have been half-blinded by a particularly dense roseate hue the day we finally struck. If it had been a dog at the ASPCA, that 1953 Morgan Plus Four roadster would have had to be put down. What Hugh and I saw as a classic British sports car with a long louvered hood, swooping clamshell fenders, cutaway doors, and a flat Bugattiesque radiator proved, once reality descended—and it descended hard and fast—to be a one-thousand-dollar down payment on an adventure in disillusion.
Morgans had always been an idiosyncratic footnote in the annals of the sports car, crafted in the low hundreds annually by an old family-owned English firm where the clock of technological progress had stopped dead around 1936. The archetypal Morgan was old-fashioned from its wood body framing to its mid-thirties bodywork, hard-riding, and Spartan. But its rarity and character and very primitivism gave it cachet wherever sports car aficionados gathered. The “Mog”: sui generis .
Our very own Mog gave us grief whenever we turned the key. Only after it was legally too late did Hugh and I discover that its previous back-yard-mechanic owner had decided to plane the Standard four-cylinder engine’s cylinder head in a misguided quest to up its power. Maybe he’d used a wood plane; the job was bungled, the engine was sick. The four-speed manual transmission snatched and jammed in every gear. The electrical system’s frequent shortcuts vouched for the notorious nickname of its maker, Lucas: Prince of Darkness. The windshield wipers had only one mode, intermittent, and clearance between the wiper motor and the steering wheel was tight enough to bark the driver’s knuckles whenever he turned. The frame flexed so violently over bumps that the hood and doors popped open.
Brilliant top-down, wind-whipped autumn days out on the open road: Ah, this was sports car life, this was living, we lied. Week by week we lavished our patented manic affection and care on the Morgan—only to find ourselves week by week lavishing dollars we couldn’t afford, just to keep it from falling apart.
But at least it wasn’t an MG. The mass-market sports car world of the time formed a competing all-English trinity of MG, Triumph, and Austin-Healey that engendered partisanship as fierce as that between Muslim, Jew, and Hindu. I viewed the new MGA as a characterless sop to know-nothing Americans, Austin-Healey as an overpriced lounge lizard’s sports car, and the stumpy Triumph TR2 as a doughty underdog, sans pedigree but by far the best performance-for-dollar buy extant. Hugh’s and my English friend Mike Barber disagreed. He had just taken delivery of a brand-new MGA. With its Standard-Vanguard engine, the Morgan was at least lineally a Triumph.